In the wake of recent police killings of young black men --- John Crawford, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice most prominently --- there has been much discussion about the way in which large numbers of white Americans, and especially white police, view African American males. The criminalization of the black male body has rarely been as apparent as in the past few months. Regarding Mike Brown, we are told --- and are expected to believe --- that black men are "hulks" and "demons," so irrational as to attack police without provocation, and then after being shot, throw caution to the wind and seek to run through a hail of bullets, as if possessed of superhuman strength. Because apparently it is easier to believe that than to believe a white officer with a history of belligerence, acting out of over-amped fear, prejudice or an authority jones would have killed a black man for talking back to him.
Regarding Eric Garner, we are told --- and are expected to believe --- that black men only die at the hands of police because of a stubborn refusal to submit to proper authority, to do what they are told, and to stop struggling, even if said struggle is only one that seeks to remove an officer's arm from around one's throat and end the compression of one's jugular vein, which compression threatens to immediately shorten one's life span. Because apparently it is easier to believe that than to accept the possibility that a member of the NYPD with a history of violating the rights of black men might actually kill one without cause, no matter the department's own penchant for doing just that, and quite often.
We are told in the case of Tamir Rice --- and are expected to believe --- that even at the age of twelve, black males appear to be twenty and that in the cases of both Rice and Crawford, even when they didn't point their toy guns or air rifles at anyone, they actually did --- and we are to believe the police who tell us this, even when video evidence clearly demonstrates no such thing. We are to trust the claims of the officers that Rice and Crawford posed "imminent threats," even as the videotapes in both cases prove the cops to be vile and unrepentant liars, who are willing to blame (in the case of Rice) a child for his own death at their hands, and to defend the actions of his killer, even as that killer cop was previously found to be emotionally unfit for the job. Because apparently, for some at least, it is easier to believe that than one's own lying eyes.
The black male body has been popularly pathologized as a source of criminal danger, and the mere fact that black male crime rates are higher than those for whites is used as a justification for treating any and all black males as potential criminals: to be stopped, searched, frisked, detained, beaten, and even killed if an officer feels threatened by them. Or if a pathetic wanna-be like George Zimmerman does. The rhetoric about black men on talk radio and TV is almost uniformly condemnatory. A steady diet of "pull up your pants," and "stop glorifying thugs," and "stop killing each other" has been the complete menu of conservative commentary as of late, and the default position of much of white America, beholden to their racialized images.
Less discussed, however, but just as important, is the way in which black women too are being pathologized and demeaned, dissed by the same sources as those who have so continually sought to demonize their male counterparts.It isn't new of course: white critiques of the black community have always been nothing if not gender-inclusive. From the days of enslavement, during which black women were de-sexualized as masculine workhorses in the white imagination (even as they were often the object of white male sexual abuse), to the sexist condemnations of so-called matriarchal "ghetto culture" by the Moynihan Report in 1965, black women have hardly been immune to racist caricatures drawn by white folks. For that matter, neither have they escaped criminalization at the hands of law enforcement. Though we don't speak of it as often, it is not solely black men and men of color being targeted by the cops. While their names may be less well known than those of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, or the recently added names of Crawford, Brown, Garner, Rice, and Akai Gurley, let there be no mistake, Tyisha Miller, Aiyana Jones, Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd and Kathryn Johnston (among many others) are every bit as dead as they.
But while the knock on black men centers mostly around their presumed propensity for chaotic and nihilistic violence, the attack on black women focuses principally on their unique contribution to the production of such men (and more women like themselves) as breeders of "illegitimate" children---literal incubators of social decay. The trope of black women, especially teenagers, popping out babies they can't afford and with no regard for the presence of men in the home --- and the peddling of this image as normative in the black cultural experience --- is by now so widely-believed as to be a virtual article of faith. And as with the stereotypes of black men that give rise to the vituperative narratives about them, so too does this stereotype of black women rest upon outright falsehood.
