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Black Boys & the End of Opportunity

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On March 19, 2018 The New York Times, under its “data-driven” Upshot imprint, published an article with the remarkable headline, “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys.” What made the headline remarkable was not its confirmation of an obvious truth – racial inequality – but its clear naming of the source of that inequality. Scholars Barbara and Karen Fields coined the term “racecraft” to describe the often unintentional inversion of race and racism, where race begets racism and not vice versa. Under the Fields sisters’ framework, racecraft allows for a subtle shift in which racist actions are provoked by the presence of race and ascribed racial differences. The inversion may seem semantic, but it allows for a great deal of mystification to take place, in which victims become perpetrators by their mere being. After all, there seems to be a common sense in saying, “The police shot him because he was Black.” However, this turn of phrase obscures the true actors and their actions. It was not the victim’s race that caused the police to shoot him, it was rather the racist ideology in which Blackness becomes equated with danger, with threat, with a seemingly sensible reason to take action against another person. Racecraft becomes clear in the aftermath of racist actions, in the conjuring of justifications and explanations for them. Racecraft is seen in the fingerprints left over. In modern American life, being called racist is worse than nearly anything else and the Times often engages in Racecraft to avoid doing exactly that to the subjects it covers. Racism becomes racial fear, racial bias, a fraught racial history. Yet, in this headline the word racism was used appropriately, to identify victims of actions.

And what caused this subtle rhetorical shift towards truthful framing? An expansive quantitative study by researchers from Stanford, Harvard, and the US census bureau, showing the pervasive fingerprints of racism in the lives of millions of Black boys. This pattern of racist punishment transcended social class and geography, but most surprisingly it had a gendered component to it as well. Although Black girls and women also experience pervasive racism, it is of a different type, with a different intensity, and different consequences. Black girls and women managed to have economic outcomes on par with White girls and women of similar social class positions. Indeed, nearly all of the interracial life outcome disparities between Black and White Americans are being driven by the profoundly negative economic and social outcomes of Black men.

From top to bottom of the American economic ladder, Black boys face increasingly terrible odds of staying at the top (for the few who are there) or moving up at all (the vast majority) as they approach adulthood. The Times article presents a chart of 5000 White and 500 Black boys raised in rich families. 10% of these White boys became poor as adults, while 21% of Black boys did. Sixty-three percent of White boys born into wealthy families stayed in the top two income quintiles, while only 37% of Black boys did. This finding alone is stunning enough. Here were thousands of Black boys whose families had positioned them to take advantage of the widest array of opportunities available in the United States. There are two possible explanations for such a staggering freefall for so many of them: either there is something pathologically and culturally wrong with Black boys (given that Black girls do not experience similar falls) regardless of social class, or that social class will not insulate Black boys from a society determined to literally knock them down the class ladder.

This study should provide decisive evidence against the first explanation, against the fast and loose cultural arguments used to explain the life outcomes of Black people in the United States, but Black men specifically. If Black people are a coherent cultural group, a group that holds the same values and engages in the same patterns of behavior, then why would the outcomes for girls and women be so vastly different than those of boys regardless of their social class? Perhaps this means that Black men and boys are therefore culturally distinct from Black women and girls. If this were the case, then what evidence is there that rich Black boys and men are substantially similar to poor Black men and boys in ways that produce similar life outcomes? If Black men and women are culturally distinct, then how can they be part of the same cultural group to begin with? If Hip-Hop is to be blamed, then why do other groups who wholeheartedly embrace Hip-Hop have such wildly different life outcomes? The study shows that regardless of where Black males live, how respectably they comport themselves, or how hard they try to meet society’s expectations, they will be faced with a brutal gauntlet of persistent racism, racism so powerful that it can undo the particular advantages and protections that having wealth gives. A Black family may rise into the economic elite, but it is unlikely that their male children will stay.

