By John McWhorter, Avery, December 29, 2005, 1592402704
McWhorter challenges all of us, but mostly Blacks, to rethink racism as a cause for the large Black underclass in the US. His opinions are strong, and he backs them up with many facts wrapped in eloquent prose. There are many topics and ideas so it is a long book. He also blasts the opinions of specific sociologists as well as the tenor of the sociology community. He thinks they don’t do science as much as confirm their opinions.
When I read White Fragility, I walked away with the feeling that I could make a change if I just tried harder. McWhorter tells me that no matter how hard I try, I can’t change Black’s “therapeutic alienation,” which is the root cause of underperformance of Black students, even middle-class Blacks. Frankly, while I intend to be less racist, McWhorter makes more sense than DiAngelo.
This does not mean I should not try to help Blacks. I am helping in a number of ways. But, I am going to be more aware that some of my “liberal” ways have not been so helpful.
Winning the Race is not a new book. It is not nearly as popular as White Fragility. It doesn’t give easy answers for Whites, e.g. take a diversity seminar. It also asks Blacks to overcome in spite of racism, which many, many Blacks have done. In this way the book is very inspiring to me.
[k140] In the fall of 2003, a white supervisor at the University of Virginia’s medical center was heard to say: “I can’t believe in this day and age that there’s a sports team in our nation’s capital named the Redskins. That is as derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to blacks.”
[k148] Soon, none other than Julian Bond, history professor at the school but also chairman of the national NAACP, joined in, prescribing that the woman apologize publicly and undergo sensitivity training.
Quite simply, what happened at the University of Virginia that fall was divorced from any conception of human reason; it did not follow from A to B. This administrator was showing her awareness of the hurtfulness of the word nigger, and sticking up for exactly the heightened sensitivity that her opponents consider an urgent missive to white America.
[k165] What they want is central to what, in other guises, created the world of Robert Parsons. The nut of the issue is that these people want neither justice nor healing. What people like this are seeking is, sadly, not what they claim to be seeking. They seek one thing: indignation for its own sake.
[k174] There are so very many books and articles exploring the damage that the White Man did to black Americans’ self-esteem that I will assume that even people far to the left of me will not even begin to dispute this simple proposition.
[k178] But the fact remains that there is little connection between today’s America and their alienation. It survives on its own steam.
[k182] Therapeutic alienation is, itself, blind to race, and it was hardly unknown before the late 1960s.
[k185] Even those most sympathetic to the countercultural movement of the sixties know that there was a goodly amount of performance for its own sake involved. It’s part of how human beings are.
[k190] Back in the day, the idea that it was progressive to obsessively tabulate black failure and propose that the only solution was for whites to become blind to race was rare to unknown in leading black ideology.
[k192] Most blacks were more interested in fighting the concrete barrier of legalized discrimination than the abstract psychological happenstance of racism.
[k206] So, there is nothing to deplore about “black culture” in itself–our issue is what happened when black America met the New Left.
[k208] Alienation drifted from being a spur to action to being a form of self-medication.
[k217] Once established among the thoughtful and influential in America in the sixties, therapeutic alienation began setting off chain reactions that made the difference between the seedy but stable black ghettos of 1950 (A Raisin in the Sun, Lackawanna Blues) and the hopeless deathscape black ghettos of 1990 (Boyz n the Hood, The Corner).
[k223] The welfare world we now recall so easily was born only when white activists such as Columbia social work professors Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward devoted themselves to bringing down the American financial system by dragging as many people, especially poor black ones, onto the welfare rolls as possible.
[k226] But in the end, all that happened was that generations of poor blacks idled on the dole, getting just enough money that they were doing better than they could in entry-level jobs.
[k233] In poor black Chicago in the 1920s, it was considered alarming that just 15 percent of babies were born out of wedlock.
[k239] Parsons had the kids with three different mothers and lived with none of them. One might expect that someone with four offspring would work nine to five (at least?), but Parsons worked only part-time.
[k242] Upon which we cannot help but think about the view common among underclass black men that punching a clock is working for “chump change,” regularly documented even by sympathetic sociologists.
[k245] Parsons, for instance, seems to have at least flirted with stealing money instead of earning it: He had been arrested twice for robbery (as well as two other times for arms possession and drunk driving).
[k248] Family and friends mourning his death spoke of his four kids by three mothers and his fitful employment as casually as women in Scarsdale talk of where their children are going to college.
