Another shade of black

John McWhorter talks about the pitfalls of reparations and affirmative action, why Eminem will never be hip-hop's Elvis, and why the N-word doesn't bother him much.

Published January 14, 2003 11:07PM (EST)

In the preface to his new collection of essays, "Authentically Black," John McWhorter clears up a few things about his previous book, "Losing the Race." First off, it is not a book about education, McWhorter, a professor of linguistics, insists, but an exploration of how certain aspects of race get played out in America and particularly, because he works in education, how they get played out in schools. "If I happened to be a criminologist, I would have written a similar book drawing from sentencing issues and racial profiling," he writes. "If I were a businessman I would have concentrated on the corporate world, small business development and affirmative action in hiring and contracting."

All of this is to say that McWhorter, also a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, is much more concerned about murkier, more seemingly trivial but larger and, he maintains, more quietly destructive problems, ranging from blacks' melodramatic reactions to the word "nigger" to the combative countercultural gestures of hip-hop artists. The combined effect of the past 35 years of post-civil-rights healing, McWhorter says, has led to a cult of victimhood and an invasion of black outsider iconography in all areas of black life. In "Authentically Black," whether he's writing about the reparations movement or blacks on TV, the same theme keeps popping up: Most black people act like victims in front of white people because they believe that keeping whites "on the hook" is the right thing for thinking African-Americans to do. Behind closed doors, however, black Americans feel very differently.

Beyond mere annoyances, how does this double-sided racial ideology deal with real issues -- like legislation? "Authentically Black" argues convincingly that black Americans have a conflicted self-image; where that conflict comes from is harder to pinpoint. McWhorter spoke to Salon about affirmative action, the Republican response to Trent Lott's embarrassing remarks, the political potential of hip-hop, and whether Eminem is really the next Elvis.

Do you think that Trent Lott represents a large portion of Americans in the sense that they are still stuck in the segregated past? Or do you think he's an aberration?

Well, I think that whole thing was misinterpreted.

You do? How so?

I felt that he needed to step down as majority leader and I wrote an Op-Ed about that for the Wall Street Journal. But what Trent Lott said did not mean that he thinks the United States should go back to the days of segregation. He would have to be brain-dead to sit there and say that in 2002.

What he said did indicate, however, that he thinks that the civil rights revolution is just not a big deal. If you can make a joke about how Strom Thurmond should have been president, it means that you just don't think that the race thing was a big deal. That's bad enough that you should not be the majority leader of the Republicans when they're in control of both houses and the White House.

But as far as Lott being racist? Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. On a spiritual level, I really don't care. The fact that some man with a toupee from Mississippi doesn't like black people doesn't hurt me. A lot of African-Americans ought to think about that when they talk about how something like that hurts them. Why would I care if Trent Lott -- this person who I don't know, don't care about, don't like -- likes black people or not? But a person who thinks that the civil rights revolution was just kind of a footnote -- which is clearly what he thinks -- should not be in a position of power. What he meant was that he likes Strom Thurmond's other planks, and as far as the fact that he was a racist, well, that didn't matter a whole lot.

You're making a distinction between racism and not putting a priority on desegregation? Is there significant difference?

For me, there's a difference between how highly you rate black people and whether or not you're a racist. Now, what various senators and representatives say behind closed doors -- who knows? As far as I'm concerned, as long as it doesn't affect legislation, who cares? -- although priorities can matter as well.

Racism is not dead. Definitely, there are these biases. I don't vote Republican either, but the idea that Republicans' practices over the last 20 years have been racist -- to be honest, it's good for an Op-Ed, but it's not accurate.

For example, Bob Jones University disagrees with interracial dating. Interracial dating is not the biggest thing on their agenda. Say you go and you talk to them because you're a fellow conservative. Interracial dating doesn't matter much to you because you're white and your children are white. You are not so appalled by their racism that you won't go and speak to them. That doesn't mean that you're a racist. It means that [race] is not very high on your agenda. I'm not pardoning this, but to say that the Republicans hate black people -- it's just Op-Ed material. What it really means is that Republicans don't think the issue is all that important.

