The "Love Jones" Paradox

Black professionals are forced to question whether they strive to be “hood affluent” or choose to live in “reflected privilege”

Pete Saunders | Corner Side Yard

I absolutely love the film Love Jones, a little-watched film about Black artists and professionals meeting and falling in love in a Black middle class world that many of us often imagine but rarely see. One could say that it’s a Black version of High Fidelity, another more widely known film about complicated love among the bohemian set living in trendy neighborhoods, but that film was released in 2000. Love Jones came out in 1997. Love Jones has gained a devoted cult following among many Black folks, who – like me – yearn for the kind of art, community, friendship and even love expressed in the film. It depicts an aspect of Black Chicago that frankly played a role in me staying here. Black Chicago is definitely a main character in this love story.

The Corner Side Yard

Black people, like anyone else, want to live in communities that maximize our ability to enjoy place as well as give back to it. We want to be nourished by where and how we live. We want to be a source of the energy necessary to sustain it. Unfortunately for many Black middle class artists, professionals and intellectuals seeking such a community or lifestyle, we might quickly find that our choices are pretty constrained in ways that members of other groups don’t encounter. It often comes down to whether we strive to be “hood affluent” or choose to live in “reflected privilege”.

I frequently hear from Black professionals expressing a frustration that their community lacks the amenities – restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, supermarkets, cultural activities, recreational spots, and more – that they believe their spending power warrants. I’ve pondered this and come to the conclusion that there’s a wide gulf between what their spending power warrants, as in wages, as opposed to what their wealth can attract.

There are many majority-Black city neighborhoods or suburbs of metro areas that have high incomes exceeding the metro average. But that doesn’t mean there is as much money flowing through them as in similarly positioned White neighborhoods. Wealth is the buffer that separates those who live paycheck to paycheck from those who live a more comfortable and stable life. Wealth is the difference between communities with a handful of services and amenities that appeal to its residents, and those with an abundance of them.

I believe there are certain wealth-generating factors that distinguish White middle class professional neighborhoods from their Black cohorts. What are they? They are ….

  • Inheritances/Gifts: How many White families receive, for example, down payment assistance on a house purchase from family members? How many Black families? I suspect that’s one major difference in the wealth divide.

  • Equity: Related, there’s ample evidence out there that illustrates Black homes are devalued substantially, meaning many Black homeowners fail to reap the equity benefit of homeownership.

  • Investments/savings: If inheritances and gifts help people acquire real estate, and appreciation disparities drive wealth, another outcome is more capital for future investment and savings. People are able to place bets in the financial markets, and put away money to fend off troubling financial periods. It also begins to fundamentally change how people view our connection to community.

  • Capital Access: Ultimately, all of the above conspire to create an ecosystem that creates more avenues for capital to enter communities – small business ownership, real estate development, philanthropy that funds nonprofit work, among others – and sets communities on an entirely different trajectory.

This results in White communities/suburbs that have way more amenities than comparable Black communities, where the source of capital is pretty much relegated to wages.

This creates a cognitive dissonance I call “hood affluent”: Black middle class professionals have reached a point in their lives and careers that allow them to achieve a certain lifestyle that may surpass anything they’d ever imagined. However, the lifestyle they want is rarely visible in majority Black communities, not always supported by the same wealth apparent in White communities, and becomes a source of anxiety and frustration.

So we’re faced with a choice: Can we effectively develop the communities we want? Is there enough of a critical mass of Black middle class professionals for us to generate the demand for more amenities, thereby creating a place that earns the Black cultural stamp of approval? We’d love to believe it’s possible.

But there’s a flip side to this. We can choose to live in communities that have the amenities we want, but lack the cultural context we want. I call this living in “reflected privilege”: we’re Black people who are affluent enough to afford living in White communities that have what we want, but without the cultural context we yearn for. I, for one, am a Black middle class professional living distinctly in the minority in a well-to-do western suburb of Chicago that has all the amenities I want in a community. But I must admit I bask in the reflected privilege of the people who established it.

Is one choice better than the other? Does one choice matter more than the other?