Arguing by Way of Assertion.

A few months ago, I was taken aback by a wildly problematic post that was part of Danielle Belton’s “Unconventional Wisdom” series on her popular blog, the Black Snob. The problems in that entry, on integration’s destruction of “black community” and HBCUs in particular,  were glaring and easy to knock down. It augured very poorly for what was to come later in the series.

“Unconventional Wisdom” is supposed to take a closer look at some notions that are commonly held by and about black people. In reality, the posts end up mostly being full of lazy generalizations that support pretty orthodox (and occasionally damaging) ideas; when you make statements like “ghetto names are stupid and embarrassing” or “liking school and being ‘successful’ will get your black pass revoked,” it’s pretty safe to say you’re not upending any popular notions about dysfunction and black life.

Belton’s latest entry,  “There’s No Sexual Revolution In Black America Just Sex,” is a great example of the tone and shortcomings of Belton’s approach to this series. She begins with an anecdote about her upbringing that serves no real purpose (unless “I was raised better than y’all” counts), links to some grim stats and then starts wildly extrapolating from there. It’s all topline punditry, with no attempts to dig deeper at all.

She even phones in the topline stuff.

Black children start sexual activity on average earlier than other children. In a study of inner city teens it was found that black girls average age of first sexual intercourse is around 13. The national average is 17. Black girls also have a higher rate of STDs than their counterparts. A recent study found that half of black teens between the ages of 14 to 19 were infected with some form of STD. For white teenagers it’s 20 percent.

What that first study she links to actually says: “the average age for first sexual intercourse among adolescents is 16“; “the mean age for sexual debut among inner-city youths is 13“; and  “African American adolescent girls tend to initiate sex earlier than Caucasian or Latina teens, and they are more likely to initiate sexual activity prior to age 13 than Caucasian teens.” Those numbers are unsettling. But they’re also pretty straightforward, and Belton still misquotes and misreads them.

The second study she links to is a little tougher to grapple with, but because of its alarming conclusions, it requires some real grappling and a closer look. The Times story Belton links to unhelpfully omits a link to the study itself, so it’s hard to get a handle on its methodology. What the story does do is make race the central lens through which the study’s findings: “these are especially big problems for for black women.” But my lingering suspicion is that there is a huge class element to the study’s findings, and that there’s a higher incidence of the STDs in populations with less access to health resources — you know, poorer people. Black women are also  more likely to be obesemore likely to die from cancerand infant mortality rates are higher among black children — all things that correlate with poverty and, necessarily, with access to health care.

That the black girls in the study were more likely to test positive for sexually transmitted diseases, then, is probably because black people are disproportionately poor, and not because black people are sexually backwards, as Belton clearly believes:

There is a confusing crudeness in how many blacks view sexuality. It’s depicted as bad on one hand, and you have parents afraid of engaging in talks about sex with their children as if their off-spring lived in a bubble. On the other, you have the former BET show “Uncut” that played what passed for softcore porn on cable television in long-video form. You have rapper Snoop Dogg selling commercially friendly products to youth and you have the same Snoop Dogg who once hosted a porno. We seem to have the worst of America’s love-hate relationship with sex in the black community where you can proudly see it all hang out, while another side desperately tries to tuck it back in and no one ever cracks opens a book and learns how their bodies are supposed to work in the first place.

There’s no sexual revolution in black America, just sex. Confused, fun, dangerous, illicit, guilt-filled sex. Very few people are acting from a place of maturity and confidence, not in themselves or their sexuality. We’re living in a place where it’s become acceptable to have a kid or several out of wedlock and act like it’s impossible to make it to 30 without this happening. We’re silent about the AIDS epidemic disproportionately ravaging black women. No one wants to talk about sex, but everyone seems to want to do it, desperately, without protection and in seductive ignorance of the cruel realties of their undertakings.

That’s a maddeningly simplistic and condescending statement — a parade of disparate, unrelated facts haphazardly strung together that she wraps up with some cutesy turns of phrase. She acknowledges that America has a “love-hate relationship with sex” and says that black people in particular harbor the worst elements of that sexual schizophrenia. Why is that true? Because she says it is. She notes that we’re silent about the AIDS epidemic ravaging black women while omitting the fact that it’s poorer black women without regular care who are much more likely to contract the virus. It’s not a small omission. Focusing on race allows Belton to play the solidarity angle for some well-intentioned chastising and lamentation, because the narrower, more useful construction — the one that also considers class — doesn’t allow the same kind of easy “I’m-speaking-as-an-insider” moralizing.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • *slow clap*

  • K.

    “Focusing on race allows Belton to play the solidarity angle for some well-intentioned chastising and lamentation, because the narrower, more useful construction — the one that also considers class — doesn’t allow the same kind of easy “I’m-speaking-as-an-insider” moralizing.”

    Interesting. I haven’t read the series but will do so in a bit. But I do find it interesting that racism is deemed unacceptable across the board but classim is often ignored, even encouraged at times. I don’t understand that.

  • Good good good piece.

    I infer that none of the studies referenced control for income, at least not in terms of the race-based statistics?

  • At least in respect to the first study, her “analysis” seems to be based on an egregious misinterpretation of the statistical modeling. She seems to infer that we are just simply comparing rates of STDs and average age of first sexual experience between the races, when the wording looks more like a logistic regression. Maybe young_ can help me out if he’s around, but a logistic would compare “the probability of Black sexual activity before the age of 13 relative to White sexual activity before the age of 13.” This is quite quite quite different than a comparison of mean ages for sexual activity.

    EDIT: I quickly perused the study and it looks like the did hierarchical regressions. I’m no stats geek, but needless to say, the interpretation of these studies are much different than she implies, as G.D. notes. Statisticians would have a field day with her poor interpretation of the data.

  • ladyfresh

    Dude…the name of her blog is ‘The Black Snob’

    so this…

    “That’s a maddeningly simplistic and condescending statement”

    shouldn’t be surprising.

    She makes alot of those. Why the targeting?

  • I’ve been reading about AIDS lately and how different groups have been affected by it.

    Now about those pesky STIs in the Black community. Class and poverty can only explain so much about why STIs, AIDS in particular, is so high in Black communities is also due to sexual behaviors (lack of protection , concurrent partners, smaller social circles). Once STI levels reach a certain point, the very fact that you are having sex means that you are at an increased risk of running into STIs and thus have a better chance of contracting it.

    At this point, after seeing the pervasiveness of poverty, I would think that tackling changing people’s sexual behaviors would be the easiest route to reduce STIs from spreading further.

  • dilettante

    Well the good thing is G.D you waded in and offered counterpoints. Danielle has to be congratulatedIMV for allowing you the space to do so. Often when blog’s are heavily skewed to a ‘dumbed down’ perspective any semblance of raising the bar is not tolerated by the blogger or other commenter’s. The original post @the Snob did ignore class distinctions,but the post was started as a personal testimony about her own black/ working class
    roots and the mores a child from a two parent family was raised with. Since she cited sources and studies leaving the class angle out was a problem.

    I often wonder how much pressure you, I, Danielle and other black Americans feel to subtly or overtly acknowledge the preponderance of poverty amongst our population. If you don’t directly address it (in a white, or non white) setting- someone is SURE to feel it incumbent on themselves to “keep you honest” and remind you. This quest for accuracy can be range from crude to creatively sophisticated.

    This happens online, and in personal interactions when you are dealing with people who don’t know your entire life story, yet find themselves in the same professional/academic/social settings as you- but at some point your exceptionalism ,or not, from “the rule” has to be accounted for.