By Khalil G. Muhammad
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Recently I showed my college students a YouTube clip of Bill Cosby's and Alvin Poussaint's appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." After hearing Cosby plead for poor blacks to embrace their parenting responsibilities, many of the students said they wished their parents had followed his advice. They regretted that some of their peers had done poorly in school, abused drugs and alcohol, and run afoul of the law. These problems, they agreed, might have been avoided with more supervision at home.
They might have been the perfect audience for a Cosby town-hall lecture on the dangers of self-destructive values in black America. They might also have been perfect illustrations of the growing "values gap" between poor and middle-class blacks described in a widely cited recent Pew Research Center poll.
Except almost all my students are white.
Cosby and the recent Pew study are the latest in a long finger-wagging tradition of instructing poor blacks to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and reject pathologically "black" values. Today, rap culture is usually presented as Exhibit A, but strains of the same argument have cropped up for more than a century. If blacks would just get their act together, this old story goes, all the social inequalities between them and the rest of society would disappear.
In its coverage of the Pew report findings, National Public Radio asked whether some blacks were lagging behind because they were choosing not to become "closer to whites in their values." Unfortunately, this line of questioning reinforces one of the most persistent myths in America, that white is always right. The myth reflects an enduring double standard based on "white" and "black" explanations for social problems. And it assumes that "white" culture is the gold standard for judging everyone, despite its competing ideologies, its contradictions and its flaws, including racism.
The masquerade began over a hundred years ago. Shortly after the end of slavery, sociologists and demographers began presenting research on black failure and struggle as "indisputable" proof of black inferiority. One of the first studies was released in 1896, when the leading race-relations demographer of the period, Frederick L. Hoffman, analyzed census data showing that blacks were doing worse than whites in mortality, health, employment, education and crime. The problem was not racism, he argued, but "race traits and tendencies."
To him, the civil rights acts of the 1860s and 1870s had leveled the playing field. Blacks should be left to compete against whites on their own and face the inevitable. The black man, he wrote, "has usually but one avenue out of his dilemma -- the road to prison or to an early grave."
At the same time, when explaining rising rates of crime, suicide and mental-health problems among whites, Hoffman blamed industrialization and the strains of "modern life." He called for a reordering of the nation's economic priorities. Hoffman's study coincided with -- and provided justification for -- the Supreme Court's notorious Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which legalized segregation.
As segregation took hold, there was a powerful need to minimize the role of racism as a factor in explaining racial disparities. The "Cosby" role at the start of Jim Crow was first played by Booker T. Washington. Counseling blacks to conquer their inferiority, he repudiated civil rights activism in favor of self-help and moral regeneration.
Many whites loved Washington, and his ideas were echoed by liberal social scientists such as the psychologist G. Stanley Hall, who instructed black people to stop sympathizing "with their own criminals" and "accept without whining patheticism and corroding self-pity [their] present situation, prejudice and all."
But when Hall turned his focus on whites, his research on adolescent psychology directly influenced national efforts to protect them from the ravages of industrial capitalism. Drawing on his work, the child-welfare activist Jane Addams established Hull House in Chicago at first to help immigrant families adjust to American life, and later to save thousands of Chicago's white youth from lives of crime, violence and drug abuse attributed to "modern city conditions." But black children were not generally welcome at Hull House. Addams claimed that similar problems among black youth were due to the race's "belated" moral development, manifested in poor parenting and a lack of "social restraint."
The pioneering black social scientist W.E.B. Du Bois challenged this first generation of white liberals and social scientists, including Hoffman, on the flawed assumptions and racial double standards in their studies and in their practices. But when Du Bois tried to argue that pathology knows no color, he was ignored, criticized and dismissed by his white peers as an angry black man with, as one sociologist put it, a "chip on his shoulder."
Du Bois's frustrations led him to leave academia for a life of anti-racist activism. In 1910, the year he became director of research and publicity for the NAACP, he warned that "whiteness" was becoming the new basis of the nation's consciousness. "Are we not coming more and more day by day to making the statement, 'I am white,' the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality?" he asked.
In today's era of hip-hop, Du Bois's warning still goes unheeded. If rap music is so bad, why are white kids its major consumers? And by what value system should we judge the large media companies that publish and distribute hip-hop -- or, really, gangsta rap, its most popular and sinister cousin?
Were "white values" on display two years ago when the federal government failed to adequately respond to one of the greatest natural disasters in American history?
If lower-class "black" values are so distinct from those of the rest of America, particularly the "white values" supposedly now embraced by middle- and upper-class blacks, why, according to the Pew report, do less than a third of white Americans graduate from college? Are legions of whites similarly devaluing higher education? Are they "acting black"?
If lower-class black values are so peculiar, why do whites report the same or higher levels of illegal drug use as blacks, as numerous studies show?
What of underperforming white schoolchildren in rural America, the Great Plains, Appalachia or the Deep South? Are they "acting black" because they can't compete with their upwardly mobile suburban counterparts?
Today's liberals still empathize with America's invisible white working poor, who they warn are being "nickel and dimed" to the point of near homelessness. But why the empathy? Isn't their poverty really a function of their choosing to embrace their hidden blackness?
Du Bois's scholarship and activism helped pave the way for the modern civil rights movement, which helped exorcize the ghost of America's Jim Crow past. That he was right about racism but that we still continue to accept the same flawed thinking about race and social problems suggests a powerful and enduring paradox.
If we insist on explaining racial disparities in terms of black vs. white values, then we need to explain what exactly white values are. When we do, we'll find that whiteness is an inadequate standard by which to judge good black people vs. bad ones.
As my students would tell you, the real white world is as pathological, as respectable and as diverse as the black one.
Khalil G. Muhammad is an assistant professor of history at Indiana University and the author of the forthcoming "The Condemnation of Blackness: Ideas about Race and Crime in the Making of Modern Urban America. "