[k252] Again, it is impossible to condemn him. It’s all he knew. But all he knew only began when whites, comforting themselves by fighting The Man and showing that they were not racists, decided that it was a form of higher wisdom to teach poor black people not to work. “Conservative rhetoric”?
[k258] But before the sixties, black schools often gave solid educations on shoestring budgets; it is tragic how almost unseemly some find it to bring up schools like Dunbar High in Washington, DC, where black students performed excellently for decades.
[k261] Namely, a major difference between then and now is the sense among many black teens that doing well in school is culturally inauthentic, “acting white.”
[k270] All teens, riddled with the uncertainties of an awkward age, cultivate alienation to express identity in various ways. Being “not white” is a way that is available to black kids.
But it is no longer a response to racism, and it comes at the price of scholarly failure and narrowed opportunities.
[k283] If rap were progressive, then by definition, very few groups would have criminal names because crime is not very progressive.
[k288] And then, what is “revolutionary” about how common murder is in the rap world, so much so that it is a news clich
? Parsons's murderers felt no shame in killing him over what was likely a trifle.
[k305] Specifically, I believe that we cannot understand our past without fully facing that alienation and disidentification can thrive independently of modern causes because they can serve other psychological purposes. There can be no useful perspective on black America’s trajectory that neglects the impact of therapeutic alienation. To move forward, we must trace it, face it, and erase it. This book, section by section, is about how we can do all three.
[k351] But when Mom drove me and my sister to Temple to sit in her office as faculty brats while she worked (such as in the summer) or to take us swimming at the campus pool, she would often take a longer route, through the tough North Philly ghetto.
[k353] She said she wanted me to have a sense of how other black people lived and how lucky we were to be middle class.
[k361] In the 1970s, drugs were not yet the basis of the economy of these neighborhoods or others like them across the nation. But within ten years, in districts like these crack addiction would become epidemic, and young black men would be killing one another without a thought over turf wars related to the drug trade.
[k372] What struck me was that the people in this neighborhood did not exactly have the air about them that we associate with the downtrodden, with thwarted ambition.
[k411] That none of these scholars or writers would see factory relocation and the middle-class exodus as the only causes is beside the point. They are comfortable referring to just these two factors, and especially the factories, as a kind of shorthand.
[k416] Today, Wilson’s thesis is the explanation of the underclass to which the informed person is expected to subscribe. God, how I tried to.
[k425] After all, black Americans have always known poverty, underemployment, injustice, and social dismissal. Yet, the North Philly scene I was so familiar with was not business as usual.
[k430] If blacks during the Great Migration of the teens and twenties picked up stakes and moved from the South in dogged search for employment, then why did their children and grandchildren not just move when factories moved to the suburbs?
[k487] One even gleans a sense that some of these writers have a quiet sense of pride in the “thug” as a healthy rebel against the racist Establishment, and thus want to make sure the thug has his place in the black history diorama as a figure with a noble and ancient lineage. This perspective is not limited to black writers: Massey and Denton note that in 1960s ghettos, if a woman got pregnant, the man usually married or at least lived with her; “by the late 1980s, however, this bow to conventional culture had been eliminated in black street culture.”
[k507] My point is that poor black life was old news by the late sixties, but took an especially desperate, violent, hopeless, and narcoticized turn after that time.
[k510] It’s an easy score to list the usual examples of self-sufficiency that made Bronzeville a victory in the face of naked racism and segregation: several newspapers including the famous Defender of national influence; $100,000,000 in black-owned real estate by 1929 including several magnificent buildings; “the Finest Colored Hotel in the World,” the Brookmont; 192 churches by 1929 that doubled as thriving social agencies helping to get poor black migrants on their feet; 731 black-owned businesses as early as 1917; the hot jazz scene and a crackling literary world-within-a-world; Provident Hospital; and so on.
[k544] We believe them when they tell us about the special task force of white police officers assigned to Bronzeville in the fifties, “the flying squad” that harrassed blacks of all classes, stopping them for moving violations and roughing them up, almost always when they were alone so there would be no witnesses.
[k552] Not even the glummest accounts of Bronzeville give any indication that young black men were killing one another so frequently that their funerals were a monthly occurrence, as is so commonly reported from black inner cities today.
[k559] So we can be aware that there have always been black slums and also that today’s black slums are very different places.
[k745] In that light, Indianapolis contradicts the prediction. Low-level manufacturing jobs never deserted this city as they did Chicago, Philadelphia, and other better-known ones.
[k837] Yet, despite the injustice of this discrimination, the basic fact was that black people took the jobs that were available, and as such, black Indianapolis worked.
