X posted at Too Sense

Khalil G. Muhammad contextualizes the historical argument that blacks are “fully responsible” for their own oppression, an argument that began not with the Civil Rights Act, not with Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, but with emancipation. The conversation has always been between white people looking to exonerate themselves from any social responsibility and black people who want to prove their worthiness through imitation of “white values,” which is essentially a tacit admission of white superiority.

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.”

Muhammad places Cosby in Booker T. Washington’s role, and there are some similarities. Bill Cosby’s nasty stereotyping of sexual promiscuity in urban neighborhoods (Cosby has apparently never been to a liberal arts college in the northeast) his attack on “African Sounding names” and the like reminding one of Booker T. Washington’s evocation of minstrelsy to describe black peoples lives. From The New York Times archive, an excerpt of an article from 1897:

In illustrating the need of education and religious teaching, Mr. Washington said slavery was responsible for the weakness of Sambo’s moral nature. In the old days, said he, it was not regarded as stealing to steal massa’s chickens to feed massa’s “niggahs”.

Read the article for yourself, but absorb if you can, that mighty paradox: Slavery illustrated the weakness of black people’s moral nature. The substance of the discussion, when framed racially, has hardly changed since 1897.

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.

Not surprisingly, issues that affect enough white people to be “national” issues become raceless, while issues that are seen as “black” are rationalized as failures of moral character. Health Care anyone?

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.”(Lord. Just think about what the conservatives were like back then.)

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.”

Is anyone else shocked that in reading Juan Williams recent Op-Ed summarizing his interpretation of the Pew Poll results, one does not read the phrase “belated moral development?”

Muhammad’s Op-Ed goes on to summarize the ensuing conflict between W.E.B. DuBois (my man) and the established narrative on race.

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.”

Damn right the man had a chip. He was a genius with advanced degrees in multiple disciplines who had to spend his entire life fighting racism and proving he wasn’t “inferior”.

But perhaps the most important thing to take away from Muhammad’s piece is something I’ve been saying for years, and it is perhaps the dominant theme on Too Sense: The idea that certain problems are intrinsic to blackness or black people is a way for white people to avoid their own moral and social failures, from violence, to anti-intellectualism, from violence in rap music to the Stop Snitching movement. (Hi Alberto Gonzales!)

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.

I could have told you that. No wait, I have told you that.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that idea scares the shit out of many people, black and white. The idea that our entire conversation on race is meant not to find a solution to urban poverty, but to rationalize the status quo, says a great deal about social responsibility and about the value of black life in America, a hundred and fifty years after emancipation. But maybe what’s more scary is that it might say something about the person sitting next to you in class, or at work, or on the bus.

That’s why Cosby’s comment about “African-sounding names” resonates among social conservatives: What he’s really saying is you’re not being white enough.

But hey, forget I said anything. Let’s just blame it all on “the black KKK.”

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