MAXWELL:  Black doesn’t always equal white

9/6/1998- Printed in the PERSPCTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Each time I or any other African-American writer points out problems that seem to affect blacks disproportionately, many white people, liberals and conservatives alike, and certain blacks weigh in with what I call white equivalency.

It is a logical fallacy, much like false analogy and ad hominem. From time to time, all of us are guilty of fallacious thinking, but white equivalency is worse than most other breakdowns in logic because it is a judgment that creates false images and draws faulty conclusions.

Here is how white equivalency works:

If I write a column showing that teenage pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births are big problems in black culture, I receive letters and telephone calls arguing that whites have the same problems _ white equivalency.

My answer is yes, but we are talking about black society _ only. Introducing a white equivalency makes no sense in this instance because white society, the nation’s baseline in most areas, is wealthier, and the families are far better equipped to protect their children from many of the problems associated with such births. And, of course, whether or not they have one, whites have easier access to a safe abortion.

The typical black teen who gets pregnant comes from a family with few bucks and many social problems. By most measures, she will have a tougher time than her white counterpart. Teen pregnancy in black society, in fact, exacts a greater toll on everyone involved than it does in white society.

So to compare white teen pregnancy to that of black teens is to commit the fallacy of white equivalency.

Another example of white equivalency occurred after I wrote about black clerks being rude to black customers. Many whites wrote describing how they, too, had been treated rudely by blacks. I explained to some readers that I was not speaking of the general rudeness and incivility that have infected the nation, that I was writing exclusively about a special brand of black-on-black rudeness caused by black self-hatred, as suggested by the woman I interviewed for the column.

Whenever I write about the serious problem of low academic achievement, especially the inability to read, in low-income black neighborhoods, whites chime in that white kids have the same problems. Yes, I reply, but do you not see the differences, that the two scenarios are not equivalent?

Low academic achievement has always plagued black America in unique ways, beginning the moment that learning to read was taboo for slaves, continuing during Jim Crow’s separate-but-equal days and persisting in the age of anti-affirmative action propositions and so-called colorblind college admissions standards. White society has nothing equivalent to the debilitating bias that blacks have faced in education _ and never will.

Why do we introduce white equivalency so casually?

Many white liberals do so perhaps to avoid facing the truth that blacks, a group whose battles they have fought and died for, are often their own worst enemies, that blacks and the poor may not be noble victims after all. In their sincere way, white liberals are trying to say that blacks are not so bad because whites do the same things.

White bigots, on the other hand, use white equivalency to argue that, see, blacks are no different from whites and, therefore, do not deserve so-called preferential treatment.

In either case, white equivalency is fallacious.

Many blacks who are defensive of our culture also use this fallacy. Like white liberals, they use it to show that black sexual promiscuity, for example, is no great evil because whites are promiscuous, too. Yes, but sexual promiscuity is one of the biggest reasons that AIDS is decimating our ranks, and we must treat it in a special way.

White equivalency, a form of recrimination, does not make whites and blacks equal, and it does not make their sins comparable.

When I was a college teacher, my black students used white equivalency all of the time. When I would tell them, especially males, that they could not afford to miss class or fail to complete an assignment, they would respond with something like this: “Whites miss class, too. You don’t jump on them.”

My answer? You cannot compare yourselves with whites who, on average, have much more money, attended better high schools, already have a leg up in the job market because they are of the majority group and have relatives and acquaintances with the right contacts. The bottom line, I would say, is that most white students are born with a head start.

One of the most striking examples of white equivalency came the other morning during a National Public Radio segment on Saturday’s Million Youth March in New York. Dismissing march organizer Khalid Abdul Muhammad as a charlatan, a black professor said that the antics of the ex-Nation of Islam spokesman demonstrate the dearth of leadership in black America.

David K. Shipler, who is white and the author of A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, agreed with the professor but said that white America also has a dearth of leadership.

Shipler’s argument is faulty. Whites are the majority group and control every facet of U.S. life. The term “white leader” is ridiculous. Blacks, however, the nation’s most despised minority group, need dynamic leaders, such as a Martin Luther King and Kweisi Mfume, to galvanize their interests. “Black leader,” therefore, makes perfect sense. By putting down white leaders, Shipler was trying to blunt negative criticism of black leaders.

The fallacy of white equivalency, in the hands of policymakers, worries me mainly because we often wind up with legislation that harms blacks. A common misconception these days, one that results from white equivalency, is that instead of affirmative action programs intended for blacks, all programs should be based strictly on class because low-income whites and low-income blacks have the same problems.

Yes, some of the problems are similar or the same. But let us not fool ourselves: Black skin and the unique problems that come with it do not have white equivalencies _ and never will.