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Losing the Race?
March 20, 2001
John H. McWhorter


Introductory Remarks by David Theroux

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is David Theroux and I am the president of The Independent Institute. I want to welcome you all to our Independent Policy Forum program this evening. We have a full house, as many of you may know.

I’m also delighted to welcome our guests and viewers from C-SPAN2, who will be joining with us as far as our program’s coverage nationally and internationally. As many of you may know, the Independent Policy Forum is a program that we hold monthly here at The Independent Institute in Oakland. And the program consists of lectures, debates, and seminars featuring top scholars and policy experts featuring new books that they’ve authored which we think have particular import.

Our program today is entitled “Losing the Race? Black Progress, Freedom and Independence.” Our speaker, as you may know, is the scholar and author John McWhorter. For those of you who have not seen his book, John is the author of the acclaimed and hotly debated book called Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. As a result of John’s book, he has been getting quite a bit of attention. In fact, this is an article that featured him in the San Francisco Chronicle. This was a little over four or five weeks ago. He also was the author of a fascinating cover article in the March 5th issue of New Republic on black television, which I highly recommend for those interested in popular culture.

As many of you know, we sponsor these [forums] roughly on a monthly basis on many different social and economic issues. I also want to take the opportunity to thank Robert Mondavi Winery for kindly donating the wine that we’ve enjoyed, as well as the Customer Company, which serves as a co-sponsor for our Policy Forum programs.

For those of you who are new to The Institute, hopefully you received a packet when you registered that gives you information about what we do and how we do it. You can also go to our website,, to get information about our events and publications and other projects.

One of our publications I wanted to mention is a journal that we publish called The Independent Review. This is the current issue of The Independent Review that you can also get at most better newsstands, Barnes & Noble, and other stores. I also wanted to point out in last fall’s issue was a very important article written by the economist David Bernstein and the article is on an issue that’s sort of related to our interest in African-American history and African-American studies. The title was called, “Racism, Railroad Unions, and Labor Regulation,” and it’s basically a study on how government policy to institutionally create racist policies to keep certain people down who are not considered to be acceptable by others. And The Institute is very much concerned with these kinds of policies.

To provide more specific background, The Independent Institute is an academic public policy research institute. We produce many books. We have a quarterly journal that I mentioned and many other studies. We hold different kinds of events like this as well as different media projects. Our program is interested in serious analysis of public issues. We’re not interested in whether these issues are viewed as politically correct or how they may be framed politically in the media. Our interest is hopefully to get more to the truth of the nature of government policies, regardless of political or social biases.

Also in your packet, and also on our Web site, you’ll find information about upcoming events. On April 24th, our program will be titled, “Will Encryption Protect Privacy and Make Government Obsolete?” Another provocative title. The author will be the legal scholar and economist David Friedman, Professor of Law at Santa Clara University and author of the new book from Princeton University Press entitled Law’s Order. For our C-SPAN viewers, they may recall seeing David, who was interviewed by Brian Lamb about six to nine months ago.

In addition, for this spring and later this year, upcoming speakers will include: the TV and radio talk show personality and host Larry Elder and his best-selling book from St. Martin’s Press called, Ten Things You Can’t Say in America; economists Richard Vedder and John Merrifield will be speaking on why the public schools seem to be failing and what can be done; and the renowned psychiatrist Thomas Szasz will be speaking on his new book, Pharmacracy, on the health care establishment. Tom, incidentally, also has a very important article in The Independent Review in the upcoming issue. And again, of course, if you don’t subscribe, I certainly hope you will. Finally, we also will be holding an event with the historian Thomas Fleming and his book which is just about to be released from Basic Books, part of the Perseus Group, called, The New Dealers’ War: FDR and the War Within World War II. So we hope that all of you will be joining with us at some of those, if not all of those, events.

Our program tonight is a continuation of, as I mentioned, a great interest that we have in African-American history and issues. Although last month, February, was officially Black History Month, we’re sort of breaking the mold, we consider these issues to be of interest any month, year-round. So hopefully we’ll set a new trend in that regard.

When the National Urban League recently announced the birth of its campaign for African American achievement, it was created, as it said, “to raise awareness and promote the understanding that achievement matters.” The venerable civil rights organization implied that black progress will advance more quickly if achievement is taken more seriously. In other words, to achieve a goal, be it scholastic achievement, financial independence, or better political representation, one must first believe that the goal is reachable and that it is worthy of sustained effort. That particular program is very close to the focus of tonight’s program.

Two other small news items I might mention that sort of touch on tonight’s discussion, the second being, many of you may have heard, that the producer Steven Spielberg has been reported to be working on a new mega—as Hollywood puts most of what they do—mega-film on Abraham Lincoln, the life and times of Abraham Lincoln and a more accurate depiction of him. Those who are interested in this topic, there are a number of new books that have come out in the last year or so. There’s also, I should mention, as you might guess, a very important article which you can find on our website, from The Independent Review called “The Great Centralizer: Abraham Lincoln and the War between the States,” by the economist Thomas DiLorenzo. And I think you’ll find it quite illuminating, as far as whether Lincoln was racist in his views and whether the Civil War was conducted in a way to emancipate the slaves or not. Whether there are other, better, ways of doing it and other issues pertaining to that.

The third news item I want to mention is that there’s been quite a bit of news coverage about, of course, the issue of affirmative action, especially on university campuses. The Associated Press just reported that at the University of California, this past Friday in fact, the minority student recruitment centers at Berkeley and UCLA and other campuses have apparently been sending out, believe it or not, discouraging letters to prospective students. So the question is why. This seems to me a rather cruel, racist, paternalistic and intolerable activity for anyone to do. The question is: why is the University actually doing that? Which means of course as a public university, the taxpayers are being forced to support policies to deliberately discourage minority students from applying.

So you can see that the issue of race and human relations is not dead in America. Certainly not. Racism is not dead around the world—African Americans have endured a legacy of black-imposed slavery in Africa; of course, white-imposed slavery of course in the U.S.; white-imposed Jim Crow laws; a wide assortment of labor, business and social restrictions and regulations; a dysfunctional government school system that is more known today for school shootings than for academic achievement; and as my example with the minority recruitment center attests—there is a certain government paternalism in virtually all aspects of many people’s lives who are in the African American community and other communities.

But history is also full of the work of people of all ethnic groups who, despite horrendous disadvantages and crushing racist and xenophobic treatment, have triumphed because they were not simply going to take it anymore. From Crispus Attucks to Frederick Douglas to Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Thomas Sowell, many black Americans, male and female, have been successful despite the odds. And many black African Americans have been at the forefront of significant cultural and economic advantages in the U.S. and elsewhere. The enormous progress for black people is largely the result of the struggles of such heroic people and the struggle of everyday people, in their own circumstance.

Our speaker, John McWhorter, this evening, believes that dealing racism a death blow will require a reinvestment in this very strength. The strength that allowed black Americans to triumph and survive thus far. His path-breaking book has already shocked, inspired and ignited a fiery debate among those who are seriously interested in the issues of human progress, freedom, equality, and independence today.

The civil rights revolution was a pinnacle of American history. It freed African Americans from centuries of disenfranchisement. Yet according to Professor McWhorter, it has had a tragic side effect, or at least there’s a tragic side effect that seems to be ongoing.

As racism has been receding as a serious obstacle to black achievement, he suggests that many black Americans have been misled into a self-destructive ideological detour at the encouraging – I should point out – of others. He wonders whether affirmative action fostered cults of victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism which may be at the root of too much of the problems that African Americans face. He asks how false assumptions and low expectations condition blacks for low achievement.

If all this is true, then the question to ask is what kind of strategies should Americans, black and white, pursue instead? John McWhorter is Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University. He’s been an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Cornell University. He is an expert in Creole and pigeon languages. Professor McWhorter speaks Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Dutch, Swedish, Hebrew—

John McWhorter

No, no, I read those.

David Theroux

—he has a working knowledge of them. And tonight he’ll be speaking in Swahili. [Laughter.] He has published articles on Spanish and English Creoles, Swahili, sign language, black English, and other issues. In addition to his book, Losing the Race, he’s the author of, I guess this is one you’re working on now, The Tower of Babel, is that right?

John McWhorter

The Power of Babel.