So why did the Republicans, and Bush, ask Lott to step down? It seemed to be a fairly strong consensus. Is it all cynical -- was morality not involved here at all? Was it just fear?

Of course. They don't want to be seen as racist because that detracts votes from them, especially those of female, middle-class votes apparently. It's not that Republicans are so in love with black people that they were bleeding about what Lott said. But they think of black people as a potential source for untapped votes, and Lott was standing in the way of that. As far as I'm concerned, and this is a big theme of mine, I'm not interested in white people loving me. It's an unrealistic expectation. Black people don't love anybody but themselves.

Derrick Bell has this thought experiment where, if I'm not mistaken, all the black people are taken out of America by aliens and nobody knows where they are. The issue of the story is, How much would white people really care? Who would want to investigate? That's seen as evidence that racism exists in America. As soon as I heard that story, I thought, OK, so we're in America and instead of black people, all Filipinos are taken out of the United States. How many black people would care? None. Frankly, it wouldn't really change my day. I don't know any Filipino people. You have a love of your own. We can't say that white people should be exempt from that because of the nature of the past.

No, but the past is always hanging over us. It seemed from the way the media reacted to the Lott scandal, digging through his past and showing photos from his fraternity, that this was a history lesson. There was this sense that Americans aren't all that educated about who their leaders are.

We live in a transitional era. Just a few decades ago, we lived in a segregated society. It would be strange if there were not closet racists in our governing bodies. There are people in our governing bodies who are white and 50 or 60. Why in the world would some of them not be closet racists? It's 2003. It really hasn't been that long. So, it was nice that we were made aware of it. My issue is whether those things affect legislation, and to the extent that they can  Trent Lott as a leader, he has to go.

But the fact is that despite the racist history, the conventional wisdom is changing, and even if it just means you can't say certain things in public, that is progress. The fact is that even in terms of private feelings, the feelings of most of the people representing our government today are different than they would have been 40 years ago. We're not all the way there, but we're close.

Don't you think that the residual sentiments could be affecting legislation in ways that we're not totally aware of? Or vaguely aware of? I just can't believe that residual sentiments don't play a huge factor in how these people decide to run the country.

I don't think so. The only way that residual racist feelings could affect legislation, in my opinion, is through a lack of priorities, from not doing things. Perhaps you could argue that that's already the case. Although it's also true that I'm sure very few people today in any position know exactly what should be done for black people. It's not easy. It's not a matter of we just need more money, or we need more childcare.

You cannot be a Democrat politician and not do things along the civil rights line. So I'm not that scared. And more to the point, even if I was, what would you do? A lot of people like to strike this melodramatic note that the government isn't doing anything for black people. They typically think that what we need is a Marshall Plan where billions of dollars are dumped into Detroit and North Philadelphia and the South Bronx. But that wouldn't help. It's not about money today. There's a much deeper and more complicated problem. The typical people -- Derrick Bell, Al Sharpton, bell hooks -- all those people, they don't know what needs to be done. I can't say that I have the magical answer either. The Congressional Black Caucus doesn't even know what needs to be done. What have they proposed? Reparations, that's about it, and what would they do with the money?

Politicians have brought up unemployment insurance, affirmative action, as ways to heal after the Lott scandal. Some good might have come out of this, don't you think?

There's some of that, but the problem is that a lot of what's considered to help black people doesn't. For example, affirmative action. If what comes out of this is that the White House decides to nudge the Supreme Court into agreeing with the University of Michigan, they're supporting a policy where black people of any circumstances are allowed into top universities with lower grades and test scores than other people. That's what affirmative action is. We say "affirmative action" and we get kind of rosy inside, but it's a euphemism for lowering standards for people with pigment.

But you do believe in affirmative action in the workplace.

