Blaming the victim for racism
"Blaming the victim" comes up frequently in Indian Country. For instance, when someone notes the insufficient and unequal funding of government programs. Or when someone protests a stereotypical sports mascot. These couldn't possibly be examples of America's racist attitude toward people of color. Indians must be playing the "race card," assuaging their feelngs by pretending to be victims, enriching themselves by fanning the flames of the "grievance industry."
The following essay effectively demolishes such claims. Though it refers primarily to whites and blacks, it clearly applies to other minorities as well. White people blame the victim because they're in denial about their own racism.
What Kind of Card is Race?
The Absurdity (and Consistency) of White Denial
By Tim Wise
Published on Counterpunch, www.counterpunch.org, April 24, 2006
Recently, I was asked by someone in the audience of one of my speeches, whether or not I believed that racism—though certainly a problem—might also be something conjured up by people of color in situations where the charge was inappropriate. In other words, did I believe that occasionally folks play the so-called race card, as a ploy to gain sympathy or detract from their own shortcomings? In the process of his query, the questioner made his own opinion all too clear (an unambiguous yes), and in that, he was not alone, as indicated by the reaction of others in the crowd, as well as survey data confirming that the belief in black malingering about racism is nothing if not ubiquitous.
It's a question I'm asked often, and which I answered this time in much the same fashion as I have done previously: First, by noting that the regularity with which whites respond to charges of racism by calling said charges a ploy, suggests that the race card is, at best, equivalent to the two of diamonds. In other words, it's not much of a card to play, calling into question why anyone would play it (as if it were really going to get them somewhere). Second, I pointed out that white reluctance to acknowledge racism isn't new, and it isn't something that manifests only in situations where the racial aspect of an incident is arguable. Fact is, whites have always doubted claims of racism at the time they were being made, no matter how strong the evidence, as will be seen below. Finally, I concluded by suggesting that whatever "card" claims of racism may prove to be for the black and brown, the denial card is far and away the trump, and whites play it regularly: a subject to which we will return.
Turning Injustice into a Game of Chance: The Origins of Race as "Card"
First, let us consider the history of this notion: namely, that the "race card" is something people of color play so as to distract the rest of us, or to gain sympathy. For most Americans, the phrase "playing the race card" entered the national lexicon during the murder trial of former football star, O.J. Simpson, back in 1995. Robert Shapiro, one of Simpson's attorneys famously claimed, in the aftermath of his client's acquittal, that co-counsel Johnnie Cochran had "played the race card, and dealt it from the bottom of the deck." The allegation referred to Cochran's bringing up officer Mark Fuhrman's regular use of the 'n-word' as potentially indicative of his propensity to frame Simpson. To Shapiro, whose own views of his client's innocence apparently shifted over time, the issue of race had no place in the trial, and even if Fuhrman was a racist, this fact had no bearing on whether or not O.J. had killed his ex-wife and her acquaintance, Ron Goldman. In other words, the idea that O.J. had been framed because of racism made no sense and to bring it up was to interject race into an arena where it was, or should have been, irrelevant.
That a white man like Shapiro could make such an argument, however, speaks to the widely divergent way in which whites and blacks view our respective worlds. For people of color—especially African Americans—the idea that racist cops might frame members of their community is no abstract notion, let alone an exercise in irrational conspiracy theorizing. Rather, it speaks to a social reality about which blacks are acutely aware. Indeed, there has been a history of such misconduct on the part of law enforcement, and for black folks to think those bad old days have ended is, for many, to let down their guard to the possibility of real and persistent injury (1).
So if a racist cop is the lead detective in a case, and the one who discovers blood evidence implicating a black man accused of killing two white people, there is a logical alarm bell that goes off in the head of most any black person, but which would remain every bit as silent in the mind of someone who was white. And this too is understandable: for most whites, police are the helpful folks who get your cat out of the tree, or take you around in their patrol car for fun. For us, the idea of brutality or misconduct on the part of such persons seems remote, to the point of being fanciful. It seems the stuff of bad TV dramas, or at the very least, the past—that always remote place to which we can consign our national sins and predations, content all the while that whatever demons may have lurked in those earlier times have long since been vanquished.
