If you’ve seen any American television advertising of late, you might easily conclude that the nation has undergone an astonishing demographic shift: there are no more white people. All right, that’s hyperbole, but not by much. In the wake of the summer of Black Lives Matter and the widely spread assertion that America is rife with systemic racial ills, many advertisers adopted a kind of marketing blackface. Today, spokesmodels who are not themselves people of colour seem unfailingly to be in relationships with people of colour. ln serving up a slew of black and especially interracial couples, advertisers ignore reality: US census data tells us that only one in six couples are interracial—and America has about one-tenth as many black couples as white couples. The interracial couples are generally depicted out driving or otherwise frolicking with their joyful children, who vary in shade from a medium mocha to a burnished mahogany, lest such ads misstep by depicting a couple whose genetic stew produced a child erring too much toward the Caucasian end. Even the increasingly rare all-white couples seem to have at least one child of colour sitting in the back seat, thus breaking up the bland, monochromatic tedium.
This phenomenon is perhaps most noticeable in slickly shot financial ads. On one level, this can be seen as a legitimate overture to the increasing number of black folks doing well in America. But in the context of today’s political environment, the trend is almost surely a sop: an attempt to dress blackness in the raiment of solvency and success, thereby counterbalancing the unfortunate imagery of all those grainy body-cam videos in which black perps come to a tragic end on the asphalt of some forbidding alley. Writes Kerry Pechter in Retirement Income Journal, “Considering how frequently black actors and biracial couples appear in television and print advertising for financial products and services, a visitor to Earth from a distant galaxy might conclude that black Americans account for a significant portion of America’s moneyed class.” Pechter adds, “Black advisors … represent less than four percent of America’s advisor corps, and the Alliance’s target market is presumably affluent older whites.” One major study found that blacks constituted just 8% of those with taxable investment accounts (the kind with portfolios that are most likely to be shaped by financial advisors, as distinct from retirement accounts, into which investments are often made automatically by an employer).
The morning TV shows, too, in their non-news segments, seem caught up in an obsessive frenzy to celebrate black Americans and so-called black themes. By my non-scientific count, black celebrities and other notables currently represent about half the guests or individuals profiled on the likes of Good Morning America and the Today Show, even though US census data suggest that, based on their proportion in the population, black subjects would be expected to appear only in every seventh or eighth story. In the evening newscasts, too, the odds that a person of colour will appear in one of their feel-good segments far exceeds the 13% of the population that black citizens represent. When the aim is to maximise the number of featured black people, even lemonade stands launched by five-year-old entrepreneurs make the cut.
All of which may still not be as eye- (or ear-) catching as the cringe-worthy tone of these paeans. Coverage of the tiniest upbeat milestone in black culture is expressed in one of two timbres: either the sing-song, saccharine voice normally reserved for congratulating a five-year-old on getting a participation trophy for tee-ball, or a sonorously grave tone more suited to announcing a vaccine that will prevent all future pandemics than to announcing the winner of an Academy Award. (A few examples from this past Oscar season: here, here, and here.) At times these tributes soar to ne plus ultra absurdity. After his untimely death from colorectal cancer in 2020, actor Chadwick Boseman, whose roles have included Jackie Robinson and T’Challa (the superhero king of fictional Wakanda), was given a several-day media send-off that would have more properly befitted a eulogy for the actual Jackie Robinson or a real-life superhero.
Some might call this progress—an aspirational target (fake it till you make it?)—but from my vantage point, there’s another p word that hews closer to the truth: pandering. Across the pond, British TV shows are suddenly awash in so many minority characters that even some insiders see it as unhelpful to the cause and frankly embarrassing to the viewers who are supposed to feel cheered by it. I discovered that this sentiment exists in the US as well: I recently tweeted about the curious phenomenon in American advertising and, instead of getting ratioed by black Twitter as I’d expected, I was rewarded with a loud chorus of attaboys from new black and white followers alike. One person seemed to sum up the views of this group when he observed that it’s as if people of colour “are the new rescue puppies.”
Even apart from the disproportionate representation, one is struck by the incongruity between such portrayals of black America and the word pictures conjured by social justice activists. The black couples in the ads are cool and urbane, attired in chinos, sundresses and sweater vests; they pilot high-status SUVs down tree-lined boulevards to their suburban homes, which are wreathed in flowery landscaping and accoutred inside with lovely furniture and every flashing or beeping convenience. Their kids are high school debate champs making college plans. By contrast, the nation’s most visible and vocal equity advocates would have you believe that the typical black family lives trapped in forever poverty and food insecurity on streets decorated not with flowers and shrubs but with spent shell casings, syringes and chalk outlines signifying young lives snuffed out in drive-bys.
