If you want to cite stats about black people, let’s talk about history

Days after a column by Walter E. Williams ran in our op-ed pages suggesting that the root cause of most of the problems African Americans face is the breakdown of the family not racism, John Mulholland of Alpharetta was compelled to write.

To me.

“You are superb at putting yourself in the proverbial ‘other people’s shoes,’” he noted.

But he wasn’t writing to compliment me. Williams’ op-ed, published Aug. 14, and more specifically the statistics he cited, Mulholland said, “confirm my worst fears about black society in America.”

Williams said that slightly over 70% of black children are raised in female-headed households and that, in the late 1800s, 70%-80% of black households were two-parent.

He quoted economist Thomas Sowell, who has argued, “The black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.”

He noted the high crime rates in the black community and our penchant for devaluing of education.

Then to add insult to injury, Williams ended with this: “While Jews and Asians were not enslaved, they encountered gross discrimination. Nonetheless, neither Jews nor Asians felt that they had to await the end of discrimination before they took measures to gain upward mobility.”

These were some of the same arguments many whites make when I’ve written about racism.

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Mulholland asked what I thought.

What immediately came to mind were the rules for having a fair fight, that when we highlight the shortcomings of the person with the grievance, we’re no longer having a constructive conversation about the issue. It’s like saying to a victim of rape, put on some clothes for heaven’s sake. We’re just fighting dirty.

Here’s what I know.

When you begin with the notion of pathology, you look for pathology and it feeds on itself.

Truth is there’s little difference between African American families and white families in the ways that make us human.

Patterns of illegitimacy and divorce became epidemic in mainstream America decades ago, and yet it is the African American family that has remained the poster child for poverty and dysfunction.

The difference is when we talk about black families, the focus is almost always on the bottom third, the nonworking poor, not the middle third, which is the working poor, and the top third, which is the middle and upper class.

Trust me, the bottom third aren’t the only ones suffering from racial discrimination and the legacy of slavery. Intact working-class, middle-class and upper-middle-class black families, in one way or another, are too.

That’s not just my interpretation. That has been my life.

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According to academics Pearl Dowe and Susan Peppers-Bates, here's the problem with Williams' argument that racism isn't to blame for what's ailing the black community:

For one thing, Dowe said, it “furthers longstanding myths that black folk don’t value family or education.” For another, it ignores social science research showing “black families, regardless of income, have limited housing options, which can impact the quality of education their children receive,” said Dowe, professor of political science and African American Studies at Oxford College of Emory University.

If you’ve never heard of Tanya McDowell or Kelley Williams-Bolar, black moms who were accused of falsifying residency documents to get their children into better schools, look them up. When you do, remember Felicity Huffman, the actress who received a 14-day prison sentence, a year of supervised release, a fine and community service for her role in the college admissions scandal. McDowell was sentenced to five years in prison and Williams-Bolar to nine days plus three years’ probation.

Here’s the bottom line, according to Peppers-Bates, an associate professor of philosophy and director of the Africana Studies Program at Stetson University: The old “cultural racism” of blaming African Americans for centuries of structural racism resulting in entrenched economic, educational and social inequalities between whites and blacks is nothing new.

It’s been documented, for instance, in studies on white privilege, from early Colonial newspapers to early-20th-century opinion polls and through the present day, that a majority of white Americans believe, despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, blacks have just as much chance to flourish and succeed as whites.

Peppers-Bates cites a 2011 Tufts University study that showed a majority of whites think they experience worse anti-white bias than the bias against blacks (again, in defiance of all empirical evidence). Similar results were found in a 2016 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study.

“The best explanation for such willful self-deception comes from centuries-old stereotypes of African Americans as stupid, lazy and criminal,” she said. “Consider the famous 1965 Moynihan report, written when Jim Crow and explicit laws enforcing white supremacy were in place: The commission still blamed African American poverty on black mothers and alleged pathological black culture.”

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This attempt to blame the victims of structural racial inequality for their lack of social success stings more when the conservative media finds a black spokesperson for their racist views, she said.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Williams, the op-ed writer, along with Sowell and Bill Cosby — who before his own crimes were revealed, loved to chastise the African American community for poor morals, low-riding pants and unmarried mothers as the real cause of racial inequity — are good examples.

The model minority myth is also problematic, Peppers-Bates said.

While it’s true that Asian Americans as a group possess an incredible breadth of poverty and wealth and of educational attainment, she said, the focus is often on immigrants who came with social, educational or economic capital to the exclusion of, say, Hmong boat people or impoverished Laotians who came without those assets, and experience intergenerational poverty.

“People who came in chains, against their will, to experience centuries of enslavement followed by another century of explicit and legally enforced second-class citizenship,” Peppers-Bates said, “cannot be compared to those who willingly migrated in search of a better life and who successfully ‘became white’ through assimilation.”

That won’t sit well with most of the people I hear from on the issue, but Peppers-Bates is right.

She’s right about this too: America will never heal its racial divides until whites stop lying to themselves, inventing alternative facts to deny that America was founded on land stolen from Native Americans, built by human beings that the colonists and Founding Fathers enslaved and raped; that white supremacy was the law until the end of the 1960s.

That means, Peppers-Bates said, “we never truly had a full democracy even in principle until the 1970s, and that the inertial power of racial privilege still grants many unjust advantages to white Americans at the expense of all Americans of color.”

It will take bold policy initiatives to overturn these legacies of hate, she said.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com, and read the full This Life Race and Religion series (ajc.com/this-life-race).