Skip to content
Virtuous Lies and Black Despair
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Virtuous Lies and Black Despair

Many leftists claim that black Americans are crushed beneath a vast, racist social machinery. It is hard to imagine a more demoralizing message.

· 9 min read

Teenage depression and suicide rates have been rising in the US for years, but the rates among black teens are rising farther and faster than among those of other ethnicities. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (2011–2021), the percentage of black teens who seriously considered suicide rose 69 percent from 13 percent in 2011 to a frightening 22 percent in 2021. The average increase among all ethnicities was 37.5 percent—just over half the rise documented in black teens. 

The same trend can be seen across multiple measures of mental health. In 2021, black teens were 63 percent more likely to have made a concrete suicide plan over the course of the past year than they were in 2011 (teens in general were only 38 percent more likely to have done so) and 75 percent more likely to have attempted suicide (the average increase among all teens was 25 percent). 

Complex social phenomena can rarely be attributed to a single cause. A range of factors—from increased social media use to less free play—may play a role in teen depression overall and black teen depression in particular. But there is one possible explanation for these disturbing figures that is less often talked about: the virtuous lie that we tell about the prevalence of racism in the United States.

A virtuous lie is a false or dubious claim that is asserted without qualification because it is thought to advance an ethical agenda. Well-intentioned falsehoods like this exaggerate—indeed often catastrophize—the extent and scope of genuine problems in order to draw more attention to them in the hopes of resolving them. 

We tell virtuous lies not only in order to change the world for the better but in order to showcase our allegiance to the noble causes that they promote. In our hyper-polarized and censorious world, one way to protect ourselves from the accusation that we don't care about issue X is to speak in hyperbolic terms about the severity of issue X.

The problem is that virtuous lies don’t necessarily make the world a better place. In fact, they may end up harming the very people they are intended to help. 

No, Critical Race Theory Isn’t a New Civil Rights Movement. (Just the Opposite)
Sydney. London. Toronto.

We can see this dynamic at work in one of the most prominent virtuous lies told in the modern US: the idea that almost everything about America is racist. The University of Washington’s “IT Inclusive Language Guide,” for example, specifies that the reference to a “brown bag lunch” is racially “problematic.” The School of Social Work at the University of Southern California decided to stop using the word “field” (as in “fieldwork”) because it is racist. In 2018, NPR informed its listeners that “white tears” are racist, while the New York Times berated real estate agents for using the term “master bedroom.” Ibram X. Kendi, popularizer of the term “anti-racism,” has argued that standardized tests are “the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black and Brown minds and legally exclude their bodies from prestigious schools.” Even if a black student somehow succeeds, despite Kendi’s concerns, in joining a STEM department, it matters little, because, according to an article in the peer-reviewed biology journal Cell, “today, Black scientists continue to suffer institutional slavery.” And it’s not just black scientists. According to a group of activists dubbed “Thirteenthers” by historian Daryl Michael Scott, slavery was never abolished but lives on through the Thirteenth Amendment

As if modern slavery were not enough, black Americans today also face “a kind of genocide,” according to law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, creator of the concept of intersectionality. In 2020, she wrote that black people are subjected to “racial terror” similar to that of the slavery and Jim-Crow eras at the hands of police and vigilantes. 

Virtuous lies like these spread, echoed by sympathetic outlets and voices, until the underlying ideas have penetrated deep into the mainstream. For example, in a recent survey, 54 percent of “very liberal” respondents believed that between 1,000 and 10,000 unarmed black Americans are killed by police every year. In another major survey, 80 percent of African American respondents thought that a young black man was more likely to be shot and killed by police than to die in a traffic accident. These beliefs, thankfully, bear no resemblance to reality. In 2020, 7,494 African Americans were killed in traffic accidents. That same year, 242 African Americans were killed by police, only 18 of them unarmed. All three of these numbers are too high, but the number of traffic deaths is orders of magnitude higher than the other two. Black people should be far more concerned about automobile safety than about fatal unarmed encounters with cops. 

The virtuous lie that racism is ubiquitous also manifests in fatalistic statements about how hard it is for black Americans to succeed. In their book Is Everyone Really Equal?, Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo (of White Fragility fame) argue that members of racial minorities “do not hold political, economic, and institutional power” in the United States. This conveniently ignores the countless black men and women who have risen to positions of power in government, business, academia, and other sectors. Worse, it sends a message of disempowerment to young black people. If one benefit of affirmative action is that it helps young black Americans to see people like themselves in positions of power, then the message of DiAngelo and Sensoy is disaffirmative action: no-one who looks like you has achieved anything in this country. 

The Case for Black Optimism
Sydney. London. Toronto.

For some on the farther reaches of the progressive left, it’s considered acceptable to claim that minorities lack any agency at all; they are crushed beneath a vast, racist machinery that they cannot hope to escape. According to DiAngelo and Sensoy, “The logic of individual autonomy that underlies liberal humanism (the idea that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) [is] a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structural systems of inequality.” That is: if you’re a black American and think you can get ahead through your own efforts, you’re deluded; you’ve fallen for the propaganda American society spouts to hide its racism.

For many on the left, it’s become an article of faith that nothing ever gets better, which means that race relations are still stuck in the antebellum period. For example, as Frank Wilderson III, a founding figure of Afropessimism, has it, nothing ever changes and even today, “Blackness is coterminous with slaveness.” George Packer has called this “historical fatalism.” As he puts it in The Atlantic

[H]istorical fatalism believes that nothing ever really changes. Mass incarceration is “the new Jim Crow”; modern police departments are the heirs of slave patrols. Historical fatalism combines inevitability and essentialism: The present is forever trapped in the past and defined by the worst of it.

