I once told a young lady in a political science class, after she debated me and half the other graduate students present regarding some basics of microeconomics, that she needed to go “read something.” You see, she had “backed up” her argument with stats she found on popular blogs and fringe sites. But, it was clear that she had no clue that these “sources” were not actual sources. The “something” I wanted her to read was an academic book or scholarly paper from a reliable source other than Wikipedia. She was a victim of the internet-is-truth-when-it backs-up-my-biases malediction. Many people suffer from it. But, I find that black folks, in particular, are susceptible to this undercover ailment.
So, my question is simple; are black people and empirical facts arch enemies?
I am a black nerd. I have always been a nerd (not a geek – more factually a glerd) and have been unapologetic about it my entire life. For me, every assertion must be based in linear, measurable fact. In other words, it must be empirical. Yet, I have noticed that much of the dialogue in the black community, especially within the ranks of online bloggers and opinionators, is not factual in origin. Instead, it comes from biased attitudes, personal experiences, and assumptions based on limited interactions. Sadly, these are not facts. They are data perhaps, but definitely not facts. Let me explain why.
The laws of deduction assert that taking a sample of a general whole (like a group), if taken representatively, can lead to great insights about the future behavior of the individuals within that group. Yet, black folks often use inductive reasoning which focuses on a small few and blows the findings up to make general declarations about a group. Can’t we do better than that? Let’s walk through two case studies so my point is crystal clear.
Case 1: The Rachel Jeantel Ordeal
Last month, Rachel Jeantel, 19, received a slew of harsh critiques after she took the stand to testify in the Zimmerman Trial about the last few words she shared with Trayvon Martin, her childhood friend who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in early 2012. Jeantel represents a very specific niche of the black community which often receives fewer government stipends in the form of education mandates and housing bonds.
She is not the product of a Tier-1 university and probably eked by in high school. She was harshly ridiculed by her own black community and others in online blogs and media publications. Folks were up in arms about her “attitude,” appearance, and vernacular. Olympic track athlete Lolo Jones so eloquently described the ordeal as “Madea goes to court.” Only a few of her critics highlighted the system in which she was socialized, thereby humanizing her amidst her current station in life.
Factually, Jeantel represents hundreds of thousands of little girls from inner cities and poorer neighborhoods in this country. She did not socialize herself. She grew up in a cycle of poverty which taught her how to speak, act, and function. Statistics have made it clear that folks like Jeantel suffer due to institutionalized disparities which greatly affect people of color in this country. So, should we be blaming Jeantel for her demeanor, educational attainment, and lack of command of the English language? To a certain extent we can. But, how far does that reach? And what does it change if we lash out at her, the individual?
Empirically, gobs and gobs of social science data explain why Jeantel’s dialect, demeanor, and educational status exist. However, because black folks like Don Lemon and Bill Cosby think that black folks should just do better (in a silo of sorts), Jeantel must tow the burden of the social structure put in place centuries before she was even born? To blow it up further, black folks are responsible for their own social status in this country? Since when does any data support that? Well, it doesn’t. I have an issue with that.
The black community should do less to internalize the inaccurate stereotypes of their own group. We should strive to place the accountability squarely where it belongs; with those in political and economic power. We truncate our own potential with intra-racial hatred and detestation. How does it serve our community if we neglect facts in our own critique of the group with which we identify?
Case 2: Our Love of the NFL and NBA
This one may hit a little closer to home but clearly articulates my point. It is the issue of black folks and sports. Yes, sports. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a fan of organized national sports leagues. For my own personal reasons, the sport I thought would pay my way through college (basketball) has turned into a sour point for me. After I figured out that basketball wasn’t the only route to college, I worked toward academic attainment. And, instead, I received a full ride on academics alone. Nonetheless, my concerns about the infatuation with professional athletics in poorer communities of color are less about my personal experience and more about simple statistics.
Young men, particularly in the black community, are socialized at a very early age to play football or basketball. Because of age-old misnomers about supposed physical prowess as opposed to intellectual acumen, many in the black community seem to believe that sports are more of a sure bet than math, science, and the like. They see sports as tickets out of their current economic bracket. And this is true for the one in one million athlete that makes it. But, let’s do the math here. If there are millions of young athletes across the country, of all races, and only a few thousand professional athletic positions across ALL sports at any given time, does it really make sense, statistically, to push youth toward that career path?
The likelihood that a male high school student will reach professional athletics is less than a tenth of a percent for every sport with a professional league other than baseball – which only boasts a little more than half a percent likelihood that a high school athlete will make it to the pros. The media continues to promote notions of potential success in athletics as a long-term career option. The fact is, folks have a better chance of winning their state lottery than making it in sports.
In addition, the music industry – which is highly publicized as a picturesque image of black success – operates in much the same way.
Knowing this information, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to push our children towards STEM programs suffering from extremely low numbers of minorities but boast a booming industry of next generation careers? It seems asinine to purport that sports are means for longevity when there is absolutely no data to support that claim. And, teaching our young boys and girls that they should abandon knowledge in favor of something as fleeting as a b-ball career is misleading, irresponsible, and dangerous. Why not have the sports be the back-up? Just makes more sense right? So the real question is, why aren’t more black folks in the media saying this?
What’s the Fix?
What does one do with this information? The truth is, with the increasing presence online of black bloggers, pundits, commentators, and culture purveyors, there are bound to be a slew of slanted and un-vetted opinions which rise to viral status. You know the saying, “Opinions are like a** holes. Everyone has them.” But, there is another saying which addresses this phenomenon, “Everyone is entitled to their own truth but not their own facts.”
Facts are facts. There are bits of information which we encode, filter, manipulate, and regurgitate based on our understanding of them. But, this never changes them from their initial eminence of empirical truth. Sadly, the black community continues to rely on second-hand information which typically originates from non-vetted sources. This means that black writers, bloggers, TV personalities (like Jones, Lemon, and Cosby), radio hosts, and commentators have a greater responsibility to meet the need of our target audience. We can no longer treat our highly visible positions as simple sounding boards to display our counterfactual brain farts.
The black community would be strengthened by leaning toward facts in times of racial, political, and social conflict or disparity. They instead seem to be our kryptonite. We veer away from facts habitually and subsequently, chase after them whenever convenient. At some point, we will have to collectively embrace the factual nature of our existence. Critical discussions of social issues are not mutually exclusive with true, vetted facts. But, if we continue to show our inability to utilize facts properly, we will only perpetuate the very stereotypes and tropes we seek to rebuke. And, if we – meaning writers – continue to mislead our own people, we become partially culpable of the critiques we hold of the world around us.
Jenn M. Jackson is a proverbial “Jill” of all trades. She is a USC grad in engineering and is on her way to doctoral studies in Political Science. She runs a glerd blog called Water Cooler Convos with her husband which offers a “nerdy, artsy, bourgie” perspective of culture, politics, music and current events. She also recently launched a future 501c3 called The Worth Campaign.