Sex, Lies and Stereotypes: Examining White Lies About Black Americans

Published as a ZNet Commentary,, February 12, 2003

You wanna know what the real problem with black people is?” So read the opening line of the first e-mail message of my day. Not a good start. Whenever these words or their functional equivalent greet you before you’ve had the chance to rub the sleep from your eyes, let alone consume that first sip of coffee, you know you’re in for a long and troubling morning. Sure enough, I wasn’t to be disappointed or proved wrong.

“The problem,’ explained my Monday morning instigator ‘is that they can’t stop having illegitimate children (especially the teenagers), and they’d rather lay around on welfare all day than work for a living.” Jesus. And to think, I could have opted to sit down with my daughter and watch Sesame Street like a responsible father; but no, I had to check my e-mail first.

It wasn’t as if this was anything new. I’ve been hearing this kind of crap ever since I was a child. And although I was getting it this time from someone who was aware of my views on race, I often am regaled with such intellectual mediocrity by strangers I meet during the course of my travels. “White bonding,” I began calling it: a phenomenon that causes whites to apparently believe every white person they meet must be just as racist as they are and will find their joke funny or their slur pithy. The things white folks say about people of color when they aren’t around give the lie to all the nonsense about color-blindness, not having a racist bone in our bodies, never noticing race, having all those black friends, and so on and so forth.

But the things we say when people of color aren’t in the room actually do more than expose the festering sickness of white racism; they expose the profundity of our ignorance and demonstrate just how divorced from reality so many of us are. For not only are the racist beliefs expressed above — and according to opinion polls, accepted by half or more of all whites — exaggerated stereotypes, they are in fact contradicted by hard evidence.

Take the popular image of black women, particularly teens, popping out babies as fast as they can make them. This rendering of black females as the oversexed, irresponsible incubators of demographic decay has been at the heart of attacks on social welfare programs and is as commonly heard as the daily weather report: shame it’s even less accurate. In truth, the fertility rate for black women is hardly different than for whites. For every 1000 white women 15-44 there are 66.5 live births, while for every 1000 black women that age there are 71.7. Indeed, the fertility rate for black women has fallen by more than half in the last forty years, such that the gap between black and white fertility has been slashed by nearly 80 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The birthrate for unmarried black women is at a forty-year low and the rate of babies born to black teens hasn’t gone up one iota since 1920.

And speaking of teens, only six-tenths of one percent of black babies are born to girls under fifteen, and the birthrate for black teens 15-19 has dropped by a third since 1991. Overall, more than 8 in 10 black babies are born to moms in their 20s or older, and the teen birthrate has fallen faster among black youth than any other racial group over the last decade.

The belief that black women have too many children, at whatever age, and can’t properly care for them is equally mythical. The average number of minor children in white households and black households is identical, and for female-headed black and white households the difference is statistically insignificant. Contrary to the widespread notion that black women typically have four or five children, only 1 in 20 black female-headed families have four or more kids. Even for families receiving public assistance — and before welfare “reform” bumped tens of thousands off the rolls and restricted eligibility — the typical “welfare family” of whatever race included a mother and two children, and was actually slightly smaller than the typical non-welfare family.

Of course I can hear the voices of racial apoplexy now. “What about the skyrocketing rate of out-of-wedlock births in the black community?” Doesn’t that indicate the sexual irresponsibility of black females and their male compradors? Well no, in fact; not even close. The reason for the increase in the share of black children born out-of-wedlock in recent decades is that two-parent black couples are having fewer children than ever, meaning that a growing share of the children who are born in the black community will be out-of-wedlock, even though sexual behavior hasn’t changed, and fertility rates have been falling. Indeed, 80 percent of the increase in out-of-wedlock childbirths in the black community is because of the falloff in kids born to “intact” black families: a falloff that has been even steeper than the decline among single moms. Additionally, the increase in out-of-wedlock children within the black community, and generally, is the result of the Census Bureau changing the methods used for counting such families in the first place. Whereas single moms with kids who lived in extended family settings (such as living with their own parents) were historically not counted as separate family units, since the early ’80s they have been. So even though such families may have existed for many years prior to the accounting switch, they would not have appeared in statistical data until more recently.