The attack on African American women as sexually irresponsible baby mamas has two popular iterations. The first --- and it's one I've addressed before in previous essays --- concerns the commonly-held belief that out-of-wedlock childbearing is out of control in the black community; and the second focuses specifically on the phenomenon of teenage childbearing. Although the latter group of black females are typically part of the first (since most pregnant teenagers are unmarried, regardless of race), the larger group of unmarried black women with children (and the critique of such women) includes those who are older as well.
Looking first at the broader issue of so-called "illegitimate children" in the black community, those who forward this argument simply do not understand how to read or interpret basic statistical information. They claim, for instance that the "out-of-wedlock birth rate" for black females has skyrocketed; but in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, actual birth rates for unmarried black women (which means the number of live births per 1000 such women) has dropped dramatically. From 1970-2010, the birth rate for unmarried black women fell by nearly a third, from 95.5 births per 1000 unmarried black women to only 65.3 births per 1000 such women. In other words, unmarried black women are already doing exactly what conservatives would have them do: namely, having fewer children. This means that even if we were to accept the absurd argument that out-of-wedlock childbearing is evidence of cultural pathology, black culture must then be steadily getting healthier and less pathological, rather than more so. In a given year, for every 100 single black females, between ninety-three and ninety four of them will not have a baby---hardly evidence that out-of-wedlock childbearing is a normative experience for black women.
The common confusion on this issue seems to stem from the fact that although unmarried birth rates have fallen considerably, the share of children born in the black community who are born out of wedlock has indeed doubled since the early 1970s. It sounds like a big deal perhaps, but what does that statistic really signify? If unmarried black women are cutting back on childbearing --- and remember, that's what the data says --- the increase in the percentage of black births that are births to single moms can't possibly be the result of those moms' increasing "irresponsibility." Rather, this statistical phenomenon must be due to an entirely different factor, and indeed it is: namely, married black couples have cut back even further on childbearing than single moms have. If married black couples are having far fewer children than before, and are cutting back even faster than single women, the overall percentage of births that are out-of-wedlock will rise, owing nothing to the supposedly irresponsible behaviors of single black folks. If black married couples suddenly reverted to their family size norms of fifty years ago, the share of black births to unmarried moms would plummet, even if there were no further drop in the birth rates for single black women at all.
But whereas the claim about general out-of-wedlock birthrates can possibly be due to conceptual confusion and imprecise terminology (or just sloppy research), the more specific argument regarding black teen girls and their propensity to have babies before they can vote or even drive owes to having done no research at all. It is what emerges when ignorance meets prejudice; and there is no better meeting place for such twin poisons than Bill O"Reilly's nightly television show. To wit, O'Reilly's recent suggestion that rather than wearing t-shirts that say "I Can't Breathe" or "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" (references to the Garner and Brown killings), black people should be wearing shirts that say "Don't Get Pregnant at 14."
I have little doubt that somewhere in the bowels of the FOX News operation, one might find at least a few individuals charged with the daunting task of fact-checking the inanity that regularly pours forth from the mouth of one such as O'Reilly. Yet if so, it is apparent that such precious souls as these must be taking extended naps at their desks rather than providing something as helpful as documentation to their boss. Their failure in this regard cannot be due to the difficulty of tracking down the facts regarding teenage pregnancy in the black community---after all, it took me literally five minutes to discover the depths of O'Reilly's mendacity, all laid out in clear tabular form.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, not only have birth rates for teens in general dropped dramatically since 1991, the largest declines in such birth rates have been to black teenagers. From 1991 to 2013, the black teen birth rate dropped by sixty-three percent. And although the black teenage birth rate is indeed higher than the rate for whites, it hardly constitutes some kind of cultural or group norm. For instance, for black teenage girls and young women between 15-19, only about four percent will give birth in a given year (as opposed to about two percent of similar white females).
