In California, ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger destroys his family by revealing that he had a love child with the housekeeper. In New York City, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is arrested for an alleged sexual assault on a hotel maid. In Washington, D.C., Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich runs up a six-figure bill at Tiffany & Co. buying bling for his third wife, who also happens to be his former mistress.
Sounds like the lineup for an episode of The Jerry Springer Show! Has the time finally come for social scientists who blame the so-called culture of poverty for the lowly status of the black underclass to start focusing on the equally pathological culture of the wealthy, powerful — and, not coincidently, virtually all-white elite? Will conservative white politicians like Gingrich finally stop lecturing the black poor about their “bad habits” and start cleaning up their own acts?
If only it were so.
I’m not arguing that the self-destructive conduct of many of the black poor isn’t one of the major causes of their problems. Only a fool would assert such a ridiculous idea.
But as these incidents torn from this week’s headlines make clear, while the sort of self-destructive, irresponsible and slothful attitudes and behaviors that we impute to the poor souls stuck at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder are also common at its pinnacle, we treat those at the top very differently.
For one thing, society does not tend to judge all rich white people by the standard of, say, Bernie Madoff or Paris Hilton. Their failings are seen as flaws resulting from their individual characters, not as manifestations of the inherent characteristics of members of their entire class. The black poor, on the other hand, are routinely subjected to blanket condemnation when some member of their group behaves deplorably.
More important, with a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation, influential whites are different than you and me: When they exhibit the exact-same sort of immoral, anti-social conduct that we find so abhorrent among the black poor, they don’t have to pay the same price.
Being an unwed teenage mother without a high school diploma did not ruin Bristol Palin’s life, as it almost certainly would have if she had been a poor girl from the ghetto. Nor did it stop her mother from becoming a major political figure based largely on her image as an avatar of born-again Christian family values.
A history of drug addiction did not land radio schlock slinger Rush Limbaugh in the slammer or deprive him of the right to vote, as it has multitudes of black young men. The litany of white evangelical hucksters, including Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, caught up in sexual peccadilloes while condemning immorality from the pulpit speaks for itself.