Is Personal Responsibility a One-Way Street?

By Tim Wise and Molly Secours

Published in the Nashville Tennessean, 2/9/05

Combing through headlines in the paper can be like trolling past a nine-vehicle pile-up. You know if you look it’s going to be gruesome, but you peek anyway. Such is the case with most any op-ed by Tim Chavez.

Typical of the Tennessean’s conservative gadfly, Chavez managed in a recent column to use the personal foibles of individual black public figures as a way to lecture the larger African American community about its supposed pathologies. Thus, he slammed the Rev. Jesse Jackson, state senator John Ford and Memphis mayor Willie Herenton for “personally contributing to the staggering percentage of two-thirds of all U.S. black births being out of wedlock.”

Chavez’s central message is that blacks as a group should “take responsibility” for the community’s disproportionate rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth, as well as other forms of social dysfunction.

Of course, Chavez only applies this kind of logic to those with dark-skin. He has never called upon whites to engage in such communal soul-searching, even when it might be called for. So, for instance, whites are not expected to “take responsibility” for the racism that has skewed the opportunity structure in our favor, historically and still today. Indeed, whenever the subject of racism is mentioned, those raising it are accused, in Chavez’s words, of pushing a “gospel of victimology.”

Even in the area of behavioral dysfunction, whites often lead the pack in a wide array of destructive activities, but no one dares lecture us about the need for collective responsibility as a remedy.

For example, corporate fraud, which is disproportionately the work of whites, costs the country far more than street crime each year. But never has Chavez called upon white folks to take responsibility for our predatory ways. Martha Stewart, Ken Lay, and the Savings and Loan bandits are not used as symbols of what’s wrong with white people, the way Chavez often uses Jesse Jackson to bash the black community.

And when it comes to political figures, the U.S. has had forty-three white Presidents in a row, all of whom have misled the public about something (be it sexual dalliances or weapons of mass destruction). Yet Chavez hardly calls upon this unbroken string of white dishonesty and duplicity to inspire whites as a group to be more truthful.

Or consider drug and alcohol use. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Centers for Disease Control, white youth have higher rates of drug use than blacks, for all drug categories. Whites in grades 8-12 are four times more likely to have used cocaine in the past month, and white seniors are 73 percent more likely than black seniors to smoke pot daily.

As for booze, whites between 12-17 are nearly twice as likely as similar blacks to drink, and six times more likely to binge drink regularly. Among persons 18-25, whites are nearly twice as likely as blacks to binge drink, and more than three times as likely to do so regularly. Whites are also far more likely than blacks to drive drunk, according to available data: a behavior implicated in thousands of annual deaths.

So when will Tim Chavez call for the majority to “take responsibility” for our dysfunctional behaviors?

Even Chavez’s position on out-of-wedlock births rests on inaccurate assumptions. Contrary to popular belief, increases in the rate of out-of-wedlock births among blacks have had nothing to do with increases in irresponsible sexual behavior by black women or their male partners. Fact is, fertility rates among unmarried black women have fallen to their lowest point in over forty years, but because birthrates among married black couples have fallen much faster, the share of out-of-wedlock babies in the black community, as a share of all babies born, has risen.

Interestingly, according to the Brookings Institution, between the 1960s and the late 1980s, the average size of families headed by unmarried white women dramatically increased, while the average size of families headed by unmarried black women actually fell.

Chavez’s only flirtation with accuracy was his admission that he was “the wrong person and race to write about black leaders.” This is true, but not because one must be black to write about African Americans. Rather, the problem is that Chavez’s understanding of the black community is purely anecdotal and speculative. Rooted in hyperbole (and a facts-be-damned attitude so common of conservatives like Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly), Chavez’s racist rhetoric masquerades as benign concern, and is therefore especially dangerous.

Writing without the burden of fact-checkers, and applying a much harsher standard to persons of color than he would ever seek to impose on whites, makes Chavez’s writing every bit as messy as the aforementioned car accident–and every bit as worthy of our passing it by without looking.

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