Hosting a panel forum on the issue at a Congressional Black Caucus legislative conference, Davis, a Democrat, and his invited speakers said many middle-income blacks struggle financially because they own few assets such as real estate or stocks and frequently pay more for home mortgages, auto loans and other big-ticket items.

We have not spent nearly as much political time and energy talking about the significant number of African-Americans who got up to work this morning who make between $60,000 and $200,000 a year ... and have to still look at their bank account every 31st to see what's there," said Davis, a Birmingham Democrat whose district includes low-income urban and rural areas. We have got to figure out a way to get to that next level."

Home ownership is a critical issue, the panelists said, pointing to government programs in the early 20th century that helped build the country's middle class by providing low-interest home loans requiring little or no down payment.

African-Americans were denied, for the most part, the early fruits of that legislation. That has set the cast for segregated communities across the country," said Melvin Oliver, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara. You get ahead on your assets."

Asked about it by Davis, the speakers said comedian Bill Cosby's high-profile criticism of consumerism in modern-day black culture was off the mark. The problem, they said, is more complicated.

There's always a kernel of truth to what he's saying but it's very unnuanced," said the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached. We have to challenge our own people, but we have to find a way to do that without beating people down."

Most of us have people in our own families that are dealing with survival," Warnock said, citing high rates of incarceration, HIV and unemployment among black men. Black folks are dealing with so many issues, sometimes it's hard to decide what to talk about first."

There's discrimination against African-Americans. It's proven in study after study," Oliver said, referring to mortgage lending. It's not something that anybody can argue against."

Davis, a member of the House Financial Services Committee who has backed proposals to crack down on high-interest mortgage loans and predatory lending, said churches and community groups should get more involved in pressuring Congress to act.

A lot of people think the middle class just happened because of the strength of our economy. Yes, the economy had a lot to do with it ... but there were government policies that made a difference," Davis said, citing programs such as student loans, the GI Bill and Social Security. That tells me that government can be relevant."

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