A few weeks ago, a young man approached me after
a speech I had given at his college and handed me a small piece
of paper with the name of a book he thought I should read. Given
that the student and I had previously gotten into a bit of a row
over the issue of racial profiling of Arabs, I didn't have high
expectations about his recommendation.
I suppose it's a good thing I was prepared for what I got: the name
of a book by black conservative Larry Elder, whose only real claim
to fame is that he does a bad imitation of Judge Wapner on a pedantic
little courtroom reality show called Moral Court.
Oh, and that white folks like the student in question really like
him. Which, as it turns out, is all it takes to become a bestselling
author in this country.
Elder-like Shelby Steele before him, and Walter Williams
before that, and Ken Hamblin before that, and Thomas Sowell before
him, and Clarence Thomas always says the kinds of things that most
white folks love to hear: essentially, that blacks are the source
of their own problems in life. Black cultural pathology and bad
behavior, according to these types, explain everything from black
poverty rates to black incarceration rates.
What about racism?, you may ask. What racism? To the Larry Elders
of the world – and to the whites who have made them media stars
entirely out of proportion to their scholarly credentials (or decided
lack thereof) racism is just an excuse black people use to explain
away their own internal shortcomings.
Lately, two of the more popular arguments
made by black conservatives and the white people who love them are,
first, that blacks spend too much money on luxury items they can't
afford, refusing to save money the way responsible white folks do;
and second, that blacks place too little value on education, preferring
to critique learning as selling out or "acting white,"
and thereby sabotaging their own achievement.
That the evidence for both of these positions is utterly lacking
makes little difference, it seems. After all, when one is saying
what the Man wants to hear, the Man requires no footnotes or actual
Black Consumption and the Myth of Black Profligacy
Arguments that support the dominant culture easily become popularized
myths, bordering on legend, after which point they are almost impossible
to assail. Black profligacy has pretty much attained that status,
what with the regular portrayal of blacks as obsessed with "bling-bling,"
within mainstream TV and other media. While it would have been difficult
for whites, on their own, to get away with presenting this
one-dimensional, supersized cartoon of black spending, they have
had help from folks like Yolanda Young. Young, like Elder and all
the rest, is an African American who specializes in the kind of
self-flagellating drivel that appeals to the sadistic side of white
America's racism. We get a taste of her forthcoming book, SPADE:
A Critical Look at Black America, in a recent USA Today article.
In her USA Today piece, Young claims that blacks have been
spending exorbitant amounts of money lately, despite the tough economic
times in which the larger black community finds itself. In other
words, instead of rational belt tightening, African Americans have
been going on a spending spree: the implication being either that
black folks are irresponsible with their money, or at least that
they are "motivated by a desire for instant gratification and
social acceptance, “caring more about their own selfish desires
than ‘our future.’"
To back up her claims, Young turns to a group called Target Market, a company
that tracks spending by black consumers. But a careful glance at
the source of her claims makes it apparent that she is either incapable
of interpreting basic data or that she deliberately deceives for
political effect. In fact, not only do the figures from Target Market
not suggest irresponsible spending by blacks in the face of a bad
economy, they tend to suggest the opposite.
According to Young, blacks spent nearly $23 billion on clothes in
2002, and this, one presumes, is supposed to signal a level of irresponsible
profligacy so obvious as to require no further context or clarification.
But, in fact, the very tables on which Young bases her position
indicate that from 2000 to 2002 (the period of a slowing economy),
black expenditures on clothes fell by 7%, even before accounting
for inflation. In other words, as the economy got worse, blacks
reined in their consumption.
It's useful to watch how the pros at this dissing
game make it work. Young consistently bases her arguments on raw
numbers, counting on her readers to marvel at their size, while
ignoring the comparative data that makes sense of those numbers.
For example, Young tweaks blacks for spending $3.2 billion on consumer
electronics, but fails to note that even before inflation, this
is down roughly 16% from 2000, when blacks spent $3.8 billion on
the same. She chastises her black brothers and sisters for spending
$11.6 billion on furniture in 2002, but fails to note that black
spending on furniture actually fell by 10%, even before inflation,
and by 2002 was only a little higher in current dollars than it
had been in 1996. In other words, blacks did exactly what would
make sense in a tightening economy: They spent less on the kinds
of presumably frivolous items that Ms. Young claims her people just
can't resist. Not so irresponsible after all, it seems.
Next, Young berates blacks for their consumption of cars and liquor,
which she labels "our favorite purchases." Unfortunately,
the "evidence" she marshals to support such silliness
is embarrassingly weak. She notes that although blacks make up only
12% of the population, they account for 30% of the nation's scotch
consumption. But what does that prove? It certainly says nothing
about overall use of alcohol by blacks, which is actually quite
low. Indeed, contrary to Young's claim, liquor is not among the
favorite purchases of blacks, ranking instead behind 18 of the 25
categories listed in the tables from Target Market that she relied
upon for her article.
