What’s the Matter With White People? A Modest Call for Personal Responsibility

Predictably, white conservatives are at it again: blaming black people specifically, and black culture more broadly, for various crises facing the African American communities of this nation. In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, and black anger over the racial suspicions that animated Zimmerman’s decision to follow Trayvon Martin the night he was killed — and which likewise guide the actions of law enforcement across the nation from New York to L.A. — the same refrain could be heard over and again from right-wing quarters. No matter the source, the song remained the same: namely, that black folks need to stop complaining about white racism (which they assured us doesn’t even exist and hasn’t for at least 45 years), and pay more attention to the damage they are ostensibly doing to themselves in places like Chicago, where violence and homicide rates have recently risen.

Black-on-black crime, they intoned, was the real problem, and until African Americans address the cultural dysfunctions to which their children are being exposed — be it hip-hop, fatherless families, sagging pants, hoodies or a fascination with violence — racial profiling is not only not the problem, it’s actually understandable. With black pathology so common, they suggested, it makes sense for others (whether cops or Neighborhood Watch types) to suspect them — especially black males — when the latter are seen in the neighborhood. Indeed, they should be profiled no differently than one might profile a more dangerous breed of dogs, because black people are basically, ya’ know, rabid animals.

But even if we ignore the unfairness of racial profiling, not to mention its blatantly unconstitutional nature given that whole Equal Protection Clause thing, sitting smack dab in the middle of the 14th Amendment — and even if we momentarily put aside the evidence that profiling is not justified by crime data, and can actually be counterproductive — several points have been overlooked by those who think they have either the moral or factual basis to lecture black folks about so-called pathologies in the black community. And they are points worth noting, because they indicate that not only are the Negrophobic critics of black America largely wrong about black folks (few of whom they actually know) and black communities (few of which they have ever actually spent time in), but even more interestingly, they appear to be ignoring a number of data points suggesting serious cultural rot in the white community, to which they might wish to turn their attention. Especially seeing as how they love to inveigh about “personal responsibility.” What better way for white people to take personal responsibility, after all, than to stop hectoring blacks and perhaps begin to clean up our own behavioral back yards?

Uh-O’Reilly: Black “Pathology” is Actually on the Decline

Despite the alarm bells rung regularly by hysterics on the right, there is evidence that progress is being made in the black community on the very issues about which conservatives love to bray. For instance, teen pregnancy rates have been falling considerably for African American youth, contrary to popular perception. From 1991 to 2010, the rate of births to black teens, 15-19, fell by more than half, with a full 9 percent drop just between 2009 and 2010 alone. Likewise, from 1980 to 2008, the birthrate for all black women under 18 fell by more than half. Indeed, the birth rate for African American teenagers is now at an all-time low.

In fact, since the early 1990s, the rate of out-of-wedlock child birth for all women — not just teenagers — has fallen for blacks, while actually climbing for whites. From 1990 to 2010 the white out-of-wedlock birth rate grew by one-third while the rate for black women fell by more than 28 percent. Since 1970, the rate of out-of-wedlock births has more than tripled for white women, while falling among black women by nearly a third.

But how can that be? Over 72 percent of black babies born today are born out-of-wedlock, as opposed to 66.5 percent of all black babies in 1990, and only 37.5 percent of black babies born in 1970! Doesn’t this prove that single black women are becoming less responsible in their childbearing patterns? Doesn’t it prove a cultural tendency in the black community to bring children into the world, despite the lack of a father in the home? Well no, and anyone who knew how to interpret basic statistical concepts would know why. The fact that right-wing blowhards like Bill O’Reilly and pretty much everyone on FOX makes this same point, incessantly, only indicates their statistical illiteracy. A brief examination should explain.

As you can see, in the second section of the table linked above, labeled “percent of live births to unmarried mothers,” it is undeniably true that as a share of all births to black women, those that are out-of-wedlock have indeed grown dramatically over the past four decades. And yet, as the first part of the table indicates (and as I noted above), the actual unmarried birth rate for black women has been declining steadily. So, how can these two facts both be true? How can the actual rate of unmarried births to black women be falling and yet, at the same time, the percentage of births to black women that are births out-of-wedlock be climbing? Easy. These facts represent two different social realities, only one of which indicates anything about the behavior of unmarried black folks. And the one that matters isn’t the one white conservatives like to talk about.