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The Times article spends a substantial amount of space discussing Black families. Though I do not believe this was the intention of the article, the findings should force a rejection–popularized by the Moynihan Report and sustained by conservative sociologists–of the notion that what is needed is more two-parent nuclear families. The problem is not Black parents or family structures, the problem is the penalties levied against those who do not enter into traditional marriage and family patterns. Accepting a narrative of “pathology” also elides the fact that even when married, Black families have significantly less wealth and mobility than families of any other racial grouping. More importantly, the study found that in the 1% of American neighborhoods where Black boys perform equally to White boys, that there were large numbers of fathers. These fathers may be married, they may cohabitate with the mothers of their children, they may not. The boys in these neighborhoods did better whether their own fathers were present or not. These neighborhoods were notable in that they demonstrated lower levels of surveyed discrimination and tested-for racial bias, and above all else had low poverty rates. What mattered is that these men were present in stable communities.  If the men in the community are economically stable, they can do the necessary work often left to women of helping contribute to the full development of the children in that community. The economic stability of these communities also insulated them from the more pernicious effects of mass incarceration. There was less need for parallel underground economies to develop. There was a lower potential for external justifications of police intervention. For whatever reason, when Black communities–however few in number–were shielded from the destruction that comes with mass incarceration, the children in those communities thrive.

When a community can find consistent decently or well-paid work, the material conditions emerge that buffer against persistent, systemic racism. It doesn’t matter if the majority of the people in that community pursue traditional patterns of marriage and cohabitation. One need only look to the EU to see that children do not need to be born into traditional two-parent homes for there to be social stability. In France, nearly 60% of children are born outside of marriage. Rates at or above 50% abound, yet these countries manage to produce social outcomes for the children of these arrangements that should embarrass the United States. France, as a society, has chosen not to punish families for having children outside of marriage; the United States chose and continues to choose to do so, ratcheting the punishment up the lower down the class ladder one goes and the darker one’s skin becomes.

Related to the focus on the family is the boosting of mentoring and role-modeling as a substantive solution. We should critically examine the paternalistic, respectable philosophy inherent in mentoring and other economically cheap fixes. What is presumed in such advocacy is that the women who often raise Black men are not up to the task, or that their work can only be improved by the presence of men. The kind of mentoring offered also has a particular social class orientation, where respectability politics trump nearly anything else, where wearing a suit and comporting one’s self in “correct” ways will shield Black boys from racism and violence. This does not mean an outright rejection of mentoring, rather a more hard-eyed look at what undergirds it as a seemingly commonsense solution and why it is held up over other possibilities. It also means looking harder at the outcomes that mentoring produces when compared to other possible–more expensive–solutions that may produce better outcomes. My Brother’s Keeper will not feed Black boys. It will not give them housing. It will not give them or their parents good work. It will not stop police from engaging in Racecraft to justify their racism. What it does, unintentionally, is reinforce the importance of the individual and the importance of non- or mildly political remedies. If it does not deliver on its promises, accountability can be abstracted or put back onto the person who should have benefitted from it if they had just listened or tried harder. If only they would have spoken the “right” way, or worn different clothes. It abstracts material conditions and places the problem as one of the mind and makes the victim responsible for rectifying the prejudices that their perpetrators act upon.

Rights not opportunity

In the Times article and the extended commentary that followed it, the word “rights” is not mentioned once. It should be obvious that what is happening on a society-wide scale violates these children’s basic human rights, but these violations are seen as accidental and not central features of America. These things are not mistakes, they are pervasive, and inescapable; they are the terrain on which Black boys and men must live. To fully address this reality means arguing that healthcare, education, food, shelter, and safety are all things that must come before any discussion of opportunity. Opportunity makes rights contingent, makes those who have had their rights denied, potential perpetrators in their own oppression. Opportunity leaves the door open for a naturalizing of social imbalances: once the machinery has been perfected, it will allow the best to rise and the worst to fall.