[k1065] But then the women also openly admit that the downward trajectory of their lives began with periods of substance abuse and sleeping around in the 1970s.
[k1087] The redlining of the old days receded after the 1960s across the United States, and in Indianapolis, it meant that more blacks moved to the suburbs than stayed behind in the inner city.
[k1118] And yet he went to work even when work was not close to home. Sixty years later, however, his equivalent in Chicago was telling William Julius Wilson things like, “The bus go out there but you don’t want to catch the bus out there, going two hours each ways. If you have to be at work at eight that mean you have to leave for work at six, that mean you have to get up at five to be at work at eight. Then when wintertime come you be in trouble.” This man was, not surprisingly, unemployed. The difference between him and the 1925 commuter in Detroit was not a matter of where work was, since work was just as far from the man in 1925.
[k1123] Thus, in American cities in general, tracing inner-city chaos and despair to people being unable to get to work is a nimble but hopeless argument.
[k1130] Strip away jargon such as “residential nucleation” and “industrial dispersion” and we are left with an argument that poor blacks in Indianapolis turned their neighborhoods into war zones because factory jobs moved up the road a piece. This is an unrealistic, condescending, and disempowering proposition, and black history deserves better.
[k1146] The pot boiled over just now because whites, contemptuous of the ruling class in the wake of events in Vietnam, were newly interested in blacks’ conditions, especially given the high visibility of the March on Washington, the Civil Rights legal victories, and Martin Luther King’s subsequent assassination.
[k1167] Black Indianapolis residents who got to move to Lockefield were often leaving homes with out-houses and outdoor wells.
[k1186] Under this new conception of “leadership skills,” enter people like Mmoja Ajabu, who set up a branch of the New Black Panthers in Indianapolis in 1993. Ajabu hit the scene with a distinctly early-nineties brand of black militance, carrying on a tantrum aimed at enterprising inner-city Asians, of the kind that had helped spark the Rodney King riots the year before. He demanded that a Korean beauty supply store in a black neighborhood contribute $200 a month for neighborhood youth programs (they refused to cough up).
[k1226] Black people more interested in teaching fellow blacks to do their best despite racism are not “real.”
[k1232] We have a choice, then, between two factors explaining the descent of a previously dignified people into a violent, feckless underclass.
A: A new culture emerged of white-hot, unfocused animus against mainstream culture.
B: It got a little harder to get to work.
A black history that embraces B while dismissing A as beside the point substitutes therapy for common sense.
[k1249] In 1967, Mattie Coney was asserting that “the idea of expecting a ‘great white father’ to hand one something for nothing has created a class of irresponsible welfare slaves. We must get rid of the idea that all one needs is to satisfy one’s gullet, get drunk, have children, and throw them into the community to let someone else take care of them.”
[k1253] In 1964, 12,171 people were on AFDC in Marion County; by 1972, 34,016 people were on it.
[k1282] Crucially, none of these poverty-stricken Indiana counties was among the counties where welfare tripled.
[k1280] In 1969, 10 percent or more of residents were living below the poverty line in thirty of ninety-two counties in Indiana, but only in a mere three of these thirty counties did any blacks live at all. Moreover, in all three of these counties blacks numbered only in the hundreds; none was among the counties with healthy black populations. Crucially, none of these poverty-stricken Indiana counties was among the counties where welfare tripled.
[k1292] In 1960–when this was still a segregated and openly bigoted nation–93 percent of black men were employed in Indianapolis.
[k1296] The Indiana Civil Rights Act of 1963, forcing whites to hire blacks, was significantly strengthened in 1969–exactly the year of the Indiana Avenue riot–and again in 1971.
[k1301] Welfare hardly left one floating in cash, and in fact AFDC payments were on the low side in Indiana–no one was exactly sitting pretty from welfare checks. But they kept the wolf from the door–enough to dissuade countless people from seeking work.
[k1304] In 1993, welfare payments were the equivalent of $7.50 an hour when the typical beginning wage in an unskilled job began at $6.50.
[k1333] We must contrast black Indianapolis 1920 with a black man who former mayor Stephen Goldsmith talked to who bitterly complained about the paucity of jobs in Indianapolis, but refused work at McDonald’s because they didn’t pay enough, and even refused a $35,000 a year job driving a truck because he didn’t like the hours. For those tempted to object that thirty-five grand is not enough “bling,” I might note that in the mid-nineties I was making about that much as an assistant professor (in expensive New York State with its high tax rates) and thought of it as a thoroughly decent living.
