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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Soon after McWhorter arrived in the studio, aides ushered him into the dressing room and began applying a layer of makeup. As he endured their ministrations, McWhorter looked to the side and saw conservative pundit Fred Barnes going through the same ritual; Barnes smiled and greeted him with the camaraderie of a fellow soldier in a righteous cause. "Good to meet you," Barnes said. "You know, we reviewed your book in the [Weekly] Standard." McWhorter smiled gamely.

As he waited in the wings for his cue, McWhorter had another surreally pleasant exchange with a right-wing notable. "The segment before [mine] was really one of these starfucker moments," he says. "Orrin Hatch was the first guest, and he was my first senator. We talked for a bit, but it was alarming, because he was clearly thinking of me as a recruit, while I was thinking, 'Boy, your politics will never be mine.'"

A few days later, McWhorter arrived home and sat down to check his voice mail -- and was floored by what he heard next. "Hello John," said a vaguely familiar voice. "This is Clarence Thomas. Please call me at your earliest convenience. No formal offers, just wanted to talk." "He gave me his home number and his work number, and I played it over and over, because it isn't every day that a Supreme Court justice calls you at home," McWhorter says. "So I called him, and I guess I can call him Clarence now. He talked about his philosophy and wanted us to keep in touch. We couldn't talk long, because something came up on his end, but he wanted me to call him at home on a Sunday. He even said he'd give me the skinny on how the court decided to uphold the count in Florida, 'cause [at one point] I asked him, 'How do you guys justify what you did?' But I didn't call him back. I wasn't comfortable being that chummy with Clarence Thomas."

Over the next few months, McWhorter's discomfort would only grow, as right-wing thinkers appropriated his work for their own purposes. On January 30, Reed Irvine, the founder of the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media, wrote a column claiming that a silent epidemic of black-on-white hate crimes has been ignored by the liberal media, and that singling out black people for aggressive policing is entirely appropriate. "Racial profiling is justified," Irvine declared. "Black author John McWhorter wrote, 'black people commit proportionately more crimes than white people.'" In fact, although McWhorter attributes racial profiling to the need to fill quotas for drug arrests rather than a racist motivation, he unequivocally reviles the practice in Losing the Race.

Two weeks ago, McWhorter's name surfaced in the pages of the New York Press, an alternative weekly whose editors' idea of provocative copy is baiting the more easily offended elements of the left. The paper's right-wing essays are collected in a section called "Taki's Top Drawer," and it was here that McWhorter was mentioned in a piece by Carol Iannone. The author began with a broadside against affirmative action, and then moved on to explain the superiority of conservative principles in solving a wide swath of social problems, including "combating poverty and improving lives." Along the way, Iannone cited McWhorter as well as Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, and "the magnificent Ward Connerly." The essay ran alongside one by Taki himself. The eponymous editor of the section used his inches of newsprint to tell a funny story about the time he told a young, liberal Swedish woman that "the happiest day of my life was when I heard that Olaf Palme [the Swedish prime minister and archcritic of Uncle Sam] had been gunned down."

This gets to the heart of the liberal criticism of McWhorter's book; that whatever his true motives for writing it, Losing the Race will inevitably be used as fodder for right-wing efforts to discredit all sorts of progressive social policies. Losing the Race, McWhorter's critics argue, ultimately gives white people an articulate excuse to throw up their hands and abandon their black compatriots who, despite millions of dollars in government funds and decades of social programs, just can't seem to get it together. "This is what's wrong with his book," Pedro Noguera said during his debate with McWhorter. "If the message these teachers get is that these kids don't work hard, they will never ask themselves, What can I do to encourage? What can I do to inspire? What can I do to open doors? If they think that the problem lies with these kids and their culture, then they have freed themselves from all responsibility."

For his part, McWhorter is still confident that far from playing into the hands of conservatives, he has considerably enhanced the national dialogue on race -- and that the subtlety of his argument will just have to be strong enough to withstand its manipulation by unscrupulous ideologues.

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