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Race, Sex and Work: Examining White Lies About Black Americans


“You wanna know what the real problem with black people is?”

So read the opening line of the first e-mail message of my day. Not a good start.

Whenever these words or their functional equivalent greet you before you’ve had the chance to rub the sleep from your eyes, let alone consume that first sip of coffee, you know you’re in for a long and troubling morning.

Sure enough, I wasn’t to be disappointed or proved wrong.

“The problem,’ explained my Monday morning instigator ‘is that they can’t stop having illegitimate children (especially the teenagers), and they’d rather lay around on welfare all day than work for a living.”

Jesus. And to think, I could have opted to sit down with my daughter and watch Sesame Street like a responsible father; but no, I had to check my e-mail first.

Now it wasn’t as if this shit was new. I’ve been hearing this from white folks ever since I was a child. And although I was getting it this time from someone who was well aware of my views on race, I often am regaled with such splendid intellectual mediocrity by total strangers who I meet during the course of my travels: in airplanes, restaurants, hotel bars, taxicabs, or wherever else people interact.

“White bonding,” I began calling it some twelve years ago: a phenomenon that causes many if not most whites to apparently believe that every white person they meet must be just as racist as they are and will find their joke funny, their comment acceptable, and their slur pithy. The things white folks say about people of color when they aren’t around give the lie to all the nonsense we pump about color-blindness, not having a racist bone in our bodies, never noticing race, having all those black friends, and so on and so forth.

But the things we say when people of color aren’t in the room actually do more than expose the festering sickness of white racism; they expose the profundity of our ignorance and demonstrate just how divorced from reality so many of us are. For not only are the racist beliefs expressed above (and according to opinion polls, accepted by half or better of the white population) exaggerated stereotypes, they are in fact flatly contradicted by hard evidence.

Take the popular image of black women, particularly teens, popping out babies as fast as they can make them. This rendering of black females as the oversexed, irresponsible incubators of demographic decay has been at the heart of attacks on social welfare programs and is as commonly heard as the daily weather report: shame it’s even less accurate.

In truth, the fertility rate for black women is hardly different than for white women. For every 1000 white women 15-44 there are 66.5 live births, while for every 1000 black women that age there are 71.7.

Indeed, the fertility rate for black women has fallen by more than half in the last forty years, such that the gap between black and white fertility has been slashed by nearly 80%, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The birthrate for unmarried black women–especially vilified by racist rhetoric–is at a forty-year low and the rate of babies born to black teens hasn’t gone up one iota since 1920.

And speaking of teens, only six-tenths of one percent of black babies are born to women under the age of fifteen, and the birthrate for black teens 15-19 has dropped by a third since 1991. Overall, more than eight in ten black babies are born to mothers in their twenties or older, and the teen birthrate has fallen faster among black youth than any other racial group over the last decade.

The parallel belief that black women have too many children–at whatever age–and therefore can’t properly care for them is equally mythical. The average number of minor children in white households and black households is identical, and for female-headed black and white households the difference is statistically insignificant. Contrary to the widespread notion that black women typically have four or five children (if not more), only one in twenty black female headed families have four or more kids.

Even for families receiving public assistance–and even before welfare “reform” bumped tens of thousands off the rolls and restricted eligibility for benefits–the typical “welfare family” of whatever race included only a mother and two children and was actually slightly smaller than the typical non-welfare family.

Of course I can hear the voices of racial apoplexy now. “What about the skyrocketing rate of out-of-wedlock births in the black community?” Doesn’t that indicate the sexual irresponsibility of black females and their male compradors, one might ask?

Well no. In fact, not even close.

The reason for the increase in the share of black children born out-of-wedlock in recent decades is that two-parent black couples are having fewer children than ever, meaning that a growing share of the children who are born in the black community will be out-of-wedlock, even though sexual behavior hasn’t changed, and fertility rates among single black women have been falling.

Indeed, eighty percent of the increase in out-of-wedlock childbirths in the black community is because of the falloff in children born to intact black families: a falloff that has been even steeper than the decline among single moms.

Additionally, the apparent “increase” in out-of-wedlock children in single mother homes within the black community, and generally, is the result of the Census Bureau changing the methods used for counting such families in the first place.

Whereas single moms with kids who lived in extended family settings (such as living with their own parents) were historically not counted as separate family units, since the early 1980’s they have been. So even though such families may have existed for many years prior to the accounting switch, they would not have appeared in statistical data until more recently.

Putting aside the issue of just how “harmful” single-parent homes are (and evidence indicates that with the exception of the smaller income base there isn’t much difference between such homes and “intact” families, and indeed children in intact families are often less confident and well-adjusted), clearly the problems for black folks in this country are not the result of childbirth patterns.

