Talking the Talk 

Cal linguistics professor John McWhorter has become a darling of the right, installed on national talk shows and courted by Clarence Thomas. What's a good liberal doing in a place like this?

On a Friday evening in April, a grudgingly civil crowd of sixty UC Berkeley students and education professionals gathered in a campus lecture hall and prepared to consider whether John McWhorter, a Cal linguistics professor and author of the new book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, is a jerk. The ostensible topic may have been McWhorter's thesis that the greatest barrier to African-American scholastic achievement is a notion of black authenticity that regards intellectual pursuits as at best incidental, and at worst something that white people do. But the real question was the young professor's likeability.

McWhorter was game enough to stand before the crowd and make his case, but he did little to endear himself to the gathering. Eschewing the rumpled tweed of the academy, he opted for a suit more befitting a Broadway premiere; in place of a tie, he wore a black mock turtleneck neatly framed by a sleek, angular gray sportcoat. With his cultivated poise, a melodious, opera-trained voice that carried his meticulously standard English to the back of the hall, and prominent eyes that rolled toward the heavens whenever he considered a well-placed point, he gave the less generous attendees every opportunity to imagine him a dilettante playing at scholarship, an intellectual paladin, or in McWhorter's stock phrase, an "oreo cookie." Squaring off against him was Berkeley's very own Pedro Noguera, recently departed for Harvard, who slashed away at McWhorter's arguments to the delight of the assembly. McWhorter would later characterize the event as a leftist pep rally convened to "ridicule the baby-faced professor."

Indeed, some questions from audience members were clearly designed to draw blood; one attendee likened McWhorter to Booker T. Washington, and another suggested that the young professor was merely repulsed by the color of his own skin. But even before the grilling started, McWhorter's own presentation was peppered with defensive asides about the myriad attacks on his character he has had to endure in the last year.

This isn't the only time that McWhorter's speaking gigs have wandered from the subject. At a recent talk before the Independent Institute, an Oakland-based think tank, McWhorter was the very picture of defensiveness; while addressing a polite crowd of elderly white conservatives -- perhaps the most receptive audience he has had to date -- McWhorter squirmed as if he were surrounded by Kweisi Mfume's bodyguard. As he ran through a list of slings and arrows that have been launched his way ("another thing they say about me is..."), the actual ideas presented in his book were eclipsed by the figure of McWhorter himself. His notions about race and education were somehow no longer the issue at hand, having taken a back seat to the saga of John McWhorter, the embattled black conservative valiantly struggling to uphold the tradition of the academy as a place where ideas can rise and fall based upon their merits, even as an army of intolerant liberals burn him in effigy on the steps of Sproul Plaza.

How interesting, then, to discover that McWhorter is one of those liberals.

Before McWhorter's latest book garnered national attention and transformed him into a darling of the right, one of his most significant political acts was to vote for Ralph Nader -- twice. "I couldn't vote for Gore, because he would have made no effort to create genuine improvement in minority education," he says. "Bush is not an intelligent man, and I'm not a Republican; I am in favor of the environment, and small government is not an important concept for me. Nader's point that the parties are insufficiently different and in the pockets of corporations is true, and that was the only thing [in the campaign] that hit me in my gut." McWhorter opposes energy deregulation and the recent challenge to Miranda, holds the New Deal close to his heart, and regards Clarence Thomas as an incompetent token. He even sits on the fence when it comes to that most progressive of prescriptions, rent control. As McWhorter describes it, he is a "centrist Democrat who can't stand the way Democrats think about black people."

If he were to sum up his ideological profile, McWhorter would undoubtedly say he is a liberal iconoclast whose career in higher education has led him to expose a certain complacency in the approach of liberal intellectuals to African-American underachievement. His closest white approximation might be Christopher Hitchens: hailing from a progressive tradition (McWhorter's mother was a civil rights activist); moving toward more libertarian notions as he matures; and being something of a showboater, writing short, punchy broadsides that delight in skewering sacred cows. But while Hitchens can savage Mother Teresa and turn on Bill Clinton at the most vulnerable point in his administration -- while only enhancing his reputation as an independent yet fundamentally progressive thinker -- McWhorter's choice of subjects has not allowed him such flexibility. You cannot write about race in this country, it seems, without exposing your deepest moral character to scrutiny.


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