Rethinking Race and Class: John McWhorter

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John McWhorter [The Teaching Company]

Here’s the question: In four decades of unrelenting news and politics centered on “race,” what has worked, and what hasn’t, to challenge and ease the authority of the color line? And what accounts for the sense after Katrina that much of the drama was just sound and fury?

If we’re starting again — as, in a sense we are — what have we learned from, for example: voting rights and the rise of black politics; school desegregation; welfare and welfare reform; the rise and decline of public housing; affirmative action in higher education and the job market; and education “reform,” including charter schools and the testing movement? Add your categories and take your stands, please.

Our guest, John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute, is an eminence among black conservatives. I think of him as Bill Cosby without the laugh lines, in the raging arguments around black culture and language (McWhorter’s academic specialty).

McWhorter’s post-Katrina analysis and sermon in the Times of London is an introduction.

Nudge the conversation before it begins: how did we get here, from “there,” which looked a lot more promising in 1965?

John McWhorter

Senior Fellow, the Manhattan Institute

Author, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

[In a studio in New York City]

Update 9/25/05, 6:57 pm

A correction from rlg:

Easy with the labels there…

He fits the label “conservative??? rather badly – he voted for Nader in 2000, has said “there should be no War on Drugs??? and many other things, supports some but not all forms of affirmative action, etc… His arguments about race may seem to lump him with conservatives but just as many of his other positions do not. The refreshing thing about McWhorter is that he makes himself very hard to label.

Black culture and language isn’t really his academic specialty, though they are the subject of much of his popular linguistics work. Most of his work in academic linguistics concerns creole languagues (especially those of Suriname), and language change over time.

rlg, comment on 9/25/05

The Reverend Eugene Rivers

Pastor, the Azusa Christian Community, a Pentecostal church in located in Dorchester,Massachusetts

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  • keepmoving

    This gentleman seems to be on the right track. I hope Mike from your last race and class show calls back. I work with people receiving public assistance (I do not work in the Department of Social Sevices) and it is a rare individual that wants to break free from the public assistance culture. He did do his best to pull himself up from a bad start (I don’t care if he did get help from loans, those loans are available to anyone, I know!) to a place where he could be proud of his accomplishments. He didn’t think that living on welfare should be a way of life. His story should be one that is commended not condemned, like your previous guests did. He is an example of what can happen when a person sees beyond the projects, if you will.

    A small twist to the subject is the area I live in. I live where the majority of the generational public assistance people are some other race, besides black. They have the same attitudes I hear reported about generational black people on the welfare rolls. I understand that they do not have slavery in their background, but ISN’T THE WELFARE ROLLS A FORM OF SLAVERY? The generations of people who have been on welfare has left this generation with the same “this is the way it is and there is no getting out of it” attitude. The pregnant GIRLS are getting younger and younger. A twelve year old is way to young to ber pregnant . . .and she is not black. I think giving people money with no expectation of return (some kind of employment) leaves ANY human being feeling hopeless. This conversation about the poor needs to be expanded beyond race. It is more than a race issue; it’s a human issue. As long as it remains a race issue, nothing will ever change. Not because no one wants to help minorities, but by focusing on minorities, we miss the bigger issue: people need to have a feeling of purpose. Just handing out money doesn’t cut it!!

  • keepmoving

    This gentleman seems to be on the right track. I hope Mike from your last race and class show calls back. It is a rare individual that wants to break free from the public assistance culture. He did do his best to pull himself up from a bad start (I don’t care if he did get help from loans, those loans are available to anyone, I know!) to a place where he could be proud of his accomplishments. He didn’t think that living on welfare should be a way of life. His story should be one that is commended not condemned, like your previous guests did. He is an example of what can happen when a person sees beyond the projects, if you will.

    A small twist to the subject is the area I live in. I live where the majority of the generational public assistance people are some other race, besides black. They have the same attitudes I hear reported about generational black people on the welfare rolls. I understand that they do not have slavery in their background, but ISN’T THE WELFARE ROLLS A FORM OF SLAVERY? The generations of people who have been on welfare has left this generation with the same “this is the way it is and there is no getting out of it” attitude. The pregnant GIRLS are getting younger and younger. A twelve year old is way to young to ber pregnant . . .and she is not black. I think giving people money with no expectation of return (some kind of employment) leaves ANY human being feeling hopeless. This conversation about the poor needs to be expanded beyond race. It is more than a race issue; it’s a human issue. As long as it remains a race issue, nothing will ever change. Not because no one wants to help minorities, but by focusing on minorities, we miss the bigger issue: people need to have a feeling of purpose. Just handing out money doesn’t cut it!!

  • Bravo on the choice of this evening’s guest. I look forward to the conversation.

  • rlg

    Easy with the labels there…

    1) McWhorter is pretty young (40) to be an “eminence grise”

    2) He fits the label “conservative” rather badly – he voted for Nader in 2000, has said “there should be no War on Drugs” and many other things, supports some but not all forms of affirmative action, etc… His arguments about race may seem to lump him with conservatives but just as many of his other positions do not:

    http://reason.com/0110/fe.cy.internal.shtml

    The refreshing thing about McWhorter is that he makes himself very hard to label.

    3) Black culture and language isn’t really his academic specialty, though they are the subject of much of his popular linguistics work. Most of his work in academic linguistics concerns creole languagues (especially those of Suriname), and language change over time.

    http://www.closertotruth.com/participants/jmcwhorter/

  • rlg

    Ah, my bad, you didn’t say “eminence grise”. My brain just inserted it. Apologies.