Since this problem specifically affects Black boys and men, should we device policies targeting this specific demographic group? In fact, this is the default position for many of those who care to directly address the problem, yet it has done very little to change the plight under which many Black boys and men suffer. It’s the motivating logic behind programs of inclusion and affirmative action. This does not mean that we should not pursue policy that is specific to the needs of Black boys, rather we must create something that is responsive to the diversity of those needs without restricting potentially successful strategies to solely Black boys. We should be wary of saying things that imply a singular experience for Black boys. We should be wary of implying that class and regional differences do not exist between them, or that policies that may work for Black boys in one particular context may work for others in radically different contexts. More importantly, we must refuse to treat Black boys–wherever they are–as if they are problems, or broken and in need of fixing. Such thinking veers us dangerously close to the inversion that takes place with racecraft. We must not make the victims the perpetrators. What we must do is argue for the protection and expansion of their rights.

In architecture there is a theory called Universal Design for Accessibility, motivated by seven core principles. It was later adapted by practitioners and researchers in education under the mantle of  Universal Design for Learning. Simply put, UDA/UDL hold that we should attempt to create environments that allow for maximal use by the maximum number of people with the fewest possible impediments. This does not mean that we do not try to meet the needs of specific individuals and/or groups, but that the best way to prevent unintended consequences which limit accessibility is to imagine what it would take for someone or some group that is currently most impeded by an environment to no longer be impeded by it at all, or to have those impediments dramatically reduced so that the level of use is substantially improved for that formerly impeded person. Others, who these design features may not have been specifically made for, would also benefit. The goal is to make the environment the unit of change, rather than the individual. A classroom that is organized around UDL principles attempts to make the environment meet the needs of the individuals and groups in it. This means if someone has a specific need, the environment does not prevent that need from being met, and if it cannot be fully met that it should be met as close to optimal as possible. A UDL classroom has a variety of ways for students to access the curriculum, to show their understanding, and participate. It requires an important inversion: the children should not be the first things to change, their environments should. In a UDA/UDL framework opportunity is not central because it is concerned with guarantees or near-guarantees.

We need a rights-based universalism that begins with the intention of undoing the social barriers that produce such negatively widespread outcomes for Black men and boys. Creating policy with the goal of eliminating what society has placed in front of Black boys would have potential bonus effects to huge numbers of children who are neither Black nor boys. Just as designing a flattened curb for people in wheelchairs has significant potential bonus effects to many who are not in wheelchairs. Those who are in most need still get what they need, while those whose needs may be different have their lives made easier too. This avoids the future potential of insulating some–but not all–people from the pernicious actions that generate negative social outcomes. Take for example the call for the elimination of willful defiance as a category of suspension in many California public schools. The outcome data produced by the pre-existing policy showed that it was being enforced in a profoundly racist way, and that those who suffered the most were Black boys. It was their experience with this suspension category that drove calls for its elimination. The elimination of this category benefitted Black boys the most, but also every other group of students who were subjected to it. The elimination of the category became a guarantee of protection; an expansion of the rights of all students to be present in school.

In calling for the universal application of human rights we would be calling for an equitable response as well. Those who have had their rights most trampled upon are those who would most gain from their restoration or expansion. Those who currently have their rights fully protected lose nothing, and indeed have them strengthened by eliminating their differential application. A rights framework forces us to talk about social guarantees and social protections. It forces us to refuse to speak contingently, to make exercise of one’s rights contingent on compliance with particular social norms. A rights framework forces us to think about solidarity and mutual defense/protection.

American opportunity rhetoric gives cover to racism. It props up the pernicious lie that American society is meritocratic, that hard work is what will be rewarded, that competition results in a fair ordering of the hierarchical system in which we live. Failure under meritocracy means that one either did not work hard enough to ascend or never had what it takes to begin with. It also gives cover for toxic respectability politics, which in turn result in victim blaming and the emergence of arguments where rights are contingent on one’s willingness to yield to the whims of the powerful. It produces the conditions in which 40% of White people can say that “If Black people worked harder, then they would be equal with Whites.”

I am thankful for the Opportunity Project’s research–and the Times’ presentation of it–for their provision of near-ironclad proof of the pervasiveness of racism in contemporary society. Yet, we should demand more than opportunities, and more than economically cheap solutions that do little to change the material conditions of American society. We should demand the enforcement, expansion, and protection of the rights currently being denied to Black men and boys, and we should spare no expense in the pursuit of those guarantees.


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