If unmarried black women are having fewer babies than ever — and that’s what the table demonstrates — then this means unmarried black women are increasingly doing exactly what conservative moral scolds would have them do: namely, be more “responsible” about their sexual activity, and not bring babies into the world that they are presumed less likely to be able to support because of the absence of a father. But if, despite this trend towards “responsible” behavior, the share of black births that are out-of-wedlock continues to rise, what can explain such a seemingly contradictory phenomenon? There is really only one possible answer, and it has nothing to do with cultural pathology or bad behavior. Simply put, it must be that black married couples are having far fewer children than in the past. Indeed, the rates of birth for married black couples must be falling faster than the rates for unmarried black women, such that out-of-wedlock births as a share of all black births will continue to climb, even as unmarried black women cut back on childbearing. That is, in fact, exactly the culprit here. Black married couples are having far fewer children than ever before, and far fewer than white married couples, by the way, unlike in the past when their families tended to be larger.

So, in other words, the statistic to which conservatives point as evidence of growing black cultural pathology only proves that married black families are dramatically restraining their child-bearing relative to earlier years. Perhaps conservatives should start a campaign not to get single black women to have fewer babies — after all, they are already doing that — but rather, to encourage black married couples to have 5, 6, or even 10 kids, thereby boosting the black population and cutting the out-of-wedlock share of black births dramatically all at the same time! Win-win, right white conservatives?

But it is not only in the arena of childbearing that the black community seems to be increasingly “responsible;” so too is this apparently the case when it comes to lethal violence. Despite a steady stream of media attention to violence in black communities like those in Chicago — and the use of this violence by the right to deflect attention from racism and place the blame for black folks’ problems on black folks themselves — the fact is, homicide death rates today are actually far lower for black men than in the past. Though such a fact is surely cold comfort for those who have lost a loved one to tragic violence, it is worth noting that, generally speaking, black men are safer today when it comes to the threat of being killed than they were 60 years ago! In 1950, for instance, the homicide death rate for black males was 38 percent higher than in 2008, with 47 black males dying from homicide for every 100,000 black men in the population, as opposed to 34 per 100,000 in 2008. And although crime and homicide spikes in a few places like Chicago have been quite real, these seem to be outliers, as violent crime nationally (including crime committed by blacks) has continued to fall in recent years and now stands at rates that are well below those of twenty years ago. In some mostly black cities, like Washington D.C. for instance, homicide rates now stand at their lowest point in the past half-century.

Such data eviscerates the notion that somehow black culture — and especially cultural dysfunction brought on by the emergence of hip-hop — can explain violence and dysfunction in today’s African American communities. Were these things truly correlated with social pathology as the right insists, we would expect to see things getting worse in terms of homicide rates and out-of-wedlock birth rates, rather than better. After all, there was no Lil Wayne in 1950, nor indeed in 1973, when the violent crime rate nationwide was more than three times higher than today.

What About White Pathology? (Or, Doctor Heal Thyself)

But not only does the white right overlook any number of positive trends in the black communities of this nation; more to the point, they manage to completely miss the evidence of substantial pathology in the very communities where they, as white folks, tend to live. As the data make clear, when it comes to several destructive behaviors, whites often lead the pack, but somehow manage to escape the harsh cultural judgments so regularly reserved for persons of color (1).

One in seven white women, for instance, smoke cigarettes while pregnant, thereby endangering the health of their soon-to-be-born children: a rate that is 60 percent higher than the rate for black women. White women were also about 30 percent more likely than black women to drink alcohol when pregnant in 2010-2011, thanks to a significant reduction in gestational alcohol consumption among black women compared to previous years and a slight increase in such consumption among whites. So is there something about white culture that contributes to this disproportionately cavalier attitude among white women when it comes to the health of their developing fetuses?

And what is it with white people and suicide? Although suicide touches all communities, the numbers show that whites end our own lives at a far higher rate than blacks. In 2010, for instance, whites committed suicide at a rate that was roughly three times higher than the rate for blacks. Is there something about whites, culturally, that can explain this disproportionate inability to cope with life’s pressures, or with depression, or the other precursors to suicide?

And what’s the deal with white people and drug overdoses? In 2010, for example, white men were nearly twice as likely as black men to die from an opioid overdose and white women were more then twice as likely to die from such an overdose as black women. Interestingly, not only are whites apparently having a hard time handling our drugs, but even more telling, there has been a shift in the rates of opioid overdose deaths since the late 1990s, at which point black men were actually 44 percent more likely than their white counterparts to die this way. Since 1999, while black male opioid drug overdose deaths have fallen, rates for whites have increased by 137 percent! In other words, black men are taking it easier on the heavy stuff, while apparently white men are swallowing Hydrocodone like Tic-Tacs. What’s up with that?

And don’t even get me started on binge-drinking! It had been a while since I’d looked at the data on this, and although I knew white rates of heavy boozing were higher than the rates for blacks about a decade ago, I had hoped that we might have learned to control ourselves in the interim, but no such luck apparently. In 2011, for instance, white folks were still about one-fourth more likely than blacks to have binged in the past month, and 78 percent more likely to binge drink regularly (5 or more times in one month).

