By Preston Jones
Getting Beyond Victimology
Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority
by John McWhorter
266 pp.; $ 25
I played the race card for the first time in the sixth grade. I had ditched school for two consecutive weeks, and my parents, who went to work before I left and returned later, wanted to know why. I said that I was tired of getting beat up by black kids. The claim was eminently plausible: the only white boy at the school in the fourth through sixth grades, I did get beat up a lot; and because racial solidarity always trumped friendship, I could never count on the kids I hung around with to help me out. But my claim was false: I stayed home from school because I had concluded, in my own childish way, that the school I went to was a waste of time (and to this day I think that I would have been better off had I dropped out of school at that point and read books on my own at home). But the race card worked. I walked away from the principal's office unscathed.
John McWhorter has seen the race card played many times—and has seen how it often damages those who play it, including his African American students at the University of California at Berkeley, where McWhorter is a professor of linguistics. The author of several books on language, both scholarly and popular, he has also written frequently on racial matters. His book Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in America, published a couple of years ago, generated considerable discussion—and some abusive criticism from the black establishment.
In his new book, Authentically Black, McWhorter reminds us, repeatedly, that racism isn't dead in America. He means white racism, and since whites are people (and thus sinners) too, one supposes that they will never achieve perfection. But McWhorter also sees the evil of the grinding hatred of whites that thrives in lower-class black neighborhoods, and he properly denounces Al Sharpton, Kweisi Mfume, Jesse Jackson, and their ilk as self-interested promoters of racial animosity. So long as I can blame my problems on someone out there, then I needn't think about my own penchant for self-destruction. Even Dr. Phil knows that the first step on the road to recovery involves acknowledging that I have problem, and if one in three young black males is in prison or wrapped up in the criminal justice system, then it's pretty clear that black America—nay, all of America—has a problem. The aim of Authentically Black is to convince black Americans that a reflexive passing of the buck to others can't do the "race" much good.
Ideologically, McWhorter is hard to categorize. To the extent that he is opposed to affirmative action in the universities (though not in the corporate world) and supports the work of religious self-help groups in urban neighborhoods, he is a "conservative." On the other hand, he doesn't seem too concerned that abortion eliminates a greater proportion of black kids than white ones—and so to that extent, given our strange terminology, he's slightly "liberal." Whatever the case, McWhorter doesn't say much here that hasn't been said by Tom Sowell, Walter Williams, Shelby Steele, Star Parker, Armstrong Williams, Alan Keyes, and (in his early incarnation) Glenn Loury. But what he says needs to be said for the good of the country as a whole. Recent news tells us that blacks in the United States are now outnumbered by Hispanics. As new immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere strive to enter the middle class via back-busting labor (e.g., manning the chicken factories of northwestern Arkansas), neither they nor those who came before them will be in the mood to put up with the shrill, incessant strains of victimology.
But McWhorter also wants white Americans to know that continued black reticence about the country's "mainstream" isn't always irrational—particularly the widespread fear and hostility toward the police. One has to take him seriously when he claims that deep mistrust between black men and the police (not excluding black cops, who are scorned as Uncle Toms) is the single greatest boulder on the path leading out of the current malaise. The trick, as police chiefs across the land should know by now, is to win the support of the residents they're protecting. Through his writing, McWhorter can play a part in helping to bring this to pass.
For the good of us all, one hopes that the sensible views McWhorter promotes will prevail. Another of those views is that blacks no longer need "leaders" who pretend to speak for the whole. McWhorter is right. From a certain perspective, then, the buffoonery that Al Sharpton will inevitably indulge in as he pursues the White House could be construed as helpful.
Preston Jones has contributed to Books & Culture since 1998.