To whites, blacks who alleged racism in the O.J. case were being absurd, or worse, seeking any excuse to let a black killer off the hook—ignoring that blacks on juries vote to convict black people of crimes every day in this country. And while allegations of black "racial bonding" with the defendant were made regularly after the acquittal in Simpson's criminal trial, no such bonding, this time with the victims, was alleged when a mostly white jury found O.J. civilly liable a few years later. Only blacks can play the race card, apparently; only they think in racial terms, at least to hear white America tell it.
Anything but Racism: White Reluctance to Accept the Evidence
Since the O.J. trial, it seems as though almost any allegation of racism has been met with the same dismissive reply from the bulk of whites in the U.S. According to national surveys, more than three out of four whites refuse to believe that discrimination is any real problem in America (2). That most whites remain unconvinced of racism's salience—with as few as six percent believing it to be a "very serious problem," according to one poll in the mid 90s (3)—suggests that racism-as-card makes up an awfully weak hand. While folks of color consistently articulate their belief that racism is a real and persistent presence in their own lives, these claims have had very little effect on white attitudes. As such, how could anyone believe that people of color would somehow pull the claim out of their hat, as if it were guaranteed to make white America sit up and take notice? If anything, it is likely to be ignored, or even attacked, and in a particularly vicious manner.
That bringing up racism (even with copious documentation) is far from an effective "card" to play in order to garner sympathy, is evidenced by the way in which few people even become aware of the studies confirming its existence. How many Americans do you figure have even heard, for example, that black youth arrested for drug possession for the first time are incarcerated at a rate that is forty-eight times greater than the rate for white youth, even when all other factors surrounding the crime are identical (4)?
How many have heard that persons with "white sounding names," according to a massive national study, are fifty percent more likely to be called back for a job interview than those with "black sounding" names, even when all other credentials are the same (5)?
How many know that white men with a criminal record are slightly more likely to be called back for a job interview than black men without one, even when the men are equally qualified, and present themselves to potential employers in an identical fashion (6)?
How many have heard that according to the Justice Department, Black and Latino males are three times more likely than white males to have their vehicles stopped and searched by police, even though white males are over four times more likely to have illegal contraband in our cars on the occasions when we are searched (7)?
How many are aware that black and Latino students are about half as likely as whites to be placed in advanced or honors classes in school, and twice as likely to be placed in remedial classes? Or that even when test scores and prior performance would justify higher placement, students of color are far less likely to be placed in honors classes (8)? Or that students of color are 2-3 times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school, even though rates of serious school rule infractions do not differ to any significant degree between racial groups (9)?
Fact is, few folks have heard any of these things before, suggesting how little impact scholarly research on the subject of racism has had on the general public, and how difficult it is to make whites, in particular, give the subject a second thought.
Perhaps this is why, contrary to popular belief, research indicates that people of color are actually reluctant to allege racism, be it on the job, or in schools, or anywhere else. Far from "playing the race card" at the drop of a hat, it is actually the case (again, according to scholarly investigation, as opposed to the conventional wisdom of the white public), that black and brown folks typically "stuff" their experiences with discrimination and racism, only making an allegation of such treatment after many, many incidents have transpired, about which they said nothing for fear of being ignored or attacked (10). Precisely because white denial has long trumped claims of racism, people of color tend to underreport their experiences with racial bias, rather than exaggerate them. Again, when it comes to playing a race card, it is more accurate to say that whites are the dealers with the loaded decks, shooting down any evidence of racism as little more than the fantasies of unhinged blacks, unwilling to take personal responsibility for their own problems in life.
