The only obstacle to the continuing amelioration of racial relations in the United States
is black culture; only blacks can improve black culture; but well-educated blacks, W.E.B. Du Bois’s
“talented tenth,” the group that might be expected to lead this improvement, are, unfortunately, crazy.
Of course, I exaggerate.
There is, for starters, no such thing as “black culture.” African Americans are a heterogeneous group. Most are sober, law-abiding, hard-working, God-fearing. And there are plenty of nonblacks—whites, Latinos, Asians, American Indians—who are strung out, lawbreaking, lazy thugs. But it is also the case that a disproportionate number of blacks get into trouble with the law, abuse various substances, and don’t apply themselves at school. Too many think that studying hard is acting white, is not keeping it real. And most—not just many, but by far most—African Americans are born out of wedlock. Seven out of ten, in fact, and this is the root of the other pathologies listed above.
It is also an exaggeration to say that these problems are the only obstacle to improved race relations. But it is true that Asian problems, Latino problems, and American Indian problems pale, so to speak, in significance. It might also be objected that the problems in black culture have their roots in racism, but there is no denying that they are also the leading cause of the racism that lingers today. They also cause the economic black-white gap and its resentments.
It is, in addition, an exaggeration to say that only African Americans can address these problems. The rest of society can endeavor not to encourage pathologies like illegitimacy—as it has done, for instance, in reforming welfare—and fight drug addiction and trafficking, and punish criminals, and improve educational opportunities. But it is true that many of these problems are fundamentally moral and religious, and thus must be tackled by black individuals, families, churches, and communities. The soul-searching this requires is more likely to be undertaken at the behest of someone who is part of this group. What an African American says will be taken more seriously and viewed less suspiciously and resentfully than what is said by someone outside that experience.
Well, then, is it also an exaggeration to say that education makes black people crazy? Yes, although there is some truth in here, too.
Consider this paragraph from Stephan and Abigail Thernstroms’ America in Black and White:
Asked in 1990 whether “the government deliberately makes sure that drugs are easily available in poor black neighborhoods in order to harm black people,” an astonishing 29 percent of college-educated blacks said, “true,” while another 38 percent said “might be true.” That is, 67 percent were prepared to entertain the idea seriously. These figures were significantly higher than those for blacks with only a high school education, only 18 percent of whom answered “true,” with 24 percent saying it might be so. When black respondents were asked whether “the virus which causes AIDS was deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people,” roughly the same percentages of high school graduates and college-educated respondents answered “true” (9 and 10 percent, respectively). But among those who thought it “might be true,” the percentage for college-educated was strikingly larger (31 percent versus 8 percent for high school graduates). The more educated, the more credulous, in other words. Moreover, merge the two categories of respondents, and 39 percent thought AIDS was a racist plot. When the question became not drugs or AIDS but the deliberate prosecution of black elected officials by the government, the numbers were even higher, with the same tendency of those with more education to think in more conspiratorial terms. Among blacks with a college degree, 84 percent thought the government either definitely guilty or perhaps guilty of such racist action.
Likewise, in their fascinating 2002 book Black Pride and Black Prejudice, Paul M. Sniderman and Thomas Piazza conclude, based on meticulously collected and analyzed survey data, that “the more educated blacks are, the more likely they are to embrace … racial solidarity, building black pride, autonomy, and also Afrocentrism”—“a package of ideas, one part of which is marked by the paranoid style.”
Still, crazy is a very strong word. But for those who believe that the pathologies of black culture require conservative prescriptions, it is likewise interesting that, for blacks, there appears to be little correlation between higher educational levels (and income levels) and becoming more conservative—a trend that is true for the (mostly white) general population.
Why should this be so? The preliminary question is why for nonblacks more education correlates with greater conservatism. The glib answer is that conservatives are wise and liberals aren’t. A more cynical answer is that with higher education comes, usually, higher income, and that rich people, having more to conserve, are more conservative. Probably there is truth in both answers.
But either way, why shouldn’t it apply for blacks as well? As for the cynical (education = money = conservative) answer, I suspect the reason the chain is broken is largely psychological: that for an African American to become a Republican after becoming wealthy will cause him guilt and anguish—of forsaking his roots, of betraying his people, of leaving others behind—much greater than for an Asian American or Latino American or European American. Conservatism is, unfortunately, viewed as being anti-black to a much greater extent than it is viewed as being anti–anything else.
Part of the explanation, though, also goes to the glib answer. Blacks and whites alike are exposed to a lot of left-wing nonsense in the academy, but for some reason African Americans seem to take it more seriously than European Americans do. I suspect there are two reasons for this.
First, blacks are exposed to more of it, because they are more likely to study in areas (for instance, sociology and African American Studies, versus chemistry and mechanical engineering) where political correctness is at its most virulent. Incidentally, this may also explain why, while generally education correlates with conservatism for nonblacks, this breaks down for those with postgraduate degrees.
The second reason, however, is just as important, namely that for a variety of reasons African Americans are more predisposed to believe this nonsense. Who doesn’t like to be told how difficult one has it? Who doesn’t want to be given ready-made, self-exonerating reasons for any failures or disappointments one faces? Blaming white male patriarchy and viewing everything through the lenses of race, gender, and class are bound to be seductive. Or, as Professor John McWhorter wrote this year in Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority, “Black Americans have been so uniquely susceptible to this ideology [of the power of residual racism] because it offers a balm for something sitting at the heart of African-American consciousness: a sense that at the end of the day, black people are inferior to whites.”
What is to be done? Obviously, I have painted, with broad strokes, big problems, for which proposing solutions will be daunting, and any such solutions could not in any event be effected overnight. But I do have one suggestion that might be a helpful start.
It needs to become more socially acceptable for black people to speak out against the pathologies of black culture that are the principal obstacle to black progress. African Americans, and particularly well-educated African Americans, need to be persuaded and reassured that conservatism and conservative approaches to social problems do not equal racism—that there are alternatives to being crazy, or at least liberal, that aren’t selling out.
The best way to do this is for someone, and it probably ought to be an African American, to collect an anthology of black conservative thought. There is a rich tradition of black conservatism that goes back for as long as there have been African Americans, and even those blacks whom no one would call conservative—W.E.B. Du Bois, for example—have often said very conservative things.
Such an anthology wouldn’t guarantee the continued improvement of racial relations in the United States, but it would be a big help. Race relations aside, it would be a godsend to many African Americans. Conservatives and liberals might quarrel about whose programs are best for the poor, but there can be no doubt that the conservative mindset—individualistic, objective, anti-excuse, standard demanding, autonomous, traditionalist—is vastly superior to the liberal mindset for an individual who is in poverty and wants to get out.
Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Virginia.