In fact, in the past year alone black expenditures
on alcoholic beverages fell by almost one-fourth, scotch consumption
or no. And, of course, blacks spend far less than whites, per capita,
on alcohol, and drink far less often and less heavily than
whites according to all the available data from the Centers for
Disease Control, National Institutes on Drug Abuse and others.
As for cars, Young's "proof" of black profligacy in this
area is limited to the fact that Lincoln had P Diddy design a limited
edition Navigator for them, with DVD players and plasma screens
all around. And yet, the amount spent by African Americans (not
P Diddy, mind you, but the other 35 million or so black folks) on
various vehicles still amounts to less than that spent, per capita,
by whites, whose consumption of such items is roughly 27% higher
that of blacks.
Race, Wealth and the Myth of Short-Term Orientation
Next, Young insists that blacks fail to save money the way whites
do, the implication being that this – and not racism and unequal
access to capital – explains the wealth gap between whites and African
Americans. Young cites the 2003
Black Investor Survey from Ariel Mutual Funds and Charles Schwab
to suggest that black households with comparable upper-middle-class
income to whites save nearly 20% less than whites for retirement.
Furthermore, she notes, blacks are far less likely to invest in
the stock market, thereby hindering their own ability to develop
wealth. Yet a look at the Ariel/Schwab data - which itself is limited
to 500 individuals with upper-level incomes from each racial group,
indicates a far different set of conclusions than those reached
The report does suggest that whites are more likely
to have an IRA than blacks.Yet it also reports that overall rates
of retirement investment are essentially identical for whites and
blacks: While 89% of whites have money in a retirement program,
so do 85% of blacks. As for the amounts of money being
saved among this upper-income group, although whites do indeed save
more, on average, the difference is not – according to the report
itself – statistically significant. Indeed, whites are a third more
likely than blacks to be saving nothing for retirement at this time,
and roughly two-thirds of both groups are saving at least $100 or
more monthly for retirement.
As for investments, while there are small differences between upper-income
blacks and whites, the methodology of the Ariel/Schwab study makes
it clear that those differences in monthly investments and savings
are, once again, not statistically significant: amounting, as they
do, to less than $60 per month. This kind of "behavioral"
gap hardly explains the fact that upper-income white households,
on average, have about three times the net worth of upper-income
black households. Instead, that is the residual effect of generations
of racism that restricted the ability of blacks and other people
of color to accumulate assets, while whites were allowed, encouraged
and even subsidized to do the same.
While it is true that black investment in the stock market lags
behind that of whites, the reasons for this can hardly be decoupled
from the history of racism. After all, even upper-income blacks
tend to have far less wealth to begin with than whites of similar
income. As a result, the level of wealth they are willing to put
at risk is going to be less than for those with more of it to spare.
Especially in the last few years, the volatility of the stock market
has tended to scare away all but the most experienced investors,
and certainly those whose assets are limited from the get-go. Surely,
this describes much of black America, which has never had the excess
wealth available to whites that would allow them to roll the dice
on Wall Street in the same way. If black savings lag behind white,
it is not because of black profligacy; it is because of a legacy
of racism that left even well-to-do black families without the assets
and resources of white families.
The Myth of Black Anti-Intellectualism
The second myth black conservatives love to promote is that blacks
have not gotten ahead in the race of life because they devalue education.
From Shelby Steele's early '90s bestseller The Content of Our
Character to Berkeley linguist John McWhorter's near hysterical
rant in Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America,
right-wing black commentators have turned cocktail party chitchat
into social science research for the sake of peddling the anti-black
myth that blacks devalue education. The evidence, of course,
for those who still care about such things, reveals the duplicity
of these hucksters in their crusade to blame blacks for their own
academic and economic condition.
First, high school graduation rates for blacks and whites are today
roughly equal to one another. In fact, as sociologist Dalton Conley
demonstrates in his 1999 book, Being Black, Living in the Red,
once family economic background is controlled for, blacks are actually
more likely to finish high school than whites, and equally likely
to complete college. In other words, whatever differences exist
in black and white educational attainment are completely the result
of blacks, on average, coming from lower-income families. Comparing
whites and blacks of truly similar class status reveals greater
or equal educational attainment for blacks.
Although it should hardly have been necessary – after
all, the entire history of black America has been the history of
attempting to access education even against great odds and laws
prohibiting it – there have been a number of recent studies, all
of which prove conclusively that blacks value education every bit
as much as their white counterparts. For example, a recent
study conducted by the Minority
Student Achievement Network looked at 40,000 students in grades
seven through 11 found little if any evidence that blacks placed
lesser value on education than their white peers. Instead, they
found that black males are more likely than white, Hispanic or Asian
males to say that it is "very important" to study hard
and get good grades; white males are the least likely to make this
claim. The researchers also found that blacks were just as likely
to study and work on homework as their white counterparts.