David Theroux

The Power of Babel. Also, Toward a Model of New Creole Genesis, Word on the Street, Authentically Black: Essays on Race in America, and The Missing Spanish Creoles. Having lived in New Orleans for a fair amount of time in my life, I appreciate what he is doing in numerous ways. His articles have appeared in The New Republic—I mentioned the cover article in the March issue—and other publications as well as numerous top linguistic scholarly journals. I’m very pleased to introduce John McWhorter. [Applause.]

John McWhorter

Thank you. I don’t want to do a summary of Losing the Race tonight. I want to talk about some of the issues that surround it and some of the thoughts that I’ve been led to since it came out.

The book came out in August, and it’s been a long ride and I’ve seen a lot more than I expected I’d see; learned quite a bit. And I find myself even more convinced than I was after I finished the book that there are some problems that we have today when it comes to the racial dialogue. That they’re not as hard to solve as we might often think, but they are urgent and we do need to talk about them directly and sustainedly, out loud and in public.

From what I personally see, the reason that it’s so hard to talk about race in America today, the reason that there are the 10 things that you can’t say in America according to Larry Elder—I think actually five that he actually treats because the other five are different things—but the reason that there are things that we cannot say in America, is because of a certain guiding misimpression that I think African Americans have been encouraged to fall for since the Civil Rights Act, and which paralyzed an awful lot of progress in the lives of most African Americans today. It’s a very serious misconception and it’s made even more pernicious by the fact that it’s felt more tacitly than overtly, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t powerfully felt.

And that is the very simple misconception that the fact that there still exists residual racism means that all black achievement is a chance affair, or something that only extraordinary people can do. This is the problem. That probably sounds kind of dull, but it underlies an awful lot of the problems that we see. There’s the idea that until all racism has gone away, until there’s no racism in any white person’s heart, then as far as achieving goes, anything that a black person does well is just chance. That was a lucky person. They had the breaks. Or they’re incredible. They’re this incredibly gifted person and so we can’t really realistically look towards that person as a model. And, therefore, what we always need to be talking about is racism.

This is not something that anybody would espouse overtly. I’ve never heard anybody say this, but you can tease it out in the conceptions that you find in a great many, very well-intentioned, extremely intelligent African American people and all the other ones as well. I think that this is a very serious problem.

For example, Black History Month—we just got through Black History Month and there’s some black history that we were reminded of—there are so many things about black history that we never hear about, and it’s not an accident that we don’t hear about them. It’s this conception that I’m talking about that tends to passively filter it out.

For example, Tulsa. In Tulsa, there was a thriving black business district early in this century. And there was a thriving black business district because the whites in Tulsa wouldn’t allow the black people to be around them. So the only way to have a thriving black business district was to have one of your own.

And when I say business district I don’t mean just some houses. I don’t mean some corner stores. I don’t mean a Vaudeville theater. I mean anything that white people had, black people had it in this district. And this was built up at a time when there were no small business loans waiting for these black people; whites weren’t helping. And these people did it. And you look at the photographs and it’s this sort of black Valhalla.

Now, in the early ’20s, this district was basically burned to the ground by a band of marauding whites because of a trumped-up charge of a black man having accosted a white woman. And this was a tragedy.

This started getting around on black Internet groups about two years ago and it was framed in a certain way, as “Watch Out.” I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten this in my box that you better watch out what white people could possibly do. Don’t get too comfortable because they might burn something down.

That’s not what Tulsa should mean. When I see Tulsa I think, look at what those people did in a world which was completely racist, much more overtly racist than the world that we live in today. Nobody would say there’s no racism. I have to repeat. I experience it all the time. It’s there. Give me the statistics. I know.

However, the issue is, how much? And back then, I think all of us could agree, wherever we’re coming from, that it was a very different world and yet they did this. In other words, when racism was this horrible, you had this business district in this city, and of course that was one of dozens of such districts around the country. But instead, we’re taught not to think about that. Either we don’t know about Tulsa, or we think of it as something to be wary about white people about.

The reason that Tulsa is read that way so spontaneously, by a lot of very smart, well-intentioned people, is because there’s a sense that residual racism means that black achievement is marginal. You wouldn’t want to think about that. Most of our so-called black leaders almost wouldn’t want us to think about that. The idea is to think about the fact that racism isn’t gone.

It’s very dangerous, and what it means among many things is that we’re very often encouraged to look at the glass as half empty. And that’s not even a very good analogy, because we’re not even talking about half. I think we’ve gone long, long past the halfway point. It’s not a matter of keeping your sunny side up.

The facts are really rather simple. For example, I think that it’s true of most whites and most blacks—I can’t say this with complete authority, although some polls which I mention in the book have suggested this is true—most white people and most black people think that most black people are poor or close to it. You get it from the media. It’s what you’re told. It’s what conversations tend to imply. There’s a sense that if you bring up African Americans, you’re basically talking about the poor, and then there’s some lucky ones but we don’t want to talk too much about them, because they’re lucky or they’re gifted, but really most black people are poor.

Now, of course that was true. In 1940, nine out of ten black people were poor. In 1960, 55% of African Americans recorded were what we would call poor, in terms of the poverty line or below. Today, no matter how you slice it, less than one black person in four in this country is poor, and that’s the poverty line.

Now, we can kind of dither about exactly what poverty means, but still that’s a very important figure. As far as the inner city, one in five. You talk to a lot of people and you sense that there are two black people sitting on their fronts steps in lots for every one that’s doing something else. That’s not true. One in five. That’s a non-partisan statistic.

The middle class? Some people would tell you two-fifths. That’s too little. Some people would tell you two-thirds. That’s too much. It’s really somewhere in between. It’s about half. About every other African American is middle class by any standard. Again, you can dither about what middle class means, but it doesn’t lean towards the bottom, it leans towards the top.

That’s something that we’re discouraged from thinking about, even though I don’t think it’s that unclear. Most of us walking around in our lives, you do see poor black people. You see quite a few black people of different kinds. We’re trained to see a vast number of African Americans as exceptions—and frankly, especially African Americans are taught this, practically from the cradle—it’s not healthy, because we end up not realizing how successful we’ve been.

This plays it out in some of the strangest ways. When Losing the Race came out, one thing I dreaded was the Amazon reviews. [Laughter.] And they haven’t been that bad, but there was one that I will always remember, from a certain gentleman—I guess I shouldn’t say his name to be civil—but he is an African American scholar of sorts who lives in New York City and he had to write two really nasty reviews of the book on Amazon. Not just one. But he wrote in one, and the next day there’s another one, just more. And he’s just furious at this book. And it was kind of clear from the review that he agreed with most of the book, but he’s just furious at this book.

And so I thought, well, there’s somebody with only so much to do, but as it turned out we wound up on this radio show. This New York radio show about a week later, and he was just so angry. He’s yelling, he’s screaming. And you know what it turned out he was upset about? And the only reason I’m bringing this up is because it really was very indicative. This guy was annoyed that six years ago, he had written a book and it was about an African American man who went to medical school and he became a surgeon and he was successful. He wrote a book about that. And he was very angry that my book was selling better than his book ever had. That’s literally what it was. He made that loud and clear. He thought that it said something about this country that nobody wanted to hear about this surgeon.

Well, frankly, I’m glad that the man became a surgeon. I mean, that is something. That’s always something. But frankly—and I didn’t say this on the radio show—it’s not all that unusual in 2001 or at any point in the late twentieth century for, my goodness, an African American to go to medical school and get through and to practice! I mean, shut my mouth! It really is not surprising why that didn’t sell. It didn’t sell because, thank the Lord, it’s ordinary now. This is something that this person wouldn’t have thought of. This very intelligent man literally thought that this book would be a bombshell. He can’t celebrate what we’ve done and it’s not his fault. It’s not that he a canny operator. He’s not looking for power. He’s about my age, and he’s been duped by the climate that one is steeped in, ironically, ever since the civil rights movement, for reasons that I’ll talk about.

So this is why it’s often considered to be the case that racism is what we always need to be talking about. And we always need to be talking about it. It should be in capital letters. A-B-C—well what we really need to be talking about is racism—D-E-F. Yeah, but what we really need to be talking about is the racism. The reason that we really need to be talking about that is because of the sense that until it’s all gone none of us can really advance, except for the extraordinary.