During the opening phase of the Chauvin trial, CNN’s Chris Cuomo gave over a significant chunk of screen time to his colleague, the political gadfly Van Jones, who delivered a grim accounting of the plight of latter-day black America. Choking back tears, as Jones will, he began his monody by recalling the polar opposite treatment that blacks and whites received at Yale during his years there (JD ’93): how white students routinely got away with shenanigans for which black students would’ve been disciplined, if not suspended. With that groundwork in place, he next touched on all the familiar tropes, from mass incarceration to disparities in COVID outcomes to, of course, the killing of George Floyd—which Jones presented as an avatar for spiritedly bigoted policing. He characterized his feelings as a (literal) race memory that resides in the very soul of “people who look like me.” All in all, it was a lugubrious account of Living While Black in today’s America, as well as a reprise of a central demagogic tenet: the more things change, the more they stay the same for black Americans. Days later, chatting with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Jones gave a recap of the performance he’d given on Chris Cuomo’s segment, while solemnly shaking his head and describing people of colour as perpetual “members of the losing side.”
These lamentations, endlessly reinforced by the pundit class in each day’s news cycle, have given us not only over-the-top pandering but also another p whose implications are far more grave than the first: a fulminating expression of paternalism that threatens to upend the contract that the US government has historically had with its people—or at least with those who sport a particular skin tone. The argument is that black Americans cannot be expected to assimilate smoothly into a society tuned to white conventions because attitudes and systems that have been in place since the first slave ship docked in 1619 have forced them to plod along on a separate track, with separate norms and practices, and, as a result, all the usual rules must be flexed, or people of colour must be given licence to flout them. This paternalistic outlook, spearheaded chiefly by white s0-called allies in positions of authority, is making ubiquitous inroads but is especially rampant in schools systems, where it frames essentially all traditional standards as racist and inequitable.
Its canon insists that we:
- eliminate standardized testing (including test-ins for elite technical schools)
- embrace pass-fail grading (mostly pass, as in Oregon, which has now decided that its high schoolers will be permitted to graduate without showing basic proficiency in mathematics and English), and
- rethink rules requiring students of colour to speak and write in standard English instead of in the more natural dialect that supposedly defines black culture.
This dogma rejects the practice of imposing suspensions or other penalties upon unruly black students. One rationale is the idea that such sanctions arise purely from a culture clash that provokes unwarranted teacher paranoia and unreasonably burdens students—who are just reflecting their differing norms with respect to self-expression. Another rationale is the idea that black children’s higher average levels of disturbance-creation can be ascribed to the insalubrious circumstances in which they all grow up: after all, we don’t want to dump students into the dread school-to-prison pipeline, do we?
In sum, we are told forcing black children to conform to longstanding mainstream protocols is ipso facto discriminatory and unfair. Thomas Sowell summarises the current situation this way: “If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.”
It’s hard to imagine how raising the possibility of inadequacies connected to race, as provocative books like The Bell Curve have done, could feel more disparaging to black America than some of the remedies suggested by today’s supposed champions of the marginalized. And here’s the saddest part of all: jeremiads like the one Van Jones offered on CNN, while they make compelling television, are hyperbolic in every aspect in which they aren’t wholly fictitious. Not only are such depictions of black America inaccurate, but the trend lines run the opposite way—and are cause for robust optimism.
And now let’s push the elephant out of the room: the Black Lives Matter-driven claims of unarmed black people being hunted down by cops have been so widely debunked that I’ll just review the relevant facts briefly here. The odds of an unarmed black adult being killed by a police officer in 2019 were about in one in 1.7 million, similar to the chances of being struck by lightning, and lower than the chances of winning $50,000 in Powerball. There is no appreciable difference between the frequency with which police kill white suspects and black suspects. Moreover, the incarceration rate for black Americans, while higher than that for whites, is 1,408 per 100,000 population, which is just 1.4%. This means that, in any given year, over 98% of black Americans manage not to get sent to prison. (Generally, the ones who do are the same relatively small group of young black males who are repeat offenders.)
Now, to move on to some of the nation’s most distressingly under-covered positive phenomena.
