What white folks don’t know about black folks

For example: that, in America, they’re mostly part white.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is shocked at how damned ignorant most white people are about black people, starting with the fact that most black people in America are partly white.

Ignorance is the natural consequence of stratification; horses know more about riders than riders do about horses.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

19 thoughts on “What white folks don’t know about black folks”

  1. I'm perplexed. Are Whites really that dumb? I read about twenty or more years ago that about 80% of Black Americans had European ancestry; now, I assume that most people didn't read about that study — but we do have eyes, don't we?

  2. I don't have any figures, but a substantial percentage of white people — at least those whose ancestors were here before the 13th Amendment — must be partly black. White people don't know this because schools don't teach that being raped was part of being a slave.

  3. "White people don’t know this because schools don’t teach that being raped was part of being a slave."

    ???? What school did you go to? Mine certainly mentioned it. Heck, my school taught that not all slaves were black, and I suspect that's something you'll find widespread black ignorance of.

    Anyway, I'm shocked at the naked assertion that most white people don't know most 'blacks' in America are mixed race. Got any evidence? Maybe a poll or two?

  4. I'd say two things in response to this.

    First most people are damned *ignorant* about EVERYTHING. Even the things they claim are most important to them. Go ask people (black or white) questions about the theology of their religion and compare with the official church answer. Ask them about the constitution or the legal/political system or US history, or european history, or world history. Ask them how the US budget is spent. Ask them about levels of crime and violence in the US today as compared to the past.

    Second the question is, IMHO, problematic, because ever more so in the US black is a cultural category, not a "genetic" category. I don't think media discourse has caught up with this, and of course there are parts of the country, and individuals, where it is all about blood and ancestry. But I suspect for most people in the US, for most purposes, "black" is a cultural category — leading to apparently strange statements about how "your blacks in Britain are totally different from our blacks in America" and so on. Obama, by very obviously being "culturally white" with a black skin, is hurrying the trend along.

    If this is the case, then the question becomes kinda weird "is a person who lives the black cultural lifestyle rather than the white cultural lifestyle partly living the white cultural lifestyle?"

  5. Brett, it's not a "naked assertion." True, Coates doesn't cite any polls of white people's understanding of African American genealogy (& I don't know that any exist), but he does offer evidence of other sorts. You can make of it what you want, but it's there. Do you usually assume most white people are as whip-smart as you? C'mon, don't be so modest.

  6. I think its quite ironic that Prof. Kleiman brings this up, because as I understand it, among Prof. Kleiman's great frustrations in getting his main crime control program accepted and understood is the lack of black people's understanding of black people. As I understand the program, essentially Prof. Kleiman advocates a tremdously greater paternalistic attitude toward the black population with an attendant vast increase in government supervision of black people — from nurse home visits to probation officers to revocation of the ability to buy alcohol.

    This is evident in Prof. Kleiman's debates with Glenn Loury, from which I understand is that Prof. Loury finds it difficult to accept even the basic premise that the black population commits more crimes per capita than everyone else. Prof. Loury can't admit this even though he himself actually committed crimes characteristic of the black underclass — violence against women and drug possession — while slated to be the Undersecretary of Education. If Prof. Kleiman can't get Prof. Loury to accept the need for greater gov't supervision, then Prof. Kleiman's project to get the black community to accept the need for this kind of paternalistic treatment is likely doomed.

  7. This isn't really a surprise. Just going off of the pre-Civil War period alone would produce a lot of blacks with white ancestry, because black female slaves were generally at the beck and call of their masters, and that included sex as well (which made all the total paranoid "Protect White Women!" slogans justifying racial repression in the US rather ironic and hypocritical).

  8. Horseball, Kleiman does defend supervision of drug offenders, in particular, on paternalistic grounds – among others. (By itself, that doesn't distinguish him from a lot of other people.) But he also offers nonpaternalistic arguments for his agenda. He couldn't be any clearer about his concern for the effects of crime & crime policy on nonoffenders, particularly in the most burdened communities.

    I don't know whether he's expressed a view on the question, but it's unclear to me in what sense he'd vastly increase the overall level of government supervision of offenders of any race. Allowing for reasonable disagreement about the appropriate scalar measure of supervision, it seems equally plausible to say he'd change the nature of supervision, & might even reduce it. Brute force methods are, after all, themselves a (particularly onerous) form of supervision. And even if you score it as an increase in supervision, I imagine that many African Americans would deem, say, coercive abstinence enforced through the probation & parole system to be less disruptive of the lives of drug-involved offenders, their families & communities than the existing brute force alternatives.

    Kleiman knows best what his great frustrations are, but I see little reason to think the African American community’s self-understanding is the great obstacle to implementing his agenda. Assume, arguendo, that African Americans underestimate the relative rate at which members of their community commit crimes. It simply does not follow from this supposition alone that they should particularly prefer the status quo to Kleiman’s alternative. Some additional supposition in required, & none that come to mind seem especially plausible. So there’s nothing ironic about Kleiman’s comments, & no good reason for Horseball to have changed the subject. I leave to others to guess what he could have been thinking.

    Even extending Horseball the courtesy of assuming he doesn't seek to insinuate that Prof. Loury’s race has any explanatory relevance to his former problems, the reference to them does nothing to elucidate even Horseball’s own argument. It's utterly gratuitous.

