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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This is the sort of thing that drives McWhorter nuts, displaying what he sees as an almost ritualized need among African Americans to expose a deep hatred that they just know white people still keep in their hearts, a hatred that is just barely held in check by contemporary social conventions, but always waits for a chance to surreptitiously express itself. "Black Americans too often teach one another to conceive of racism not as a scourge on the wane but as an eternal pathology changing only in form and visibility," he writes. "The basic sentiment that racism still lurks in every corner led naturally to a sense that the use of a word that even sounds like nigger was a grievous insult, in alluding to a raw, relentless oppression and persecution still beleaguering the black community from all sides." McWhorter argues that racism is less an unbearable burden for the modern black community than an annoying inconvenience, one that cannot reasonably be seen as the source of every African-American social problem. Searching high and low for this elusive, malignant spirit, McWhorter believes, ignores a much more pernicious attitude within the black community itself, a wariness to engage with the rest of the nation, which inevitably keeps African Americans from accomplishing everything they could.

Such pointed criticism is always a dicey affair, and McWhorter certainly doesn't flinch when he levels it. Indeed, he sometimes goes out of his way to get a rise out of readers who, he supposes, regard any departure from conventional thinking about race as heresy. Nowhere is this more evident than in McWhorter's nomenclature of African-American intellectual pathologies, which he identifies as the "Cult of Victimology," the "Cult of Separatism," and the "Cult of Anti-Intellectualism." Over the years, he argues, blacks have slowly come to see their status as victims of a historic injustice not as a problem to overcome, but an identity to be nurtured. Laboring in the shadow of this so-called "Cult of Victimology," blacks allow themselves to see the world as a grand conspiracy to keep them impoverished and dependent; indeed, they actually take comfort in such conspiracies and self-indulgently nurse an indignant righteousness. McWhorter demonstrates this Cult of Victimology by describing a number of "articles of faith," which combine to construct a world that is arrayed against African Americans: that there is an epidemic of arson attacks on black churches; that the CIA is smuggling crack into South Central Los Angeles; that the disproportionate number of black inmates is due to a racist justice system, etc. In fact, McWhorter claims, most of these assertions are either simply untrue, or can be chalked up to race-neutral factors (during the '90s, for example, six hundred white churches burned annually for every fifteen black churches).

If blacks are spending a lot of energy nurturing an oppressed self-image, McWhorter believes, they almost studiously avoid any engagement with mainstream culture and regard it as foreign and hostile. This, he contends, results in a crippling and self-defeating refusal to enjoy some of the greatest works of literature or music ever produced, merely because it is a product of Western Civilization. "This alienates many black people from some of the most well-wrought, emotionally stirring work, art, and ideas that humans have produced, miring the race in a parochialism that clips its spiritual wings," McWhorter writes. Finally -- and crucially -- McWhorter finds a Cult of Anti-Intellectualism within black culture which subtly imposes upon young African Americans a "cultural disconnect" between their lives and academic achievement. Thanks to this disconnect, he says, black students place no value upon intellectual pursuit for its own sake, regarding it as at best a means to get money, power, or respect. There's no room, he asserts, for the sheer love of learning, for pursuing a fascination with fractal geometry or baroque architecture for its own sake. Instead, McWhorter believes that the Cult of Anti-Intellectualism teaches black students that intellectual curiosity is incompatible with black identity, and anyone who displays it is to be regarded with suspicion.

At this point, McWhorter is hardly at odds with many educational theorists; Pedro Noguera himself has complained about the low cultural value black Berkeley High students and parents place on education. Where he and McWhorter part company is when he confronts McWhorter's insistence that it is this attitude, not impoverished, overcrowded schools or the shortage of black teachers, that plays the most significant role in undermining black educational performance. Citing the conundrum of Shaker Heights (a diverse Ohio suburb whose middle-class black students perform as poorly as residents of the most squalid ghetto), McWhorter argues that until African Americans purge from their souls this disinclination to study with passion, they will always be mired in mediocrity. (In the chapters that advance this argument, McWhorter cites my writing about Berkeley High in the pages of this paper.)

There's no doubt that Losing the Race is pretty explosive stuff, but despite its thesis and the calculated baiting that pervades the text (describing poet June Jordan as a "sensationalist cultural demagogue," for example), McWhorter's book is actually grounded in a relatively liberal context. Here, for instance, is a typical passage on the roots of the problem McWhorter is addressing: "When a race is disparaged and disenfranchised for centuries and then abruptly given freedom, a ravaged self-image makes Victimology and Separatism natural developments." At no time does McWhorter give in to the impulse to attribute his various "cults" to the disingenuousness of black leaders, as do writers like Shelby Steele and David Horowitz. And he devotes a considerable amount of space to decrying police brutality, which he regards as the last great vestige of racism in America. In short, there is no reason for the careful reader to mistake Losing the Race for a conservative tract aimed at cashing in on the misery of African Americans. But over the course of ten months, McWhorter's work came to be seen as exactly that. And this hasn't merely been the result of progressive reviewers denouncing his work; it is also the result of right-wing thinkers who think they see in John McWhorter a fellow traveler.

In truth, McWhorter knows that he can't protest too loudly at this misrepresentation of his work. In June of 2000, when he sat down with his publicist and plotted a strategy to capture national media attention, they quickly decided that the easiest way to grab headlines was simply to tweak liberal intellectuals and wait for them to howl. "[My publicist] put together a press packet that excerpted the most provocative statements from the book," McWhorter says. "Do black people need to get over racism, are black children the main agents of their failure in school, that sort of thing. It was designed to basically make a good lefty angry, to make my book look controversial in order to get it on the radio and create controversy. There was a lot of aiming at black radio stations as well, because, of course, the typical black radio station wants to have me on so people will call in furious, because it's good for their advertisers."

His publicist had the author send a few similarly provocative op-ed submissions to the Washington Post and the New York Times. Their strategy hit pay dirt when Time Magazine took the bait. In its August 7 edition, Time columnist Jack White hit McWhorter hard in a piece titled "Are Blacks Biased Against Braininess?" "It's a safe bet that a new book by John McWhorter ... will make him a hero to the black-bashing crowd," White wrote. "McWhorter says he's uncomfortable being associated with authors acclaimed by white conservatives and slammed by many blacks -- but hey, it goes with the territory. If you're a self-described 'proper-talking black guy who's had all the advantages,' you've got to expect other blacks to be outraged when you claim that being a 'culturally authentic' African American dooms you to being a dunce."

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