Blaming the Victims for White Indifference
Occasionally, white denial gets creative, and this it does by pretending to come wrapped in sympathy for those who allege racism in the modern era. In other words, while steadfastly rejecting what people of color say they experience—in effect suggesting that they lack the intelligence and/or sanity to accurately interpret their own lives—such commentators seek to assure others that whites really do care about racism, but simply refuse to pin the label on incidents where it doesn't apply. In fact, they'll argue, one of the reasons that whites have developed compassion fatigue on this issue is precisely because of the overuse of the concept, combined with what we view as unfair reactions to racism (such as affirmative action efforts which have, ostensibly, turned us into the victims of racial bias). If blacks would just stop playing the card where it doesn't belong, and stop pushing for so-called preferential treatment, whites would revert back to our prior commitment to equal opportunity, and our heartfelt concern about the issue of racism.
Don't laugh. This is actually the position put forward recently by James Taranto, of the Wall Street Journal, who in January suggested that white reluctance to embrace black claims of racism was really the fault of blacks themselves, and the larger civil rights establishment (11). As Taranto put it: "Why do blacks and whites have such divergent views on racial matters? We would argue that it is because of the course that racial policies have taken over the past forty years." He then argues that by trying to bring about racial equality—but failing to do so because of "aggregate differences in motivation, inclination and aptitude" between different racial groups—policies like affirmative action have bred "frustration and resentment" among blacks, and "indifference" among whites, who decide not to think about race at all, rather than engage an issue that seems so toxic to them. In other words, whites think blacks use racism as a crutch for their own inadequacies, and then demand programs and policies that fail to make things much better, all the while discriminating against them as whites. In such an atmosphere, is it any wonder that the two groups view the subject matter differently?
But the fundamental flaw in Taranto's argument is its suggestion—implicit though it may be—that prior to the creation of affirmative action, white folks were mostly on board the racial justice and equal opportunity train, and were open to hearing about claims of racism from persons of color. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. White denial is not a form of backlash to the past forty years of civil rights legislation, and white indifference to claims of racism did not only recently emerge, as if from a previous place where whites and blacks had once seen the world similarly. Simply put: whites in every generation have thought there was no real problem with racism, irrespective of the evidence, and in every generation we have been wrong.
Denial as an Intergenerational Phenomenon
So, for example, what does it say about white rationality and white collective sanity, that in 1963—at a time when in retrospect all would agree racism was rampant in the United States, and before the passage of modern civil rights legislation—nearly two-thirds of whites, when polled, said they believed blacks were treated the same as whites in their communities—almost the same number as say this now, some forty-plus years later? What does it suggest about the extent of white folks' disconnection from the real world, that in 1962, eighty-five percent of whites said black children had just as good a chance as white children to get a good education in their communities (12)? Or that in May, 1968, seventy percent of whites said that blacks were treated the same as whites in their communities, while only seventeen percent said blacks were treated "not very well" and only 3.5 percent said blacks were treated badly? (13)?
What does it say about white folks' historic commitment to equal opportunity—and which Taranto would have us believe has only been rendered inoperative because of affirmative action—that in 1963, three-fourths of white Americans told Newsweek, "The Negro is moving too fast" in his demands for equality (14)? Or that in October 1964, nearly two-thirds of whites said that the Civil Rights Act should be enforced gradually, with an emphasis on persuading employers not to discriminate, as opposed to forcing compliance with equal opportunity requirements (15)?
What does it say about whites' tenuous grip on mental health that in mid-August 1969, forty-four percent of whites told a Newsweek/Gallup National Opinion Survey that blacks had a better chance than they did to get a good paying job—two times as many as said they would have a worse chance? Or that forty-two percent said blacks had a better chance for a good education than whites, while only seventeen percent said they would have a worse opportunity for a good education, and eighty percent saying blacks would have an equal or better chance? In that same survey, seventy percent said blacks could have improved conditions in the "slums" if they had wanted to, and were more than twice as likely to blame blacks themselves, as opposed to discrimination, for high unemployment in the black community (16).
In other words, even when racism was, by virtually all accounts (looking backward in time), institutionalized, white folks were convinced there was no real problem. Indeed, even forty years ago, whites were more likely to think that blacks had better opportunities, than to believe the opposite (and obviously accurate) thing: namely, that whites were advantaged in every realm of American life.