A 1997 report found that the median income of young two-parent black families had fallen by nearly half since 1973. What’s more, even black women who “played by the rules,” and had no kids out-of-wedlock, saw their incomes fall 32% from 1972-1989, and have been unable to regain the lost ground since.

Which brings us then to the issue of work; or rather the claim that blacks are allergic to the concept, preferring instead the “generous” benefits of the welfare state for their sustenance.

That anyone could possibly believe such a thing has always struck me as humorous to say the least. After all, African Americans have been doing work that white folks thought “beneath” us for roughly four hundred years. Were it not for their labor, in fact, the American Revolution could never have been won, since its financing came from the tobacco and cotton industries–both of which were built by the work of slaves.

Yet despite the historical record the belief persists, often put forth by people whose own forefathers tried desperately never to break a sweat doing actual work themselves.

And as with the arguments about black women as baby factories, the ruse about blacks as lazy welfare-sapping parasites is patently absurd, not to mention ironic. After all, welfare programs in this country were originally created so as to allow white widows and abandoned mothers to care for their children without having to enter the paid workforce.

Creating “dependence” was not seen as problematic, at least for white women whose “womanhood” had long been viewed as dependent on the presence of a white male husband. It was only when women of color gained access to such programs in the late 1950’s and afterward that suddenly “dependence” became the great scourge to be avoided.

Yet the truth is that welfare dependence is hardly the norm–for black women or anyone else receiving public assistance. Even before the passage of punitive welfare reform, six in ten welfare families were leaving the rolls within two years, debunking the notion of long-term dependency as the norm for welfare recipients.

Indeed, two-thirds of women who receive welfare as children will never receive aid as adults and 81% whose mothers received AFDC for long periods never receive aid as adults. In other words, the notion of intergenerational welfare dependence so commonly accepted is a false one.

Instead of welfare, the poor prefer work, yet often there are not enough jobs to go around that pay wages at or above the poverty line. In Central Harlem, one study found that there were fourteen applicants for every job opening in the area.

Nationally, in times of recession, there may be as many as seven to ten people out of work for every job opening above the poverty line. And since the Federal Reserve’s policy is to raise interest rates whenever unemployment drops below four percent–thereby freezing new hires–millions will be jobless, poor, and need welfare no matter their work ethic, solely because of this one monetary policy intended to keep wages and prices low.

Indeed, experience from around the country demonstrates that low-income people of color have work ethics that are no different from whites and those above the poverty line. In the early 1990’s, when a handful of longshore jobs opened up in Los Angeles, 50,000 blacks and Latinos–mostly low income–showed up to apply.

In Cleveland, 15,000 unemployed welfare mothers and teenagers of color stood in the rain for four hours to get one of the minimum-wage temporary jobs cleaning up public parks.

In Chicago, 15,000 mostly low-income applicants of color applied for less than 4,000 temporary jobs.

In Baltimore, 75 openings at the Social Security Administration were met with 26,000 applications, mostly from blacks, and heavily from low-income citizens.

Far from relying on taxpayers for their livelihood, only one in ten blacks receive any form of cash welfare, and only about one in six receives food stamps. In fact, blacks who are eligible for the Food Stamp program are actually less likely than similar whites to apply for and receive such assistance.

As for black single moms, although they are twice as likely as white single moms to be in poverty, they are no more likely than white single moms to receive public assistance. What’s more, three out of four single black moms have jobs, further dispelling the notion that single mothers in the black community mostly choose to “live off welfare.”

Yet despite all of these simple truths, I didn’t send any of them to the individual who had chosen to start off my week with such a mindless stream of e-nonsense. I knew it wouldn’t matter much to him, and if anything would only detract from the time I could spend on Sesame Street, which as it turns out is a much friendlier place to be.

But I did write him back. First to thank him for serving as my muse for what would become this article; and secondly to remark upon the last paragraph of his message to me: the part that blamed black folks for “taking all the jobs” from white guys like himself.

My statement on this score was really fairly simple. In the interest of consistency, I suggested that he choose which racist drivel he would prefer to promote: either the kind that says blacks are lazy or the kind that says they are taking all the jobs. After all, both cannot be true at the same time. If one is taking all the jobs, then by definition one hardly qualifies as lazy, and if one is indeed lazy, one is not likely to take any job, let alone all of them.

And if there’s anything worse than a racist, it has to be a racist who can’t make up his mind.

Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and lecturer. He can be reached at (and footnotes procured from) [email protected]

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