As for having babies at age fourteen --- something O'Reilly apparently believes is a common occurrence in the black community --- in 2012 there were only about 1,200 black girls in the entire United States who gave birth at the ages of thirteen or fourteen. This, out of more than 575,000 thirteen and fourteen year old black girls in all (1). In other words, only 0.2 percent (two-tenths of one percent) of black girls this age gave birth that year, meaning that for every 1000 such black girls, at least 998 of them will not have a baby in any given year. Not only does such a number debunk early teen pregnancy as a normative black experience, but it also indicates that to whatever extent one views black culture as implicated in teenage child-bearing, black culture must be getting progressively healthier, rather than less so. After all, just ten years earlier in 2002, the rate of births to thirteen and fourteen year old black girls was 2.4 times higher, with nearly five of every 1000 such black girls giving birth. Even this wasn't a number high enough to suggest that giving birth at thirteen or fourteen was common in the black community, but given that the birth rate for such girls has dropped by more than half since then, anyone still believing that thirteen and fourteen year old black girls regularly have babies is either an unreconstructed idiot, a racist, or perhaps both.
In fact, a look at the data makes clear that high teen birth rates are due more to socioeconomic status and perhaps geographic differences in culture rather than racial identity. So, for instance, in states like Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts and Washington --- where the black population is more affluent and less rural than in the lower-income South --- black teen pregnancy rates are similar to the national average for white teenagers. Meanwhile, in Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Mississippi --- where the white population is poorer and more rural than the national white norm --- white teen pregnancy rates are comparable to the national averages for black teens.
And of course, it has long been known that the more opportunities girls and women have for good educations and jobs, the fewer children they tend to have, especially at an early age. Which is to say that if conservatives really cared about teen pregnancy and the supposed damage done to children born to mothers who are so young, they would be advocating not only for more and better birth control access, but also better funding for low-income public schools and real gender equity in the job market. That they show no propensity for advocating these things gives the lie to their incessant moralizing. They care little about out-of-wedlock births as a social phenomenon, let alone teenage pregnancies. What they care about is using these issues as political race-bait for their angry and anxious white constituents.
It is quite apparent by now that conservatives will stop at nothing to deflect attention from issues of structural racism, police violence in black communities, unequal job opportunities, unequal school resources, and persistent racial gaps in every measure of well-being. Rather than address the ongoing failure of America to live up to its purported principles --- a failure so utterly complete as to suggest those principles were never meant to be taken seriously in the first place --- they retreat instead to victim-blaming, black culture-shaming and reality-challenged slanders against African Americans, both male and female. Only by calling them out for their lies can the movement for justice hope to prevail. And only by noting the way all black people are under attack --- not just men --- can we hope to build the struggle for both racial and gender equity, both of which components will be critical for the attainment of a new and radical democracy.
(1) This number is based on the combined findings of two reports from the National Center for Health Statistics, and a check of Census data. The first NCHS report, which is referenced above, indicates an overall number of 1,263 births to black mothers between the ages of 10-14 in 2012. And according to an earlier report from the NCHS, also referenced above, 96 percent of births to blacks in that age range are to 13 and 14 year olds, while 98 percent of births to white girls in that range are to 13 and 14 year olds. So if we apply that percentage (96 percent for black girls) to the 2012 data, it would leave 1,212 such births to black girls between 13 and 14. Then, if one looks at Census data for black girls age 13 and 14 (which are available in the interactive tables provided in the American Fact Finder section of www.census.gov), one finds that in 2012, there were 575,447 such girls in all (see, Annual Estimate of the Resident Population by Sex, Single Year of Age, Race and Hispanic Origin for the United States: April 1, 2010 to July 2013, United States Census Bureau, Population Division, June 2014). Because almost all of these births are single births (rather than twins, etc.), the number of births per 1000 girls 13-14 will essentially be the same as the number of women in that group who gave birth. So, roughly 1200 girls as a percentage of over 575,000 such girls comes to roughly 0.2 percent of all such girls who will give birth (as of 2012), or two girls for every 1000 such girls in the population.