This is why, for example, racial dialogue doesn’t work. It’s often said, why can’t we just have a conversation? But the problem is that very often we are operating on different premises. To many African Americans, and unfortunately I would say that this is more predominant in academia than outside of it, think the idea of a black-white dialogue is supposed to be that black people tell whites how racist they are and white people just nod and talk about how guilty they are. That’s the kind of dialogue that’s sold. And as time goes by, I find that whites are less and less tolerant of this.

I mean, I remember when I was little in the ‘70s, I do remember white people—I remember the big collars—people just enduring this. And in a sense, I see why. It was more necessary then. Today it’s getting old. I think most white people kind of have the message, at least anywhere that I’ve ever lived which is admittedly the coasts, and people are getting tired of it. And so basically the dialogue never seems to work.

There is a truly poisonous book that is having a great success these days. It’s called The Debt, by Randall Robinson, and it’s an argument for reparations. A truly poisonous book. I just read it.

And one of the reasons that I call it poisonous is because Robinson says that—and he wants to get a dialogue going—as if there’s never been a dialogue going between whites and blacks, as if we haven’t really been having one, for you could call it a hundred years, but certainly for the past 35. The reason Robinson doesn’t see one as having happened is because he’s waiting for white America to roll over and admit what devils they all are. Obviously that’s not going to happen. But let’s say it did happen. It’s not going to. So that’s not something to wish for. Why wish for something that’s never going to happen? That’s not constructive.

It seems to me that, at this point, with the strength that we’ve got, the idea in African America is to do what we can to achieve, despite the racism. It’s going to happen. You’re going to run up against stuff. But the idea that stubbing your toe up against some ridiculous little event—I don’t mean the horrible things, but those things are very rare—I mean the ordinary things. There’s another book called It’s the Little Things, by Lena Williams. Apparently one of the little things is that when white people shake their hair that makes us feel bad because our hair doesn’t shake. [Laughter.] The little things. That’s literally in the book.

So let’s say that happens. You’re in an elevator and you get that swish of hair. O.K. It takes more than that to ruin my day, frankly. [Laughter.] And really the idea is what we can do despite the racism. We demean ourselves by supposing that every time some idiot does something that we have to question our self-images and get on the Internet.

For example, W. E. B. DuBois. He’s one of my favorite figures. And it’s interesting, when you read about DuBois, again and again, he comes up with things which, in today’s climate, would be perceived as heresy. And yet I think he was just as black a man, or person, as the rest of us.

For example, there was a time when DuBois was interested in making sure that black people voted for the right party. And at first he was in favor of Teddy Roosevelt. Now, Roosevelt has come—if we think of Roosevelt and black, we think of a blurry picture of him sitting with Booker T. Washington—but Teddy Roosevelt – and he actually, standing outside of him, and I’m a president buff, he’s one of my favorites—but Teddy Roosevelt was, like many people of his time, he was a complete bigot. He was against miscegenation. He dressed down black college congregations that he was invited to speak at. So he was a racist. And that’s just the way he was. Well, OK. So W. E. B. DuBois saw this and he decided that perhaps Wilson would be a better idea, Woodrow Wilson.

Now, Woodrow Wilson was also, definitely by our standards, a complete bigot. He watched The Birth of a Nation and said that his was history written with lightening, and after that he said, and also all so true. That’s Wilson. And you know, frankly, the man lived a very long time ago. We can’t pardon these things, but still the man was a bigot. He did not think of black people as human beings.

And yet DuBois said let’s support him. Because at the point it looked like Wilson would do the best for black people. The idea is not whether Wilson likes black people. DuBois even said—how’d he put it?—“I doubt that in his heart Mr. Wilson admired Negroes, however ... ” He knew. But the point was that how Wilson felt about black people wasn’t the point.

Now today, we have a very different situation. We have George W. Bush in office. And go to the black Internet sites, etc., and what we’re really supposed to be thinking about is racism. So, are the people in the Bush administration racist or not?

And so then you get John Ashcroft. And that’s a tough one. And let’s say, let’s just say that John Ashcroft is a complete bigot. I doubt if he is, but let’s say that he was. Still, we’re talking about a whole administration. Which administration would be better?

Now, my political affiliation is a rather hazy affair, and so I’m not advocating one or another, a few people out there who know that I’m going through some problems with this. However, I can definitely say this. DuBois basically gave the African American race a conception of itself as legitimate. One cannot say it enough. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. spearheaded more legislation that made, for example, my life possible, than is yet generally known. It’s a shame how undersung that man is. Thurgood Marshall, enough said. Martin Luther King, it’s obvious what he did. Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters, John Conyers very simple. Those people have a certain rock star glamour. They’re good to their mothers I suppose. And you can say about anybody that they’ve done some good things. What have they accomplished for African Americans?

Jesse Jackson, for example, OK he’s tall. OK. He’s a good orator. And he’s tall. [Laughter.] He ran for president a couple of times. I don’t see that that shrank North Philadelphia’s ghetto by one square millimeter. That was symbolism. What’s he done? When he dies and we go in the history books, Jesse Jackson was responsible for what? Nothing whatsoever that really moved the race forward. Maxine Waters? John Conyers. Name them. They’re doing nothing.

Now what I mean by this is, that as far as continually voting Democratic without really thinking about what it does, is a terrible idea. And as far as the black Democratic side of things, why is it that whites have done all of the innovating, whether it worked or not, for African Americans. Enterprise zones? White idea. Welfare reform? I would argue that that was a good thing. It was a white idea. Faith-based initiatives? It’s a white idea. There is not one major initiative that has moved African Americans forward, or have been intended to do, that was spearheaded by Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters, John Conyers and all of these very well-intentioned heroes who have done nothing. Nothing but mind the store. This is something that DuBois would not have understood.

But the reason that these people stay in office is because of a sense that racism is the decisive obstacle. Until there’s no racism at all, and until society is perfect, then advancement is less important than shouting and crying, and that’s what these people have been doing. It’s a very serious problem.

It leads to another one. The idea, I call this the cult of separatism in the book, that more lapses and failure are inevitable. That they’re kind of OK for black people. That if a black person does something wrong, well, that’s kind of different than a white person doing something wrong, no matter how that person grew up. We see this again and again. Tupac Shakur. He was a fine artist, and basically he got himself shot. As Chris Rock put it, “Tupac did not get assassinated, he got shot.” He was trying to be the big man and he got shot. Hero in the black community and not just because he was an artist. You hear again and again that he was somehow brought down. That his being a black-identified black man that somehow that got him killed. It’s considered OK that he liked guns and that he got himself shot. It’s considered almost romantic.

It’s not a good idea. The general idea that we’ve had since the mid-60s, that black pathology is a healthy rebellion against the system—it’s understandable where that comes from; it’s romantic, it makes a good movie. However, it also ruins a lot of black children, and it keeps I think most of us from being the best that we can be.

Back to DuBois. He does a study of black people in Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Negro. He noticed what there was at the bottom of the social scale, what we would call the underclass, was about one in four people, who did all of the same things that we see the black underclass doing today. He didn’t praise them. The idea was OK, this is a problem, some of the reasons they’re doing these things have been because they’re disenfranchised—as DuBois got older he would have stressed that explanation more—but his point was that these people were a bit of an embarrassment, something we had to fix, and by no means the blackest people in the race.

DuBois would have been baffled to see people like that considered the bards of the race, the blackest people, the people who all of us who have moved beyond that should feel a little bit guilty about being beyond. That would make no sense to him. If we could resurrect W. E. B. DuBois, him reading the Times, especially the New York Times about right now, for the past four or five years? Baffling. He would be on a different planet. And frankly, he was right. I think that we have really moved into some very unfortunate areas.

Here’s one more statement by my hero. He was advocating that black people espouse the Progressive cause and he said, “The Progressive Party recognizes the distinctions of race or class and political life have no place in a democracy, especially does the party realize”—and this is what’s amazing about this statement, because it contrasts indicatively with what any of our black leaders would say today—“especially does the party realize that a group of 10 million people who have, in a generation, changed from a slave to a free-labor system, re-established family life, accumulated $1 billion in property, including 20 million acres of land, and reduced their illiteracy from 80 to 30%, deserve and must have justice, opportunity, and a voice in their own government.”