[k1393] Today, they are our underclass. What we must fix is the cultural orientation by which they have been waylaid–not racism.
[k1429] Michael Eric Dyson is typical of hip-hop fans in academia in his defense of the recordings of gangsta rappers like Tupac Shakur as a “critique of a society that produces the need for the thug persona.” That is, the lyrics’ celebration of acting up, and even their detour into reality as rappers so often fall afoul of the law, must be taken as a response to an America that leaves poor blacks with no choice but to slide into lives that are nasty, brutish, and short.
[k1477] Anderson quotes a black minister and part-time cab driver: “There are jobs out there for people who want to work. It may not be just what they want, but there is work to be done if you want it bad enough. Honest and honorable work. Something has happened to our community.” “A comfortable perspective,” Anderson smirks, shaking his head at those in the area who “continue to believe in the infinite availability of work in the traditional sense.”
[k1540] A national survey by the Atlanta Constitution of ten million mortgage applications between 1983 and 1988 showed 11 percent rejection rates for whites but 24 percent for blacks–with even high-income blacks rejected more than low-income whites in thirty-five cities.
[k1547] However, the problem with Massey’s and Denton’s thesis is the implications they draw from it. They assert that because of these things, middle-class blacks who have made it out of the ‘hood are hothouse cases.
[k1554] In 1970, only 3.6 million black people lived in the suburbs, but by 1995, the number was 10.6 million–when the entire black population was 33 million.
[k1581] Even for blacks with somewhat less money, statistics showing tendencies give no grounds for leaping to a conclusion that they were all but barred from relocating.
[k1584] It teaches us that even blacks with the initiative to earn and save enough money to seek peaceful surroundings are spineless, passive amoebas drifting about in the current, whose only possible response to challenge is to move in the other direction.
After all, let us recall how offended many blacks are when whites suppose that all blacks live in the ghetto.
[k1606] Black Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has concluded, “I am convinced by the sociological evidence, and from my own experience, that any Afro-American family that truly desires to live in an integrated, predominantly Euro-American neighborhood–which is not to say any predominantly Euro-American neighborhood–is capable of doing so.”
[k1803] But what these people are telling us, in clear language, is that poor black people are incapable of behaving by themselves.
[k1865] The middle-class exodus idea has gotten around so much partly because it nurtures a part of the modern black American soul.
[k1870] Thus, the gangbanger is an antihero, but the middle-class couple leaving the ‘hood for the ‘burbs in 1972 are suspicious characters.
[k1875] That is not only unfair and unrealistic, but also unnecessary. The middle-class black exodus idea makes no sense and must be disincluded from serious addresses of what happened in the inner cities and what to do about it.
[k1884] From 1949 to 1973 no fewer than 2,500 neighborhoods were bulldozed in almost a thousand cities. Also, provisions for blacks who were relocated were vastly inadequate. The number of units destroyed dwarfed the number of public housing units built: By 1967, the ratio was ten to one in Detroit, about seven to one in New Haven, and so on.
[k1901] Which means that the Eastern European Jews in Fiddler on the Roof, hounded by pogroms from their shtetls and fleeing to tall, crowded tenements in urban American ghettos, ended up at one another’s throats on the Lower East Side. But they did not, as I have noted already. If Fullilove sees a difference between the “root shock” of blacks in the 1950s and that of people leaving their continent and language forever, I would be interested to know what it was.
[k1911] However, the guiding idea is actually that what drove poor blacks over the abyss was very tall buildings.
[k1934] So even Newman’s thesis leaves the question as to why high-rise projects went so very wrong in terms of not just crime but also so much else only in the late sixties.
[k1938] “The pot boiled over,” “blacks had had enough,” yes–but even in 1920, blacks had endured grinding racism for almost sixty years after Emancipation.
[k1941] Why no revolt then?
Oscar Newman actually addressed this, although few seem to have paid much heed to this part of his exposition. He notes that in 1965, the federal standards for admission to the buildings were relaxed, such that many more families on welfare could move in. This was crucial to the difference between Cabrini-Green 1955 and Cabrini-Green 1995.
[k1951] They have not engaged with the actual writings of Oscar Newman, and thus have not had occasion to see that he addressed solely a rise in criminal activity, rather than a seismic shift in broader cultural norms. All casual references to the effects of tall buildings on poor blacks neglect that the crucial factor that distinguished 1960 from 1970 was not architectural, but cultural.
