If John H. McWhorter gets out of this life without being hung by the ears, it will be a minor miracle. The reason that this young professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley runs the risk of violent hands being put on him by other African-Americans is because of passages like this in his new book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (Free Press):
"the time has come for us to reconceive the black college professor who sits in the trendy new restaurant emoting about how oppressed he is between forkfuls of gourmet pasta, his free hand alternating languidly between his six-dollar glass of cabernet and his white significant other's knee under the table, and [who is] about to catch a twenty dollar shuttle to the airport the next morning to fly to a conference where he will meet dozens of African Americans just like him, most of whom got special attention on their job searches because of their color, and most of whose research has been funded by universities that bend over backwards to shower grants upon as much minority-oriented research as possible.
Okay, four years ago this professor was driving through a white neighborhood in his Honda Accord and a policeman pulled him over on a drug check. But why, if 'Success Runs in Our Veins,' if we survived centuries of slavery, if we are so wonderful, does that episode negate the victory and richness of the rest of this professor's life? What kind of oppression is this?"
Mr. McWhorter's essay is, I think, primarily directed at African-Americans who, he fears, will dismiss it out of hand without pondering the points that he makes-points which, if not addressed, may doom the majority of African-Americans to an indefinite stay in a pleasant, even plush limbo of mollycoddled mediocrity. Certain exceptions to the contrary notwithstanding, he sees millions of African- Americans prevented from attaining excellence and great distinction because of certain traits in African-American culture, traits that lead to what he calls "self sabotage."
What brought Mr. McWhorter to his thesis was firsthand experience with the inferior quality of the work done by black students he has taught at Cornell, Stanford and Berkeley. With all the breaks in the world, these students-or at least the great majority of them-still don't cut the mustard.
Mr. McWhorter's position is not a piece of idiosyncratic nonsense by an intellectual deviant crackpot. The most recent Department of Education test result figures support him. They show that an average 17-year-old African-American student reads about as well as an average 13-year-old white student. Moreover, the gap in reading achievement increased in the last 10 years. More astonishing yet, given what we've been told for so long by black leaders, politicians and educationalists, is that the reading gap between middle- class black and white students widened further than the gap between lower-class students.
Certain scholars in the last few years have published books slyly suggesting that a higher percentage of African-American students are congenitally dumber than children of other race or national-identity groups. Such appears to be the conclusion of Charles Murray, The Bell Curve guy who said it's not that there aren't a few rocket scientists to be found among African-Americans but that, for the most part, blacks cluster at the wrong end of the ability bell curve. Needless to say, academic and non-academics who hold to such views only express them in sneakily oblique ways in the present climate of intellectual intimidation. Nevertheless, not a few have such opinions, and a number of those who do can be heard on the Upper East Side, especially after a couple of drinks and a feeling that their interlocutors are socially trustworthy. Once rapport is gained, they'll lean over the San Pellegrino and tell you, "They're just not as smart as we are."
On the other end of the stick are the fuzzball liberals who believe these distressing anomalies can be explained by decrepit schools, swollen class sizes, starved education budgets and that old bromide about lower expectations of student success by unsympatico teachers.
Against this, Mr. McWhorter demonstrates that a majority of the academic poor performers not only come from middle-class, two-parent families but have never seen the inside of the inner city, have attended suburban schools and have been mall rats just like the white kids. Beyond that, he points to the academic record being carved out by black men and women from Africa itself, from Haiti, from the English-speaking Caribbean islands. They are forging ahead, he maintains, even though they began their student lives under the handicap of attending ghetto schools, with all the disadvantages that fuzzball opinion mistakenly believes all African-American children must contend with.
Rejecting both racialist explanations and factually erroneous liberal excuses for poor performance, Mr. McWhorter looks for an explanation in African-American culture, a "self-sabotaging" culture which affects the largest majority of native American black people of all classes and incomes. This culture, however rich and rewarding in some ways, has three characteristics which Mr. McWhorter believes combine to incapacitate youngsters as they set out on their school careers. He names these characteristics as victimhood, separatism and anti-intellectualism.
The premise of victimhood is that the United States is such a deeply racist society that separatism is necessary for the safety and salvation of the African American population. "[T]he Anti-intellectual strain in black culture results from a race having spent centuries in poverty and disenfranchisement, all but denied education by the dominant group," writes Mr. McWhorter. "This separation from the scholarly left the culture particularly susceptible to a rejection of school as 'other,' as Separatist ideology encouraged a focus upon what black culture already had, which unfortunately was only a marginal scholarly tradition, and a wariness of white culture, which unfortunately for us, included school." School is "white stuff," and that "sentiment, even in a small dose, has a decisive impact."
Just as Mr. McWhorter expresses the hope that black America can forsake victimhood, black politicians, for whatever reasons, are putting on a renewed campaign for reparations for slavery. In other words, there are forces strengthening the conviction that African- Americans were victims, are victims and ever will be so. Hence it seems doubtful that many of his own race are prepared to listen to Mr. McWhorter when he insists the United States isn't a racist society.
A sign of how unracist America has become is the present furor over racial profiling. First off, in a racist society, profiling would never become a public issue, with mayors and governors going out of their way to put a stop to it. But secondly, the fact that so many African-Americans are up in arms over profiling tells us how hugely the social and economic position of blacks has changed for the better.
Mr. McWhorter says America was a racist society a generation or two ago. But now, although racist acts are committed and racist thoughts are expressed, the nation as a whole has changed itself over the last 40 or 50 years so profoundly that, in this millennial year, three-quarters of black America is middle class, with the squalid ghettos of yesteryear emptying out as their inhabitants flee to the suburbs-in short, almost everywhere and in almost every way, the barriers have come down. Not completely, of course. Mr. McWhorter still sees a need for set-asides in things like government contracts to lend a helping hand to black business; but at the same time, he insists that affirmative action in colleges and universities should be abandoned, if not because it appears unjust to many non-African-Americans, then because it robs black students of the right to be treated equally with others-that is, to compete on a level playing field with students of other backgrounds.
As an African-American, Mr. McWhorter is saying things to other African-Americans that only an African-American can say. Non- African-Americans are in no position to be lecturing black people about their culture and how to change it. But white people can update their picture of what black America is. The mass media, black politicians and the entire Democratic Party continue to think of black people as downtrodden, pauperized, drug-taking, slum-dwelling, helpless, hopeless creatures lacking in self-control who either scream or shuffle, but are too incompetent to take care of themselves.
The pictures of black America offered to white America are out-of-date snapshots, and many of the policies offered by the politicians-especially the Democratic politicians, black and white- are laughably malapropos. No, white people can't be reshaping the intellectual and cultural climate of black America; but they can make a contribution by getting up to speed on what's been happening, by waking up and understanding we're not back in the time when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading marches and rallies. It would help everybody immeasurably if both white and black America would snap out of it and get real.
This column ran on page 4 in the 10/2/2000 edition of The New York Observer