Sins of Omission
It seems as though whenever black folks do something wrong, everyone hears about it. If gang violence heats up in America's inner cities, for example, you can bet it'll be front-page news. Unacceptably high dropout rates? Yep, you can read all about it, and even hear Bill Cosby weigh in on how the African American community presumably doesn't value education anymore. Drugs, crime, out-of-wedlock childbirth? Yes, yes, and more yes, as the press never seems to tire of bringing us a steady drumbeat of negativity when it comes to people of color. Local television news is notoriously bad about this: blanketing the first 5-10 minutes of each newscast with crime stories, which, according to several national studies over-represent blacks as perpetrators, relative to the share of crime actually committed by African Americans.
Yet, in the wake of a recent report that flatly contradicts many of the most pernicious stereotypes about black irresponsibility--especially among youth--what do we see from the national media? Almost nothing. A report that, if anything, suggests it is white youth who are more likely to engage in a whole host of irresponsible behaviors, and whose character we might wish to call into question? To such a revelation, there are no TV specials, no editorials, and no prominent white person doing the equivalent of a Bill Cosby--asking, in effect, what the hell is wrong with white people, and when are we going to start taking personal responsibility for our deviant ways?
But like the line from The X-Files, the truth is out there, for those interested and willing to see it--a pathetic few, to be sure. It comes in the form of a report released in early June from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and which examines the rates at which students between grades 9-12 drink, take drugs, carry weapons, and engage in all forms of potentially destructive behavior. First, it should be noted--as sociologist Mike Males has long pointed out--that youth in general are far less engaged in destructive activity than commonly believed. Rates of drug and alcohol use and abuse, for example, as well as violence and other forms of pathology tend to be much higher among adults, even as the young are disproportionately tagged as the problem. But beyond that, the CDC notes that contrary to popular belief, it is not black youth, but rather whites who tend to lead the pack in these categories of deviance, and that among all youth who are either black, white or Latino, blacks almost invariably are the least likely to do drugs, drink, or carry weapons either on school grounds, or generally.
If all this sounds incredible, consider that the findings have been more or less consistent for over a decade, in each and every report of its kind. Yet in virtually no year has the media seen fit to make an issue of disproportionate white pathology, or the relative good behavior of black youth. If black youth kill someone, it's a headline; if they do something right, you'll be lucky to hear about it at all.
So here are some of the facts, compiled by CDC in 2005, and which would make news, in a media culture concerned about truth, and committed to challenging public misperceptions--which is to say, in a media very much unlike the one we have now:
-- White youth are 2.3 times more likely than black youth to drive drunk*
-- White males are a third more likely than black males to have carried a weapon in the past month (31.4 percent vs. 23.7) and fifty percent more likely to have taken a weapon to school (10.1 vs. 6.8);
-- Although black and white youth are equally likely to have tried cigarettes, whites are twice as likely to smoke currently (26 vs. 13 percent), and 3.3 times more likely to smoke at least a half-pack a day (11.7 vs. 3.5 percent);
-- Although white and black youth are roughly equally likely to have tried alcohol, white youth are fifty percent more likely to drink currently (46 percent vs. 31 percent), and nearly three times as likely to engage in episodic binge drinking (defined as having five or more drinks at a time, more than once a month). Indeed thirty percent of white youth have engaged in such heavy drinking, while only eleven percent of black youth have, meaning that white youth are nearly as likely to have binged more than once in the past month, as black youth are to have taken a drink at all;
-- Although there is no statistically significant difference between white and black youth when it comes to marijuana use, whites between grades 9-12 are almost 3.5 times more likely to have tried cocaine, twice as likely to be current coke users, twice as likely to have used inhalants, twice as likely to have used illegal steroids, 3.3 times as likely to have used hallucinogenic drugs, nearly four times as likely to have used methamphetamine, and slightly more likely to have used heroin or ecstasy. While it should be noted that only very small percentages of youth of any color have tried these harder drugs--obviously good news, and important to recognize, given the tendency to stereotype young people generally as irresponsible--the fact remains that blacks are typically the least likely to have done so.**
Of course, not all the news is good. Black youth are more likely to have gotten in a fight at school, they get less exercise on average, and are more likely to be at a weight considered unhealthy for their age. On the flipside, however, white females are more likely to have engaged in unhealthy behavior to lose weight, such as fasting for twenty-four hours at a time, taking weight loss pills, laxatives or supplements, or making themselves vomit so as to keep off unwanted pounds.
With so much bad news constantly being circulated about black kids today, is it asking too much for the media to take note of the reassuring and positive news coming out of most African American families and communities? Is it too much to ask that in a society where surveys suggest whites in particular (and even some black folks) are quick to believe the worst about young African Americans, perhaps the media might see it as worthwhile to debunk inaccurate and prejudicial thinking?
Given the way in which negative stereotypes can contribute to discriminatory treatment, the value of countering them with facts should be apparent. If we allow any group of persons to be tagged with the label of deviants--the way we have done with youth generally, and black youth in particular--we can't then be surprised when those same persons face discrimination in the job market, in schools, housing and on the part of law enforcement. So long as false and racist thinking is allowed to go unchallenged--and it will remain unchallenged the longer it takes for media to present a more balanced and accurate picture--the scourge of racial discrimination will continue unabated, rationalized all the way by folks who swear they aren't racist, but rather, simply playing the odds when it comes to who will make a better student, employee, or neighbor.
So long as police officers routinely admit--and they have done this to me many times before--that the first thing they think when they see a young black man driving a nice car is, "drug dealer," while the first thought they have at the sight of a similar young white man is, "spoiled little rich kid," racism will continue to poison the nation, and affect the lives of its people. Surely, with so much on the line, we ought to demand that good news about communities of color be as readily covered as the bad. ________
Tim Wise is the author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull, 2005). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance--United States, 2005. Surveillance Summaries, June 9. (Tables 4, 6, 12, 20, 22, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 66, pages 38, 40, 46, 54, 56, 62, 64, 66, 68, 70, 90).
* Note that when I say whites are "x times more likely" than blacks to do something, this does not mean merely that there are x times more whites doing that thing than there are blacks. After all, since there are more whites in the country than blacks, we should expect there to be more whites in any given population cohort (drug users, poor people, criminals, etc). Rather, this is a much more significant claim: namely, that the rate at which whites do x,y or z thing is higher than the rate at which blacks do. So, for example, in the case of drunk driving, for every 100 white youth in grades 9-12, there are slightly more than eleven who have driven while drinking in the past month, while for every 100 black youth in those grades, there were fewer than five who did so.
** While other data suggests that drug use is slightly higher among black adults who are 26 and older than white adults that age--the flipside of the picture for teens and young adults, 18-25--there is an important fact that is often overlooked when discussing adult drug use and/or abuse. Namely, data indicates that black adults, 26 and over, are considerably more likely (2.75 times more likely in fact) than white adults that age to be approached by someone who was offering them drugs, or to have drugs made available to them. Yet, despite the greater availability, and thus, peer pressure for black adults, they were only about twenty percent more likely than white adults to use drugs. What this suggests is that, relative to availability, whites are still using more frequently than blacks, and that blacks are exercising a disproportionate amount of will power to resist narcotics. It means that per capita, whites would be more likely to choose to use drugs, per incident where drugs were available to be used, and blacks would be more likely to resist using them, per incident where they were made available. The only reason for a slightly higher black usage rate overall, would be the much higher rate of incidents where drugs were made available in the first place. (see, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, [SAMHSA], 2000. 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Office of Applied Studies, Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD.)