Politics & Policy

Closer to The Prize

From the January 30, 2005 issue of National Review.

Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America, by John McWhorter (Gotham, 434 pp., $27.50)

Call me Pollyanna if you like, but I’m convinced that race relations in the United States have never been better. There is no longer any government-backed or institutionalized racial discrimination (with the important but dying exception of affirmative action against whites and, frequently, Asians), and racism is about as legally and socially unacceptable as anything can be in an open society. A mere 50 years ago, none of this was true.

This is good news, because America has always been a multiracial and multiethnic society, and it is becoming dramatically more so. Were we bitterly divided into racial enclaves, this would be a scary time, but the remarkable fact is that Americans get along quite well with one another — so well, indeed, that most Americans can claim to be multiethnic and more and more can claim to be multiracial. Anti-assimilationists and identity-politics demagogues remain, so we need to focus more on assimilation and continue to press for the abolition of racial and ethnic preferences; but those fights are winnable and are being won.

The arguable exception to this rosy view involves a large chunk of the African-American population. To the extent that there is residual racism in this country — and there is not much — it is aimed mostly at blacks. But racism is not a major impediment any longer to African Americans, nor, specifically, is it the cause of the black underclass; it is, to be candid, the effect. That cause is cultural, and the cure must come largely from within the black community, so thank goodness for John McWhorter.

McWhorter holds a doctorate in linguistics from Stanford, and was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley when his powerful book Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (2000) hit the bestseller lists. He is now a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where he is a prolific and wide-ranging writer, continuing to publish about language but also about music, popular culture, and of course race. His tenth and latest book, Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America, is, as the title suggests, a sequel of sorts.

McWhorter’s thesis is straightforward: The New Left of the 1960s screwed up black people. “The nut of the issue,” he writes, “is that black America turned upside down in just a particular ten-year period, from 1960 to 1970, and that this era left us a legacy much more damaging today than anything racism left us.” During that lamentable decade, the Left expanded welfare and encouraged blacks to view it as something they were owed and to which they were entitled. This, says McWhorter, complements but is distinct from Charles Murray’s thesis in his 1984 classic Losing Ground that, race aside, the welfare system created incentives for unemployment and out-of-wedlock childbearing. The results, in any case, were disastrous: “[W]here white radicals taught us to take a page from their new animus against The Suits and thumb our noses at The System and go on welfare because whitey wasn’t devoted to us getting ahead, they sent us to hell.”

Many blacks also were taught then that racism was to blame for their problems, that to be authentically black thus meant to be resentful of whites, and that any black person who believed and acted otherwise was a traitor. This “meme” of “therapeutic alienation” was seductive and addictive, since it enabled African Americans to escape a sneaking suspicion that all those myths of inferiority were not myths after all. Its pervasiveness and perniciousness among blacks is, says McWhorter, his book’s “central thesis.”

In the book, McWhorter skillfully weaves together social science, news stories, and personal experience. Like another African-American academic, Shelby Steele, the author argues persuasively that psychological needs explain both white liberalism and black resentment: It makes liberals feel good to think they are helping wretched black folk, and the fact that they really aren’t is irrelevant; similarly, blaming racism for black failures is much less painful for African Americans than accepting responsibility for them.

McWhorter very effectively skewers the notion that racism remains omnipresent and oppressive. What racism remains cannot explain “millions of black people checking out of the job force forever, abandoning their children, letting a violent drug trade become the economic foundation of their communities, or even claiming in diversity seminars and classrooms and on op-ed pages that their lives are defined by endless encounters with bigotry.” With respect to the black middle class in particular, he approvingly quotes the late Senator Moynihan’s comment that it is “caught with the legacy of grievance which is inappropriate to their condition.” Racism is now (in McWhorter’s words) “an occasional nuisance that need not impede the black success that we wish.”

McWhorter stresses that, while blacks faced more discrimination in the days of Jim Crow, their culture then was healthier, with a stronger work ethic and less crime, illegitimacy, and drug addiction. In 1960, he notes, two out of ten blacks were born out of wedlock; by the mid-1990s, seven out of ten were. In the 1960s, African Americans lost a sense of shame about illegitimacy and much else.

Winning the Race demolishes the claim that factory relocation and the departure of middle-class role models is to blame for inner-city decay (he focuses on the example of Indianapolis, where there was no appreciable factory relocation but the inner city decayed anyway). McWhorter also marshals the evidence that belittling academic excellence as “acting white” is a real phenomenon and a real problem, “a facet of black peer culture that senses school as something separate from black culture.”

Racial preferences — a.k.a. affirmative action — aggravate this problem, since they undercut insistence on black excellence. The claim that “diversity” improves education is unpersuasive, especially when weighed against the myriad social costs of the preferences used to guarantee it. And one of those costs is the mismatching of black students and their schools, with the predictable results that Thomas Sowell long warned about and that UCLA law professor Richard Sander has now quantitatively documented: Sander, a liberal who had been favorably disposed toward affirmative action, has concluded that in fact there are now fewer black lawyers because of it.

“Attitude, then, plays a big part here,” writes McWhorter. Quite an understatement, that, by the time we get to the book’s end. The oppositional mindset is self-destructive in school, in the workplace, at home, in the ‘hood — even on the radio. Thus, McWhorter, who is not prudish enough for my tastes, nonetheless concludes that “rap is the most overtly and consistently misogynistic music ever produced in human history” (emphasis his).

All true, but it is not immediately obvious what to do about it. McWhorter argues that it is a mistake to act as if black people were cynically claiming discrimination “to line their pockets”; they really believe it. Nonetheless, it is essential that African Americans choose as leaders those who reject alienation and embrace positive self-help. Those leaders these days are at least as likely to be Republicans (consider faith-based initiatives and school choice) as Democrats (too many of whom are leftist victimologists who “paint blacks as victims rather than victors” and whose unrealistic proposals essentially reject capitalism). He is optimistic that “America is quietly getting past race despite the best efforts of the Soul Patrol to pretend otherwise.”

McWhorter has his failings: “I did not vote for Bush in 2000 or 2004,” he admits; he says that racial profiling “is a genuine and serious problem” (a remarkable assertion, in light of the work his colleague at the Manhattan Institute, Heather Mac Donald, has done on this issue); he gives at most two cheers for capitalism; and he says that hip-hop, whatever its failings as social thought, still has “a delicious beat.” It’s just as well, though, since the choir doesn’t need to be preached to, and these failings may give him credibility with the unconverted.

More serious is McWhorter’s refusal to say that the black underclass’s embrace of a deviant and self-destructive culture is simply “their fault”: They are, in his view, “a people deprived by history” of a more positive mindset and purpose. He loses me here, on both counts. In 2006, it is their fault, and there is plenty of positive black history — as indeed McWhorter himself has catalogued elsewhere, notably in a 2001 essay for City Journal, “Toward a Usable Black History.”

Most serious of all is his uncharacteristic confession that, when confronted with fellow African Americans who have bought into victimology and alienation, he will “quietly shut down and . . . quickly agree[] with any further expressions of fantasy.” That is exactly wrong. The failings in black culture that McWhorter has so brilliantly described are much more likely to be corrected when they are pointed out by fellow African Americans. But, of course, in his heart John McWhorter knows this, or he couldn’t have written this wonderful book.

Mr. Clegg is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Va.


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