Now, you know what’s amazing about that is that he emphasizes what was good. He emphasizes the progress. My, you would look in vain to find that nowadays. Can you imagine the Congressional Black Caucus actually talking about what good had happened? They wouldn’t want to, and the reason they wouldn’t want to is because they’re afraid to. There’s this sense that people like that have that if white people hear about the good things, then we’re going to slide back. But to what?

I can understand what would have been in about 1965, 1970, but I’m often called naïve. Apparently I’m too young to make these statements, but I’m going to be young and naïve, and I’m going to say that I do not think that white people hearing what I’m saying right now means that the hoses are going to be turned on anybody. I don’t think that the Klan is going to get bigger. I don’t think that anybody in even our government right now is going to turn on us. I simply don’t see the empirical evidence of that sort of thing happening, including Ronald Reagan, a rather under-analyzed administration, although I wasn’t crazy about it. That’s not going to happen. It simply isn’t going to happen. We’re under larger forces than this.

The most unfortunate thing is that this sense of racism [acts] as a decisive obstacle rather than something to address and get beyond conditions, is a sense that, when it comes to African Americans, and only African Americans—apparently we are the only culture in the world that can not have any negative traits. Anything that’s wrong with us has to be because of white racism, either in the present or the past. Nothing, no problem.

Other than that, we are morally pristine. We are just sufferers. Nobody would say that out loud, but it is the idea. You can not criticize. You are not to criticize. You may say a little something, but you’re supposed to pad it with two or three other elements of praise. You’re not supposed to say here is something that we need to work on.

That is not just some sort of wrong-headedness. Where that comes from is the idea that we are defined completely by what racism does to us. This is the language that any black person growing up since the mid-60s, basically grows up hearing. And what this means is that, in this book, I talk about how, I think most—some people would say some, I really do think most—most of the reason that there’s such a gap between blacks and whites in school is not due to societal inequities. There are correlations between class and school performance, but what we see in African American culture is something much more than that.

And it’s that there has been a sense since the mid-60s—this didn’t exist before the mid-60s in any major way—but since the mid-60s, there has been a sense that for a black child to be a nerd, to really excel in school, is to “act white.” This is something which, as I’ve often said, you cannot have grown up black in the United States since 1965 and not know this. I have since heard from precisely two students who claim that they had never seen this, and one of them, let’s just say that definitions of blackness can be very flexible, and another one grew up extremely affluent and not around any black kids. But really to everybody else this is clear. It’s just a part of growing up black if you decide that you really like books.

Now, I don’t say that as a criticism. I say that because this is one more cultural outgrowth of the whole racism idea. Where that begins is in the 60s, when it was – the separatist cult was developed, the idea being that whites were a furiously, hideously repressive group. And let’s face it, in the 1960s that was closer to true. So the idea developed that there was this separate kind of blackness. Integration went out the window.

But as a result, naturally, because white people were the ones associated with school, because they had controlled them forever, a sense arose that to embrace school was to be white. Again, especially with the talented tent, back in DuBois’s day, that wasn’t true. You had your nerdy black people and your black people who didn’t like books and everything in between. And I have not heard from one African American person—maybe I will tonight, I don’t know—haven’t heard from one African American person, who came of age before 1965, who reports having been teased for acting white. People like that would have been teased for being nerds, like my mother was teased for being a walking encyclopedia. Nobody teased her for thinking she was white, and that’s because it was the late ‘40s. That starts recently, that’s about a 37-year old trend.

And I have tried to call attention to it simply because I feel that we have to address that if we’re going to fix the black-white gap. There are a lot of things that we’re doing that are good, but if we continue to think of it as largely a problem of societal inequities, the problem isn’t going to be solved. It’s as simple as that. I’m just trying to look at it with as much logic as I can muster.

However, people often ask me how the book has been received, not as badly as people would think, but the worst criticism comes from the chapters about school. The idea that it could be anything but white teachers telling black kids that they’re dumb, perhaps subtly, but conclusively, or the fact that a disproportionate [number] of black kids go to bad schools, which is true, but not nearly a larger one as is often said, and we see the same problems with very very very middle class and affluent black kids. If we talk about these sorts of things, then you are considered to be a traitorous person, I mean, a truly—the hatred doesn’t surprise me but it’s difficult to communicate what it’s like—it is literally the same hatred that a Jewish person would encounter if they denied the Holocaust.

And the reason is because the people in question—I’m often told—that it’s because people resent you for denying black people a source of power. No it’s nothing that deliberate and it’s nothing that small. What it is is a sense that many African American people have been trained to have, that racism really must be the explanation for everything, that therefore we must man the gates. It’s really a very human response. And because of that, it’s very natural for such a person to think that it couldn’t possibly be anything within the African American race, that’s something that African Americans could fix. It’s a very natural response.

I was asked to do Politically Incorrect about a month ago, and they were filming it on Howard’s campus and they wanted me to come to Howard and talk about this book, that talks about problems with black students and school. I was busy. [Laughter.] But I heard about these shows, and apparently they featured the book on one of them. I didn’t see the episode. And a couple of the people, there were some black, I think, actors, and of course, I got raked over the coals, and they said, “Well, frankly, I don’t believe the brother.” Well, that’s natural. Of course the person doesn’t believe me. And the idea is that it couldn’t possibly be true.

This is understandable but you have to get past this. And one of the hardest things about it is that this is covert. There is not an African American I have ever met who would say, “Small amounts of racism are a decisive obstacle to everyone but you, John McWhorter.” That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that this is a tacit sense, and these are the things that can be hardest to get at because few people realize that this might be affecting the way they think. But this sort of tacit sense is the explanation for how we are to receive Tulsa. To the criticism about what I say in the book. To the guy in New York City. To why there’s always a sense that that certain dialogue hasn’t happened yet. All of these things are explainable.

But the fact is, ultimately, a race does not make its mark based on how much charity it extracts from a previously oppressing race. It makes its mark by how much it can achieve without that charity. That’s a truth. It’d be nice if there were some other way but there just isn’t. And I wish that we could get that message.

One more DuBois, actually—I’m into him this month—Niagara Conference, 1905, Declaration of Principles. Black people, I think all of them male but one, I was going to say black men, but black people, and they met, and the idea was what to do about the race. And these leaders have met. And reading the Declaration of Principles, again, it’s like another planet. At one point DuBois says, “Black America needs justice and it’s given charity.” He sneers this. That makes no sense today. Maxine Waters wants the charity. She thinks that the charity is the uplift. Maxine’s wrong. DuBois was the one who had it right.

But it’s very important to realize, and this is something that I didn’t stress enough in the book, what all of this is due to is the damage that slavery and segregation inflicted. I firmly believe this. The reason that the black race has become so convinced that small amounts of racism are decisive obstacles is because of the civil rights movement, oddly enough. There are two things that came together.

One, leftism took over the academy and the thoughts of most thinking people. That happens in the 1960s. And the essence of the left, one might argue, is the idea that it’s the system that’s wrong, and that therefore the rules ought to be changed rather than teaching people to reach them. Now I don’t hate the left, but I do think that the further you go on the left, the more the idea is that we must fix the system instead of working within it. And sometimes you do want to fix the system. I wouldn’t want the world to be exactly the way it was in 1950. But that is the essence of the left. Then you have the civil rights movement, which takes away a lot of the overt shackles to advancement to African Americans, but we were a very insecure race, and I don’t think anybody would argue that.

There’s one thing that I agree with in The Debt—which is truly a really poisonous book, that’s a really sorry piece of work—but one of the good things about that book is that Randall Robinson does chronicle the self-hate. And it’s there and I’m not being high and mighty because I would not consider myself completely exempt from it. There is a tiny piece, I think, of most African Americans I know, you can’t help having it, you’re told it all the time, by black people and white people, that black people are not quite as good. It’s a tiny bit. It’s in there in various degrees. I’ll admit. I have a little bit of that. I find it hard to imagine how one could not. I just have a bit, but I think a lot of people have that bit. And it’s always in there and it’s a problem, because if you have a race that is suffering from that particular ill, then if you have a dominant society, which is telling you at this point, it’s the system that needs to be changed, and it’s the system that is responsible for everything that you’re doing wrong. Well, naturally the race is going to shoot up on that. And it’s no accident that 1964 is when all this sort of ideology begins. It’s a major divide. And that’s what it is.