  • OK Brendan

    I’m busy cleaning my kitchen looking more than busy. I was wondering if you can relay a couple of questions to Professor McWhorter. I am in sympathy with much of his analysis. He is a brilliant writer. However I think as a neoconservative/libertarian (if I can take liberty with terms) he needs to address the kind of intractable racism that seems hard to eliminate

    1) subtle and not so subtle job discrimination. There was a study a few years ago that said employers would purposely overlook names on resumes that sound or appear “African American” like Darnell or Roshanda. It seems people who are fighting discrimination have a point. How would the author address this issue.

    2) While I am generally skeptical of the data regarding mortgage discrimination though one might argue that the data points in the direction that blacks are turned down for home loans more than other groups ( Part of my skepticism follows from the fact that whites are turned down more than Asians but that’s a story for another day). It would appear to me that bankers do in fact treat blacks differently on some level. Perhaps because of credit histories or the lack of family support in the form of co-signing loans. I also think Professor McWhorter should address this issue so as to give a response to the critics of the status quo.

  • Brendan

    Hey fconte, I was all cued up to ask the professor your questions, but he went and answered them right before I waws about to talk. You seem to be in the right place.

  • fconte– I think also that the research that Malcolm Gladwell brings to light into Blink is also instructive. Gladwell, who is black, discovered that he himself was subconsiously “racist” to some degree by taking these tests himself.

    As a liberal, I’d love to hear a liberal Democrat politician call up and react.

  • Thanks anyway Brendan. Great show.

  • RedmondPete

    McWhorter cites the Great Society legislation of the ’60’s as the reason for the decline of black ghettoes and the rise of black victimhood; as evidence he offers the dramatic increase in the welfare rolls from 1966 to 1970. Both McWhorter and the black pastor who also joined the show bemoaned the decline in the black work ethic since the mid ’60’.

    First, I find it interesting that in decrying the rise of black victimhood, McWhorter, a conservative, blames this outcome on white liberals!

    Second, as a white male who has spent his entire life in primarily white, upper-middle-class communities, I’ll have to take his word on the erosion of the black work ethic; but I offer this comment: I have seen a dramatic erosion in the middle-class white work ethic over the same time period. However, its effect on whites as the dominant group in society has been greatly mitigated by the fact that whites were so far ahead of blacks on the economic ladder to begin with. In other words, working hard enough to AVOID poverty requires less effort than working hard enough to ESCAPE poverty.

    Third, I offer for consideration an alternative explanation for the decline of black communities, particularly the decline in the regard for education. Maybe it wasn’t the fault of mushy liberals. Segregation was a bad thing, but perhaps the forced end to segregation had some unintended side effects. While segregated, blacks were educated in schools that were shamefully unequal to white schools, but they were educated among their peers and shared a common goal of improving their lot. Under forced integration, blacks found themselves in schools that over time were not actually much better, as the richer whites fled to the suburbs, and now they were integrated into a population that very much resented their presence. Further, they were now mixed with a white population which openly derided the work ethic of their parents.

  • Raymond

    Let’s take a step back to agree that in this discussion no one seeks an America in which being black means being poor, uneducated and without opportunity. Instead, the goal is an America in which race plays no material part in personal success, however individually conceived.

    Were we living in such an America, we would not be having this conversation. But since we are living in an America with a history of black slavery, the response to which has included such key events as the civil war, the civil rights movement, and end of welfare as we know it, this conversation represents progress. Certainly these events, at least the end of slavery and the civil rights act, represent significant progress.

    Whether or not this last event does depends on whether or not one believes John McWhorter. He believes that the well intentioned initiative to get more black women on welfare during 1965 to 1970 created the current culture of multi-generational poverty. And since welfare reform, it is now time for blacks themselves to sieze the opportunity afforded by the progress, though incomplete, made in Americal to address racial inequality.

    Others, of course, disagree. Marcellus Andrews believes that, according to the New American Foundation website, it is necessary to “…supplement and then replace the jerry-rigged remnants of the New Deal and Great Society with policies that promote efficiency and equality…” In other words, Marcellus Andrews believes it is now time for a second civil rights movement.

    But even if one does not agree with John McWhorter’s view, does not some view, much like his, need to be true if ever the goal is to be reached? At some point, do not blacks need to be responsible for their situation, just like whites, and everyone else? Is it not significant that it takes a John McWhorter to take this view, a John McWhorter who is black? At this stage of progress a white commentator could not take this view without being labeled a rascist. Even John McWhorter can not take this view without being labeled an elitist.

    So, continuing to take a step back, it seems there are those like Marcellus Andrews, John Lewis and Ted Kennedy who look to the past: past problems of racial inequality and past policies that did represent progress. And there are those like John McWhorter who look to the future: future opportunities afforded by personal responsibility inspite of the human universal of racism. It seems to me that at some point, those who look to the past must give way to those who look to the future. If the past of racial inequality can never be irrelevant, then the goal of a society in which race plays no material part is unobtainable. The question is whether we linger in the past and make incremental progress, or hurry toward the future and risk failure to address some still existing inequality.

    Just a question, not an answer. I look forward to thinking through an answer as you continue this series. And Chris, this has been a terrific start to this series. If I doubted before that you could take the conversation in a new direction, I don’t anymore.

  • mrosenth

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    Subject: Monday night’s program

    From: “Marguerite G. Rosenthal”

    Date: Tue, September 27, 2005 6:00 pm

    I was fascinated and disturbed by last night’s discussion of race and

    culture. I expected that William Julius Wilson would be part of this

    conversation, because he has written about the interface between economic

    deprivation, the loss of jobs and the so-called culture of poverty from

    a nuanced and sensitive perspective. I admit that I haven’t been able

    to catch each of the Monday evening programs on this subject. Has

    Wilson been on, or will he be? I always appreciate Eugene Rivers’ articulate positions, but his perspective was, as expected, much like McWhorter’s. Wilson would have provided a contrast.

    —————————————–

    Marguerite