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
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
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
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
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].