Sociologist Musa Al-Gharbi sums up this catastrophizing strain of thought:

For people of color, getting “educated” in America is to be cudgeled relentlessly with messages about how oppressed, exploited, and powerless we are, and how white people need to “get it together” to change this (but probably never will).

It is hard to imagine a more demoralizing message.

Even at the top of society, life is almost unbearably bad for black Americans, some prominent progressives claim. Writing in the New York Times, Chris Lebron, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins, describes being black in America like this: “Every day you feel like you’re living with a knee on your neck.” If even a professor at one of America’s most prestigious universities believes that merely existing while black is a life-and-death struggle, then the message to many young African Americans is clear: No matter how high you climb, every facet of your life will always be defined by racism.

Obviously, racism does exist in the United States, at both personal and institutional levels. Commentator David French notes that his black daughter is the target of harassment and of assumptions that she doesn't belong far more often than his white children are. Criminologist Radley Balko has presented a persuasive, exhaustively researched case that there is a racist element to the US criminal justice system. All Americans, whatever their skin color, should be committed to stamping out prejudice and institutionalized double standards like these wherever they encounter them.

But telling virtuous lies about the scope and impact of the racism that currently exists in the United States will not help us do that. Instead, it is likely to simply increase depression and anxiety among black people by encouraging a distorted, overly negative picture of the world. 

Gallup notes that in 2011, 65 percent of African Americans thought that relations between white and black people were “very good” or “somewhat good.” By 2021, that number had fallen to 33 percent. But this decline in perceived racial harmony does not reflect reality. In 2006, 52.7 percent of black Americans reported that they knew someone whom they considered racist. By 2015, this figure had fallen to 47.2 percent. Gallup notes that 94 percent of Americans, including 93 percent of white Americans, now support interracial marriage—respective increases of almost 45 percent and 55 percent from 20 years ago. When it comes to race relations, the progressive left is selling non-white Americans a doom-and-gloom message that is thankfully out of touch with reality.

The virtuous lie about racism also promotes learned helplessness among black people, by suggesting that every element of society is rigged to keep them oppressed and there is nothing they can do to change that.

A study published by the Manhattan Institute asked black students to first read two passages and then to agree or disagree with a variety of statements designed to measure the degree to which they felt in control of their own lives (for example, “When I make plans, I am almost certain that I can make them work”). The first passage was from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 essay “Letter to My Son.” In it, Coates claims that, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage” and that “your body can be destroyed” if you “sell cigarettes without the proper authority” or even “turn into a dark stairwell.” The second passage was from Eric Kaufmann (who authored the study). It argued that “African-Americans are the descendants of conquerors” and that they lived in “sophisticated city states and kingdoms like the Ashanti Empire.” The study found that black teens who read the passage from Coates were 7–15 percent more likely to agree with statements indicating helplessness and disempowerment.

The virtuous lie that racism is endemic and prevents black people from ever getting ahead is unlikely to entirely explain the spike in suicidality among black teens. But the idea that catastrophizing about racism hurts the mental health of black teens makes sense. As Al-Gharbi notes:

the internalization of these messages may contribute to the observed ideological gaps in psychic distress among women and people of color. In many Left circles, great efforts are made to sensitize everyone to historical and ongoing bias and discrimination. Women and minorities are told to attribute negative outcomes in their lives to racism or sexism. They are encouraged to interpret ambiguous encounters or situations uncharitably (i.e., as manifestations of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). These tendencies likely undermine the well-being of the very populations they are supposed to help.

Heightened perceptions of bias and discrimination are robustly associated with mental anguish, social strain, and adverse physical outcomes. The more people perceive themselves to be surrounded by others who harbor bias or hostility against them, and the more they view their life prospects as hostage to a system that is fundamentally rigged against them, the more likely they become to experience anxiety, depression, psychogenic and psychosomatic health problems, or to behave in antisocial ways.

When we tell black children and teens that the system is rigged against them, that police have declared “open season” on them, and that they cannot succeed in life, we should not be surprised when some of them become depressed or even express a desire to end their lives.

We should, however, be careful not to understate the effects of racism. A Pollyannaish attitude can produce its own problems. If we refuse to listen to black teens when they tell us that they have encountered racism, we may leave them feeling unsupported, ignored, and alienated. They need to be supported appropriately and they need adults to help them put their encounters with racism into appropriate, and non-catastrophizing, perspective. We also need to be precise. Sound solutions to pressing societal problems must be based on accurate data and responsible claims. Virtuous lies can inhibit our ability to solve those problems. If we want to have a chance of truly improving society—and it can certainly stand to be improved—then we must begin by telling the truth about the current state of things, as best we can.

Errata: An earlier version of this piece erroneously stated “the percentage of black teens who seriously considered suicide rose 69 percentage points from 13 percent in 2011 to a frightening 22 percent in 2021.” This has been corrected to read “the percentage of black teens who seriously considered suicide rose 69 percent from 13 percent in 2011 to a frightening 22 percent in 2021.” It also stated that “The average increase among all ethnicities was 37.5 percentage points—just over half the rise documented in black teens.” This has been corrected to read “The average increase among all ethnicities was 37.5 percent—just over half the rise documented in black teens.”

You might also like

On Instagram @quillette