Truthfully, this tendency for whites to deny the extent of racism and racial injustice likely extends back far before the 1960s. Although public opinion polls in previous decades rarely if ever asked questions about the extent of racial bias or discrimination, anecdotal surveys of white opinion suggest that at no time have whites in the U.S. ever thought blacks or other people of color were getting a bad shake. White Southerners were all but convinced that their black slaves, for example, had it good, and had no reason to complain about their living conditions or lack of freedoms. After emancipation, but during the introduction of Jim Crow laws and strict Black Codes that limited where African Americans could live and work, white newspapers would regularly editorialize about the "warm relations" between whites and blacks, even as thousands of blacks were being lynched by their white compatriots.
From Drapetomania to Victim Syndrome — Viewing Resistance as Mental Illness
Indeed, what better evidence of white denial (even dementia) could one need than that provided by "Doctor" Samuel Cartwright, a well-respected physician of the 19th century, who was so convinced of slavery's benign nature, that he concocted and named a disease to explain the tendency for many slaves to run away from their loving masters. Drapetomania, he called it: a malady that could be cured by keeping the slave in a "child-like state," and taking care not to treat them as equals, while yet striving not to be too cruel. Mild whipping was, to Cartwright, the best cure of all. So there you have it: not only is racial oppression not a problem; even worse, those blacks who resist it, or refuse to bend to it, or complain about it in any fashion, are to be viewed not only as exaggerating their condition, but indeed, as mentally ill (17).
And lest one believe that the tendency for whites to psychologically pathologize blacks who complain of racism is only a relic of ancient history, consider a much more recent example, which demonstrates the continuity of this tendency among members of the dominant racial group in America.
A few years ago, I served as an expert witness and consultant in a discrimination lawsuit against a school district in Washington State. Therein, numerous examples of individual and institutional racism abounded: from death threats made against black students to which the school district's response was pitifully inadequate, to racially disparate "ability tracking" and disciplinary action. In preparation for trial (which ultimately never took place as the district finally agreed to settle the case for several million dollars and a commitment to policy change), the school system's "psychological experts" evaluated dozens of the plaintiffs (mostly students as well as some of their parents) so as to determine the extent of damage done to them as a result of the racist mistreatment. As one of the plaintiff's experts, I reviewed the reports of said psychologists, and while I was not surprised to see them downplay the damage done to the black folks in this case, I was somewhat startled by how quickly they went beyond the call of duty to actually suggest that several of the plaintiffs exhibited "paranoid" tendencies and symptoms of borderline personality disorder. That having one's life threatened might make one a bit paranoid apparently never entered the minds of the white doctors. That facing racism on a regular basis might lead one to act out, in a way these "experts" would then see as a personality disorder, also seems to have escaped them. In this way, whites have continued to see mental illness behind black claims of victimization, even when that victimization is blatant.
In fact, we've even created a name for it: "victimization syndrome." Although not yet part of the DSM-IV (the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, used by its members so as to evaluate patients), it is nonetheless a malady from which blacks suffer, to hear a lot of whites tell it. Whenever racism is brought up, such whites insist that blacks are being encouraged (usually by the civil rights establishment) to adopt a victim mentality, and to view themselves as perpetual targets of oppression. By couching their rejection of the claims of racism in these terms, conservatives are able to parade as friends to black folks, only concerned about them and hoping to free them from the debilitating mindset of victimization that liberals wish to see them adopt.
Aside from the inherently paternalistic nature of this position, notice too how concern over adopting a victim mentality is very selectively trotted out by the right. So, for example, when crime victims band together—and even form what they call victim's rights groups—no one on the right tells them to get over it, or suggests that by continuing to incessantly bleat about their kidnapped child or murdered loved one, such folks are falling prey to a victim mentality that should be resisted. No indeed: crime victims are venerated, considered experts on proper crime policy (as evidenced by how often their opinions are sought out on the matter by the national press and politicians), and given nothing but sympathy.
