John H. McWhorter has seen black America, and it is not pretty. It is a place populated by a people so seeped in pathology that a young girl is urged to smack a toddler who has the temerity to know how to spell the word "concrete." It is a place where nearly all African Americans, middle and upper class as well as poor, are unable to admit how much has changed since the days of segregated bathrooms and "Negroes need not apply." It is a place where African Americans have turned their back on education, convinced they can get by with shoddy scholarship and a smirk. It is a place where McWhorter has spent his life struggling against the prevailing thought.
An Oakland, California, resident and an associate professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, McWhorter rose to national prominence in 1996-1997 with his vehement opposition to the Oakland school board's proposal to use Ebonics in the classroom. It was, he writes, an experience that showed just how far his thinking was from the acceptable black perspective: "My position was processed not as simply a differing opinion, but as heresy." It was his dismay with African-American culture that prompted him to write Losing the Race.
Based mainly on his personal accounts and others' research, the book is a damning account of African-American scholarship, thinking, and behavior. At the core of his concern is the belief that African Americans have become a nation within a nation, a people governed by their sense of grievances rather than their sense of purpose. Victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism are rife. "In short, these three currents are neither only inner-city ills, mere cynical ploys by politicians, nor just smug fantasy churned out from the ivory tower by the brie-and-Zinfandel set. They are so endemic to black culture as a whole that they are no longer even perceived as points of view, but rather as simple logic incarnate. In other words, these defeatist patterns have become part of the bed-rock of black identity," McWhorter writes.
Examples of victimhood are everywhere. A nameless black academic at a black conference complains that he meets white racists at university parties. A black student flees a class in tears after her university professor uses the word "niggardly." A column published in The Progressive by Berkeley professor June Jordan is "victimology extraordinaire," McWhorter says, quoting what he claims is a typical passage: "Where I live now makes me wonder if Nazi Germany's night skies ever beheld a really big moon--a heavenly light that failed to dispel the cold and bitter winds tormenting the darkness of earth below. Where I live now there is just such a moon tonight--a useless, huge light above our perishing reasons for hope." It's too much for McWhorter. "In short, today, black is victimology, and this is a grave detour from the path to the mountaintop," he writes.
Central to black victimology is buying into the "seven articles of faith." These include the belief that most black people are poor, that black people get paid less than whites for the same job, that there is an epidemic of racist arson of black churches, that the U.S. government funneled crack into South Central Los Angeles, that the number of black men in prison is due to a racist justice system, that the police stop and frisk more black people than whites because of racism, and that police brutality against black people reveals the endurance of racism. According to McWhorter, only the last has any basis in reality; the others are just fodder for feeding into the cult of separatism.
Separatism is marked by the belief that to be authentically African American one must turn one's back on anything that smacks of another culture. It is a theory that crystallized for him while he was watching an episode of Jake and the Fat Man in which Nell Carter appeared. In the show, the Carter character mentions her love of Russian history, going into some arcane detail about events in czarist Russia. The plot at that point loses its credibility for McWhorter because everything in his experience has taught him that black people are so removed from cultures other than their own, they would have little interest in something so foreign as czarist Russia. "This was just ten seconds of a little TV show, of course, but the thoughts it stirred up stemmed from something much larger, a mighty current of Separatism in black American culture," he says.
Separatism leads to the cult of anti-intellectualism, a mind-set that encourages African Americans to do the least while expecting the most. As with many of McWhorter's theories, this one is documented with scores of firsthand accounts, featuring, for example, anonymous African Americans who barely attended his classes, turned in substandard homework, and smirked when asked to learn anything new.
There was the student whose senior honors thesis was to write fictionalized accounts of her family history and who instead "handed me, quite simply, her family tree, drawn in pencil on a piece of notebook paper." There was the student whose senior thesis was a third as long as those of her white counterparts and was based on "impressionistic reflection at her desk" rather than research. There were the students who simply vanished--or who wandered in and out of the class, never really grasping the concepts--and who always turned in substandard work.
That we should not excuse this boorish behavior as a result of inferior schooling or racist plots against the black community is clear from lessons McWhorter learned in his own childhood. In what was perhaps meant to be one of the book's most poignant passages, McWhorter recounts being slapped as a child for knowing how to spell. "As it happens, the very first memory of my life is an afternoon in 1968 when a group of black kids, none older than eight, asked me how to spell concrete. I spelled it, only to have the eight-year-old bring his little sister to me and have her smack me repeatedly as the rest of the kids laughed and egged her on. From then on, I was often teased in the neighborhood for being 'smart.' ... Obviously children who consider persona non grata the black kid who likes spelling are not on their way to embracing school with open arms."
McWhorter, now 34, would have been two years old at the time of that incident. Though it is heartwarming to read of such a precocious African-American child, it might have been helpful for the readers if McWhorter had drawn on his personal experience not only to illustrate the issue, but to help us come up with some solutions. Instead, McWhorter's experience usually serves to remind us how brave he is to voice a view that varies from what he believes to be the almost monolithic black position. While everyone's life experiences are valid, McWhorter's do not correspond to the everyday reality of many African Americans who are not mired in a misery brought about by the lingering vestiges of racism, but who recognize the progress made and the work still to be done.
Rather, McWhorter's world seems to flatten out the very richness of the African-American community. Condoleezza Rice, the Russian scholar who is advising Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, gets only a passing mention. The widely respected attorney Cheryl Mills, who captured the country's attention during President Clinton's impeachment hearings, is invisible. The many African Americans who not only epitomize the strides we have made but also celebrate those strides simply don't exist for McWhorter. While describing his faceless student, he ignores the new reality of a younger generation of African-American and biracial kids who are enjoying the power to define much of what passes for popular culture today.
As an African American and an Oakland resident, I read McWhorter's book looking for signs of the way race and geography can help shape a world view. I found little of that. Members of Oakland's black middle- and upper-middle class do expect their children to be leaders and not victims, to have a variety of interests that are outside the African-American experience. Most probably haven't mentioned the CIA-crack-conspiracy story in almost three years, and most know that the majority of African Americans are not poor.
McWhorter, who criticizes the law professor and author Derrick Bell for his books because they seem to say, "Here are some of my stories, only they are real," is asking us to make that same leap of faith with him. This is not to say that the concerns raised by McWhorter do not deserve a full hearing. They do. They also deserve more than one-dimensional figures and theories he conceived while watching television sitcoms. In recent years, Shelby Steele and Glenn Loury have prompted debates about affirmative action and the state of African-American life in this country. While their views have been hotly debated, those views have emerged from thoughtful works devoid of stick-figure characters who could have come out of the comic books McWhorter claims one African-American student read in his class.
In critiquing June Jordan's column in The Progressive, McWhorter writes, "Its editors published Jordan's melodramas because her, shall we say, creative approach to the truth is considered 'understandable' from a black writer." After reading McWhorter, it's hard not to wonder if his publishers followed suit. In fact, Losing the Race leaves the reader wondering whether McWhorter might be a beneficiary of the very school of thought that he rails against. ¤