The Myth of Black Deviancy

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson


When a recent panel of black scholars, writers and activists tackled the perennial issue "the crisis of the black family," speaker after speaker ticked off the familiar list of ills that plague African-Americans. They include: the high rate of drug and alcohol use, teen pregnancy, father (and mother) family absenteeism, gang violence, welfare dependency, and poverty. The mostly black audience applauded and nodded dutifully at the torrid escalation of self-flagellation.

But the speakers and the audience were only re-sketching the standard portrait of black life as a vast wasteland of violence and despair and black communities in permanent crisis and chaos. This picture was first painted in the 1950's and 1960's by corporate and government grant-seeking sociologists who branded black neighborhoods cesspools of decay. They carved a growth industry out of studying "black deviancy" and "the pathology of the ghetto." By the 1990's a legion of pop scholars put a new twist to ghetto pathology. They didn't just dissect it, they blamed blacks for creating it.

It didn't take long for a parade of "Gangsta" rappers, black novelists, essayists, poets, playwrights, and filmmakers to cash in on these stereotypes. They rapped, wrote, and made films that claimed that life in today's black communities is a survival test where people daily dodged bullets, went to funerals of friends and relatives killed by gangs, stepped over people lying in a drug or alcoholic stupor, hid from rapists and molesters, and despaired over absentee or abusive fathers. This has proven to be a sure ticket for them onto tell-all talk shows, brought hefty advances from publishers, boosted record sales and secured movie deals.

They peddled the notion of black deviancy so well that much of the public, and that includes far too many African-Americans, chant mantra-like that blacks are poor, violent, abused and sexually depraved. Much of the media feeds these myths and half-truths with a near daily diet of crime-drug-gang-dereliction stories and nurtures it with its tabloid obsession with sex, violence and depravity.

The true reality is that most blacks don't live this kind of existence. During Black History Month, the Census Bureau released a comprehensive report that paints this picture of black life in 1998.

  • Nearly nine out of ten African-Americans aged 25-29 are high school graduates, and fifteen percent have college degrees. College enrollment among blacks has soared forty percent over what it was a decade ago.

  • The black high school drop rate is only marginally higher than that of non-blacks.
  • African-American median income continues to grow, and the drop in poverty rates for African-Americans accounts for sixty percent of the overall drop in poverty in America.

  • Twenty percent of African-Americans worked in management or the professions.
  • The number of black owned businesses leaped nearly fifty percent, and their gross receipts rose 63 percent between 1987-1992.

  • Nearly sixty percent of African-American children under 18 live in a married-couple family.

Also, other government and private studies show that blacks have lower rates of drug, alcohol and tobacco use than young whites.

Even though inherent black deviancy is mostly myth, some black leaders also play a numbers game to magnify the problem. They endlessly tell the media how many blacks are unemployed, in prison, join gangs, peddle dope, suffer from AIDS, drop out of school and get pregnant.

They grab an occasional spot on news talk shows and shake a few dollars out of the fast disappearing number of liberals for their organizations. But the doomsday scenario not only is wearing thin, it is self-defeating. Many Americans believe that the problems of the ghetto are self-made and insoluble. Many politicians agree. They refuse to spend another nickel on job, welfare, health or education programs, oppose affirmative action, and demand more police and prisons.

Many blacks have become cynical, and refuse to support black organizations or causes, circle the wagons in their businesses, professions or neighborhoods and frantically distance themselves from the black poor. Some blacks gain from trading in the myths and half-truths about themselves, but most lose. And there's everything deviant about that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.

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