  9. Some whites have preferred to not recognize this fact at least since Stephen Douglas's time. Lincoln had quite a riff on the theme in his speech, let's see… this speech, in response to the Dred Scott decision (from the word "horrified" about 8 paragraphs from the end).

  10. Vince, thanks for the link to Lincoln's speech. In it, Lincoln states, "In 1850 there were in the United States, 405,751, mulattoes. Very few of these are the offspring of whites and free blacks; nearly all have sprung from black slaves and white masters." I wonder why he didn't add that sexual intercourse between black slaves and white masters was not consensual, but constituted rape. The point may be obvious, but I doubt that many people then thought about it, and might Lincoln not have helped the cause of ending slavery by mentioning it explicitly?

  11. Keep reading, Henry, through his description of black girls "left subject to the forced concubinage of their masters, and liable to become the mothers of mulattoes in spite of themselves," and on to the following paragraph.

  12. Brett, the "evidence" is that Michelle Obama's white ancestry is treated by the news media as a surprise.

  13. "Ignorance is the natural consequence of stratification; horses know more about riders than riders do about horses."

    While I take your point about ignorance arising from social stratification, the second clause in your sentence is nonsense. Anyone who regularly spends time around horses can tell you that the relationship between horse and rider cannot be generalized so.

    Sometimes a seemingly pithy adage is just so many horse feathers.

  14. "Brett, the “evidence” is that Michelle Obama’s white ancestry is treated by the news media as a surprise."

    I'd never mistake the news media for the general public. Nor would I assume their 'surprise' is always genuine.

  15. I'd like to see polling data about the number of black Americans who know that black Americans have mixed ancestry versus white Americans who know this.

    Dear K–

    One thing is clear from Prof. Kleiman's proposals — more people will be spending time in prison or jail. Maybe shorter sentences (i.e., fewer lifers, etc.) but more frequent jail or prison stays. The core of his proposals are that more probationers will be serving short, frequent prison (or jail) stays. The people doing so will be disproportionately black. In fact, I've heard him argue that long prison terms for serious offenders inhibit black youths from learning the pitfalls of crime, as the only criminals they are exposed to are successful ones because they're not in prison. According to Prof. Kleiman, black youths need assistance to learn that criminality carries risk in the form of their buddies wearing GPS monitors and obeying curfews. Then they will have persons among them carrying the stigmata of criminality, and will be discouraged.

    Its all good and well that Prof. Kleiman's thoughts are not expressed in explicitly racial terms, but that is their effect.

  16. Horseball, how much or whether increased certainty of punishment increases the number of people of any race in the system depends on the strength of deterrence. Whether a change in the number of people in the system amounts to an increase in the total amount of punishment depends on what happens at sentencing. Your belief that Kleiman seeks to vastly increase government supervision of black people is a highly ideological error. It isn't just a matter of the way he chooses to express himself that his agenda isn't formulated in the explicitly racial terms you prefer. Your claim that one of his great frustrations – the doom of his agenda – is African Americans' allegedly defective self-understanding is also still implausible. And your pretext for raising this argument in this thread doesn't look any less peculiar on second reading.

    Brett, talk to anyone who's ever taught an introductory class in biological anthropology or human biology. Seriously, do. A surprising number of students still come to class – at least did the last time I checked – under the influence a confused folk racial biology that, to the extent it's coherent at all, is inconsistent w/ the elements of modern population genetics as well as the last 400 years of population history. If there's any rational kernel behind social constructionist ideas about race, it's things like this.

    The comments in certain quarters last year about whether Obama is "really" black were partly about culture, but they also reflected a notion that anyone w/ a white mother is racially unlike "real" African Americans. And what lies behind that is real ignorance.

  17. K-

    The suggestion in the Coates post was that blacks are more aware of their mixed racial heritage than whites are. I don't think that is supported by any evidence. He further suggested that black history month ought to be longer, apparently to give further opportunity for blacks to instruct whites about blacks. Prof. Kleiman expanded the idea to include the concept that blacks know more about whites than vice versa. The concept behind all this is that white Americans need to be and ought to be tutored by black Americans not only about black Americans but also white Americans. I think that this is a concept that is radically at odds with Prof. Kleiman's own seminal work on crime, which as a practical matter is intimately bound up with race in America because the costs of crime (both punishment, victimhood, and negative externalities) are disproportionately borne by black Americans. In effect, his policy ideas are ideas intended to primarily address or improve the lot of black Americans. I don't think Prof. Kleiman thinks he is unable or impeded in his understanding of the black American crime problem because he's not black. In fact, he's asserted that he has a better understanding than some black Americans including, as I noted, Glenn Loury.

  18. Horseball, forgive the delay; I forgot about you.

    Your last comment is unresponsive. Please re-read.

    Black History Month: Do you find the idea that African Americans might have something to tell white people about their experience, including their relationships w/ white people, risible or offensive? Whence your assurance that Coates isn't also thinking that white people might use the occasion to learn for themselves & from each other about African American experience, & to learn more about themselves from it?

    The fact, as I think it is, that many white people have confused, contradictory or mistaken ideas about African Americans' ancestry is not "radically at odds" w/ the fact that Mark Kleiman knows things about public policy, & has ideas about crime policy that may improve the lives of, among others, African Americans. Even though he isn’t African American. Even though he may disagree w/ an economist who's written on the subject, who, by the way, had, I dunno, a domestic argument several decades ago, & is also African American. These conclusions are also consistent w/ Kleiman's instructive adage about horses & riders.

    You need to stop digging now.

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