Likewise, when American Jews raise a cry over perceived anti-Jewish bigotry, or merely teach their children (as I was taught) about the European Holocaust, replete with a slogan of "Never again!" none of the folks who lament black "victimology" suggests that we too are wallowing in a victimization mentality, or somehow at risk for a syndrome of the same name.
In other words, it is blacks and blacks alone (with the occasional American Indian or Latino thrown in for good measure when and if they get too uppity) that get branded with the victim mentality label. Not quite drapetomania, but also not far enough from the kind of thinking that gave rise to it: in both cases, rooted in the desire of white America to reject what all logic and evidence suggests is true. Further, the selective branding of blacks as perpetual victims, absent the application of the pejorative to Jews or crime victims (or the families of 9/11 victims or other acts of terrorism), suggests that at some level white folks simply don't believe black suffering matters. We refuse to view blacks as fully human and deserving of compassion as we do these other groups, for whom victimization has been a reality as well. It is not that whites care about blacks and simply wish them not to adopt a self-imposed mental straightjacket; rather, it is that at some level we either don't care, or at least don't equate the pain of racism even with the pain caused by being mugged, or having your art collection confiscated by the Nazis, let alone with the truly extreme versions of crime and anti-Semitic wrongdoing.
Conclusion — See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Wrong as Always
White denial has become such a widespread phenomenon nowadays, that most whites are unwilling to entertain even the mildest of suggestions that racism and racial inequity might still be issues. To wit, a recent survey from the University of Chicago, in which whites and blacks were asked two questions about Hurricane Katrina and the governmental response to the tragedy. First, respondents were asked whether they believed the government response would have been speedier had the victims been white. Not surprisingly, only twenty percent of whites answered in the affirmative. But while that question is at least conceivably arguable, the next question seems so weakly worded that virtually anyone could have answered yes without committing too much in the way of recognition that racism was a problem. Yet the answers given reveal the depths of white intransigence to consider the problem a problem at all.
So when asked if we believed the Katrina tragedy showed that there was a lesson to be learned about racial inequality in America—any lesson at all—while ninety percent of blacks said yes, only thirty-eight percent of whites agreed (18). To us, Katrina said nothing about race whatsoever, even as blacks were disproportionately affected; even as there was a clear racial difference in terms of who was stuck in New Orleans and who was able to escape; even as the media focused incessantly on reports of black violence in the Superdome and Convention Center that proved later to be false; even as blacks have been having a much harder time moving back to New Orleans, thanks to local and federal foot-dragging and the plans of economic elites in the city to destroy homes in the most damaged (black) neighborhoods and convert them to non-residential (or higher rent) uses.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, has to do with race nowadays, in the eyes of white America writ large. But the obvious question is this: if we have never seen racism as a real problem, contemporary to the time in which the charges are being made, and if in all generations past we were obviously wrong to the point of mass delusion in thinking this way, what should lead us to conclude that now, at long last, we've become any more astute at discerning social reality than we were before? Why should we trust our own perceptions or instincts on the matter, when we have run up such an amazingly bad track record as observers of the world in which we live? In every era, black folks said they were the victims of racism and they were right. In every era, whites have said the problem was exaggerated, and we have been wrong.
Unless we wish to conclude that black insight on the matter—which has never to this point failed them—has suddenly converted to irrationality, and that white irrationality has become insight (and are prepared to prove this transformation by way of some analytical framework to explain the process), then the best advice seems to be that which could have been offered in past decades and centuries: namely, if you want to know about whether or not racism is a problem, it would probably do you best to ask the folks who are its targets. They, after all, are the ones who must, as a matter of survival, learn what it is, and how and when it's operating. We whites on the other hand, are the persons who have never had to know a thing about it, and who—for reasons psychological, philosophical and material—have always had a keen interest in covering it up.
In short, and let us be clear on it: race is not a card. It determines who the dealer is, and who gets dealt.
(1) There is plenty of information about police racism, misconduct and brutality, both in historical and contemporary terms, available from any number of sources. Among them, see Kristian Williams, Our Enemies in Blue. Soft Skull Press, 2004; and online at the Stolen Lives Project: http://stolenlives.org.
