Blaming the Victim and the Racial Double Standard

It’s in his influential 1971 Blaming the Victim that psychologist William Ryan of Boston College coined the phrase “blaming the victim.” For Ryan, victim blaming is an ideology and a tactic used by middle and upper class whites to invalidate demands from black or otherwise marginalized communities for social justice. Racial inequities constituted a racist situation wherein whites are able to deny racism by laying the blame for inequality on what Ryan see as the black victims of white privilege.

Ryan wrote the book in response to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s notorious 1965 The Negro Family. Moynihan was a Harvard sociologist who was the time serving as an assistant labor secretary under Lyndon Johnson. The thesis of The Negro Family. often referred to as as the “Moynihan Report,” is that a dysfunctional subculture lay at the roots of black poverty, an idea introduced in the 1930s by sociologist E. Franklin Frazier.

William Ryan’s sensational book, published in 1971

“Don’t you think that black people share any responsibility for the conditions of their existence?” This is the question that is sometimes put to me when discussing racial inequality, although I have noticed growing hesitation among my white students to post it. It’s a way to force me to admit that blacks are partly to blame for their situation so that those who blame blacks can feel vindicated.

Once they get their foot in the door, they think (this is my interpretation of motive, anyway), they can push it wide open and confuse others as to the sources of the problems black Americans face that are allegedly more significant than racism.

The question is frustrating because it is so often asked in bad faith. Asked by somebody who is trying to prevent frank discussion of the problem marginalized groups feel, the question forces the expert into a defensive position. A lot of social liberals are made reluctant to speak frankly about the problems facing black Americans because they worry that soon the camel will be inside the tent—as well as risking the charge of victim blaming.

The strict structuralist social scientist will answer the question this way: If by bearing responsibility for the conditions of existence as a demographic category one means that there are black people who don’t pick themselves up by their bootstraps and work hard to achieve the American Dream, then the answer to the question is no. The ordinary everyday behaviors of black people, supposing they aren’t of the hard working and self-reliant type allegedly associated with success, have nothing to do with causing the conditions that befall blacks in the aggregate. To the extent that behaviors in the black community can be differentiated from the behaviors of other groups, these differences are caused by the conditions of their existence and are not the cause of them.

To understand why this is so, attempt an explanation of the circumstances of the white working class that depends on their failure to work hard and act in self-reliant ways. It’s a fact that white workers trail white managers and capitalists in every significant social category. On the whole, white workers suffer poorer health, shorter life-spans, lower incomes, cheaper houses, unstable job market, longer working days, inferior retirement, lower educational attainment, etc.

Are these the cause of their condition? The features of the conditions of the white working class result from the situation of structural inequality. White workers suffer such things because white managers and capitalists enjoy better health, longer life-spans, higher incomes, expensive houses, stable occupations, more leisure time, superior retirement, higher educational attainment, etc. In other words, the equation is not balanced, formulated as it is in the context of capitalist accumulation.

Capitalism is a system in which a few families own and control the means of production (capitalists and managers) and the rest of society is forced to sell its labor to survive or starve when its labor is not wanted—that is the dynamic of capitalist accumulation and the legal relations that maintain the status quo. White working people suffer because capitalists and managers exploit their labor, with the latter paid out of the surplus value labor generates. This is the only way that those who work so little can have so much while those who work so much can have so little.

This is why we call those who blame white workers for the conditions of the white working class classists. The elite look down on the white working class. They maintain the status quo that benefits them by maintaining that the problems working people face are caused by the workers themselves—blaming the victims of the capitalist mode of production.

Of course, we should note that there are very few people explicitly pushing the anti-working class argument these days. Why? It’s campaign season. Phil Gramm of Texas, an adviser to the John McCain campaign, told working people to stop whining and work harder. The McCain campaign quickly disavowed his comments because such an argument is offensive to white workers, and McCain needs their votes.

McCain knows that campaigning on slogans blaming the white worker for unemployment, bankruptcies, and a broken health care system is a nonstarter. McCain doesn’t want to seem like an elitist. He wants to appear to support the white working class. To be sure, Republicans make the personal responsibility argument in terms of class when they are talking among themselves. The same might be said for Democrats except that they wouldn’t be caught dead blaming the working class for its problems. They, too, want those votes. They have a legacy to leverage—however false that legacy is.

To say that black working people are responsible for unstable labor markets, poor health outcomes, educational underachievement, and residential displacement because they don’t try hard enough is something akin to saying that all working people are responsible for unstable labor markets, poor health outcomes, educational underachievement, and residential displacement because they don’t try hard enough. 

It’s not only conservatives who target blacks for special criticism. Progressives defend Obama against the charge of talking down to black people and attack critics like Jesse Jackson for criticizing Obama. It’s a double standard. White workers are the victims of large impersonal forces in their eyes, but black workers aren’t? Black workers need a little tough love from one of their own?

Obama says, “I think it’s time we had a president who doesn’t deny our problems or blame the American people for them but takes responsibility and provides the leadership to solve them.” Political sophisticates on the other side say the same thing. When Sean Hannity notes that we are not in a recession and that people in the US have every opportunity to pursue their dreams, that they don’t appreciate that gift and don’t take advantage of it, Gingrich bristles and said it was the most un-Reaganesque thing Hannity had ever said. Hannity defends himself by saying that it was very Reaganesque because “if you work hard and you play by the rules, you can’t fail.” To which Gingrich replied,

If the American people are complaining, you ought to listen to them and find out why. Now why are they complaining? The price of health care is going up, the price of health insurance is going up, the price of sending their kids to college is going up, the price of gasoline is going up. They fear China as a competitor. They look at a tightening situation. I talked to manufacturers who are seeing dramatic increases in the cost of their—of their raw materials, and they say to each other, this is hard—people for the first time that I can remember, people decline the number of miles they’re driving in the last two months because it is directly affecting their pocketbook. Now if your customer comes in and complains to you it is not good to say to the customer why don’t you quit whining.

Except if you’re black, of course. If you know anything about Newt Gingrich you know that he believes that, if you’re black, then the problem is that you’re not trying hard enough. But, again, Obama operates the same way. Obama is pushing the lie that the problems of black America’s workers are caused by the behavior of black Americans.

Again, ask yourself, are white workers losing their houses and jobs, failing to go to college, etc., because they don’t exhibit proper levels of personal responsibility and pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Is Gramm right that white workers are a bunch of whiners who suffer a recession that exists only in their imagination? BrO is Gingrich right white workers have a right to whine? And black people aren’t allowed to whine?

Even though their situation is worse because of racism, even though they are in less of a position to do anything about their situation compared to whites, blacks are held to an different standard of personal responsibility, even though personal responsibility is not the reason for their problems. It’s racist when Gingrich does it. It’s racist when Obama does it.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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