Putting aside the issue of just how harmful single-parent homes are (and evidence indicates that with the exception of the smaller income base there isn’t much difference between such homes and “intact” families), clearly the problems for black folks in this country are not the result of childbirth patterns. A 1997 report found that the median income of young two-parent black families had fallen by nearly half since 1973. What’s more, even black women who “played by the rules,” and had no kids out-of-wedlock, saw their incomes fall 32 percent from 1972-1989, and have been unable to regain the lost ground since.

Which brings us then to the issue of work, or rather the claim that blacks are allergic to the concept, preferring instead the “generous” benefits of the welfare state for their sustenance. That anyone could possibly believe such a thing has always struck me as humorous. After all, African Americans have been doing work that white folks thought beneath us for 400 years. Were it not for their labor, in fact, the American Revolution could never have been won, since its financing came principally from profits made in the tobacco industry, and to a lesser extent, cotton, both of which were dependent on the the work of slaves. Yet despite the historical record, the belief persists, often put forth by people whose own forefathers tried desperately never to break a sweat doing actual work themselves.

As with arguments about black women as baby factories, the ruse about blacks as welfare-sapping parasites is patently absurd, not to mention ironic. After all, welfare programs were created so as to allow white widows and abandoned mothers to care for their kids without having to enter the workforce. Creating “dependence” was not seen as problematic, at least for white women whose womanhood had long been viewed as dependent on the presence of a white husband. It was only when women of color gained access to programs in the ’50s and afterward that suddenly dependence became the great scourge to be avoided.

Yet, welfare dependence is hardly the norm for those receiving public assistance. Even before the passage of welfare reform, six in ten welfare families were leaving the rolls within two years, debunking the notion of long-term dependency as the norm for welfare recipients. Indeed, two-thirds of women who receive welfare as children will never receive aid as adults, and 81 percent whose mothers received AFDC for long periods never receive aid as adults. In other words, the notion of intergenerational welfare dependence so commonly accepted is a false one.

Instead of welfare, the poor prefer work, yet often there are not enough jobs to go around that pay wages above the poverty line. In Central Harlem, one study found 14 applicants for every job opening in the area. Nationally, in times of recession, there may be as many as 7 to 10 people out of work for every job opening above the poverty line. And since the Federal Reserve’s policy is to raise interest rates whenever unemployment drops below four percent, thereby freezing new hires, millions will be jobless, poor, and need welfare, solely because of this one monetary policy intended to keep wages and prices low.

Indeed, experience from around the country demonstrates that low-income people of color have work ethics no different from whites and those above the poverty line. In the early ’90s, when a handful of longshore jobs opened up in Los Angeles, 50,000 blacks and Latinos, mostly low income, showed up to apply. In Cleveland, 15,000 unemployed welfare mothers and teenagers of color stood in the rain for four hours to get one of the minimum-wage temporary jobs cleaning up public parks. In Chicago, 15,000 mostly low-income applicants of color applied for less than 4,000 temp jobs. In Baltimore, 75 openings at the Social Security Administration were met with 26,000 applications, mostly from low-income blacks.

Far from relying on taxpayers for their livelihood, only 1 in 10 blacks receive any form of cash welfare, and only about 1 in 6 receives food stamps. In fact, blacks who are eligible for the Food Stamp program are actually less likely than similar whites to apply for and receive such assistance. As for black single moms, although they are twice as likely as white single moms to be in poverty, they are no more likely than white single moms to receive public assistance. What’s more, 3 out of 4 single black moms have jobs, further dispelling the notion that single mothers in the black community mostly choose to “live off welfare.”

Yet despite all of these simple truths, I didn’t send any of them to the individual who had chosen to start off my week with such a mindless stream of e-nonsense. I knew it wouldn’t matter much to him, and if anything would only detract from the time I could spend on Sesame Street, which as it turns out is a much friendlier place to be. But I did write him back. First to thank him for serving as my muse for what would become this article; and secondly to remark upon the last paragraph of his message to me: the part that blamed black folks for “taking all the jobs” from white guys like himself.

My statement on this score was really fairly simple. In the interest of consistency, I suggested that he choose which racist drivel he would prefer to promote: either the kind that says blacks are lazy or the kind that says they are taking all the jobs. After all, both cannot be true at the same time. If one is taking all the jobs, then by definition one hardly qualifies as lazy, and if one is indeed lazy, one is not likely to take any job, let alone all of them. And if there’s anything worse than a racist, it has to be a racist who can’t make up his mind.

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