On Half the Hyphen: Breaking Brown & The Question of African-American Collectivism.

There’s this thing about how white players in the NBA are statistically superior from the free throw line than black players. They actually studied this, like in the mid or late 60s. Whether or not this is the case today is kind of anyone’s guess. For very obvious reasons there’s not a lot of purely race-based statistical analysis happening in professional sports nowadays. But anyway they controlled for height and everything, and it turned out to be something like white players were 4% more accurate than black players at the free throw line, which—statistically—is not insignificant. They then went and tested the same thing at the college level. This time they even passed around a questionnaire that players were asked to fill out because the researchers wanted to get so fine-grained with their analysis that they could potentially look at the players’ free throw percentages for the season and correlate them with like an absent father or the family’s annual gross income or whatever. They analyzed the free throw data, then re-analyzed it to control for height, and what they found was that the data bore out basically in exactly the same manner as it had in the pros, with the white players again being reliably more accurate from the foul line than black players. The questionnaire also plainly ruled out the differences being accounted for by certain variables like socio-economic status or like a dad not being around while the kid was growing up to make him stay out ’til after dark doing free-throw drills in the driveway either. So what was it?

The basic hypothesis was that—in sports that were more reactive in nature (boxing, football, etc.)—black players outperformed whites, while white players tended to—in sports that were more self-paced (golf; bowling)—outperform blacks. And in order to eliminate certain social factors that exclude black participants (e.g. golf is expensive; professional bowling is not exactly a sport in which black role models abound), they looked exclusively to a sport like basketball which contained both reactive and self-paced components, and in which African-Americans are overrepresented. The results of the free throw experiment, taken together with black players statistically outperforming white players in the reactive aspects of the game (field goal shots; one-on-one play), appeared to support the researchers’ original hypothesis that performance in the two styles of sports could be charted out along lines of race and could be, they said, “genetic in origin.”

It wasn’t until a few years later that a guy named James M. Jones came along and appended a more nuanced explanation onto the original hypothesis of reactive vs. self-paced performance disparities. Those low free throw percentages, he argued, couldn’t really be properly understood outside of  “the cultural context in which basketball skills develop.” In other words, it wasn’t that—with respect to self-paced sports—black players were less capable merely because of their biology; it was that certain “culturally conditioned attributes and capacities” of an African-American’s unique psychology weren’t exercised in those sports, and thus accounted for the performance disparity.

Jones’s overall aim was much more ambitious than to simply rescue the African-American free throw shooter or professional bowler from the fate of a purely essentialist understanding of the number of bricks or gutter balls that might issue from their hands. Nor was he really all that interested in limiting his analysis to the world of sports. Rather, Jones set out to argue that African-American culture on the whole—in particular its powerful and robust psychological element; the “patterns of thinking, feeling, behaving, and valuing”—reflected and was “continuous with its African origins,” and was instrumental in helping cope, adapt, and essentially survive the contexts of slavery and dehumanization into which they’d been forced, and the oppressed condition in which they today remain.

What Jones was hoping to underscore was that this conception of African-American culture markedly “diverge[s] from one constructed on the principles of a European-derived materialistic individualism.” Instead, it’s one whose nature “reflect[s] the core African ethos,” which—to the extent that it departs from a Western ideal of self-reliance—can reasonably be understood as being grounded in communitarian values. Abdou Diouf—who was Senegal’s prime minister around the time when Jones was writing—perhaps articulates that ethos more precisely: “The emotional characteristics of the Negro-African form the substructure of communal life in Africa . . . it develops especially the inclination to solidarity, mutual aid, justice and honour, and by stimulating the collective work and equity in the distribution, they forge the socialistic and civil spirits which inspire our strategy of development.” With this notion informing his analysis of African-American culture, Jones would go on to argue that—beyond mechanisms for survival in their oppression—these “expressions of psyche” that are rooted in Africa take on a unique and significant political valence here in America in the context of the ongoing struggle for equality: “Progress in rights and opportunities, however much qualified,” he says, “opens up new avenues of possibility and expands the range of goals to which the reactionary and evolutionary mechanisms may be directed.”

Just prior to Breaking Brown‘s indefinite hiatus, Yvette Carnell uploaded a short video to her YouTube channel that, in many ways, echoed the words of both Abdou Diouf and James M. Jones. And, as she prepared to regroup with the Breaking Brown project, she left her audience to deliberate over this thought in the meantime:

“I don’t know if African-Americans, morally . . . not intellectually . . . morally—in terms of our values—have what it takes to be super-capitalists. I don’t know if we have what it takes to be capitalists. The problem is African-Americans don’t have the level of viciousness required to snatch or take anything on that level. The way we that we have gotten ahead . . . and not even ahead . . . but the way that we’ve gotten to be still alive after what we’ve been through . . . the way that we have secured ourselves after what we’ve been through is by collectively doing with and for each other.”