[k2014] Okay, people separated by a highway will likely have less casual contact with one another than they once did. But as always, blacks are portrayed as bizarrely lacking human resilience.
[k2055] But if we simply leave it at that drugs “came in,” it sounds as if we mean that drugs were somehow imposed on black communities and that poor blacks were inherently incapable of resisting overusing them and basing their lives on selling them.
[k2061] In which case we would expect that poor black communities in the 1920s under Prohibition, when the sale of alcohol was illegal, would have devolved into the same chaos we are familiar with in today’s inner cities. There were, after all, plenty of black bootleggers–why would there not be? And they made much better money than was available in low-level factory and service jobs.
[k2068] This was because drugs did not become the food and money of black neighborhoods until the eighties.
[k2077] And as always, we cannot begin to say that blacks in the seventies were in a more miserable state than their grandparents had been in the twenties and thirties.
[k2086] Or to bring it back home, why wasn’t half of Harlem doing heroin in about 1950?
[k2088] “Because crack is so cheap,” wise folk say. But is crack that cheap?
[k2090] And meanwhile, heroin in the 1940s was also “cheap” enough that, for example, Claude Brown hardly depicts it as something as pricey and precious as gold dust.
[k2107] Poor blacks did not, as a rule, leap at drink or drugs this way in such great numbers in the old days. They only did so to such a ruinous extent after the sixties. This was because they were now living in a period when the levels of basic shame in doing so were lower than they had ever been in American history. This was sparked initially by the countercultural revolution among whites, when drug use went mainstream.
[k2168] My explicit aim is to argue that poor blacks indeed have been way-laid by a culture of poverty.
[k2180] In Wisconsin in 1991, half of the AFDC recipients had moved in from other states, one in five in just the past three months. What was so attractive about chilly Wisconsin?
Answer: It happened to give higher welfare payments than most states. One of the black women Jason DeParle covers in American Dream openly tells him, “We came up here because the aid in Chicago wasn’t nowhere as much as it was up here. We were figuring out how we were gonna pay our bills.”
[k2291] In 1966, that was exactly what happened. The new idea was that we were not to teach blacks how to deal with the System, but to teach them to check out of it.
That year, a task force report from the Advisory Council on Public Welfare, Having the Power, We Have the Duty, took as a given that poverty is permanent and that the only solution was a combination of redistribution of wealth and guaranteed income: “Most public welfare recipients…cannot realistically be expected to become self-sustaining.”
[k2296] In New York in 1966, the Mobilization for Youth was set up to encourage poor people to apply for welfare. The organization trained its workers to tap an applicant’s “inner victim,” in language that suggests a dim view of the applicant’s mental sophistication: “In dealing with low-income people who rarely have the experience or the education of thinking in conceptual terms, in terms of where the system is at fault, it’s the immediate thing like the Jewish landlord, the Irish cop on the beat, the Italian grocery-store owner, the lousy teachers, or the welfare investigator…if you try to tone this down at the very beginning, you’re running the danger, through your own intellectual and professional goal-setting methods, of alienating yourself from the people you want to organize.”
[k2304] Especially effective was the National Welfare Rights Organization led by former chemist George Wiley and Columbia University social work professors Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, guiding troops of activists who were mostly black women.
[k2307] They openly encouraged as many people as possible to be given AFDC payments, hoping that this would bankrupt the government and force a complete overhaul of our distribution of income. It wasn’t that they thought there was no work for blacks–just that it was beneath blacks’ dignity to start at the bottom. Piven’s and Cloward’s lefty journalist ally Richard Elman was dismayed that blacks were expected “to go the hard route, to be…taxi drivers, restaurant employees…and factory hands.” The National Welfare Rights Organization became well known for disrupting government meetings and held rallies in forty cities calling for people to be allowed to enroll in the AFDC program.
[k2610] But since 1996, we have learned a simple lesson: When open-ended welfare disappears, people work.
[k2643] But like many writers about women in Latoya’s world, Newman leaves unmentioned a certain elephant sitting in the middle of the room–namely, why did Latoya have to have the kids at all?
Newman operates according to a certain school of thought that “respects” Latoya’s “choices” and is extremely wary of saying or writing anything that could even imply a question as to poor black people’s “right to reproduce.” That may preserve the sensibilities of, well, mostly academics and Newman herself, since poor blacks themselves are often more honest about situations like Latoya’s.
[k2651] But in that era, black people who made children typically lived together even if they were poor or at least tried to for a spell.