(2) Washington Post. October 9, 1995: A22
(4) "Young White Offenders get lighter treatment," 2000. The Tennessean. April 26: 8A.
(5) Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainathan, 2004. "Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment in Labor Market Discrimination." June 20. http://post.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/mullainathan/papers/emilygreg.pdf.
(6) Pager, Devah. 2003. "The Mark of a Criminal Record." American Journal of Sociology. Volume 108: 5, March: 937-75.
(7) Matthew R. Durose, Erica L. Schmitt and Patrick A. Langan, Contacts Between Police and the Public: Findings from the 2002 National Survey. U.S. Department of Justice, (Bureau of Justice Statistics), April 2005.
(8) Gordon, Rebecca. 1998. Education and Race. Oakland: Applied Research Center: 48-9; Fischer, Claude S. et al., 1996. Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 163; Steinhorn, Leonard and Barabara Diggs-Brown, 1999. By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race. NY: Dutton: 95-6.
(9) Skiba, Russell J. et al., The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment. Indiana Education Policy Center, Policy Research Report SRS1, June 2000; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System: Youth 2003, Online Comprehensive Results, 2004.
(10) Terrell, Francis and Sandra L. Terrell, 1999. "Cultural Identification and Cultural Mistrust: Some Findings and Implications," in Advances in African American Psychology, Reginald Jones, ed., Hampton VA: Cobb & Henry; Fuegen, Kathleen, 2000. "Defining Discrimination in the Personal/Group Discrimination Discrepancy," Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. September; Miller, Carol T. 2001. "A Theoretical Perspective on Coping With Stigma," Journal of Social Issues. Spring; Feagin, Joe, Hernan Vera and Nikitah Imani, 1996. The Agony of Education: Black Students in White Colleges and Universities. NY: Routledge.
(11) Taranto, James. 2006. "The Truth About Race in America—IV," Online Journal (Wall Street Journal), January 6.
(12) The Gallup Organization, Gallup Poll Social Audit, 2001. Black-White Relations in the United States, 2001 Update, July 10: 7-9.
(13) The Gallup Organization, Gallup Poll, #761, May, 1968
(14) "How Whites Feel About Negroes: A Painful American Dilemma," Newsweek, October 21, 1963: 56
(15) The Gallup Organization, Gallup Poll #699, October, 1964
(16) Newsweek/Gallup Organization, National Opinion Survey, August 19, 1969
(17) Cartwright, Samuel. 1851. "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race," DeBow's Review. (Southern and Western States: New Orleans), Volume XI.
(18) Ford, Glen and Peter Campbell, 2006. "Katrina: A Study-Black Consensus, White Dispute," The Black Commentator, Issue 165, January 5.
See Systemic, Not Aberrant for more on structural racism and white privilege.
Helping whites while blaming blacks
The idea that minorities are responsible for their own poverty goes way back—to the Civil War, at least. As soon as the slaves were free, whites began blaming them for not becoming middle-class paragons of virtue.
White May Be Might, But It's Not Always Right
By Khalil G. Muhammad
Sunday, December 9, 2007; B03
Recently I showed my college students a YouTube clip of Bill Cosby's and Alvin Poussaint's appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." After hearing Cosby plead for poor blacks to embrace their parenting responsibilities, many of the students said they wished their parents had followed his advice. They regretted that some of their peers had done poorly in school, abused drugs and alcohol, and run afoul of the law. These problems, they agreed, might have been avoided with more supervision at home.
They might have been the perfect audience for a Cosby town-hall lecture on the dangers of self-destructive values in black America. They might also have been perfect illustrations of the growing "values gap" between poor and middle-class blacks described in a widely cited recent Pew Research Center poll.
Except almost all my students are white.
Cosby and the recent Pew study are the latest in a long finger-wagging tradition of instructing poor blacks to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and reject pathologically "black" values. Today, rap culture is usually presented as Exhibit A, but strains of the same argument have cropped up for more than a century. If blacks would just get their act together, this old story goes, all the social inequalities between them and the rest of society would disappear.
