Is Racism 'Embedded in Our Psyche'?
Two important pillars of the Black Lives Matter perspective are: Claims of racist treatment made by blacks must not be questioned; and at no time should the behaviors of blacks themselves be brought up, since any possibility of blaming the victim must be avoided. These are on display in the most recent writings of CNN correspondent Marc Lamont Hill.
As evidence that racism is deeply embedded in the white psyche, Hill cites 2015 CNN polling data on the pervasive unfair treatment blacks experience in their everyday lives. He writes, "The poll found that 2 out of 10 blacks and Hispanics felt unfairly treated by the police over the past 30 days. This is virtually the same finding from the early 2000s where black Americans felt equally vulnerable to police misconduct." However, blacks interviewed in the early 2000s were much more likely to refuse to answer the question. If we count only those who did answer, 19 percent of respondents reported unfair police treatment in the 2015 survey, well below the 27.5 percent in 2004 and 25.8 percent in 2003. There has also been a dramatic decline in hate crimes against African Americans, from 2,630 in 2005 to 1,621 in 2014 according to FBI data.
The CNN survey did, however, find modest increases in the perception of unfair treatment in other areas. By 2015, 33 percent of black Americans perceived unfair treatment in the last 30 days in stores (up from 27 percent in 2001), and 24 percent perceived itin restaurants and entertainment venues (up from 20 percent). But these increases might be partially explained by the increased promotion of victimization narratives by Black Lives Matters proponents.
College campuses, where these narratives have been prominent for years, offer a glimpse of the problem. For instance, a heightened sensitivity to perceived racial slights is evident among black students at the University of Missouri. After extensive student interviews, the New York Times reported:
At first, Briana Gray just chalked up the comments and questions from her new roommate to innocent ignorance: How do you style your hair? What do you put in it? But then her white roommate from rural Missouri started playing a rap song with a racial slur and singing the slur loudly. ...
Some black students say they are greeted with piercing stares when they walk by white-dominated fraternity and sorority houses. Others mention feeling awkward when other students turn to them in class when discussion turns to black issues. And then there are the tenser moments when white students talk disparagingly about the neighborhoods where many black students come from, whether the South Side of Chicago or the North Side of St. Louis.
Most striking, Hill also ignored the CNN poll data on black behavior. In a series of questions, the survey asked respondents to quantify the role that various factors play in the economic and social problems black Americans face. As expected, a majority of black respondents classified discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities as "major reasons." Many will be surprised, however, by the other causes they found important. Among black respondents, 61 percent believed that the breakdown of the black family was a major cause, while only 18 percent believed it was no cause at all. Similarly, 42 percent of black respondents believed lack of motivation and willingness to work hard was a major cause, while only 21 percent believed it was no cause at all. In fact, blacks were more likely than whites to say these factors were important.
I was not surprised that black Americans have a harsher view of black behavior. When I was interviewing welfare leavers for my book on welfare reform, I was struck by how many black mothers bemoaned the behavior of the men in their communities. A number told me that too often these men gave up looking for work at the slightest roadblock, always claiming that racist attitudes of employers were responsible for their inability to be hired.
In a related article, Alec MacGillis sought to explain why poorer white communities are increasingly voting Republican. He found that a large share of the working population was upset at how their white neighbors and some of their family members were gaming the system: seeking permanent government benefits rather than pursue efforts to gain employment. Just like many of the welfare leavers I interviewed, and just like many black respondents in the CNN survey, these working-class whites believed that more individual responsibility and effort was warranted.
Hill and others should stop focusing on black perceptions of racial slights and take seriously what these respondents say about black behaviors. As I have written and reported elsewhere, changing behavior is an important part of moving black families forward.
Robert Cherry is a professor at Brooklyn College.