In its coverage of the Pew report findings, National Public Radio asked whether some blacks were lagging behind because they were choosing not to become “closer to whites in their values.” This line of questioning reinforces one of the most persistent myths in America, that white is always right. The myth reflects an enduring double standard based on “white” and “black” explanations for social problems. It assumes that “white” culture is the gold standard for judging everyone, despite its flaws, including racism.
Proof of inferiority?
As segregation took hold, the “Cosby” role was played by Booker T. Washington. Counseling blacks to conquer their inferiority, he repudiated civil rights activism in favor of self-help and moral regeneration.
His ideas were echoed by liberal social scientists such as the psychologist G. Stanley Hall, who instructed blacks to “accept without whining patheticism and corroding self-pity (their) present situation, prejudice and all.”
But when Hall turned his focus on whites, his research on adolescent psychology directly influenced national efforts to protect them from the ravages of industrial capitalism. Drawing on his work, child-welfare activist Jane Addams established Hull House in Chicago, which saved thousands of white youth from lives of crime, violence and drug abuse attributed to “modern city conditions.” But she claimed similar problems in black youth were due to the race’s “belated” moral development, manifested in poor parenting and a lack of “social restraint.”
The pioneering black social scientist W.E.B. Du Bois challenged these racial double standards. But when he tried to argue that pathology knows no color, he was ignored, criticized and dismissed as an angry black man. In 1910 he asked: “Are we not coming more and more day by day to making the statement, ‘I am white,’ the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality?”
What are ‘white values’?
Du Bois’ warning still goes unheeded. If rap music is so bad, why are white kids its major consumers?
If lower-class “black” values are so distinct from those of the rest of America, particularly the “white values” supposedly embraced by middle- and upper-class blacks, why do less than a third of white Americans graduate from college? Are legions of whites similarly devaluing higher education? Are they “acting black”?
If lower-class black values are so peculiar, why do whites report the same or higher levels of illegal drug use as blacks, as numerous studies show?
What of underperforming white schoolchildren in rural America, the Great Plains, Appalachia or the Deep South? Are they “acting black” because they can’t compete with their upwardly mobile suburban counterparts?