I believe in it wherever there is true discrimination. Affirmative action where there is a handicap. For example, I still agree with it in terms of class, whatever color you are. When I talk about business, I mean things like, you're trying to be a law partner. You're a black woman. You, as a black woman in 2003, don't hang out with your white male partners. You don't click with them. You don't, because you're black. You have a different thing -- you go to church on Sunday, you don't have the same jokes, you don't eat the same food. When it's time to pick somebody as partner, a lot of it is social. It's who you drank with last night. It's not going to be that black woman down the hall. There can be affirmative action there because it's not her fault.

Or if you grew up in a trailer park, how good are your SATs going to be? How good are your grades going to be? Affirmative action there is fine. Whether you are Eminem in "8 Mile" or somebody in "Boyz in the Hood" -- it's race neutral. But if you are Theo on "The Cosby Show," you don't deserve affirmative action. If Theo doesn't make good grades, it's because he's not a very good student, not because he's black. Affirmative action as we understand it needs to go -- racial preferences is what it is. That was acute 30 years ago, when so many black people were poor that it made a certain sense. But today it's obsolete. It's immoral.

For example, at Berkeley every third student is Asian. They're everywhere. There's clearly something that Asian students are doing above and beyond what anyone else is doing. They're obsessed with doing well and they show you what is required to hit the highest notes. Doing that requires incentive. Unfortunately, it also applies to black people, with all of our history and all of our struggle. Asian students have learned what it takes to do well -- you can't sleep, you can't date. They practically overdo it. There's no reason for that in the black community, because if you do pretty darn well, you'll get into a school above and beyond what Suzie Wong could possibly get into. People wonder why middle-class black students still have these low grades and scores. There's no reason to wonder. Part of it is that there's an element in black culture that is a legacy of racism, and another part of it is that there's no reason for that to go away, because everywhere a black person turns, they're given a pass. That has to stop.

I struggle with these comparisons between groups. Isn't it much more complicated? The history of blacks and the history of American immigrant groups -- it's so different. And each group is so different.

No, and I don't mean to cut you off, but I hear that question so much. Latinos are immigrants too. They have the same problems as black people, right down the generations, right into the middle class. What that shows is that it's not about whether you're an immigrant. It's cultural. There are people who for various geopolitical reasons identify doing well in school as inauthentic. In black culture, if you do that you're acting white. In Latino culture, you're acting like the gringos. It's not unfair to compare. Yes, there is such thing as immigrant pluck, but it doesn't even apply to all of the immigrants. With Latinos as well as black people, there's a sense that to be white is to be uptight and to sell out. Not to mention that black people didn't suffer from this until about 35 years ago. There was no such thing as the "acting white" syndrome in 1910. It's a new thing.

You refer to the "civil rights miracle" in your book, and then you talk a lot about the last 35 years as this great disappointment. Where do you think it went wrong?

It's a problem. If there were no civil rights miracle, I would not exist. But on the other hand -- God, the whole country really went to shit in [the 1960s.] What happened -- it wasn't a black thing, it was a general thing -- was that the white left realized that there's such a thing as structural poverty and that the American system is not as gee-whiz wonderful as intelligent people often assumed. Then, of course, there's Vietnam, which is a hideous mistake in the face of everybody day after day. Watergate comes soon after. As a result, it became common among thinking white people to suppose that reacting against the system was an authentic, vivid, lively thing to do.

That percolates down into the black power movement. So there's the Civil Rights Act and black people are freed. At that time, you have this new idea that reacting against the system and crying victim is an intelligent thing to do. You're enlightened if you do that. Black people were vulnerable. We have a self-image problem even today.

There's also the drama of it. Every third person in the world is a drama queen. And crying victim, especially when you're not really a victim in any real way, feels good. It feels good to cry victim if you're not one. So as a result, black people bit this hook, line and sinker, and we're stuck in it.

So you don't believe that blacks have been victims.

Oh, yeah, we have.

Isn't there just a period that people -- any and all people -- have to come to terms with the fact that they have been victims in order to move on?