So, ultimately, when you hear African Americans doing or saying things that seem so self-defeating or so cynical, often—and this is going to sound very condescending, but it is what I believe—you’re hearing somebody who hates themselves. That’s what it is. I don’t get angry at these things. I’ve stopped getting angry, because what it really is is a kind of self-hate.

For example, you can see the self-hate in various ways. Again, nobody says “I hate myself.” But here’s one. Affirmative action. Listen to—I hate to say it—most African Americans connected to universities defend it. And one of them that you get is, that athletes and legacy students have been getting in like this for years, why can’t we? Why would you want to compare yourself to that? That’s what I’ve always thought. The athletes? Enough said. The legacy students? I’ve known some [Laughter.] and frankly, I don’t see myself in that. And yet you see very proud, accomplished African Americans standing there with their glass of Chardonnay, furiously arguing for racial preferences forever based on a comparison like that. My heart sinks, but it’s based on that quiet sense that we’re not really as good.

Or this one. Every now and then, if I read a review of my book, apparently I hate myself. And despite this little corner we’re talking about, most people that I know would consider me a pretty proud person. Boy, have I got my problems, but self-esteem and confidence is really not one of them. But apparently I hate myself. This comes up again and again. This book is just about self-hate. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Why would that be an issue? Imagine a book by Stephen J. Gould, Clams and Snails, or something like that. [Laughter.] He’s one of my favorite authors. But suppose somebody doesn’t like it. They wouldn’t say, well the problem is that Gould hates himself. It’s kind of not an issue, really.

And I could really hate myself. I could be going home and flagellating myself every night and still, everything in this book could, theoretically, make sense. A lot of self-hating people have followed from A to B to C to D, we all know that. The reason that that issue is considered so close to the surface, with a lot of the black reviewers, is because it’s throughout the race. It’s like sexism. Sexism is something which I think men have been gradually been taught out of since the early 70s, and we’re still not all the way there, but there’s a sense that there are these little ways in which it’s always lying under.

I had a radical feminist girlfriend that taught me that, “yeah, there are ways that one is sexist that you wouldn’t think of.” This is when I was in grad school. So yeah, I get that. But that’s why it’s so easy that you’re a sexist. Because we all kind of think of it as just lying underneath the surface, and because, frankly, I think all men to a tiny extent are. Yeah, it’s there.

Well, in the same way, it’s just that you hate yourself. Well, that’s because you hate yourself. That’s part of the problem with our race at this point. And so what we need to do is to work on things that illuminate that. The idea is how do you give a race self-esteem? I don’t think that it’s through the sorts of things that we’ve been seeing since the mid-60s.

So what do we do? What do we do? Well, I’m still working on that, but I have some ideas. The things that all of us can do. For one thing, and I don’t mean this to confrontational, and I don’t mean that people should completely go backwards, but it’s gotten to the point where white guilt is a really significant harm to African Americans. And I’ve discovered that more and more since I’ve written this book. Very simply, the person who you pity is somebody who you might like, but it’s not somebody who you really respect. And it’s gotten to the point where white guilt should be checked.

There needs to be some. Racism is not completely gone. And I do think that there is still some racism around. You want to make sure. You want to keep looking for it in your heart, but not to overdo it.

It’s amazing. At UC Berkeley, for example, talk about affirmative action at a faculty party. You don’t really hear about what really happens. Half of the Berkeley faculty never liked affirmative action, and not just the ones who are getting on in years, it’s just that you weren’t allowed to say so. So half felt the way I came to feel.

But then you have the other ones—great people—but it’s clear that the reason that they’re in favor of affirmative action is because they’re guilty about what they feel their people did to black people, and they want to make up for it. You give them the rational arguments—how is this helping the race, how do you help people achieve—and it’s like all of a sudden you’re talking about wallpaper. What’s really moving these people is guilt.

OK, that’s nice but I don’t want you to pity me. I don’t want you to pity my children. I want you to help them. That’s the point. And pity doesn’t help anybody.

We’ve seen this recently in Richard Atkinson’s little gambit. What’s obviously moving that very good man is guilt. He’s not really concerned with anybody doing well. He is so dismayed at seeing the minority numbers fall at Berkeley and UCLA, and he’s so incapable of imagining that minority students could possibly be taught to do some eighth grade math and some word analogies, that he feels, let’s just take away the test. He is not concerned with the coal miner’s daughter. He is concerned with black people and Latinos, and he is trying to do the right thing as a white man of a certain age.

Well, frankly, all he’s doing is keeping my children—Lord forbid, my children go to a Berkeley where it’s been decided that there’s not going to be an SAT because he’s afraid that they couldn’t have taken it—my children are going to be able to take it. And I really don’t appreciate his gesture as well-meaning as it is.

Ronald Dworkin, legal scholar, wrote in the New York Review of Books, it’s the one time I almost threw something down. He was reviewing The Shape of the River, by William Bowen and Derek Bock, and he was saying that there has to be affirmative action at selective institutions because even—how did it go? Oh yeah, because even if African Americans haven’t done as well on the tests or in grades, we need them to be in these schools to serve as object-lessons to all the other students. And it’s interesting—and this is literally what he said, no distortion.

And it’s funny because I happened, just happened, to meet Ronald Dworkin’s daughter years ago, so I know what his children are like, at least what one of those children are like. And I can just imagine sitting down with Ronald, over martinis, and saying how would you like it if we made sure that your brilliant children were never evaluated according to their merits because they were supposed to serve as an object-lesson to gentiles? Never. He would never think of it. He would never impose this on his own children. As far as the way people argue about affirmative action, they should always take the color button, turn it down, and no matter how humane you think this policy is, no matter how elegant you think the shape of the river is, would you do it to your own children? Skip the statistics for a minute and think about it. Would you want that for your own children? Chances are you wouldn’t, and therefore I don’t need to tell you where your thoughts ought to go. That’s my general feeling about that.

Affirmative action was a good thing in the 60s and it should still exist. If you ask me, it should be based on class. For some reason, we’re not supposed to say this at Berkeley and so I’m going to say it. Berkeley now practices class-based affirmative action. That’s what they do. They don’t want to call it that, but that’s exactly what they do. Great. We just got finished doing the admissions for linguistics for graduate students and we gave a diversity fellowship to a white woman who had really grown up the hard way. That made a lot of sense to me. I understand that. Some people wouldn’t even want that. One can argue, that’s good.

But the idea that an upper-middle class black kid should never be subject to serious competition because once a policeman pulled them over on a drug check, because there were a couple of teachers who didn’t call on them as much, because they don’t see 13% black faces on every television program. I’m sorry, but even with all of those things, frankly, they should be subject to serious competition. It’s as simple as that. That’s the only to create somebody who can compete. It’d be nice if there were some other way, and we spent 35 years trying to see if there was. Well, big surprise, there isn’t. So let’s get rid of this kind of policy. Truly tragic policy at this point. It served a purpose for about 20 years, but I think we’re about finished with it.

It’s very simple. Affirmative action has lowered standards. It’s not just a thumb on the scale. This is something that Bowen and Bock show very well, but everybody seems to miss this because I think most reviewers just read the back flap, but really—it’s a long book [laughter]—but really what they show is that affirmative action has lowered standards. You cannot escape affirmative action in your life. You can’t get away from it. It’s as simple as that. I will never know a world where I will not be evaluated according to affirmative action, either overt or covert. That’s just my lot to bear.

However, it sucks, frankly. It really is not good for a person. It’s lowered standards. And very simply, lowered standards means lowered achievement. That’s it. We can call it affirmative action. That’s a fig leaf of a term. Let’s call it what it is. Lowered standards. And lowered standards means lowered achievement.

I know of not a single instance, and I’m a great history buff, I know of not a single instance in history where that isn’t true. When you lower the standards you don’t create excellence, and black children are not somehow exempt from that because they’re brown, or because they used to be slaves, or because there was segregation of 13% of the faces on the TV. That really isn’t it. Black people are human and we have lost sight of that for about 37 years.

So the way I feel, about affirmative action, to say a little bit more about of that, is that we must stop thinking about diversity as the thing to weight more than excellence. Because we have created a language, which there are a great many very young people who have grown up now, who only understand that language. It’s weird at Berkeley sometimes. I talk to undergraduates sometimes about affirmative action, of all colors. And what they tend to come up with immediately is well isn’t diversity important? Well, what about the diversity? And the thing is, that’s all they’ve ever heard.

