Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why do certain behaviors become “black” behaviors when displayed by black Americans?

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

“While 70 percent of Americans approve of corporal punishment,” wrote sociologist Michael Eric Dyson for the New York Times on Wednesday, “black Americans have a distinct history with the subject. Beating children has been a depressingly familiar habit in black families since our arrival in the New World.”

Dyson was just one of many commenters writing on corporal punishment this week, and specifically, linking it to the particular cultural life of black Americans. For instance, in a piece for CNN, Steven Holmes asserted, “Corporal punishment is deeply ingrained in black culture, as it is in many other groups,” and asked that “we, as black people, stop waxing nostalgically—and defensively—about this particular child-rearing practice.” On cable news, CNN anchor Don Lemon wondered if spanking was a legacy of slavery. “For me as an African-American,” he said, “the question is where did you learn that from? Is that learned from the slave master? Getting the switch? Being beaten?” And on the opposite side, Charles Barkley—speaking during a roundtable discussion on The NFL Today—gave a typically blunt take on the practice. “Whipping—we do that all the time,” Barkley said. “Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail” if corporal punishment is made illegal.

At 85 percent approval, there’s no doubt most blacks support corporal punishment. But so do most whites—73 percent accept spanking as a legitimate punishment. The gap, notes Harry Enten for FiveThirtyEight, is generally a scant 11 points between the two groups. For those who “strongly agree” with spanking, the gap is 15 points, or 40 percent for blacks versus 25 percent for whites. And while you could attribute this to the particulars of the black American experience, you probably shouldn’t.

Consider that while most Americans support spanking (about 70 percent), born-again Christians are more likely to support than non-born-again Christians (80 percent versus 65 percent), and Southerners are more likely to support it than people from other parts of the country. What’s more, support for spanking is strongly related to low levels of education, high levels of poverty, and high levels of environmental stress.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise blacks are more likely to support corporal punishment—not only are they disproportionately Southern, but Southern black culture extends throughout the country by way of the Great Migration. In addition, they’re disproportionately religious, and more likely to live in low-income or impoverished areas. And other groups with similar characteristics show similar support for spanking. The Mid-South includes parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Alabama, and is one of the poorest areas in the country. There, notes Aaron Blake for the Washington Post, the white/black gap on spanking doesn’t exist.

Yes, there’s a cultural component to how black parents explain and rationalize corporal punishment, but that’s true of all groups: It’s not hard to find white comedians with routines on the necessity of spanking.

Despite this, the national conversation on corporal punishment and abuse has treated it as a black problem, not an American one. Some of this stems from the particular subjects of this debate—black American football players. At the same time, it’s reminiscent of other conversations around broad-based behaviors or beliefs that become pathological and purely “black” when displayed by black Americans in elevated numbers.

You saw this in the aftermath of California’s Proposition 8. Exit polls had black support at 70 percent, and pegged them at 10 percent of the electorate—a critical segment in the fight to ban same-sex marriage.

For many opponents of Prop 8, this made blacks and “black homophobia” the culprits. “I’m done pretending that the handful of racist gay white men out there—and they’re out there, and I think they’re scum—are a bigger problem for African Americans, gay and straight, than the huge numbers of homophobic African Americans are for gay Americans, whatever their color,” wrote Dan Savage, a day after the vote.

“The black church is one of the most powerful forces fomenting homophobia in America, and has fostered attitudes that have literally killed countless gay black men,” wrote Andrew Sullivan, echoing his pre-vote comments on the danger blacks posed to marriage equality. “There is, alas, no ethnic community as homophobic in America as African-Americans,” he wrote that September. “Which is why the ballot initiative in California could be close.”

This basic sentiment defined postelection analysis of the Prop 8 vote. Writing for Slate, Farhad Manjoo noted that “Obama brought a huge number of strongly anti-gay-marriage voters to the polls.” “The same voters who turned out strongest for Barack Obama also drove a stake through the heart of same-sex marriage,” declared the Washington Post.