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."
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.
As segregation took hold, there was a powerful need to minimize the role of racism as a factor in explaining racial disparities. The "Cosby" role at the start of Jim Crow was first played by Booker T. Washington. Counseling blacks to conquer their inferiority, he repudiated civil rights activism in favor of self-help and moral regeneration.
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."
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."
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."
Du Bois's frustrations led him to leave academia for a life of anti-racist activism. In 1910, the year he became director of research and publicity for the NAACP, he warned that "whiteness" was becoming the new basis of the nation's consciousness. "Are we not coming more and more day by day to making the statement, 'I am white,' the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality?" he asked.
In today's era of hip-hop, Du Bois's warning still goes unheeded. If rap music is so bad, why are white kids its major consumers? And by what value system should we judge the large media companies that publish and distribute hip-hop — or, really, gangsta rap, its most popular and sinister cousin?
Were "white values" on display two years ago when the federal government failed to adequately respond to one of the greatest natural disasters in American history?
If lower-class "black" values are so distinct from those of the rest of America, particularly the "white values" supposedly now embraced by middle- and upper-class blacks, why, according to the Pew report, do less than a third of white Americans graduate from college? Are legions of whites similarly devaluing higher education? Are they "acting black"?
If lower-class black values are so peculiar, why do whites report the same or higher levels of illegal drug use as blacks, as numerous studies show?
What of underperforming white schoolchildren in rural America, the Great Plains, Appalachia or the Deep South? Are they "acting black" because they can't compete with their upwardly mobile suburban counterparts?
Today's liberals still empathize with America's invisible white working poor, who they warn are being "nickel and dimed" to the point of near homelessness. But why the empathy? Isn't their poverty really a function of their choosing to embrace their hidden blackness?
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.
Khalil G. Muhammad is an assistant professor of history at Indiana University and the author of the forthcoming "The Condemnation of Blackness: Ideas about Race and Crime in the Making of Modern Urban America."
You gotta love the part where demographer Hoffman believed blacks had a level playing field after the Civil War. What a joke that turned out to be.
Blaming the victim for poverty
Hurricane Katrina showed us how the American mindset works. Rather than solve problems collectively, as most societies do, we blamed the victims for failing to help themselves. It was an example of our hyper-individualism, our culture of greed and selfishness, at work.
Mohawk: In important ways, war and flood are connected
Posted: September 08, 2005
by: John Mohawk / Indian Country Today
At the beginning of the current war in Iraq, President Bush was adamant that Americans would be asked to make no sacrifices, pay no price, for the war. Indeed, the war would go forward along with tax relief (mostly for the wealthy). He didn't talk much about plans for reductions in domestic spending, and there was an inadequate ring of information that somebody, someday, was going to pay.
In fact, it is future generations who will pay because the war is being fought with borrowed money, and the debt will come due for today's children and grandchildren. And now we have Hurricane Katrina, the second disaster during the Bush administration. It has thus far been met with the same lack of planning as characterized the invasion of Baghdad, and this time the American people will pay. The death toll is unknown at this time but certain to be high. The dollar toll is going to be immense.
The hurricane dealt two blows to New Orleans. The initial blow, the storm, was a near-miss and the city survived it largely intact. The second blow happened when the levee walls were breached and water spilled into the basin that is the city, which meant, in important ways, that the event was man-made. It could turn out to be the greatest disaster in U.S. history.
The local newspapers had long complained that the levees needed strengthening, yet the Bush administration was spent less and less money protecting New Orleans from the water. Some complained that the war in Iraq had left the area with fewer National Guardsmen, and that a lot of equipment that could have been used in the rescue was overseas. Others complained that the guardsmen and the equipment that were available were not deployed due to a lack of leadership. People waited days for help. It was an experience they will not forget.
As the water rose, a man calling in to National Public Radio offered an opinion. The people trapped in the city, he said, had only themselves to blame for their problems. What about those too poor to flee, and too sick, and too disabled, he was asked.