Before COVID-19 put the entire US economy into the ICU, black unemployment stood at 5.5%, an all-time low; this means that 94.5% of the black Americans who wanted to hold a job were holding one. Also at a historic low was the black poverty rate, at 18.8%. (Despite COVID-19, it is currently projected to drop to 18.1% in 2021.) One would like the figure to be lower, of course, but—again, regarding the glass in half-full terms—over 80% of black Americans are not living below the federal poverty line. Contrast this to 1980, when nearly a third of all black families lived below that line. Furthermore, being poor in America is rather unlike being poor in Darfur. Poverty, American style, does not necessarily preclude ownership of cars, TVs, X-Boxes or even in some cases private homes.
Such financial strides should not be surprising given the commensurate educational gains. Despite the universal and often valid scepticism about the quality of inner-city schools, the high-school graduation rate for black students has doubled since 1975: it was 40% then; it’s 80% today. Nor is college completion a rarity any longer. Around the time that Van Jones was attending Yale, barely 11% of black students finished four or more years of college. By 2020, the five-year completion rate had topped 40%.
And now we arrive at perhaps the trickiest and most contentious topic: the relatively small share of the nation’s $130 trillion in total household worth that is controlled by black America. In Snopesian parlance, this grievance might be categorized as “true but misleading.” There is no question that, in raw dollars, black America, as a group, lags substantially behind white America in total wealth held. It is also beyond dispute that, realistically, black Americans were for centuries denied the means of generating family wealth.
However, the figures commonly trumpeted by today’s social justice advocates—the most striking of which is the claim that black citizens hold “just one cent on the white dollar”—are tendentious at best. Such preposterously skewed numbers result from the near-monolithically white makeup of the much maligned one percent, with their holdings of some $35 trillion. This top 1% represents just 1.6 million households out of 162 million. The disproportionate impact of that $35 trillion trove makes calculating the mean wealth of so-called white America a bit like calculating the mean wealth of a room full of 100 people you grab off the street at random—one of whom happens to be Jeff Bezos. Even if no one else in the room has a dime, Bezos’ surreal personal fortune of more than $200 billion would make the average net worth of the group $2 billion per person! When figures are adjusted to avoid such fun-house distortions, the disparity in the distribution of wealth among the nation’s remaining 160 million households is hardly as extreme.
Inasmuch as there are also outliers at the very bottom of the wealth spectrum—the 3.6% of white households and 5.1% of black households mired in so-called deep poverty—the most informative way to assess today’s wealth distribution may be to focus on the middle class, defined as the middle 60% of the income distribution, which encompasses some 95 million households.
As the Brookings Institution has pointed out, for much of the mid-to-late twentieth century, the term “American middle-class served as a political reference to specifically white American upward mobility,” but that is nowhere near true anymore. Today, Brookings reports, white Americans are only slightly over-represented in the middle class (they are 59% of the middle class and 57% of the population), while black Americans are only slightly under-represented (they are 12% of the middle class and 13% of the population).
The wealth gap between middle-class black and white families is shrinking along similar lines. The most relevant metric for assessing the status quo may be the Federal Reserve’s accounting of household wealth during the prime earning years (ages 35 to 54), which weeds out older black Americans (whose economic condition may suffer from the lingering effects of the Jim Crow and aggressive redlining policies of the past). The average net worth of black households led by people between the ages of 35 and 54 is $40,000; the average net worth of white households led by members of the same age group is $185,000. That’s a meaningful wealth gap, and it should never be trivialized, but it’s nowhere near the jaw-dropping hundred-fold-gap statistic that gloom-and-doomers bandy about.
There’s yet another reason for optimism. Although, due to historical inequities, very few blacks get the inheritance windfall in real estate, stocks or other holdings that many whites receive by around age 54, that is bound to change as circumstances improve, thanks to the factors described earlier, which offer the potential for rapid upward mobility. While the effects of the 300-year near exclusion of black America from the nation’s ownership class won’t be corrected overnight, gaps will almost certainly continue to narrow. And indeed, between 2015 and 2019, median wealth grew fastest among non-white families.
The recent progress of black America is a cultural success story that almost no one is telling. So we end in an odd place: it can be argued that the fiction advanced by advertisers, for all its venal motives and silly demographic distortions, hews closer to the facts of black life today than the dispiriting word portraits painted by CNN’s inveterate naysayers. We may not have reached the promised land envisioned by Dr King, but we are farther along in the journey than the likes of Van Jones would have you believe.
In the meantime, I would ask: what legitimate purpose is served by making it seem as if the destiny of every black child is to one day be shot dead by smirking white cops while standing unvaccinated on the unemployment line?