[k2655] That cultural shift left Latoya unconcerned with squaring her reproductive “choices” with economic reality.
[k2672] But this simply brings us to my cultural argument. It shows that the days had passed when community norms would have probably held her in line or at best seen her go the wrong way and tsk-tsked at her as a “loose” woman, discouraging many young women from risking such opprobrium.
[k2702] Attitude, then, plays a big part here. Contrast those ex-slaves in Alabama to Latoya’s reminiscence: “You know, when my mother told me (to get an education), I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever’.”
[k2705] One thing clear is that Latoya’s attitude to education was never comparable with that of blacks who had known an oppression that Latoya never knew to the remotest extent.
[k2735] It is almost strange when Newman comes up with, “To my knowledge, we have no compelling explanations of why the same family produces such divergent pathways in life,” as if the obvious explanation were not that some people are more susceptible to what’s in the air–cultural directives–than others. One person tries his or her best despite the bull-shit. The other person, perhaps even a sibling of the previous one, drifts with the tide. Who among us, including white Katherine Newman, hasn’t seen this in our own families? It’s not a black issue, but a human one. Some people know that “chump change” today will be the salary of a transit cop–or Burger Barn manager–tomorrow. Others thrill to the seductive “‘tude” of peer culture, drift here and there, and end up as interview subjects in books like Newman’s.
[k2888] But it is as important to understand therapeutic alienation as it is to understand the nature of systemic racism.
[k2908] The gesture lived on because it hurt nothing, and even lent marginal benefits, although not the ones that the original action was intended for. This process has been called skeuomorphy, and it determines a great deal of our lives–much more than we are often aware of.
[k2923] Allowing that racism plays no significant part in our lives would be disloyal for us. Even if some of us are okay, it must always and forever be that most of us are much less okay, and this could only be whites’ faults.
[k2930] Yet over the years I have learned that my take on this is an eccentric one.
[k2985] A. Philip Randolph, who had founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and spurred the founding of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, saw the same thing. “Black Power is neither a program nor a philosophy. It is, like white supremacy, a slogan.”
But slogans are powerful things, and old-school leaders like Rustin and Randolph would soon be edged aside by a new mood, in which slogans were considered activism in themselves while programs and philosophies were considered beside the point.
[k3014] The point is not that Sharpton has hurt black America in any serious way; a people are not done in by someone making speeches. Sharpton is crucial to my point solely in that he has even been allowed a place at the table, when as late as 1960 he would have registered at best as a local character.
[k3021] Not only does it occur in plenty of other people, but also black people inherited it from others: specifically, whites during the countercultural revolution.
Whites’ alienation from the Establishment began, of course, as a genuine and concrete opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as racism. The countercultural movement effected profound transformations in American society, which all of us are thankful for today. However, there was, amid the constructive efforts, always a certain gut-level thrill in the sheer rebelliousness in itself. As such, it was not surprising that after the smoke cleared, a mood was left in the air, finding pleasure in rebellion for its own sake.
[k3086] And in the late sixties, black America needed not only legislation, but also to feel whole.
[k3087] After centuries of degradation, there was a hole in the black American soul.
[k3096] As such, where for whites therapeutic alienation took its place as an add-on, for blacks it took its place as a racial identity: an entire psychological conception of one’s place in the national fabric.
[k3099] This happened because deep down, blacks hurt inside.
[k3114] The roots of black America’s therapeutic alienation in inner pain ties in to the teachings of Eric Hoffer in his classic monograph The True Believer.
[k3130] Hoffer’s thesis is that this very individuality is an unnatural condition, lending a sense of existential disconnection, so much so that it is almost intolerably threatening to many people. This makes membership in collective ideological movements spiritually attractive, in absolving them of the discomfiting responsibility of making their way as unbounded independent actors.
Hence, they embrace movements whose manifestos require elisions of empiricism and logic that appear bizarre to the outside observer, based on visceral sentiment disconnected from concrete reality. The Nazi sings of a mythical Aryan utopia in the past and singles out Jews as obstacles to the rebirth of that utopia. The Southern bigot fashions a plantation paradise and constructs an unempirical stereotype of blacks as rapacious animals.
[k3141] Freed from overt segregation and discrimination after the sixties, black Americans were faced for the first time in their history with true choice, with opportunities to succeed–or, crucially, perhaps fail.
