Working for the Man Every Night and Day: Black Conservatives and the Politics of Self-Abuse

Published in LIP Magazine,, 7/15/04

A few weeks ago, a young man approached me after a speech and handed me a small piece of paper. On it, he said, was 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, I didn’t have high expectations as for what I would find scribbled on his note to me. And it’s a good thing; for there I discovered 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 best-selling author in this country.

Elder, like Shelby Steele, 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 the gaps between blacks and whites in income, wealth and incarceration figures. Racism? What racism? To the Larry Elders of the world, and the whites who have made them 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.

Two of the most popular arguments from black conservatives and the white people who love them, are that blacks spend too much on luxury items they can’t afford and refuse to save money the way responsible white folks do; and secondly, that blacks place little value on education, preferring to critique learning as selling out, or “acting white,” and thereby sabotage their own achievement. That the evidence for both of these positions is utterly lacking makes little difference it appears. After all, when one is saying what the man wants to hear, the man requires no footnotes or actual corroboration.

Taking these one at a time, first comes a recent article in USA Today by Yolanda Young, whose forthcoming book SPADE: A Critical Look at Black America, will serve as the latest installment in an emerging stream of self-flagellating drivel from African American conservatives. 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 “belt tightening,” African Americans have been on a spending spree: the implication being that black folks are “motivated by a desire for instant gratification and social acceptance,” and care more about their own selfish desires than “our future.” To back up her claims, Young turns to 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 either is 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. That such spending occurred in an economic downturn, according to Young, is especially disturbing. But in fact, the very tables on which Young bases her position indicate that from 2000-2002 (the period of a slowing economy), black expenditures on clothes fell by seven percent, even before accounting for inflation. In other words, as the economy got worse, blacks reined in their consumption.

Young also chastises blacks for spending $11.6 billion on furniture in 2002, especially since many of the homes into which these furnishings are placed “were rented.” Aside from the bizarre non sequitur here — after all, even renters need furniture, and its not as if black folks merely choose to rent, having foresworn home ownership due to their own laziness — the larger problem with Young’s point is that it is brazenly dishonest. For example, during the period of economic slowdown, black spending on furniture fell ten percent, 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 twelve percent of the population, they account for 30 percent of the nation’s Scotch consumption. But what does that prove? It certainly says nothing about overall use of alcohol by blacks, which actually is quite low. Indeed, contrary to Young’s claim, liquor is not among the favorite purchases of blacks, ranking instead behind eighteen of the twenty-five categories listed in the tables from Target Market News that she relied upon for her article.

In fact, in just the past year 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. Indeed, African Americans spend less than half as much as whites per capita on booze each year, and 47 percent less on whiskey. In other words, if blacks are polishing off Dewar’s like it’s going out of style, white folks are doing more than our fair share when it comes to downing the Jack Daniels.

As for cars, Young’s “proof” of black profligacy 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 percent above that of blacks.

Likewise, Young tweaks blacks for spending $3.2 billion on consumer electronics, but fails to note that even before inflation, this is down roughly 16 percent from 2000, when blacks spent $3.8 billion on the same. Once again, as the economy slowed, so did black spending on these items, indicating that black consumers are every bit as rational as anyone else, and no more spendthrifty.

Young then attempts to skewer black America for cutting back on expenditures for books. Indeed, she claims that book purchases are “the only area where blacks seem to be cutting back on spending,” having purchased $53 million less in books in 2002 than they had spent two years earlier. But once again, this claim is dishonest in the extreme. As noted before, books are not the only area where black consumption fell during this period. Instead, it fell in 10 of the 25 categories listed by Target Market from 2000-2002. More to the point, while black book purchases did indeed drop from 2000-2002, this decline took place between 2000-2001, (a year in which book purchases fell nationwide and among all demographic groups) after which point book spending by blacks began to rise again despite the slowing economy, and grew by three percent between ’01 and ’02.

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. As with her previous inaccuracies, however, she once again mangles the data. 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 twenty percent less than whites for retirement. Furthermore, 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 from each racial group with upper-level incomes — indicates a far different set of conclusions than those reached by Young. For example, according to the report in question, while whites are more likely to have an IRA, there is little difference between blacks and whites in terms of whether or not they have other types of retirement plans, and overall, while 89 percent of whites have money in a retirement program, so do 85 percent of blacks.

As for the amounts of money being saved among this upper-income group, although whites 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 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 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 such persons 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, which would allow them to roll the dice on Wall Street in the same way.

In much the same way, black conservative claims that African Americans don’t properly value education are based on faulty (if any) data, and tend to rely on anecdotal experiences as opposed to hard social science. 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 chit-chat into social science research for the sake of peddling anti-black propaganda.

The evidence, of course, for those who still care about such things, indicates the duplicity of these hucksters in their crusade to blame blacks for their own academic and economic condition. First, high school (and even college) graduation rates for blacks and whites are today roughly equal to one another, once family economic background is controlled for, according to longitudinal data presented by Dalton Conley in his groundbreaking book, Being Black, Living in the Red. 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.

An examination of data from the 1980s and early 1990s found that blacks were just as likely as whites to aspire to college and expect to attain a college degree. Furthermore, and contrary to the common claims that black youth harass other blacks who do well in school for “acting white,” blacks do not appear to incur social penalties from their peers for doing well in school, any more so than students who are white. An even more recent study, conducted by the Minority Student Achievement Network, looked at 40,000 students in grades 7-11, and found little if any evidence that blacks placed lesser value on education than their white peers. For example, according to the study, 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: indeed, 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 towards academic achievement than to say they have a “very negative” attitude, and 94 percent of all students in such schools report a generally positive attitude towards academics.There is also no evidence that black parents take less interest in their children’s education, or fail to reinforce the learning the takes place in the classroom. Once again, NCES statistics indicate that black children are more likely than whites to often spend time with parents on homework.

In their groundbreaking volume, The Source of the River, social scientists Douglas Massey, Camille Charles, Garvey Lundy and Mary Fischer examined data for students of different races enrolled in selective colleges and universities. Their purpose was to determine the different social context in which students of color grew up as opposed to white students in these top schools. Among the issues examined was the degree to which differential performance in college 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 and others in college. Yet, as Massey and his colleagues discovered, 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 found that black student’s peers in high school had been more likely than white students’ peers to think studying hard and getting good grades were important, and indeed white peers were 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 Americans families, and while it is certainly possible that lower income and poor blacks may occasionally evince a negativity towards 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 way 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 to be answered, 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: persons who demonstrate that an education doesn’t necessarily make you smart after all.

Whatever the case, let it be said clearly and regularly that the propaganda dispensed by such folks is not only poisonous in its implications, and in the way it reinforces existing beliefs of white Americans vis-a-vis people of color, but also that 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.

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