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?

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In the ten months between the start of his book tour promoting Losing the Race and his appearance before the Independent Institute, John McWhorter underwent a process of profound public exposure, during which he found the question of what kind of man he really is being actively debated. The book reviews, newspaper profiles, public debates, and, most importantly, his numerous television appearances became a crucible in which a public image of McWhorter as another Shelby Steele or Thomas Sowell was shaped. Slowly but steadily, this linguistics professor with a flair for the dramatic was transformed into a contrarian celebrity ideologue. With every irate black intellectual who heralded his book as a betrayal to the race, with every cable talk-show producer who programmed his number into his speed-dial figuring sometime he'd need to book a right-wing black, the figure of John McWhorter the conservative talking head was advanced a little further. And McWhorter himself collaborated in this process; booked into an eight-minute shoutfest with Julianne Malveaux, he must cringe and feel himself being unfairly pigeonholed -- but he's also watched his numbers shoot through the roof.

McWhorter's book is selling vigorously, but the price he has had to pay is steep, both in terms of the enemies he has made, and the friends he is dismayed to learn he has. As George Will, the Washington Times, and even a conservative South African newspaper called the Natal Witness sing his praises, McWhorter is left to sit in his North Oakland apartment and wonder whether this notoriety will ever subside long enough for him to breathe again.

John McWhorter is a man who loves language (he is proficient in several, in addition to his credentials as a linguistics professor), Russian novels, opera, and turn-of-the-century black musical theater, (he teaches a course on the subject that by all accounts is quite fascinating). He also loves TV, and this can prove awkward when, to prove a point, he blithely refers to black sit-com characters -- somebody named "Erkel," for instance -- as if everyone is as conversant in pop culture as he is. Raised in the Philadelphia suburb of Mount Airy, he did his undergraduate work at Rutgers University and has a doctorate from Stanford. In light of his ambivalence about affirmative action (he opposes it in education, but favors it in employment), some critics have pointed out that it was Stanford's own affirmative-action policies that got him in the door, to which he replies that the accompanying psychological burden of being a quota baby has always stuck in his craw. Perhaps that's true, but there is no doubt that McWhorter is entirely comfortable with his image of himself as a very smart man.

"I can't win, so I'll just have to say it -- I'm a very fast writer," he says. "It's probably my biggest talent. Losing the Race did not take much effort to write. Most people think I must have poured over two years into writing it, but it was really a rather brief gesture, a sideline to my regular career.... The book was motivated deep down by the fact that as much as I wanted to be more a part of the black community than I was, whenever a race issue came up, I wasn't thinking like most black people I knew. I found myself deeply irritating black people again and again. And it made me sad, because I grew up around black people, a lot more than my speech and demeanor suggest. There's a sense of home for me among black people, [but when it comes to race and education], there's an undigested consensus which is passively fed to students. It's not that anyone's trying to indoctrinate students; rather, everyone just assumes that that's the only way to think."

McWhorter's private frustration crystallized during the controversy that surrounded the Oakland school board's "Ebonics" resolution in late 1996. As a black linguist, McWhorter's opposition to using black language structure as the primary means to communicate with Oakland's African-American school kids made him a minor celebrity. "I could barely get through a meal without the likes of NPR, Dateline NBC, talk-radio shows all over the country, or the New York Times calling," he writes in Losing the Race, "and over the next few weeks was quoted even in Europe." But McWhorter claims that his colleagues hounded him as a heretic for daring to express views that they all privately shared. "While agreeing in private that the 'bilingual' approach [to African-American students advocated by the Oakland school board] is not necessary, such people share a basic conviction that the black-white scholastic lag is due in some way to the absence of Black English from the typical school curriculum," he continues. "Thus the sense of a communal mission against racist inequity leads them to publicly remain in staunch support of 'addressing the educational needs of African-American children,'... [and] my having expressed anything except support for the Oakland school board was processed as highly unsavory, even to people who essentially agreed with my public statements."

Eventually, McWhorter decided to write an article expressing how irritated he was by such lockstep thinking. The article quickly grew into an omnibus soapbox for every pet peeve he had about black attitudes about racism, white America, and education: the seeming uniformity with which black leaders overhype every isolated hate crime while quietly neglecting the epidemic of black underachievement; the constant search for evidence of racism and hatred, as if his racial compatriots were addicted to the gratification of shaming white people and wrapping the mantle of victimhood around their own shoulders; the teasing he and other bookish kids endured. Before he knew it, the article had grown into a book, and Losing the Race was born.

McWhorter's book opens with one of the sillier moments of 1999, a bizarre scandal that briefly transfixed Washington, DC -- not the Washington of Beltway and K Street, but Marion Barry's Washington. Mayor Barry's successor Anthony Williams had just been elected, and many wondered if this wonkish, modest, responsible man was "black enough" to relate to his constituents as intimately as his predescessor. In January, Williams' white ombudsman remarked during a staff meeting that "I will have to be niggardly with this fund." That "niggardly" is a Scandinavian word whose etymology has nothing to do with the racial epithet was irrelevant; the mere phonetic similarity caused enough of a furor to prompt the ombudsman's resignation, which Williams quickly accepted. "Black talk radio was abuzz with indignation, almost unanimously in support of Williams' decision," McWhorter writes. "A former president of the National Bar Association, a mostly black group, was uncompelled by the fact that the word is not a racial slur, fuming, 'Do we really know where the Norwegians got the word?'"


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