July 27, 2006 - Issue 193

Think Piece
White Lies, Black Mimics
by Tim Wise

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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 corroboration.

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 by Young.

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 further behind.

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 on Fox.

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].



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