We all either remember in 1978 when that term started to be used, or we may even remember when affirmative action first came in. But if you’re 19, you watched this debate and what you hear is a concern about different color faces, this sort of We Pals vision of the way things go. And you’re often not even aware that it’s about lowered standards, so a lot of these kids are running around thinking that the idea is to have diversity, and that there are these big bad, cigar-chomping, gilded-age people who don’t want anybody brown to come in despite their qualifications and so we’re arguing for diversity. We’ve got to get rid of that. It’s very simple.

Diversity’s nice, but excellence has to be first. There’s no such thing as a worthwhile diversity in a school where it is quietly known, by everybody, including black students, that most of the black students were not admitted for the same reasons. You can talk about how your parents didn’t talk about Harper’s over dinner. You can talk about all sorts of things, but we all know that those things are not really significant barriers, and we can have a whole talk about that. But what we really need is to start talking about excellence and we need to stop exempting African American students from the concept of excellence. Excellence of as high a level as everyone else.

Basically, what we need to do is we need to change our surrounding context. We need to change the dialogue in the air, to one in which constructive thought about race—and it doesn’t have to be my thought, that can be lots of people’s thoughts—but it cannot be just shouting racism forever and carefully identifying where racism might be, where you wouldn’t have expected it to be before. The whole idea about television lately being a perfect example. Constructive thought is considered ordinary.

For example, I know that I’m probably not supposed to address this. I’m supposed to have my dignity and not acknowledge such charges, but I’m going to acknowledge this. This needs to be acknowledged in public. Somebody needs to say something about this. One thing that keeps progress from being made is this black conservative bogey man. There is this figure that you hear about, this black conservative who writes things that he doesn’t believe so that he can be on TV and make money. You hear about this guy over and over and over again. And gradually, I’ve learned to recognize that some people think that’s me. [Laughter.] This idea that you write 300 pages that you don’t believe, then you go home and you’re reading your June Jordan and your Derek Bell and your Ishmael Reed and loving it and going to sleep thinking about that. But you’re happy because you got paid to be on Politically Incorrect. That person, very simply, just to address it in the most empirical way, never met him. Not only is it not me, but at this point I know just about all but one of the people that are most famous as “black conservatives” if I must be called one, and frankly I haven’t met that guy.

And I’m a pretty good judge of character. I’ve kind of waited. I have never—and they all are men, so that guy, I have never met this man who kind of over the wine with a wink said I only half believed it but it sure is great to write for the National Review. That person doesn’t exist. And I often wonder whether there was somebody like this in the past? But I don’t think there was. That character does not exist. That character is a stereotype imposed on African Americans by themselves and it needs to go. It’s as simple as that. The black conservative stereotype. It doesn’t hurt anything. I mean, a lot of us have probably noticed that there are more and more black conservatives lately, but it impedes dialogue. Especially given the fact that what it means is that in the media, if a “black conservative” has something to say, apparently there’s this idea that you have to be balanced with the black conservative, and so there has to be somebody from the left there screaming at you. And I understand balance. Balance is nice. But it’s interesting. When somebody from the left is on, you don’t have the other person. Not only is it not fair, but it indicates that there is a sense that the black conservative is this freak, this twisted person.

And for example, recently I was asked by one newspaper whether or not I wanted a profile done of me. And frankly there have been about six of them. They take up a lot of time and I’m busy. So I wrote this person a very friendly message, and I said if you want to do another profile then I want this one to be just about me. I said you may not call up Manning Marable, you may not call up Julianne Malveaux, it’s going to be just me. Because I don’t think—for one thing, I don’t think I’m that extreme and I have something to say. And this time I don’t want to read myself called names by people who have never even picked up my book.

Well, big surprise, I never heard from that person again. And I don’t care, but the point is we have to get beyond that. We have to get to the point where there are several ways to talk about being black.

One more DuBois, I swear he’s in me today. And there’s no comparison between that man and me, it’s just that the patterns of his life seem to be so applicable to what all of us are going through at this point. When he was interviewed, nobody invited Marcus Garvey to be the other side. When Marcus Garvey was interviewed, nobody interviewed DuBois. You had two views. Simple as that.

There is always a sense that if somebody says some of the things I’m saying, although they don’t seem so bizarre to me, there’s a sense that you are not speaking for the race. You are often told, “We do not agree with you.” Or for example, an Afrocentric book store in San Francisco started telling people “don’t buy his book, and that’s the view of the community.” That’s not the view of the community. I’ve discovered that much more than I would have expected when I wrote the book.

There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of African Americans who can understand everything that’s in this book and in the many others that came before it. A lot of what I say comes right from those other books. Really, there are quite a few. It’s just that we don’t get to hear from them. There is a really tragic bias, in the academia and in the media, towards displaying only the views of the black left. And in these realms, it’s just assumed that these things are true.

However, that is a distortion. When I talk about African Americans these days, and in this particular talk, from my estimate, and this is just thumbnail, I’m only talking about really half, and sometimes I think even less than half, it’s just that you hear from those people. Really, because the recession of racism is so painfully clear, more and more African Americans are coming to see that constructive dialogue does not mean portraying yourself as a victim. More and more African Americans are seeing that victimhood is not sexy. More and more African Americans are seeing that playing the underdog will hold you down and keep you one.

Because these things are natural human truths. You don’t want to ignore that racism exists. I don’t. I annoy some of my friends by kind of picking it out. I say, you know, if you ask me that’s kind of a subtle—I do that too. But the point is, that doesn’t guide my life. That’s not the biggest thing. And no, I do not think racism is a serious problem for African American advancement today. And I don’t think it is because it simply isn’t. And more to the point, a great many people agree with me.

What kind of mail do you get? Actually, trickles of hate mail. Every now and then I get something. I got one two days ago. Of course he hadn’t read the book. He had read a review—“you do not have the authority”—and so on. And I write everybody back, good and bad. And often they back down, when you say have you actually read the book. And that’s maybe one a week, one every two weeks. And I’m quite aware that there are a great many African Americans who find my ideas so repulsive they would consider me beneath writing. I’m aware of that too.

However, the fact is that literally, literally every week, I get literally 75 letters, e-mails and phone calls about the book. I had no idea that was going to happen. I keep everything. And by far, most of the responses I get from African Americans are positive, and very few identify themselves as conservative or anything like that. They’re just people. Just like me. They’re people of all walks of life. I have regular correspondence with six guys in prison. All sorts of people get this. There’s no genius in this book. It’s just that we need to start hearing from people who believe these very ordinary things more often.

And I believe that’s happening. There’s a groundswell. I think we’ve turned a corner. I can fortunately say here, at the beginning of the millenium, I think we have turned the corner. More and more in the media, we’re seeing more views expressed. More and more, it’s getting to the point that the person who wants to cry “whitey”—if you want to get off doing that, that’s fine—that person’s becoming on the defensive, and that’s when we know that we’ve made some progress. When people like that have to start defending themselves. That’s most of the battle. I think we’re getting there and I hope that can continue.

There’s a double-consciousness among many African Americans these days, which is very understandable. You agree with these things in private. You can bring this up at a black Thanksgiving or a black barbecue—not my book, but these issues—most people agree with this stuff. Nobody is in love with what’s going on in the inner cities. Most black people realize that a man who fathers children all over the place is not a great thing. Most black people realize that there is an element within black culture that makes the school problem worse than it is. These things aren’t hard.

But there’s a sense that as soon as the cameras are on, or white people are listening, for many African Americans the impulse is to go back to racism forever. Well, there was the time when they wanted two of my credit cards at Macy’s. Well, I didn’t get that promotion until six months after I should have. Things like that. All those things are true. That impulse has now become dangerous. I think that we can come out in public and say, yes, we are getting to the point that our previous and genuine civil rights leaders actually wanted us to go. It’s almost scary sometimes to have success. However, I think that we finally are getting very close to it. And I’m very worried that a lot of us, especially in power, are becoming agents of keeping us from getting there as fast as we can. Losing the Race was written to be one drop in the bucket of arresting that trend. And I hope that I can play some small part in this. Thank you very much. [Applause.]

