Black self-sabotage

An African-American scholar says we're holding ourselves back. I say, "Who're you calling 'we'?"

Published November 30, 2000 8:22PM (EST)

Every other black person I know aches to write a book that will tell the rest of us what we've been doing wrong. I call it the "My People, My People" syndrome. You throw a dinner party and your black friends don't arrive till the risotto's cold -- "My people, my people." You go to the soul-food restaurant and the surly waitress forgets your order -- "My people, my people." No matter how many times we publicly "say it loud, we're black and we're proud," in private we're pretty hard on our own.

John McWhorter, associate professor of linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley, is hard on us in public in his new book, "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America." He attempts to call a spade a spade, and more power to him. If only his reasoning weren't sometimes so reductive. The result is a collection of half-thought-through ideas that never bothers to truly tackle the complexities of post-civil-rights era America.

McWhorter reminds us of what every other black conservative has been reminding us of for decades: There exists within our community what he terms a "cult of victimology." McWhorter and his ideological forefathers Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell feel that a passive sense of whiny self-pity so pervades most of the rest of us black people that we've stopped trying to excel and instead wait around for whites to give us things (like entrance into elite universities).

He and his mentors are not completely wrong. There certainly are black people whose perception of the degree to which the white world is arrayed against them is several years out of date. It's the "Jew eat" effect. In "Annie Hall" Woody Allen is convinced the network executive he was meeting with said, "Jew eat," instead of "Did you eat?" What's lovely about this exchange in the movie and maddening about it in real life is that yes, the Woody Allen character is paranoid but, no, that doesn't mean he doesn't live in a world still steeped in anti-Semitism.

The main flaw in McWhorter's thesis is the extent to which this "cult of victimology" affects the vast majority of black people today. Proof of the flaw comes from McWhorter himself. In his "Article of Faith Number One: Most Black People Are Poor," he reminds us that three-quarters of African-Americans are not poor. We blacks and whites just think of black folks as a people of the poor.

So if we're no longer poor then what "race" are we "losing"? How many of us are "self-sabotaging" if most of us hold some sort of job and have had some sort of schooling?

For the corollary to McWhorter's "cult of victimology," he echoes Steele and Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom by saying that the white majority has encouraged this black victim mentality "out of a sense of moral obligation." The Thernstroms obsessed over this notion in their immense and confused work, "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible," and McWhorter scrupulously follows their party line. McWhorter believes that a majority of white Americans are "cowed by the insistence of so many black people that the country is still a racist war zone."

Perhaps he is thinking of the 1970s, during the first years of cushy CETA summer jobs and 3-foot-long slabs of government cheese. Back then it did sometimes feel that we were challenging Native Americans for the title of white America's most revered and pitied minority.

Alas, those good ol' days are gone forever. The Supreme Court's Bakke decision in 1978 followed by the election of Ronald Reagan two years later made it clear to all the black folks I know that the gravy train of reparations was over. Though state-sanctioned oppression of people of African descent endured in this country from the 1780s to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a concerted effort to right those 184 years of wrongs lasted just 15 years, from President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs to the Reagan era. Though every possible economic indicator still registered a sizable gap between the races, the federal government was once again hostile or at best indifferent to our needs. The meal of white guilt we had been looking forward to feasting on turned out to be little more than a soda cracker.

McWhorter's main thesis is that black people are caught in a perceptual time warp. Ironically, the same can be said about him. Though you can still find the odd black person crying about "the man" (he or she's also still wearing an Afro), please don't tar us all with that same brush. The vast majority of black people have come to the conclusion that, yes, we live in a racist world; now let's get on with our lives -- and we have done just that.

McWhorter writes that there is only a "flutter of awareness in the black community that crying about victimhood is not exactly the best way to go about solving it." The truth is that for more than a decade many influential black thinkers and artists have preached the same message. McWhorter describes Damon Wayans' hilarious "In Living Color" character Homey the Clown (invented by comedian Paul Mooney) as what he calls the rare example of a black artist ridiculing the black victim mentality. That was in 1990. McWhorter must not have ever heard the late, great standup Robin Harris in the 1980s. ("You want some spare change? Shoot. Get you a spare job.") And hasn't he ever listened to Chris Rock, perhaps today's most influential black pundit? Rock famously ridiculed a black man who proudly declaimed, "I ain't never been to jail." "What do you want, a cookie?" replied Rock. "You're not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker."

From Spike Lee to the Nation of Islam, black leaders have been exhorting blacks to take control of their own destinies. As James Brown shouted in 1969, "I don't want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door -- heah! -- I'll get it myself."