No. You say that, and I know exactly what you mean because we're people of our time. It wasn't like that before, though. The idea that we need to air it and need to talk about it and exaggerate it and theatricalize our victimhood -- that's new. That's something that wouldn't have made sense to even a smart American in 1950. We've made a mistake with it and we've ended up distracting a lot of young people. Yes, there's victimhood and I know my racism. I suffer it now and then. But the issue is, how important are those things at the end of the day? Frankly, if it doesn't keep you from getting a job, if it doesn't hurt your daughter, if it doesn't hurt you -- who cares? If you're a strong people, if black is beautiful, if black people have survived, and somebody calls you "nigger," move on.

You write about the one instance where you were called a nigger. Can you talk about that?

The one time anyone's ever called me nigger -- I can't believe that anyone would look at a story like this and think that it hurt them -- involved a guy who lived in an apartment near mine. A low-rent apartment complex just after I was a graduate student. He was fighting with his girlfriend at around two or three in the morning. Loud. I came out of my apartment and asked him to quiet down. He was a drunk and we got into an argument and it ended with him turning around and saying, "Just a fucking nigger anyway." And I shut the door.

I know that I'm supposed to have shut the door and felt tears rolling hotly down my cheeks and thrown myself onto the couch and cried and called a friend. No. To be graphic, he was what we would call formally a working-class gentleman. Informally, he was a cracker. He was white trash. He had baggy, dirty blue jeans hanging off of his flat old butt. He wasn't somebody who I looked up to in any way. And we have an argument. I'm pretty good at arguing and what he ends up with is to call up that word. Frankly, I don't think he was a racist, because before that when he was sober we always had gotten along very well. I don't think he was burning crosses on anyone's lawn. That was his way of having something to say because I'm more articulate than him. And higher in life.

So what is a racist then?

A racist is someone who hates black people because they are black and/or acts against the welfare of black people. That person today is increasingly rare. More to the point, as often as not that person can't have any effect on your life. So what's the big deal? I know that sounds naive, but if you have a basic ego, how much can that matter? We're taught to fall to pieces whenever there's a "racist." Why?

Well, that brings me to the next question: Do you really think that most black people do fall to pieces? Who and what are you talking about?

No, and that's one of the major themes of "Authentically Black." There is a split identity in black culture today, and I see this daily. There's what you're expected to do in public, and there's what you're expected to do in private. The black undergraduate who hears a professor use the word "niggardly" or hears something an administrator says that could be construed as "racist" and runs out of the classroom crying, I firmly believe, is not genuinely hurt. They have a sense that as good, thinking African-Americans it's their job to blow the whistle on racism in public. It's the same kind of theater that your counterculturally oriented white undergraduates pull.

So somebody says "nigger" or somebody draws a picture in some dorm, and a certain 25 black students jump out onto the central plaza and the local media comes and you've always got one or two of them who will cry. They're not cynical; it's not that they're doing it on purpose, but they have a sense that to be intelligent, engaged black people you're supposed to pull this kind of routine. Deep down, most black people know that some of these things will not destroy you, that you can succeed in a world even if it's not perfect. That is the biggest problem today -- the sense that to be authentically black is to cloak the black race in victimhood in public, no matter how well the race is doing. The idea is to keep whites on the hook. In private, this is not the way that black people talk.

The sadder truth is that for many white people, black people are a minority with a sad history, and they'd rather be rid of us completely. The very sad truth is that white people are much more important to black mythology than the other way around. That's not fair, but like many things that aren't fair, it's also true.

Might that be changing considering how much black culture has influenced white culture? What I find hard to believe is that whites aren't conscious in some ways of how they emulate black people.

Interesting question. Many black people are afraid that we're being co-opted. What they don't understand is how black white people are getting. And it's something that's easy to miss; fish don't know that they're wet. But it's at the point where hybridism is becoming very much the norm. Most people don't think about the fact that the way Britney Spears sings and moves is black.