Audience member #1

Can you change the minds of existing black leaders—?

John McWhorter

We’re supposed to wait for Carl.

Audience member #1

Thank you. Can you change the minds of existing black leaders to move more toward your views, or do you have to wait for the next generation of black people to adopt the program?

John McWhorter

Unfortunately, people like that are quite beyond convincing and so no, there’s nothing you can do about them. What we have to do is crowd those people out. And there are more and more black leaders who are not like that. Right here, in Oakland, Shannon Reeves, for example, is the sort of person that makes sense to me. And gradually, the other people will die. [Laughter.] The gentleman in the back.

Audience member #2

Thank you. Well, since your presentation about black people and since there are very few of them here, I felt I should get up and at least try to address some of your points—

John McWhorter


Audience member #2

—and one of the things I must admit is that sitting and listening to you, I will say I’ve never heard so many cliches and stereotype about black people. And let me give you some background.

David Theroux

Can you make it into a question?

Audience member #2

I will make it into a question, but I want to make a statement.

John McWhorter

Please, please. I want to hear you, but please don’t lecture me. I’m getting weary of that.

Audience member #2

I’m not lecturing you, so don’t get offensive.

John McWhorter

No, make a short point please.

Audience member #2

My short point is that you make a point about how black people view racism as the preeminent point in their lives. And I just want to comment on that, as a black person, who have known very many successful black persons. The point is racism is the least significant thing in our lives, because we realize there is nothing we can do about it, so we have to get on with our lives. In fact your point, that 75% of black people have made it above poverty indicated that most black people are going ahead with their lives and not worrying about racism because they have to. Now, the point I want to ask you about is that the only suggestion, recommendation, in your book, was that white people stop being pity and black people or whatever. But what do you have for black people? What is your recommendation for black people, since your view is that they have self-loathing. They don’t—

John McWhorter

I’m beginning to feel lectured.

Audience member #2

Well, no—

John McWhorter

I understand your question, but don’t do the pulpit. It’s not appropriate.

Audience member #2

You know what? I’ve never been accused of being a preacher before because I don’t like that view, but sitting here listening to all what you had to say about black people, I felt the need to at least respond.

John McWhorter

I’m glad you’re responding, just don’t go on for 10 minutes.

Audience member #2

Well, anyway.

John McWhorter

People tend to assume that because I’m young that I’m susceptible to this. I have an answer to your question. And you have asked it, let me answer it. Just let me answer it, now.

What you say is very reasonable. If you are under the impression that there isn’t a certain dominant strain in African American thought or what is in print, etc, to emphasize the scourge that racism is, then I’m not sure what we have to talk about. We just have had very different experiences. I know that there are successful African Americans, I know that not all African Americans are running around shaking their fists, certainly not. That’s not the point. The idea is what sort of statements are accepted and what sorts of people we naturally think of as our leaders.

And as long as we continue to think of a Jesse Jackson as a natural leader, more than a few people, as long as somebody like that stays in power, as long as 90 plus percent of us will vote for one party again and again and again, then obviously there are just certain currents. I understand that there’s a resistance to ever stereotyping, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t tendencies in the world. And this is true of all people, not just black people.

And so, with all due respect, I want you to consider that there’s a kind of a—it sets hairs on end sometimes to hear anything said about black people that isn’t positive—like, for example, if I said black people and a warmth and a this and a that, I’m not sure you would’ve stood up. And I’m not saying that black people are all bad. But there are certain points.

And as far as what I advise, unfortunately, the things that I advise are not the sorts of things that one often hears. One, there’s the white guilt. Two, I think that in general, the whole set-aside culture spreads its tentacles throughout all sorts of aspects of interracial relations, far beyond selected universities, and I think that it needs to be eliminated. You might not agree, but that’s personally what I think. And I think that we need to start voting for more than one party. We can’t help ourselves if we keep voting Democratic, kind of, just because, and maybe because memories of an administration which is now 20 years old. That’s my answer to your question. Sir?

Audience member #3

Thank you. I heard someplace, or read someplace, that things perceived as real are real in their consequences. And having said that, we’re all coming here from different perspectives and perhaps even from different generations, and I probably precede you by at least several generations. The thing that I want to say, though, is that, in my view, my life has been profoundly shaped by my black heritage. And when I look at this issue of affirmative action, it’s my sense, and I believe that there is data to substantiate this, that affirmative action has benefited white women more than black people. It’s also my sense that, as we deal in stereotypes, where you look at the welfare mother or the welfare person, there seems to be a tendency to think of a black person, when really most people on welfare are white.

David Theroux

Do you have a question?

Audience member #3

That’s just a comment. If he wants to—

John McWhorter

Thank you. I take that as a question.

Audience member #3

– take that as a question, that’s fine.

John McWhorter

Yeah. I don’t mean to be glib in putting it this way, but sure there are some benefits to affirmative action, but affirmative action is lowered standards. And you talk about stereotypes, what could help promulgate them more than a university system where most African Americans on campus didn’t get there for the same reasons everyone else did? And someone your age, if I may, remembers a time when that was not true. I envy you that. I honestly wish that I could have gone to school in segregated America, say, gone to Berkeley when there were very few black students on campus. That would have been better than any school I’ve ever been to. I honestly mean that.

Audience member #4

I will be 80 years old this year. [Applause and laughter.] With the flight of the black middle class to suburbs, the black underclass has been isolated as never before, physically, economically, psychologically, and linguistically from mainstream American society. Children are like plants, plants growing in poor soil don’t do very well. Children growing in an environment of poverty, violence, poor schools, ignorant parents, most aren’t going to acquire the knowledge and the skills to become productive, law-abiding citizens. When a person has abused their bodies for 50 years and one day adopts a healthy lifestyle, they don’t erase the damage from 50 years of abuse. Therefore we cannot expect affirmative action or integration to cure the ills of the past. What we need are drastic reforms and I don’t mean charity. The Democrats think they can solve problems by throwing money at them and Republicans think they can ignore them.

John McWhorter

Oh, I’m sorry. [Laughter.] You are correct. No, affirmative action isn’t going to help it. The inner city, as I always say, is America’s biggest problem. And the inner city does need help. I am not somebody who says that people in the inner city need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The kind of help that people in the inner city need is the kind of help that allows them to learn what it is to help themselves. And for that reason, the faith-based community initiative is a marvelous policy to me. It’s a Republican administration which is doing a wonderful thing. It’s a better thing to try than anything that I saw under Clinton’s administration and Gore certainly would have tried for this, so the idea is to rescue the inner city. I’m going to have ask someone else now. I’m sorry I can’t do – ma’am?

Audience member #5

How does the plight of people stuck in the inner city compare with people, well, we call them trailer trash? I mean, a large proportion of my ancestry is people from the Appalachians and so on—run moonshine. They have third-world, no education, don’t believe in education, they’re as much a mess as anyone in the inner city. And I don’t hear very much about that. Do you think they’re even vaguely comparable or is this?

John McWhorter

Oh, extremely. Extremely comparable. The issue is that, among African Americans, there is an unusually concentrated and slightly disproportionate number of people of that profile. But yeah, that kind of desperate poverty is similar across races. African American culture is infected somewhat more, I think, by a sense that the African American is very much a person apart from the American mainstream fabric. My sense is that there is less of that among the “trailer trash.” But that’s a quibble. I mean, really, we’re just talking about extreme poverty, and a lot of these things will respond to similar solutions. We don’t hear enough about the fact that there are many white people who are in the same condition. In the back row.

Audience member #6

John, I was quite impressed that you looked at the mid-60s as a kind of a watershed. And really, as one of the activists during this period, in the early part of the 60s, there was more, a lot more, and better dialogue between black and white than I have seen today. Secondly, the one success we had was open house. That was also, it turned out to be, the biggest negative because that’s what caused blacks to separate on an economic class. And that’s where we are now. Trying to solve that kind of problem.

John McWhorter

I agree. And it’s a matter of how you reverse the trajectory of history. There were a lot of mistakes made in the 60s which I would have made if I were there. I can imagine how it must have felt to be a person then trying to do good. But there are some experiments that we’ve tried that simply haven’t worked, and the question becomes how long it takes before we admit that it hasn’t worked as supposing that it takes more money, or that it’s been the wrong people or that we need more time. I think, personally think, that certain things just haven’t worked. Ma’am, in the purple.

