Two weeks ago Abby Johnson posted a video to YouTube and her Twitter feed in which she defended racial profiling and made an extended argument blaming the problems of the Black community on the breakdown of the Black family and on absent Black fathers. The video was later taken down from Twitter and was made private on YouTube. A copy was posted to YouTube, but was removed because of a copyright complaint from Abby Johnson. However, another copy may be found here. In addition, an extensive partial transcript can be found interspersed in a long blog post by Mary Pezzulo, blogging at Steel Magnificat.
This video has provoked considerably outcry and condemnation. Besides the blog post above, see the discussion by Simcha Fisher at her blog, Liza Vandenboom at Religion Unplugged, and Jacob Tonglet at the blog of Rehumanize International, a secular pro-life group advocating for the consistent life ethic. A petition calling on the USCCB and the pro-life movement to distance itself from Abby Johnson has gained almost 200 signatures. (Simcha Fisher also had a follow-up conversation with four Black Catholics, talking first about the video and then about racism in the pro-life movement and in the Catholic Church.)
I found the video very disturbing in its use of racist arguments, especially from someone in the pro-life movement. But based on some private conversations about it, I realized that a lot of people did not really understand why I believed the arguments in the video to be racist. Much of it was addressed in various ways in the blog posts above, but there seemed to be an underlying assumption that it was racist and that this fact did not need justification. So in this blog post I want to go through the video in detail and explain how its language and arguments are embedded in and reflect the broader racist ideas that are, unfortunately, still very common today. I think this is important, as racism has no place in the pro-life movement, and I want people to understand the outrage and why there are calls for pro-life organizations to distance themselves from her over this and previous incidents (discussed here). For my part, I fully support these calls: whatever good she has done (and certainly her book and the movie Unplanned have gained a lot of attention, and her work with current and former employees of abortion clinics is important) racism is a grave evil and we need to confront it no matter where we find it.
The video begins with her professing her love for her biracial son, a love I do not question. But notice how this child, in her description, evolves from an “adorable, perpetually tan-looking little brown boy” into an “large, intimidating-looking maybe, brown man.” Her White children will become “nerdy white guys” but her black son will become threatening. She gives no reason for why her White children will appear innocuous but her Black child will not. It is as if his blackness makes him threatening. This is nothing more than a stereotype—a softer version of the language of black “thugs” and “gangbangers.” It is language which is frequently used to describe black men, even skinny teenagers such as Trayvon Martin. The stereotype of black men as brutes and savages dates back to slavery, and has been in continual circulation since then.
In the video Abby Johnson then mentions having “the talk” with her son, though she never describes what she will say. Will she try to explain to him why it is okay for the police to profile him? I do know that this conversation is a source of dread for Black parents (as well as for White parents of Black and biracial children), as they try to explain to their children how to live and survive in a world where their color makes them a threat. One of my friends, who grew up in South Carolina, recalls having these lessons driven home by blows: his father, perhaps in frustration, wanted to convey to him the potentially fatal consequences his actions around White people could have. To really understand what is involved in “the talk”, I recommend this video, a Proctor & Gamble commercial. Another friend of mine wrote about his anxieties and fears for his biracial sons in a very thoughtful Boston Globe article.
Abby Johnson then goes on to justify her own son being racially profiled because police have good, rational reasons to fear Black men. Let me quote her at length:
“So, statistically, when a police officer sees a brown man like my Jude walking down the road, as opposed to my white nerdy kids, my white nerdy men, walking down the road – because of the statistics that he knows in his head, that these police officers know in their head, they’re going to know that statistically, my brown son is more likely to commit a violent offense over my white sons.”
This is a perfect illustration of racial profiling; singling out her son only because of the color of his skin. And she justifies it as “smart.” Moreover, she is not even talking about it as a fear or emotional prejudice, a bad consequence of larger societal stereotypes. Instead, she is arguing that cops are right to profile black men based on “statistics.” I have heard this argument before, often in this context: yes, there are racial prejudices in circulation, but there are also “facts” which exist side-by-side that need to be taken into consideration. (At this point, someone almost invariably says, “It may be politically incorrect to bring these up, but….”)
There are two problems with this argument. First, the statistics she cites about Black incarceration rates are either wrong or taken badly out of context. She conflates prison population with criminality, and takes no notice of the ways in which the judicial system, from the police through prosecutors and judges, treat Black people very differently than they do White people. This misuse of statistics is nicely discussed in the Rehumanize blog post linked to above. For an exhaustive discussion of the ways in which the criminal justice system has singled out and mistreated the Black community, and on White perceptions of the Black community, I recommend Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
Second, and intertwined with this is the way in which “facts” and “statistics” are used to rationalize racial prejudice and reinforce a broader, false narrative above violent black men. I think the best example of this comes from a story I read (but which I now, unfortunately, cannot source): a Black prosecuting attorney is talking to a White colleague about a drug trafficking case they are handling. His colleague is proposing that they offer a relatively lenient plea deal, saying, “It’s not like he is a gun-wielding drug-dealer!” But, in fact, he was: he was charged with trafficking, and had been arrested with guns in his truck. The DA instead chose to interpret the guns through a different, exculpatory lens: he was a hunter, everyone who lives in rural areas carries a gun, etc. Were the defendant Black, the attorney telling the story argues, the interpretation would have been very different. The point of this story is that “facts” are not self-evident they have to be interpreted and placed into some context. Statistics about Black crime are interpreted and misinterpreted in support of preconceived notions about what Blacks, particularly Black men, are “really like,” and these preconceptions are driven by racist stereotypes that have a long history in America.