Except, not at all. Two months after the vote, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force issued a report on the results in Proposition 8 that challenged the conventional wisdom. For starters, the exit polls were wrong. Fifty-eight percent of blacks voted for Prop 8—not 70 percent—and they were 7 percent of the electorate, not 10 percent. Compared with Latinos—who were just as supportive but a larger portion of the electorate—they were less consequential to the final outcome. Moreover, the difference between whites and blacks (and Latinos) on Prop 8, about 10 percentage points, had everything to do with church attendance—account for religiosity, and the gap disappears.

Prop 8 didn’t win because of blacks or Latinos, it won because millions of Californians—white as much as black or brown—opposed same-sex marriage. Older Californians were most opposed (67 percent), but a near-majority of 30-to-44-year-olds and 45-to-64-year-olds also supported the amendment.

And yet, the narrative was set: If not for homophobic blacks, Prop 8 would have lost. As such, when North Carolina banned same-sex marriage in 2012, the blame fell again on black Americans, treating black support as a function of “blackness” and not religiosity or age.

Corporal punishment and opposition to same-sex marriage are just the most concrete examples of invented black pathology. There are many more, each based on the most nebulous of facts and inferences. Take the “acting white” phenomenon. Denounced by President Obama—and many others—it’s the idea that black children see academic achievement as “white” behavior. “Kids who raise their hands in class, who are bookish, who are nerdish, get made fun of, get beat up, get harassed,” said Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley during a recent event at the American Enterprise Institute.

Anecdote aside however, there’s little evidence of black disdain for educational achievement. Using data from a CBS News survey of educational attitudes, Howard University professor Ivory Toldson shines light on the “acting white” theory and finds it lacking:

In the most pointed question, students were asked, “Thinking about the kids who get good grades in your school, which ONE of these best describes how you see them: 1) cool, 2) normal, 3) weird, 4) boring, or 5) admired?” Response differences between black males, black females, white males and white females were not statistically different; however, at 17 percent, black males were the most likely to consider such students “cool.”

Among the other students, there were 11 to 12 percent who considered students who make good grades “cool.” The vast majority (about 60 percent) of all students, regardless of race or gender, considered kids who make good grades “normal,” and rarely considered them to be “weird” or “boring.”

At most, he notes, there’s a “nerd bend” whereby students admire high achievers and bully the highest ones. But this is present among all races; wherever there are teenagers, “bookish, nerdish” kids are a target. Put another way, there’s a reason we have a Revenge of the Nerds franchise and most of its cast members are white.

But despite the near-universal phenomenon of anti-nerd bullying, we treat its particular form among blacks as a social problem worthy of unique condemnation. The same goes for intra-community violence (whites commit the large majority of white murders but there is no “white-on-white” crime or any concept of “white criminality”), misogyny (hip-hop is lambasted while mainstream country goes mostly unscathed), and concentrated poverty (“We have got this tailspin of culture … just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”) In each case, behaviors present among other groups of Americans become pathologies when they’re exhibited by blacks. A tiny minority of black Americans have murdered, but we treat them as part of a “black crime” problem, and not a “concentrated poverty” problem or a “drug prohibition” problem.

I don’t know if there’s a solution here, or if one is even possible. The idea of black pathology is embedded in our public discourse and national psyche. It’s part of why—in the aftermath of an event like Ferguson—even black leaders are inclined to blame youth culture and clothing, as if Michael Brown (or Trayvon Martin, or Jordan Davis) would be alive if he were wearing khakis and a pressed oxford. Meanwhile, Missouri police hospitalized a 17-year-old after tasing and arresting him. But no one wonders if Bryce Masters was using slang and listening to Chief Keef.

For now, the most we can do with the myth of black pathology is try to answer why it persists, and there, I think the late James Baldwin has an answer. “I think if one examines the myths which have proliferated in this country concerning the Negro,” he said in a 1960 address at Kalamazoo College, “one discovers beneath these myths a kind of sleeping terror of some condition which we refuse to imagine. In a way, if the Negro were not here, we might be forced to deal within ourselves and our own personalities, with all those vices, all those conundrums, and all those mysteries with which we have invested the Negro race.”