Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Paucity of Hope, pt. 2 - Over the weekend, at least two events took place that may signify a modicum of hope for African Americans; as noted elsewhere, hope is in short supply in too many parts of today's black community. The announcement of Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy for President, along with the conduct of Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union 2007, may well provide rays of inspiration to a much-benighted people.

The need for inspiration among blacks is manifest. Understandably, those who would presume to provide assistance to any group in a such a plight might seek to examine the problems from every vantage. Such appears to be the motivation behind the Black Youth Project, a research effort conducted under the auspices of the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, which aims to study the attitudes, actions and decision-making of African American young people. To that end, the Black Youth Project recently published a summary of its research into the attitudes and behavior of young black Americans.

In a press release announcing the study's availability, lead study author and U of C Professor Cathy J. Cohen described the goal of the research as that of
"provid[ing] data that will help build effective policies that can significantly improve the lives and prospects of young black people."
By oversampling blacks and Hispanics among the 1,590 respondents, the study would seem to be able to do just that. But almost from the outset, the problems with the research become evident. After reading the summary, it becomes clear that this is a "media study," designed for consumption of those who are wholly unconcerned with the methodology and validity of research. Indeed, it is chock full of "infobits" suitable for insertion into a preordained media narrative.

The main flaw in this study is methodological. The study attempts to divine young people's perceptions on subjects as varied as rap music, self-esteem, political participation, religion and health, gender and sexual orientation issues, racial attitudes and sexuality. But in as much as any of these questions could serve as a stand-alone research question, it is problematic that the study questionnaire only asks participants directly about these subjects without validating their responses by asking a slightly varied follow-up question later in the survey. By attempting to cover too many subjects with only 240 questions in total, the research can at best only capture the feelings of the subjects - however fleeting and labile they may be - as opposed their attitudes, which are more likely to be consistent, longstanding and deeply held.

So there is no surprise that many of the study's findings are contradictory. For example, while 79 percent of black youth believe that "police discriminate much more against
Black youth than they do against White youth," less than 20 percent of Black youth state that they themselves were "very often or often" discriminated against, and 48 percent have been "rarely or never" discriminated against based on race. Similarly, while the study reports that 79 percent of Black youth believe that they can "make a difference by participating in politics," only 2 percent have participated in a boycott, and only small percentages of young African Americans have signed petitions or hosted a political blog.

Sadly, there is also no surprise that much of the narrative of the summary speaks to "conclusions" that are not supported by the study results. The report introduces the concept of buycotting - buying a product because the consumer likes the social or political values of the manufacturer - as a means of political expression. In any event, there is no evidence from the report to suggest that this is anything other than teenage consumerism disguised as activism.

In like fashion, the summary avers that as "marginalized and racialized youth," young African Americans "find themselves at the center of many national political struggles and are, therefore, politicized at a much earlier age than more privileged youth." That this is a specimen of "bass-ackwards" logic is so patent as to be beyond debate; in as much as these young people are "marginalized" at all, it is precisely because they are not political actors (unless promiscuity, violence and nihilism are now to be construed as political acts.)

This "research" brings two underacknowledged facts into focus. First, by way of an inexact metaphor, even as the Civil Rights Movement ferried African Americans to within mere feet of the shore of racial progress, some of the passengers left the boat and
began to swim back towards the deep waters from which they were rescued. They were ultimately set upon by the sharks of random violence, drug abuse and promiscuity. Sadly, far too few set about to take the first steps from the ark of safety to the land of opportunity. As we consider the attitudes and opinions of black youth, we should endeavor to uncover the motivations for the counterproductive behaviors that confound well-intentioned efforts to ameliorate their plight.

Just as important, we must appreciate that the Black Youth Project is of a piece with other efforts on the part of the leftist academy to disparage America and its mainstream beliefs. At this juncture, it is worthwhile to note that no other nation has done more to reconcile the tenets elaborated in its enabling documents with its de facto behaviors as it regards race relations. Surely, there is much more that remains to be done on the part of both whites and blacks, but it would not be unseemly to acknowledge the progress that has been made, even as we aspire to a greater common good.

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