Among younger whites the problem is especially acute. According to the most recent available evidence, by their sophomore year of high school, whites are one-third more likely than our black counterparts to have been drunk, with a full 37 percent of white tenth graders having been inebriated. By senior year, a full 55 percent of whites have been been drunk, compared to 35 percent of our African American counterparts. As for current monthly use of alcohol, whites in 8th, 10th and 12th grades are all more likely than comparable blacks to be current drinkers. In the past month, 1 in 7 white sophomores have been drunk (more than double the rate for blacks), and 3 in 10 white seniors have been drunk, more than twice the rate for comparable blacks. In the past two weeks, one in seven white 10th graders have engaged in binge drinking (drinking five or more alcoholic beverages at one sitting), as have one in four white 12th graders: in both cases rates of binging that are at least double the rates for comparable blacks.

White drinking relative to black drinking remains high in college as well. As of 2011, nearly half of full-time white college students were binge drinking, compared to less than a fifth of black full-time college students, and white college students are a full six times more likely than our black counterparts to binge drink on a regular basis. Other studies have found somewhat lower rates of occasional binge drinking for all college students, regardless of race, but the disparities between whites and blacks even in these studies remains huge (in fact, larger). One study, for instance, estimated that about 6.7 percent of black collegians binge drink compared to 35 percent of whites, a ratio of more than 5:1. And according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse Research at Columbia University, students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), including white students at those schools, drink far less than students at mostly white colleges (only about 39 percent as much weekly) and are only 59 percent as likely to binge. Might there be something about white colleges — especially their white fraternities and sororities — and the culture of such places to which the moral scolds of the right might wish to throw some shade?

Not only do white youth apparently have a collective drinking problem — at least, relative to their black counterparts — but they also are more likely to then get behind the wheel of a car and attempt to drive, thereby endangering themselves and others. White male high school students are 46 percent more likely than similar black males to have driven under the influence of alcohol, while white females are more than twice as likely as their black female counterparts to have done so. When looking at all persons over the age of 12, whites are two-thirds more likely than blacks to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. And this indulgence is no mere academic matter, as driving while impaired by alcohol alone (to say nothing of other drugs) contributes to roughly 10,000 fatalities annually.

White youth in grades 8 to 12 are also about twice as likely as their black counterparts to smoke cancer-causing cigarettes (talk about a self-destructive tendency!), with more than 1 in 5 white high school seniors doing so. Indeed, among 12th graders, whites are three times as likely as comparable blacks to smoke a half-pack or more of cigarettes daily.

Although drug use is roughly the same across racial lines, white youth appear more likely to use heavier drugs than black youth. According to data from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, white 8th graders are a third more likely than their black counterparts to have used drugs other than marijuana, and by 10th grade, this ratio climbs to nearly 2:1, with 15 percent of white sophomores having used other and often heavier drugs, compared to only around 8 percent of blacks who have done so. Among high school seniors, more than 1 in 4 whites have used illicit drugs other than weed, compared to fewer than 1 in 8 African Americans.

And although most youth, regardless of race, don’t use hard drugs, racial disparities remain when it comes to these harder narcotics. By their senior year of high school, whites are four times more likely than blacks to have used hallucinogenic drugs, with 1 in 11 white seniors having done so, compared to only 1 in 42 black seniors. Likewise, white seniors are 2.4 times more likely to have tried Ecstasy, four times more likely to have tried cocaine (even 2.5 times more likely to have used crack), 3.5 times more likely to have used amphetamines (with more than 1 in 7 white seniors having used these compared to about 1 in 22 blacks), and 4 times as likely as comparable blacks to have used sedatives, with one in ten white high school seniors having done so. Among 12th graders, whites are 2.7 times more likely than comparable blacks to have used a prescription drug without a prescription, with about 1 in 6 whites having done so.

As for current drug use, by 10th grade, whites are nearly 70 percent more likely than comparable blacks to have used an illicit drug other than marijuana in the past month, and by 12th grade, they are more than twice as likely to have done so, with 1 in 10 whites currently using drugs other than weed, compared to only 1 in 23 blacks in that grade.

In college, the disparities continue, with white students more than twice as likely as black students to smoke weed or use other illicit drugs like Ecstasy, twice as likely as black students to abuse prescription opioids and three times as likely to abuse stimulants. At HBCUs, there is virtually no evidence of prescription stimulant abuse at all, according to one national survey, again suggesting that maybe white culture needs to take a few pointers from black folks and the educational institutions where they predominate.

