Why Ta-Nehisi isn't a "Black Nerd"

A reader sent me this blog post which waxes disdainfully about the a black community seemingly obsessed with cars and clothes, while showing no regard for education. Just for good measure, we get a nice dose of black immigrant snobbism ("Realistically, I should have used the term ‘African nerds,’ because almost all of the smartest black people I know were either born in Africa or are first-generation Africans."). Of course like all prejudice, the commenter mistakes his limited experience to be somehow universal for some 30 million black people.

But before I go further, an observation--I'm totally with folks who say we need to stop blaming the white man, and have done my part to take on Sharptonism. But it always amazes me to see those same people turn around and blame a broader "black culture" for the larger problems of our black community. This strikes me as no better than "White Man-ism," because it still undermines the case for individual strength and effort. A blame paradigm is a blame paradigm, whether its blaming black people or white people. In my house, when I got bad grades--which was often--my parents would slapped the black off me if I blamed a D on "the white man." But they'd have done the same thing if I'd blamed my D "on a culture of pathology amongst black people." To me, it's fundamentally weak to blame others for a personal lack of success.

Which brings us to this Black Nerd posting. It begins by positing a strict dichotomy between popularity and intelligence, i.e. if you're black and smart, you necessarily won't be popular. The writer acknowledges that this same dichotomy exists among white people--indeed his whole article takes off from a white guy musing over why white nerds aren't popular. But like most Black Cultural Patholgists, the writer simply leaps past the context and into a meditation on the intellectual savagery of black folks.

First, lets dispense with the central claim--do black people value education less than whites? Two studies by economists help us out with this. The first by Roland Fryar, is probably the most reputable (though still problematic) study of the whole "acting white" phenomenon. The study concludes that black kids--like all kids--do tend to lose popularity as they do better in school. Meanwhile, black kids tend to lose popularity at a greater rate than white kids when not in majority black schools. While this is a concern, it doesn't really work as an explanation for the achievement gap, because the majority of black kids attend majority black schools, where, according to Fryar, there really is no difference between how black kids and white kids see intelligence and popularity.

It should also be added that to the extent that their is a "acting white" phenomenon, Fryar's study shows that it is at its worse, not among blacks, but among Hispanics. The second study addresses whether blacks, on balance, spend more of thier resources on material things, as opposed to education. The answer is yes--but it isn't for the reasons that the BCPers think. It turns out that difference has a lot more to do with the wealth distribution in the black and white communities, than actual value differences.

The writer of the blog post seems like a fairly sharp cat. But he joins a chorus of otherwise "fairly sharp cats" who seem to believe that black folks are uncomplicated and can be understood simply by sitting on one's stoop and taking notes. From a personal perspective, I'm tired of defending black folks against people who can't even be bothered to look past thier own prejudices and experiences. That includes other black people I've got no use for that small portion of us who've made it somewhere and now want to spend our days sneering at people who weren't so lucky.

I'm not a black nerd because I'm not a black snob, because I have no desire to look down from my perch of quasi-success and sneer at those scraping and struggling below. I loved X-Men andf D&D. I think Robotech is the epic of our time. But I think Michael Jordan's flu-game, Emmitt Smith running through the Giants with a seperated shoulder, the instrumental to Wu-Tang Clan's "Triumph" is a glorious as anything I ever came from the pen of Chris Claremont. I'm not a black nerd because I wish I'd paid more attention when the kids were shooting the basketball into a milk-crate. I wish I'd learned to dribble between my legs, and I'll make sure my son does. I'm not a black nerd because I believe in being multi-lingual, because I hope to understand that knowing--and loving--Ebonics, doesn't preclude you from learning proper English.

UPDATE: Commenter Eric basically nails it:

The African (or Caribbean) vs. American black comparison seems particularly unfair to me, because it cherrypicks two distinct populations. It compares someone with the motivation and intelligence (and financial resources) to immigrate with an average American. Smart people are going to be successful in any context, and average people will go on being average. There's plenty of average Africans in Africa, but they're there and not here because they immigrating is difficult.

Seriously though, D&D and comic books? Totally a nerd. The blackness is irrelevant.

True on all counts. I'd love to compare some native African-Americans with some native Nigerians and see how the comparison goes. For more on this check out Malcolm Gladwell's absolutely brilliant reported essay on native American blacks vs. immigrant blacks:

things changed when I left for Toronto to attend college. This was during the early nineteen-eighties, when West Indians were immigrating to Canada in droves, and Toronto had become second only to New York as the Jamaican expatriates' capital in North America. At school, in the dining hall, I was served by Jamaicans. The infamous Jane-Finch projects, in northern Toronto, were considered the Jamaican projects. The drug trade then taking off was said to be the Jamaican drug trade. In the popular imagination, Jamaicans were--and are--welfare queens and gun-toting gangsters and dissolute youths. In Ontario, blacks accused of crimes are released by the police eighteen per cent of the time; whites are released twenty-nine per cent of the time. In drug-trafficking and importing cases, blacks are twenty-seven times as likely as whites to be jailed before their trial takes place, and twenty times as likely to be imprisoned on drug-possession charges.

After I had moved to the United States, I puzzled over this seeming contradiction--how West Indians celebrated in New York for their industry and drive could represent, just five hundred miles northwest, crime and dissipation. Didn't Torontonians see what was special and different in West Indian culture? But that was a naïve question. The West Indians were the first significant brush with blackness that white, smug, comfortable Torontonians had ever had. They had no bad blacks to contrast with the newcomers, no African-Americans to serve as a safety valve for their prejudices, no way to perform America's crude racial triage.

The piece speaks for itself and is my standard reply to black immigrants who talk about how native blacks don't value education and hard work, like their American counterparts, like Flatbush Avenue doesn't exist. Since I've come to New York, that's happened more times than I care to count.