Even in high-poverty schools, disproportionately attended by inner-city
students of color, attitudes towards schooling are far more positive
than generally believed. Students in high-poverty schools are four-and-a-half
times more likely to say they have a "very positive" attitude
toward academic achievement than to say they have a "very negative"
attitude, and 94% of all students in such schools report a generally
positive attitude toward academics.
In their groundbreaking volume The
Source of the River, social scientists Douglas Massey, Camille
Charles, Garvey Lundy and Mary Fischer examine longitudinal data
for students of different races who were enrolled in selective colleges
and universities. Among the issues they explore is the degree to
which differential performance among black and white students in
college, in terms of grades, could be attributed to blacks or their
families placing less value on academic performance than their white
and Asian counterparts. After all, this claim has been made by some
like McWhorter, Steele and a plethora of white reactionaries who
seek to explain the persistent GPA gaps between blacks, in particular,
and others in college.
What Massey and his colleagues discovered is that the black students
had parents who were more likely than white or Asian parents to
have helped them with homework growing up,
more likely than white or Asian parents to have met with their teachers,
equally likely to have pushed them to "do their best"
in school, more likely than white parents to enroll their kids in
educational camps, and equally or more likely to have participated
in the PTA. Black students' parents were also more likely than parents
of any other race to regularly check to make sure their kids had
completed their homework and to reward their kids for good grades,
while Asian parents were the least likely to do either of these.
Likewise, the authors of this study found that black students' peers
in high school are more likely than white peers to think studying
hard and getting good grades are important, and indeed white peers
are the least likely to endorse these notions. Overall, the data
suggests that if anything it is white peer culture that is overly
dismissive of academic achievement, not black peer culture.
While many of these studies have focused on middle-class and above
African American families, and while it is certainly possible that
lower-income and poor blacks may occasionally evince a negativity
toward academics, this can hardly be considered a racial (as opposed
to economic) response, since low income whites often manifest the
same attitudes. What's more, such a response, though not particularly
functional in the long term, is also not particularly surprising,
seeing as how young people from low-income backgrounds can see quite
clearly the ways in which education so often fails to pay off for
persons like themselves.
After all, over the last few decades, black academic achievement
has risen, and the gap between whites and blacks on tests of academic
"ability" have closed, often quite dramatically. Yet during
the same time, the gaps in wages between whites and blacks have
often risen, sending a rather blatant message to persons of color
that no matter how hard they work, they will remain further and
In other words, to the extent that blacks, to any
real degree, occasionally manifest anti-education attitudes and
behaviors, the question remains: Where did they pick up the notion
that education was not for them? Might they have gotten this
impression from a curriculum that negates the full history of their
people, and gives the impression that everything great, everything
worth knowing about, came from white folks?
Might they have gotten this impression from the tracking and sorting
systems that placed so many of them, irrespective of talent and
promise, in remedial and lower-level classes, because indeed the
teachers themselves presumed at some level that education – at least
higher-level education – wasn't for them? Might they have gotten
this impression from the workings of the low-wage economy, into
which so many of their neighbors and family members have been thrown
– even those with a formal education? Or, better yet, maybe
they got this impression from the black conservatives who regularly
bash them: people who demonstrate that an education doesn't necessarily
make you smart after all.
Busting Up the Black Conservative Hustle
None of this is to say that the black con-artist conservatives are
entirely irrational. After all, their hustle has paid enormous dividends.
Black conservatives, by dint of their hard work on behalf of institutionalized
white domination, have managed to obtain access to the halls of
power, and even occasionally positions of power themselves. On the
one hand, this kind of step'n fetchit routine can be lucrative and
professionally rewarding: for those willing to play the game, or
convince themselves of the beneficence of their white cocktail party
friends. It can mean foundation grants, endowed chairs at right-wing
think tanks, radio shows, syndicated columns and regular appearances
But one thing it will likely never bring is acceptance from one's
own community, and this self-exiled condition, combined with an
eventual recognition that one is being used, can lead to near-complete
personal and professional meltdowns. Consider Glenn Loury, formerly
a shining light in the black conservative firmament, who eventually
came to the conclusion that his friends and supporters really didn't
like black folks much. After all, the same conservatives at the
Bradley Foundation who hawk vouchers in public school so as to "save
black children" also helped fund the writing of The Bell Curve,
which says, among other things, that there's pretty much nothing
that can be done for black folks, due to their congenital predisposition
to ignorance, sloth and crime.
Enough of those contradictions, and even the most hardened black
conservative may come around. Or maybe not. But luckily there
are antidotes to the hustle emanating forcefully from the black
community, such as the hard-hitting commentary and exposes at the
Black Commentator, which have skewered not only the voucher
con, but also the individual players from Powell to Rice to
lesser-known but rising figures on the black Right. What they and
the bulk of black America knows well, and what the rest of us must
learn, is that the propaganda dispensed by black conservatives is
not only poisonous in its implications, but it is based on utterly
false analysis, distorted data and the hope on the part of its
purveyors that the rest of us will never wise up to their game.
Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and
father. He can be reached at [email protected].