McWhorter is on much more stable ground when he decries the black community's "cult of anti-intellectualism." It is certainly true that for far too many young black people (mainly young black men, but McWhorter doesn't bother differentiating), "keeping it real" means not opening a book and not becoming fluent in standard written English. This is a plague on young black men, and we need to do everything in our power to eradicate it. What McWhorter fails to mention, however, is that America as a whole shares this anti-intellectual prejudice (with the notable exceptions of what academics like to call the "model minorities," Jews and Asians). As a whole we are a nation proud to be dumb. How else can you explain the popularity of George W. Bush?

Where I agree with McWhorter is when he decries affirmative action for blacks born into relative affluence. I am one of those people. We weren't exactly rich, but my dad was a psychiatrist for the students at Yale. In no way did I deserve to take spots at Andover or Stanford away from poor kids of any color. Poverty is as damning a marker as race and needs to be taken into account to the same degree. Elite colleges and boarding schools give students much more than an education, they give them entrie into corridors of power undreamed of at most local, lower-level institutions. If you were born upper-middle-class and above, regardless of your schooling, you will know enough people, your parents will know enough people, to land you the job interviews, the business contacts and the venture capital to remain at the economic level to which you have become accustomed.

Unfortunately, McWhorter goes on at great length denigrating affirmative action as a whole. He feels it removes the quest for academic excellence from black students since they know they can slide by on less. He also says it makes whites believe that all black kids are intellectually inferior. He uses himself as an example of the first point. He claims he didn't try very hard in high school since he knew, as a black kid in the '80s, that the bar had been so lowered that he could get into any college he chose. He is a middle-class kid from New Jersey and ended up attending Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. He is a very smart man who admits he didn't study a lot in high school and didn't go to Princeton. It seems like the system worked just fine.

I'm a middle-class black kid from Connecticut about the same age as McWhorter who excelled in my local high school, transferred to Andover in the 10th grade, busted my ass to make Honor Roll and got into Stanford. Sure, I knew my color gave me a leg up with college admissions officers. I also knew that the two Kennedys, the one Rockefeller and the several kids whose last names were on the buildings at nearby Harvard were going to get in most anywhere they wanted as well. Affirmative action for minorities has been going on for less than 30 years. Affirmative action for the well-connected has been around generations before George W. Bush limped through Andover, limped through Yale and then limped through Harvard Business School.

The oddest reason McWhorter and University of California Regent Ward Connerly have for dismantling affirmative action is their fear that it makes white people think we black people are not very bright. Americans are notoriously lousy at history, but can these two honestly believe that white notions of black intellectual inferiority began with affirmative action? Do they really believe that now, with affirmative action rapidly disappearing across the landscape, white kids are going to walk right past the Asian kid to ask the black kid for help with organic chemistry?

The truth is jocks, rich kids, minorities, fat kids, foreign kids, you name it -- are all "stigmatized" to some degree on college campuses. So what? Grow up. Others will think about you whatever they want. If you cede your feelings of self-worth to strangers you're lost.

Further muddling his point, McWhorter agrees with affirmative action in the workplace. He admits that blacks are generally at a disadvantage when it comes to personal business contacts, and sometimes need help getting in the door. McWhorter doesn't realize that the American equivalent of "the playing fields of Eton" have been our most powerful tools for moving significant numbers of black poor and working-class kids into the middle- and upper-middle classes. By the time they're looking for a job, it may be too late.

By the end of the book, McWhorter's wrath at affirmative action seems personal. He admits it got him his own teaching post at Berkeley but quickly adds, "I will never get beyond the sense of diminishment in having gotten it to such an extent 'through the back door.'" A paragraph later he reverses himself and writes, "As it happens, I am secure in the fact that in the end I am qualified for my job."

Though McWhorter set out to condemn a "cult of victimology," he ended up wallowing in his own. I in no way condemn him for this. In his lusting after white acceptance he is hardly alone. We black folks still define ourselves as a part of a whole black community, most of whom we have never known and will never meet. We cringe when the news reports a heinous crime, then flashes a picture of a black man. The majority doesn't share our neurosis. I mean how many white people, the day Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested, shouted, "Damn! Why'd he have to go and be white?" The souls of black folks are vast labyrinths and unfortunately, "Losing the Race" barely excavates the first couple of rooms.

By Trey Ellis

Trey Ellis is a novelist, screenwriter, blogger and Assistant Professor at Columbia University. His new memoir is "Bedtime Stories: Adventures in the Land of Single-Fatherhood," from which this is adapted.

MORE FROM Trey Ellis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Race