All in all, as the Centers for Disease Control note, there are any number of dangerous activities in which white youth engage more often than black youth. Yet somehow we escape the generalized cultural critiques that follow blacks whenever members of their group do something wrong. In addition to the above-mentioned differences in alcohol and drug use, as well as drunk driving and smoking, white youth are also more likely than blacks to text while driving, thereby putting themselves and others at risk on the road, more likely to vomit or take laxatives so as to lose weight, less likely to have used a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse, and far more likely to use dangerous, cancer-causing tanning lamps to become, well, darker — which raises the question as to why white people hate ourselves so much that we’ll go out of our way (especially white women and those guys from Jersey Shore) to become brown. But that’s another essay for another day I suppose.

And why are white youth so disrespectful to their parents? According to the available evidence whites between 12 and 17 are nearly twice as likely as their black counterparts to have fought with their parents at least 10 times in the past year. Why no lectures from the cultural warriors of the right towards smart-mouthed white teens, whose disrespect for their parents clearly indicates a pathologically delinquent tendency? And please, someone develop this lecture quickly as we have a 12-year old who I fear may be tempted to try out some of that white-culture-backsassing-shit on us any day now!

And why no sexual responsibility lectures for the white and affluent college students who apparently are far more likely to hookup with multiple sexual partners than college students of color? Putting aside the over-reaction to so-called hookup culture in general (which seems to be substantially overblown as is the case with most conservative moral panics), and the way in which that reaction seeks to demonize and then circumscribe the sexual freedom of women, to the extent there is any overly-irresponsible sexual behavior on campus, it is the white and wealthy who drive the trend.

Looking again at drug use, but now for the overall white versus black populations — in other words, not just youth — although current drug usage rates are roughly the same across racial lines, the sheer numbers of white drug users should sound alarm bells, especially among those who claim that a few thousand black murderers per year presents a cultural crisis in the black community. So, for instance, the data indicates that as of 2011 there were approximately 83 million white people, 18 or over who had used illicit drugs, as opposed to only 13 million such blacks; 23 million whites who had used drugs this year, as opposed to only 4 million blacks; and 13.4 million current white drug users, compared to about 2.6 million blacks.

For cocaine, whites are over 75 percent more likely than blacks to have tried the drug, while for hallucinogenic drugs, whites are nearly two-and-a-half times more likely than blacks to have tried them. For prescription psychotherapeutics like pain relievers, sedatives, tranquilizers or stimulants, nearly 1 in 4 whites have misused them by taking such drugs without a prescription, compared to fewer than 14 percent of blacks.

So why no cultural critique of white drug use, or hysterical cries that white drug users indicate something about white people that needs to be collectively addressed? After all, drug users in the white community are far more prevalent as a percentage of our population than black violent criminals are of theirs.

Although violent crime rates are higher in black communities than white ones — owing to various socioeconomic conditions more prevalent there, such as crowded housing, population density and poverty concentration — there are certain indicators that white folks, especially youth, might be increasingly predisposed to violence too. So, contrary to popular belief, white high school students are more likely than black students to carry weapons, either generally or at school, with young white men being more likely than members of any other group to do so. In the past month, nearly 3 in 10 white males in high school carried a weapon, compared to only about 2 in 10 comparable black males. When can we expect to hear O’Reilly or Limbaugh or Hannity decry this increasing tendency to carry weapons among young white men, the way they lecture black men for doing so in places like Chicago? Or are these white men just carrying weapons to protect themselves from the random deer that are known to invade the halls of America’s secondary schools?

Especially considering the disproportionate rate at which white males are involved in mass shootings or other killings, like spree killings, this tendency to carry weapons, either in general or on campus should give pause to all persons concerned about the health of white culture and the fate of the nation.

Though I have no doubt there are redeeming aspects to white culture, with data such as this, and in so many categories of apparent and overwhelming dysfunction, can any rational person deny the crisis in white America? How much longer will we ignore the pathological behaviors of the nation’s dominant racial group? How long will we allow whites to blame their problems on affirmative action, Mexican immigrants, high taxes, Obamacare, Islam, oh, and black people, when it is so blindingly obvious that we are our own worst enemies?

Enough is enough. Time for some tough love. Time for white leaders and white-led organizations to finally speak out about the ruinous behavior of white children and their Oxy-addled, thrice-divorced, morally reprobate parents.

And if they aren’t up to the job — and of course, they aren’t — then I suppose a decent fallback option would be to just ignore everything they say about the shortcomings of others. After all, projection isn’t just a room at the movie theatre, or a talent they teach actors, if you know what I mean.



(1) To be clear, data on whites in this essay is specific to non-Hispanic whites. Some government data tables use a broad category of whites, which includes the vast majority of Hispanics, and indeed, the tables referenced in this essay also have categories for whites, generally, including those who are ethnically Hispanic. But these tables also include specific data for only those whites who are not Hispanic (what most white people consider “real whites”), and as such I use that data here so as not to confuse whites with others who are socially constructed as persons of color in the U.S.

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