It's not only in entertainment. You see it in the way people talk. A lot of "ebonics" is now ordinary speech. I don't know how many white girls I've seen calling each other "dude." "Dude" starts with black people and it percolates into white vernacular among men. Now white women are saying, "Dude, let's go get our nails done." It's a black thing. If you look at a silent film, at white people moving in 1903, they don't walk like white people now, they don't nod like white people. All of us are blacker. So what we're really moving towards is a Mariah Carey, Tiger Woods sort of thing. Nowadays, black people do matter more to white people, but in a good way, because black people are in white people and they don't even know it, which is the way it should be.

Which is the way it should be?

Yeah, because we're moving towards getting past race. Al Sharpton wouldn't like that, but we're going to get past it. Getting past it does not mean these communities of wary blacks and wary whites eyeing each other and writing Op-Eds about each other.

Do they feel that way about hip-hop? It's mostly black controlled.

Hip-hop is interesting. It's almost as if people are waiting for it to be co-opted. But the thing is that there is no hip-hop Elvis and there's not going to be one. There is Eminem, but nobody would claim that he is taking the lion's share. There is nobody who thinks of Eminem as the quintessence of hip-hop.

But people have compared him to Elvis. Well, he compares himself to Elvis, anyway.

In that way that he is a white hip-hopper. But he is not taking over the field. He is not making more money than any other number of hip-hoppers. He is just one of the many. And he's doing fine. But he's not taking over in the way that Elvis did. Elvis made it and all of a sudden he's making more money than Chubby Checker and Sam Cooke and all the others combined. Eminem's not doing that, he's not going to, nor will any white hip-hopper do it. Things have changed. The white kids in the suburbs are not listening only to Eminem. There's no sense that they like Eminem better than the black ones.

I wanted to talk about leaders a little bit more. You direct a lot of your criticism at black leaders -- Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. I'm wondering what you think of the young leaders, and while we're talking about hip-hop, what's being called the hip-hop political movement.

It makes me feel old. I'm 37. This whole hip-hop culture idea is an outgrowth of a general "bobos in paradise" idea -- to be countercultural and to hate the establishment. I don't love the establishment either, but this hip-hop thing is professional alienation, a recreational indignation. The idea that black identity can be centered on that, especially among the young, strikes me as a pose rather than an action. It feels good to be an underdog and that's what that's about. You put your cap on backwards, you think somebody set up Sept. 11 on purpose 

But I see Russell Simmons, who seems to be leading this movement, as very much a part of the establishment.

That's the thing. Simmons will fund all of this music that's preaching black alienation and he's one of the richest people in the world. More to the point, the idea that the main face of black people for the country should be alienation and poverty is inaccurate. It's the way that a segment of the population lives and we need to do something about that. But the idea that that's the blackest thing that people need to pay the most attention to  again, it's a pose. It feels good to play the underdog.

But when I first heard about this movement and that Simmons was spearheading it, my thought was that it was pragmatic. You want to get a lot of young people of all colors involved and to tap into such a large audience. He has so much money and power, and it's a way to get people interested in politics.

And the question is: What politics? To get people to vote? For what? Is the idea to get people to vote for reparations? To get people to vote for expanding welfare benefits again? It's so unclear to so many people today what black people need. It seems like a hip, get-out-the-vote movement. My god, vote for what? Do you feel that affirmative action needs to be restored? I disagree. It seems to me that that's the sort of thing that Russell Simmons and his voters would push for.

Well, they are talking about things like racial profiling and incarceration.

That's true.

It's possible that they -- and hip-hop -- could bring college-age people together in a way that nothing else can. I'm not wild about Russell Simmons being the head of this, either. But I have been heartened by some aspects of it, if only because there is no young political movement out there.

Not today, no. And racial profiling is important. Some of this for me is just visceral. You have a guy, and I don't care what color he is, his pants are baggy, he's standing in front of a camera, and he's throwing his hands and palms out in that hip-hop gesture. The rhythm is going and he's bouncing his arms around and hurling his palms at the camera. Anyone who's doing that -- their main message is "Fuck the establishment, I am oppressed, and isn't that wonderful?" Any vote movement based on that sentiment strikes me as one that's going to keep running into walls. It's not instructive, it's melodramatic. The point is that whole iconography is not based on engagement with our society.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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