The Black Upper Class

February 25, 1991|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON. — I've seen a lot of nonsense written this February to ''celebrate'' black history month, but few things more absurd than a sociologist's assertion that ''blacks don't have an upper class.''

The Chicago Sun-Times quotes Bart Landry, a University of Maryland author of ''The New Black Middle Class,'' as saying that only two black Americans can truly be considered ''upper class'': John H. Johnson, the wealthy founder of Johnson Publishing Co., and Reginald F. Lewis, chairman of TLC Group, the New York firm that owns Beatrice International Food Co.

The last thing we ought to be telling American youngsters, especially black ones, is that you can't be ''upper class'' unless you have money to burn, plus second and third homes in places like Paris and Palm Springs. Mr. Landry asserts that upper class ''is about owning large corporations that keep producing more income, corporations with massive stocks.''

I'll wager that both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Lewis would say ''rubbish'' to that. I think they would say that being upper class may suggest having a comfortable amount of money, but that ''class'' also is about having power of all sorts, and influence in either or both the political and economic worlds, and a lifestyle that commands respect.

Let me list a few black Americans who I think are ''upper class'' in every worthy sense of the term:

LaSalle Leffall, the distinguished Howard University surgeon and former president of the American Cancer Society, and his wife Ruth. He has unusual medical influence in all continents.

Clifton R. Wharton Jr., the former president of Michigan State University and recent chancellor of the huge State University of New York who now administers the $87 billion Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund. His wife, Dolores, is a director of several great corporations.

James Earl Jones, who can't lack money given his omnipresence on television as both actor and advertising spokesman, and who strikes me as a very classy fellow.

Barbara Jordan, the former congresswoman who now is in ill health and is probably far from rich, but who is upper class in every respect worth talking about.

Rep. Bill Gray, the Philadelphia Democrat who is third-ranking in the House of Representatives, and Douglas Wilder, the governor of Virginia. They are not super rich, but most of America's millionaires don't come close to their class or clout.

Gen. Colin Powell and his wife Alma may live on military pay, with only a barracks in Saudi Arabia as their second home, but I'll wager you that most Americans consider them ''upper class'' in the finest meaning of the phrase.

Mr. Landry dismisses Bill Cosby with the assertion that ''When you are talking about the upper class, you are not talking about a few million dollars. That's peanuts.'' Well, any guy who gives $20 million to a black college is upper class enough for me.

Someone had better put Bart Landry back in a school where he might learn what high class really is all about.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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