The Eternal Recurrence Of “Black Pathology” Arguments.


The Brewster-Douglas Housing Projects were built by the city of Detroit between 1935 and 1955 and were intended for the “working poor.” In the 1960s and 1970s, crime in the projects became prevalent and they fell into disrepair. (via Juan N Only, CC 2.0)

There’s very little new in American politics, and that’s especially true in our debates over racial inequality. For example, here’s the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley in an editorial from July 31, 2014:

People often lament the quality of black leadership in America today, but in some ways it’s a sign of progress. If blacks were still facing legitimate civil rights issues—like legal racial discrimination and voter disenfranchisement—that would attract the best and brightest of black America to the cause. But serious people like Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King and others fought and won those battles a half-century ago. What we have left today as civil-rights leaders are second- and third-tier types striving for relevance in an era when the biggest barrier to black progress is no longer white racism but black anti-social behavior and counterproductive attitudes toward work, school, marriage and so forth.

And here’s conservative economist George Stigler, as quoted by Geoffrey Kabaservice in Rule and Ruin, in the December 1965 issue of New Guard, the official publication of Young Americans for Freedom:

[C]onservative economist and later Nobel Prize winner George Stigler claimed that the basic problem of the black American was that “on average he lacks a desire to improve himself, and lacks a willingness to discipline himself to this end.” The African-American male’s lack of employment owed not to discrimination but to “his own inferiority as a worker.” Residential segregation existed because “the Negro family is, on average, a loose, morally lax group, and brings with its presence a rapid rise in crime and vandalism.” Equality for African-Americans would arrive only when they imitated the virtues of an earlier generation of Jewish immigrants: “a veneration and irrepressible desire for learning; frugality; and respect for the civilization of the western world.”

It’s fine if conservatives oppose color-conscious policy. But I think it’s time for new arguments.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • The wild part is that it goes back even further than this: in the mid-1800s, there was a name given to a supposed psychological condition that only affected Negroes called dysaesthesia aethiopica. It was thought to be the reason why slaves were so lazy.

    Found exclusively among Blacks, dysaesthesia aethiopica — “called by overseers ‘rascality'” — was characterized by partial insensitivity of the skin and “so great a hebetude of the intellectual faculties, as to be like a person half asleep.”[3] Other symptoms included “lesions of the body discoverable to the medical observer, which are always present and sufficient to account for the symptoms.”[4][5] Cartwright noted that the existence of dysaesthesia aethiopica was “clearly established by the most direct and positive testimony,” but other doctors had failed to notice it because their “attention [had] not been sufficiently directed to the maladies of the negro race.”[3]

    According to Cartwright, dysaesthesia aethiopica was “much more prevalent among free negroes living in clusters by themselves, than among slaves on our plantations, and attacks only such slaves as live like free negroes in regard to diet, drinks, exercise, etc.” — indeed, according to Cartwright, “nearly all [free negroes] are more or less afflicted with it, that have not got some white person to direct and to take care of them.”.[6] He explicitly dismissed the opinion which assigned the causes of the “problematic” behaviour to the social situation of the slaves without further justifications: “[The northern physicians] ignorantly attribute the symptoms to the debasing influence of slavery on the mind”.

    The thing that seems to have changed, mostly, is that back then people believed that Negroes were just constitutionally incapable of working. Today, they believe Negroes are just deeply averse to doing so.

  • Justin

    I am always surprised and amused by the tendency of conservatives to dismiss the persistence of racism in one breath and bemoan “black anti-social behavior” in the next. How can they deny the existence of racism and then demand that we see society’s problems primarily through the lens of race? That is: “Racism isn’t a serious problem anymore, you know. Now, let me tell you what’s wrong with these darn black people…” You can’t make this stuff up. You would think Jason Riley’s own habit of getting up and going to work everyday would be enough to make him choose his words a tad more carefully.