Abby Johnson then turns to the heart of her video, which is a denunciation of Black culture in general and absent Black fathers in particular. She drags out a statistic that she repeats several times, that 70% of black fathers are absent fathers. She gives no citation for this information, neither in the video nor in a follow up interview with Simcha Fisher (see the link above). After some searching, it appears that this number comes from a misinterpretation of data in a 1992 book by Andrew Billingsly, that found that (at the time) 70% of Black children were born to unmarried parents. However, unmarried does not mean that the parents are not living together. More recent studies claim that a majority of Black fathers live with their children, though the data is extremely complicated. (You can see the CDC data set and its analysis here.) Moreover, the same data suggests that Black men make a greater effort to be good fathers than White fathers do.
I want to turn from this specific, incorrect statistic, and look at the rhetorical basis of this argument.
She shifts the blame from any of the larger institutional problems and blames the Black community for what is happening to them. In her own words:
“If you wanna solve this madness that’s going on right here, right now in our society, that is where you start, because what’s happening right now with police, and criminals, and rioting, and violence – that is just a symptom of what has been going on for a long time in the homes and the communities of our Black families.”
Mass incarceration, police violence, racial profiling: none of this is the fault of a racist system—Black people are responsible for their own fate. And, presumably, they can solve all the problems of the Black community by fixing it themselves.
I will admit that I find it particularly repugnant to watch a White woman lecture the Black community about what their real problems are. (Given the tenor of the video, hectoring may be a more apt description.) Her presumption seems to be that the Black community is unable or unwilling to understand its own situation, and it necessary for White people to show them the truth. This attitude is grounded in a stereotype that predates the Civil War: a common justification for slavery was that Blacks were simply unable to behave in a civilized fashion without White oversight. This stereotype shifted after the war and became one of the pillars of Jim Crow segregation: that White dominance over Blacks was necessary and just because Black people were unable to manage their own affairs in a civilized manner. This was a major theme in D.W. Griffith’s superbly made but completely racist film, Birth of a Nation, and it continues to underlie many discussions of the Black community. By way of comparison: discussions about drug abuse, single parent households, gun violence, etc. in the White community are never framed as “problems with White culture.”
This line of argumentation also ignores the fact that the Black community is fully aware of these issues and discusses them at great length (though usually out of the sight and hearing of the White community). Note, for example, the discussions about the 70% figure linked to above came from a prominent Black newspaper, the Chicago Reporter, or see the more critical discussion here. The nature and problems of Black culture and the Black community have been discussed since the end of Reconstruction: they were central to the divisions between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, and the rise of the “New Negro” movement. (For a clear discussion of this history, I recommend Henry Louis Gates book, The Stony Road.)
Admittedly, there are some similarities between some internal critiques and the argument Abby Johnson is making. For instance, Bill Cosby gave the controversial “Pound Cake speech” which was highly critical of certain aspects of Black culture. There is, however, a significant difference. With the exception of a small handful of Black conservatives (besides Cosby, Candace Owens, mentioned by Abby Johnson, springs to mind) whose principal audience seems to be White conservatives, when these debates occur in the Black community they are generally about the Black response to White racism and the systems which helped to create and perpetuate black social pathology. Criticisms of Black culture exist, but are not uncontested–see the discussion about “respectability politics.” In other words, the Black community know there are problems, but they ground their discussion of them in the larger structures of racism that surround and oppress their community. For one good example of this, since rap music is frequently mentioned by Whites when criticizing Black culture, I recommend the video “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes” for a nuanced discussion about black culture and the role of the larger society in shaping it.
But, returning to the argument made byAbby Johnson: she appears to be unaware of this discussion within the Black community. In the video she repeatedly accuses Black people of either ignoring these issues or trying to pretend they are not problems. Note her assertion that
They are trying to redefine Black fatherhood, because they don’t like that 70% stat, so instead of setting the bar higher, for Black fathers, they’re simply redefining fatherhood in the Black community. (Emphasis added)
She instead lectures Blacks on what she believes their real problems are. She is not trying to engage with the Black community, or listen to it: they need to listen to her. Or, as she puts it:
“If Black America wants to start writing and talking about something, this is it. This is it.”
Finally, I want to call attention to the one glaring omission in this video. Nowhere in it does Abby Johnson mention the incident which triggered the current round of protests and riots: the brutal murder of George Floyd by a White police officer. She makes at best an oblique reference to it, dismissing his murder because it does not conform to her narrative about problems in Black culture:
Mark my words. It’s not because of bad cops. It’s because of bad dads. You want to jump on board with something? Jump on board with that.”
From beginning to end, the argument that Abby Johnson makes in her video is grounded in and expands upon racist stereotypes and assumptions that have been part of White America for a very long time. That she supports and disseminates these arguments is a bad thing. Silence by the pro-life community in the face of this can be interpreted as support, or at least a belief that these concerns are not as important as other issues (i.e., abortion). I hope and pray that in response to the outcry the video has generated, Abby Johnson does the “research” she talks about in the video and modifies her views. But until then the pro-life movement should distance itself from her.
Coda: I want to address one question that I have heard in private conversations: is Abby Johnson racist? I will stand by my assertion that the arguments she makes in this video are racist. But as to whether she herself is racist, in the (narrow) sense of harboring deep and abiding hatred or fear of Black people, that is unknowable based on a single video. Moreover, I think framing the question in this way misses an important point: racism is a problem not because of personal prejudice, but because of the systems of racial oppression which were created and continue to exist in the US, systems that most White people cannot see or do not understand the full implications of, simply because they never have a direct impact on them. (“Driving while Black” is a thing; there is no commensurate offense of “driving while White.”) As the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has argued, we now live in an America filled with “racism without racists.” I feel it is important to challenge Abby Johnson’s arguments because they are part of a broader, false narrative which exists to support and sustain these structures.