[k3150] Hoffer notes that under this kind of movement, “to rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason,” since the guiding imperative is to march in lockstep to an ideology whose core motivation is opposition to the present at all costs. Thus, a core of black scholars of Black English insisted in 1996 that black students require tutelage in “Ebonics,” despite reams of studies in contradiction and millions of successful blacks showing that such techniques are unnecessary. Those who questioned the orthodoxy were tarred as morally unfit, regardless of the facts they brought to bear on the issue.
[k3156] But because the real world is complex, these ideas can never withstand careful analysis, such that as Hoffer put it, “a doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength.”
[k3170] However, racism had been a reality forever: It must be understood that this response to racism was in turn enabled by a particularity of the moment: whites’ new interest in the black condition amid the commitments of the counterculture.
[k3199] Nevertheless, Cobbs pioneered encounter groups in which blacks dressed down whites for their subliminal racism, a trope familiar to any number of people who have sat through corporate diversity “seminars” since.
[k3201] One was that blacks gained a sense of comfort in assailing whites, with only faintly constructive purpose, as a coping strategy for feelings of insecurity.
[k3204] There was another necessary condition: Whites were newly open to pretending to like being yelled at and that has only been the case since the sixties.
[k3235] Therapeutic alienation’s birth under particular conditions and its persistence long after they pass away has a model not only in the meme concept but also in social science, where it exemplifies what is termed path dependence.
[k3330] In this, therapeutic alienation displays something typical of the meme as generally analyzed: its parasitic nature. Like parasites and viruses, memes can latch onto aspects of our psychology and persist even if they do harm otherwise.
[k3351] Elsewhere Dennett notes that “there is no necessary connection between a meme’s replicative power, its ‘fitness’ from its point of view, and its contribution to our fitness.” Therapeutic alienation thrives because it gives a sense of security–even though it also has a way of encouraging dissension, planting new seeds of insecurity, and even dissuading people from trying their best.
[k3465] But the main problem is her call for whites to, apparently, use Web sites and books and magazines to find the answers to their questions about blacks. Wouldn’t this, really, pave the way for blacks encountering no questions to complain that whites are not interested in them, do not see them as full human beings, and/or have the gall to learn about blacks from books and Web crawling instead of from actual human beings?
[k3470] Whites, told by the post–Civil Rights ethos to be interested in blacks, will always now ask blacks questions in an effort to “acknowledge” and “engage” us–but Ayo wants it that even then, they encounter blacks glumly offended at being exoticized.
[k3477] But we cannot change that whites got here first, or that they outnumber blacks. And even if not a single black person were poor and blacks occupied places of power in the exact proportion that they represent in the population, whites, in total, would still have “more power.” Thus, the complaint about “white privilege” is aimless defeatism, which a person only comes up with when what they really want to do is complain for its own sake.
[k3526] This is because what really drives her is personal. When one feels inferior to whites deep down, one is uncomfortable presenting oneself as a self-directed individual.
[k3659] But again, the likes of Dasani only became default in America in the late 1990s. People in 1950 had the same biological needs for water as we do, and yet they just waited until they were near spigots or water fountains to take drinks.
[k3661] We do not “need” to sip water all day long at fifteen-minute intervals any more than Ethel Mertz did when out shopping for dresses with Lucy. Rather, marketing has made the bottles available everywhere and moderately priced, and it was a natural next step to, after finishing a bottle, continually refill it from taps to always have water on one’s person. The step was natural because while it isn’t necessary to have a water bottle always on hand, it is kind of nice. It feels good to wrap your lips around that bottle now and then. Portable bottled water is basically the new cigarette.
[k3668] But the reason we drink that water is due not to necessity, but to marketing smarts having taken advantage of a natural human oral fixation.
In the same way, it is neither inevitable nor enlightened to respond to the social imperfections in America by insisting that whites are bent on asserting their “privilege” over blacks, or by checking out of mainstream societal norms out of a sense that the White Man doesn’t like you and teaching twelve-year-olds to sell crack, or by developing the most nakedly misogynist popular music humankind has ever known. Notice, for instance, that blacks produced no music remotely as nihilistic as gangsta rap even when black men were regularly being hanged from trees.
Alienation as fetish is a chance tradition of our times, like bottled water.
[k3675] It thrives today not because it is necessary but because it is pleasurable.
[k3690] The kind of person Cooper describes may claim to feel frightened about Republicans’ purported desire to rape the environment, leave the poor to starve in the streets, and persecute Jews and Muslims, but the fright in question is usually a rather abstract and studied one–precious few such people act on this fright and follow through on that notion of moving to Canada, for example.