Some of the reaction to Yvette’s statement was predictably swift and defensive. The capitalist economy, they contended, is in fact an eminently tenable system for uplift in the black community; this despite the fact that the very system for which they are advocating has already basically completely devoured their community and is now merely using what’s left of it to pick its teeth as it moves onto its second course: the white middle-class. There was also the weird and wince-inducing insistence by some commenters that, in fact, African-Americans do, as a collective, possess all the requisite immorality and viciousness needed to economically thrive in a hyper-capitalist society; the moment to do so, they said, has just not yet arrived. Why someone would rush to claim ownership of such innate depravity is maybe best understood as, simply, behavior conditioned by sheer desperation for some kind of solution in the face of abject ruin, or how capitalism has come to so totally subsume the political imaginations of its subjects that even those who are its chief victims foreclose on the possibility of any alternative arrangement between human beings outside of the purely exploitative. For it’s a bleak situation indeed when a person would sooner repudiate the suggestion of her innate good than flatly condemn the wretchedness of capitalism with which that righteousness is said to be incommensurate.

However, not one of the skeptics of the idea of African-American collectivist cultural norms saw fit to refute—or to even challenge—the validity of Yvette Carnell’s claim on the grounds of actual science. After all, how can someone who is not, as far as we know, particularly verse in modern cultural neuroscience make such a seemingly broad and confident assertion as to the morality and values system of a particular race of people? Isn’t this precisely the sort of essentialist way of looking at groups of people that leads even so-called experts to say something like black basketball players miss a higher percentage of free throws because they’re black? And insofar as the sorts of gains that Breaking Brown is attempting to help realize for African-American Descendants of Slaves, which undoubtedly require a collectivist-minded constituency, it’s worth considering—or at least being skeptical about—how the project may lean too heavily on its ideal rather than grapple with the question of exactly how much the people it needs to act collectively in order to make those gains actually do favor the community over the individual.

The answer to that question, like with so many things in America—as Ms. Carnell herself often says—appears to be quite complicated. In a wide-ranging, 2002 meta-analysis of studies looking at individualism and collectivism across certain ethnicities within the U.S., African-Americans emerged as more individualistic than their white counterparts. About a decade later, another empirically relevant piece of data for the cultural propensity to collectivism surfaced: the frequency of the S allele in the serotonin transmitter gene 5-HTTLRP. Lower frequencies of that S allele were reported in African-Americans, which would in turn support the earlier studies’ findings of African-Americans having a psychological orientation toward an individualist, and not collectivist, culture.

However, in that same meta-analysis, researchers performed a regional analysis in which Africa (particularly West Africa, the region from which the majority of slaves were stolen and brought to the U.S.) was demonstrated to greatly exceed every other global region that was examined for psychological traits of collectivism. In particular, Africa’s collectivist rating was nearly double that of Western Europe, and 13x’s higher than English-speaking regions. Moreover, the data on African-Americans includes two major caveats: a relatively small sample size of African-Americans, owing in part to the difficulty in recruiting them for genetic research. And, the second caveat—less explicitly stated as such in the study, though arguably of far greater significance—is the fine distinction that necessarily needs to be drawn in considering the ramifications of living as an African-American in an oppressive, materialist, and largely anti-black society for centuries, and what that sustained experience will do to a human psyche. James Jones argues as much when he says, in “the hostile context [of America] . . . [i]ndividualism in the service of survival and establishing self-worth may be of a different quality than individualism that serves personal achievement.”

In other words, for African-Americans, one side of that hyphen—culturally—is doing a lot more work in (re)shaping the psyche than the other. It is that culture within which circulates all the wealth and everything else that would materially benefit the African-American community, and in which it has historically been hoarded in order to preclude the possibility that descendants of slaves may heal and be made whole. Breaking Brown aims to show that if there is any hope at all for African-Americans to lay claim to what of that bounty is rightfully theirs, it is the other side of that hyphen—that side in which those collectivist attitudes of mind find their historical roots—that must be recovered from the cultish delirium of individualism and tapped into for the political project here at home. That political project, at least at this present stage, is not particularly interested in prescribing one specific ideology over the other as a definitive way forward for African-American Descendants of Slaves, but rather is interested in asking those who desire change—especially now as the nation enters a new period of what Antonio Moore rightly describes as an amplified and omnidirectional assault on black life—to weigh the suitability of those traditional values with respect to a politics of individualism, a politics that has exploited them and given them the only thing they’ve arguably ever collectively known here: a social and economic environment of oppression.