Jan 1 2004

With Friends Like These

Black youth stereotyped by progressive columnist Bob Herbert

Black Americans are “insane,” “predators,” “running wild,” “killing each other,” perpetrating “self-destructive sexual behavior and drug use,” and in need of “thundering” condemnations from leaders to halt their culture-driven recklessness.

A vicious attack by far-right, race-baiting commentators like Michael Savage or Ann Coulter? No, these are routine disparagements by the New York Times‘ well-respected, progressive African-American columnist Bob Herbert, selectively criticizing “young black men and women.”

For example, Herbert (6/12/03) blamed Los Angeles’ recent murder epidemic on “kids who are running wild and frequently killing one another”. He declared (10/17/03) that the “Ghettopoly” game, a Monopoly parody widely deplored as a demeaning caricature of inner-city blacks, actually arises from the “real-life . . . outlandishly self-destructive behavior” of “insane young men” incited by rap music and a “Lord of the Flies street culture that is seducing one generation after another of black children.”

Likewise, Herbert (6/4/01) blamed AIDS in the black community on “thousands upon thousands of young blacks succumbing to the ravages of self-destructive sexual behavior” and “drug use . . . that have inflicted gruesome damage on one generation after another of young black Americans.” Black leaders must issue “thundering” condemnations of bad attitudes and behaviors among “youngsters, who think they are invulnerable,” he wrote (1/11/01), later adding (6/4/01), “One of the biggest obstacles to controlling the spread of the AIDS virus among young blacks is denial.”

Rush Limbaugh couldn’t have said it better–or more misleadingly. The real denial is that of older commentators–black and white–who evade the harsh fact that today’s most destructive behaviors are found not among the young of any race, but in their own respective middle-aged groups. Like many progressive commentators, Herbert’s reliance on self-serving, secondhand sources obscures the fact that younger blacks show astonishingly positive trends while older blacks and whites display rising troubles.

Questionable claims

Violence? Contrary to Herbert’s claims about L.A.’s youth, LAPD and state crime reports show only a tiny fraction of the city’s 653 homicides in 2002 involved “kids . . . killing one another.” In fact, homicide by L.A. youths of all races fell to record lows in 2002, while murderers were much older than in past decades (California Criminal Justice Profiles, Los Angeles, 2002). Three-fourths of the assailants arrested for murdering teenagers were adults averaging nearly 30 years old (L.A. Times, 12/15/02).

One of L.A.’s, and California’s, most remarkable trends is the massive decline in crime by young black men. The murder rate by California’s black youths in the last three years (2000-02) stands at half the level found among Herbert’s own generation of young black men back in the 1960s.

Similarly, felony rates were 60 percent lower, and violent crime arrest rates 40 percent lower, among California black male youths in 2002 than 30 years ago (Crime in California, 1970-2002). The imprisonment rate of young black Californians ages 18-29 dropped by 30 percent over the last decade and is now lower than among older blacks ages 30-49, whose imprisonment rates rose by 20 percent (California Department of Corrections, Data Analysis Unit, 2001).

Drug abuse? Death rates from illegal drugs among black teens and young adults fell by an astonishing 95 percent (from 103 in 1970 to just 5 in 2001) while drug death rates skyrocketed among black middle-agers (59 in 1970, 229 in 2001). Among blacks today, 30- to 59-year-olds are a shocking 20 times more likely to die from abusing cocaine (including crack), heroin, methamphetamine and other street drugs than those ages 15-29 (California Center for Health Statistics, Mortality Public Use File, 1968-2001). In reality, the worst drug danger to younger African-Americans is not their own use, but domestic violence and street gunplay among drug dealing networks supplying the massive demand for hard drugs generated by middle-age black and white addicts.

AIDS? Same picture. The newest Centers for Disease Control tabulations show dramatic declines in new HIV and AIDS cases among younger blacks combined with large increases among older blacks. A decade ago, Herbert’s dire warnings about young people would have been apt: Two-thirds of black HIV infectees were under age 35 (indicating infection in teen or 20-age years). Since then–despite incessant alarms of new epidemics among young blacks–HIV’s victims have become much older. Today, well over half of newly infected blacks are over 35 (CDC, HIV/AIDS Surveillance, 1987-2001). Young people, far from acting as if “they are invulnerable,” have reduced their HIV rates, while older adults of all races perpetuate the epidemic in rising numbers.

Self-destructive? Similar misinformation depicts young black men as suffering a rising suicide scourge. In fact, black male and female teens today are less than half as likely to die from self-destructive behaviors such as suicide and self-inflicted gunshots, drug overdoses and similar causes than black teens were 30 to 40 years ago. In California, black teen suicide rates have dropped 40 percent over the last three decades.

While Herbert charges that “we’ve got insane young men who take their heavy armament into the street and shoot up the neighborhood, and then go back inside to listen to music that celebrates the act of shooting up the neighborhood” (10/17/03), the fact is that as sales of rap music soared 50 percent over the last dozen years (Recording Industry Association, 2003), violent crime arrests of black youths dropped by 50 percent and murder arrests plummeted an astounding 80 percent (FBI Uniform Crime Reports, 1990-2001).

Self-defeating strategy

These more complex, positive facts about black teenagers, from standard crime and health references, are the opposite of what the news media and authorities tell the public. The mainstream media’s unconscionable fanning of fear of youth, particularly youth of color, has been well documented (see Extra!, 1-2/99).

Unfortunately, Herbert is hardly alone; careless anti-youth bias also infects the progressive media, typically cloaked in tones of empathy. In November 2002, the left-leaning Pacific News Service‘s Youth Communications Team issued an inflammatory public statement blaming Oakland’s homicide increase on “rising Bay Area youth violence.” Not true; readily available police figures showed only two Oakland youths were arrested for murder in 2002; as in L.A., the murder surge was caused by older offenders (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/27/02).

Like the mainstream media, the progressive AlterNet news service routinely runs misleading articles on youth that, among other things, blame California’s homicide increase on young people (5/15/03), claim AIDS is skyrocketing among black youth (4/28/03) and perpetuate the myth of a teenage drug abuse “epidemic” (11/29/03).

Herbert’s advocacy for improved schools and services frequently frames them as necessary to curb young black people from perpetrating “increased rates of crime, drug use and gang membership” (10/20/03) and thwart their natural instincts to “make trouble” (2/6/03). This fear-producing strategy, adopted by progressive commentators and media, is as futile as it is unfair. If today’s voters and policy makers believe young blacks are as violently out of control, culturally depraved and wantonly self-destructive as progressives depict them, they are more likely to impose policing and prison than liberal social reforms. (See Noam Chomsky, The Sun, 10/03.)

Despite rampant poverty, declining employment and education opportunity, and wholesale abandonment by an increasingly conservative country, younger African-Americans as a generation display remarkably positive trends. Like white youth, black youth deserve a more balanced depiction by media commentators–especially progressive ones–that goes beyond commentators’ pre-set fears and agendas.

Mike Males, senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.