Audience member #7

I’m the purple lady. [Laughter.] Listen, my question is, how can we clone you? [Laughter and applause.]

David Theroux

Doctors are standing by.

John McWhorter

I don’t know if I personally could deal with that. I’ve had enough time with myself.

Audience member #8

I was wondering, you talk about white guilt and it seems to me, especially being a recent graduate of college, that if you don’t—being a white person—and speak about these things honestly, you’re automatically accused of being a bigot. Even if you’re not really professing one side or the other. But if you don’t totally buy into the left, then you’re automatically a bad guy, and most of the people I know really don’t even want to speak about the whole issue in general, because they’re scared of being labeled. How would you suggest that white people be able to speak honestly yet not, be accused? How would they avoid that situation? Because I think most people are down the middle, but they feel both ways, but they are classified to the extreme, either way.

John McWhorter

Yeah, most college students are down the middle, and a great many are afraid to speak out. Maybe I’m being self-centered in giving you this advice, but it’s sincerely meant. Speak your mind, listen to them yell. You’ll live. You know? Some people have more of a stomach for that than others, but really, nothing happens to you. Watch, I’m going to get shot when I leave here. [Laughter.] But nothing happens. People yell, they scream. It’s a rather shallow emotion that it’s based on, because half of them agree with you anyway, and you live. And gradually the open consensus begins to change, as it is on most college campuses. I can tell, you would live.

David Theroux

We have a few question from upstairs.

John McWhorter

Oh, we have some upstairs questions. This one is, “I hope you’re correct about a growing acceptance among blacks about non-left world views, but what reflections do you have about the lopsided support by blacks for the Democrats in the last national election? I think that that was just a reflexive sense that Republicans are evil because they do not like affirmative action, because George W. has an awkward record on the death penalty in Texas, and because Ronald Reagan is often analyzed as not having been very good for African Americans.”

All those things may be true, but the issue right now is which party would be better for African Americans? Now, one party wants to coddle the teachers’ unions and leave everything where it was. One party wants to at least work on it. Well, then, you’re supposed to vote for that party. One party didn’t like it that welfare was reformed and consider it romantic and authentic for a black person to live on the dole forever, because society is evil. Another party wants to have welfare as a safety net and for somebody to get reasonable help, but also for the idea to be for children to grow up watching their mothers work. I think that black people would want to vote for that party. We could tick down the list. That’s what I think about that.

I’ll read one more of these questions. “We can see how the mainstream ‘leftist press’ manages to insinuate repeatedly that to be truly ‘black’ is to be leftist. How long before that view becomes so marginal that the mainstream either changes or collapses?” I would give that about 20 years. Back in the corner?

Audience member #9

My question is on elementary school education. The church I attended, when the minister would bring out the little kids and ask what they did in school that week, their eyes really lit up as to the awards they got. Like they might have done really good in spelling. And you can see how really important schooling was. What is there that elementary school teachers could do to further your idea of how to get around this concept of black kids, if they’re doing good, they feel white?

John McWhorter

You know what the most ironic thing is, in terms of my answer to that? I hate to say it, I think we need a new word for it, but segregation. It seems to me, from what I’ve seen, that small, all minority schools, taught by innovative teachers—a lot of charter schools, the Kip(sp?) Academies—they do really well at teaching black kids, because there’s less of that sense that being good in school is being white because there are no white people around. That seems like kind of a sloppy way to deal with it, but it really works. That’s the most inspiring thing that I’ve seen.

Unfortunately, not all black kids are going to be able to go to schools like that. And so, while we’re working around it, we need to improve schools in general. We need to test all kids more. I don’t love tests either, but unless they’re going away, we need to test kids every year. But mainly, it’s those schools. My dream would be for all black kids to go to a school no bigger than 150 people, where most of the students were minorities, and you had teachers who were really dedicated to fostering a culture of excellence. And for that reason, and for that reason alone, I like vouchers. Because if you can be vouched into one of those, it’s better than rotting in one of those public schools. [Applause.] Sir?

Audience member #10

Are you familiar with Joe Clark’s work, his book, Laying Down the Law? Where he took over East Side High. First question is, do you endorse his approach to reforming education and the inner cities? And secondly, what has happened to Joe Clark? I haven’t heard of him in more than a decade.

John McWhorter

I remember that. I do not know what happened to him. That’s just what I was thinking when you brought him up. That kind of no-nonsense approach works well for some people, not for others. There are an awful lot of kids who have grown up in a world where they’re already getting a strong message that the world doesn’t want them. And they’re getting that from all around them. I don’t know whether that’s always the best thing. A more—I’m using this in a very spiritual sense—a more feminine approach to education is sometimes better than that particular kind of approach. But most importantly, I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t know how his thoughts have evolved. I presume he’s around, but I haven’t heard from him over about the past year. I wish I knew. I’ll check it out. Miss, wearing the glasses, in second row?

Audience member #11

Do you have any sense that you’re having an effect on your colleagues, at least the younger ones, at UC Berkeley? Or the students, with your ideas?

John McWhorter

[Laughter.] No, I don’t. It’s been eight months, and no, no, no. I haven’t heard much from Berkeley people. That’s good. I don’t think they care that much and/or they think that I’m lower than life. And so really I’ve only heard from a few people. They’re not going to change.

I mean, this sort of thing is very, very deeply rooted in academia. Those people do a lot of good, but they will not look at things any other way. I’ve spoken to some of them, who I admire very much, it’s literally like a mental block. There are just certain things you can’t cut through. What I’m more interested in is younger people, and yeah, I think it has an effect.

I get a lot of mail from black undergrads. I get a lot of mail from black high school students. I get approached by those people on the street. And it’s important for someone to see that you can be an African American person and concerned, and yet not be telling them what victims they are. I think they like that. So that’s the general idea, I think. But at Berkeley, no. I mean, I was walking around thinking the other day, you know, for the next 40 years people are going to hate me where I work. [Laughter.] But you can’t do anything about it.

I’m allowed to do one more, should I read one or should I pick one? Well, I’ll choose one out, random. It’s going to say, “I hate you!” [Laughter.] “What do you think is the most effective way to educate young African Americans today?” Well, we talked about that so—“Why do you describe initiatives to help blacks as charity? What then do you propose to undo the 300 years of oppression, racism, that still have an effect on African Americans? It’s obvious that you’re understating racism in America today.”

Well, first of all, as far as understating racism. There are statistics that we’re not told. I don’t have time to run through them, but they’re in the book, and a lot of these things are pretty solid. There are a lot of people who would like to get me, and one thing I have not heard from academic sociologists is that my figures are significantly wrong. And so that’s one answer.

And frankly, African Americans have been taught that history is destiny in a way that isn’t healthy. Yes, slaves. John Hamilton McWhorter, the first—I’m the fifth—he was a slave. Segregation was known in my family. But the idea that you carry all of your history with you forever is one part romance, one part melodrama, and one part crutch. If you look at African American achievements, in the first half of the 1900s, there were a great many people, many of them three and four steps past slavery, who were getting past it and they were doing very well. A lot of the misery that a minority of African Americans live in today is due a lot less to what happened in 1840 than in certain misguided policies which were set in in the mid-1960s. That’s not pretty, but it’s also true. I guess that’s it, and so thank you very much. [Applause.]

Audience member #12

When will this be broadcast?

David Theroux

We will announce that on our Web site and also if you give us your e-mail address we’ll be sending out a notice about that. I want to thank everyone for joining with us and making this such a successful event and especially John for his work and for his book. If I could just another round of applause. [Applause.]

There are some copies still upstairs for those of you who do not have a copy of Losing the Race. If we do run out we’d be happy to order that and send that to you, as well.

I also want to point out, since the issue of the inner city had been mentioned a number of times, one of our books that will be coming out next year, is a book called The Voluntary City, being published by the University of Michigan Press. The book focuses on may of these issues, and the authors are suggesting strongly that the way to resolve these problems is to de-collectivize, de-politicize, and de-bureaucratize the inner city so people can make their own choices and not be subject to the arbitrary whims and control of the those who have the political power.

I want to thank everyone again for joining with us and we hope that you will be us at a future Independent Institute Policy Forum. Goodnight. [Applause.]


  • Catalyst