It's their personal responsibility, he said.
There have always been cold-hearted people in America, but the idea that personal responsibility cancels collective rights has grown in recent years. The flood has revealed to the world a dark side of American life, a spiritual flaw.
America is the most self-professed Christian nation in the world, but the message in the New Testament that urges compassion for the poor and powerless is unpopular. Among industrialized nations, America ranks near the bottom in all categories on how it treats its most needy. Things are such that just a week earlier, a national religious icon called for the assassination of a head of state. The message in the New Testament warning against false prophets is drowned out too.
More than one-quarter (28 percent) of New Orleans residents live in poverty, and 84 percent of those are black. Most of the white people escaped. Most of those left behind were black.
The last great flood, in 1927, was on the Mississippi and it left about a million people -- 1 percent of the population -- homeless. The next year, Congress passed the Flood Control Act, and the federal government assumed full responsibility for protecting its citizens along the river. The Army Corps of Engineers is coming under intense criticism for its management of flood control -- which has, by some accounts, been doing more harm than good.
People in Holland, much of which is below sea level, were astonished at the pictures of the puny wall that protected New Orleans from the water. The technology exists to do the job, but the administration has had other spending priorities. It turns out that shoring up those levees would have been money well spent. The argument that other administrations also failed to fix it doesn't wash.
There have been strong feelings among the black community that the reason the money wasn't spent to protect them and the reason for the slow rescue response was racism. There was some of that, as well as discrimination against poor people generally, but racism and classism don't explain everything.
One can gauge the quality of leadership by how a leader wields his or her authority, by measuring outcomes. A person who manages an institution does so to benefit himself and his group, or to benefit the whole of society and even the future generations. In the same week that New Orleans was filling with water, a woman who blew the whistle on no-bid contracts awarded to Halliburton was demoted. Bush/Cheney associates enjoy plunder, and their critics are demoted and otherwise punished because in their view the main purpose of government is to protect the properties and privileges of the wealthy. This administration sees to the interests of the few at the expense of the many.
Poor planning has also characterized the presidency of the man who takes five-week vacations in Crawford and whose disastrous war is getting expensive. About 14,500 U.S. troops have suffered injuries in the war that was supposed to be a cakewalk, and the projected cost of treating those injuries is $7 billion a year for the next 45 years. The Iraq war itself is costing $6 billion per month and, if it lasts five more years, could cost about $1.5 trillion.
The Bush administration, along with its allies in Congress, has facilitated the most massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich in history. They had plenty of warning that the levees could be breached by a big hurricane; but they rolled the dice, hoping it wouldn't happen on their watch, and didn't bother to spend the money to protect people. Instead, they carried on with their war agenda which was accompanied by a "starve the beast" strategy to defund needed public works projects, medicines and food for the poor, and other previous commitments.
It's the federal government's responsibility to build levees that do not breach. No one wanted the flood, but flood control was their responsibility and they failed at it. War and flood are connected disasters with their epicenter in the Oval Office. And now, today's Americans are going to pay in the form of a mountain of corpses and a population of displaced people, huge property losses and higher energy bills, and the very real possibility of recession.
John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an associate professor of American Studies and director of Indigenous Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
You can see good examples of blaming Indians for being victims in Indians as Welfare Recipients and The "Outdated" Reservation System. Poverty exists in urban centers and in rural towns, but Indians are to blame because many of their reservations remain poor also. Rich white people who inherit their status and privilege make it in our society, so why can't poor people do it too?
Charles Trimble's views
Giago on Trimble's victimhood
Trimble on victimhood
Mile Post 398 and poor Indians
Trimble to Indians: Get over it
Jobs and homes needed
Looking for Native Cosby?
More on blaming the victim
Limbaugh blames flood victims
Why Indians remain poor
Turning Indian students into victims
"Indian industry" exploits Indians?
The myth of American self-reliance
Culture wars (economic)
America's cultural mindset
"Poverty is a mindset, not a condition. Poor people have poor attitudes and poor values."
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