[k3803] In fact, the black response to the Los Angeles riots was the first of several race episodes in the nineties that frustrated me to the point that I was eventually moved to step outside of my linguist career to write on race.
Since then, one of the trickiest aspects of my second career is that I must work constructively with the fact that legions of middle-class blacks like me harbor a bone-deep sense of constant abuse from whites that I, to the best of my knowledge, have not experienced. Some have told me that this is because I am “clean-cut” but that is irrelevant; the idea is that these things happen to reserved, cultured blacks in expensive suits and cars, not just baggy-pants teens.
[k3830] Indeed, I have occasionally felt that when I did a talk that was merely bread-and-butter, I got praise a little beyond what I deserved, and that this was definitely based in a quiet sense that it was great that I had been up there with my black face, showing that linguistics is an equal-opportunity realm. But I cannot see this as damning my existence or worthy of “rage,” especially since I have never experienced this to a degree that could be considered outright condescension.
[k3864] However, as noted, it’s not that my friends and I have not experienced racism. It’s there indeed. For example, I know my racism when I see it and am not possessed of a fragile sort of pride that makes me reluctant to admit when racism has been imposed upon me (i.e., I have no quiet sense that racism is only something that should happen to, you know, those kinds of black people).
[k3898] For me, these things have been occasional episodes, extraordinary happenings, rather like, say, getting caught in a brief hailstorm–something a little odd and a little annoying that happens every once in a while. Hail does not set the tone of a lifetime.
[k3964] Cose frames this as poignant naivete by a young black man unaware of what he was going to run up against, rejoining him in the late eighties when he is just assistant managing editor, now laughing at his “ignorance and arrogance” in supposing that a black man could ever become editor of Newsweek. But five years after Cose’s book was published, Whitaker indeed became Newsweek’s editor in chief.
[k3986] Yet, while there are grounds for tempering Cose’s portrait, we must accept that middle-class black people do experience enough slights of this kind to motivate books like Cose’s, as well as other books and articles. Clearly these people are not making all of these things up out of thin air.
[k4027] In 1999, Bryonn Bain, a black Harvard Law School student, was leaving a nightclub in New York at Ninety-sixth and Broadway when he was mistaken as the person committing a crime nearby, arrested, and held overnight in jail. Throughout he was treated with searing, dismissive contempt, including having one of those little metal Metropolitan Museum of Art clips taken from him with, “We can’t have you slitting somebody’s wrist in there!”
A. Some “Ellis Cose stories” may be exaggerated to some degree, and stories like this probably decrease by the decade.
B. Yet, it is unequivocal that stories of this kind are a part of life as a middle-class black person here and now.
C. And yet again, the fact remains that the middle-class black life that many think of as default, where these snubs, slights, and even promotions denied and overly aggressive policemen are less very occasional episodes than the fabric of life, sounds like an alternate universe to me and many black people I know.
We must grapple with the fact that both B and C are correct.
[k4079] Degree is the key issue here. Yes, there are the “slights.”
[k4081] Yes, there are the encounters with the police. But the issue is how one processes it. It’s unfair. It’s frightening. It feels, I suspect from reports of it, a lot like being raped. But does Bryonn Bain really take from what happened to him that whites in general despise black people in general, and that his entire life is a battle against white supremacy?
[k4094] For blacks in today’s America, to propose that whites’ evaluation of us, if imperfect, determines the spiritual contours of our existence suggests that we have some kind of problem with ourselves.
[k4097] It has gotten to the point where the “rage” that Ellis Cose and like-minded blacks feel is based on an expectation of perfection that few human beings of any color ever experience.
[k4099] James Weldon Johnson again:
I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I will defend and maintain its integrity against the forces of hell.
[k4104] soothe a hurt that being tailed
[k4105] That is, any black middle-class person in our moment who feels that any of the things that Cose describes show that racism defines their lives hates themself deep down.
[k4108] The police might make a dent in my head, but never could they make the slightest dent in how I feel about my life as an individual human being in this imperfect but promising nation.
[k4117] When I became a college professor of linguistics, one of the classes I taught
The issue is how I process it as I go through life. Here are two examples. When I became a college professor of linguistics, one of the classes I taught was a big survey class. I was, again, well aware of that certain stereotype hanging in the air. And I didn’t like it.
[k4121] My response to this was not to spend the semester musing over it and sharing it with friends over drinks.
[k4122] My response was to do the most concrete thing I could to disabuse the students of any doubt that I was qualified to teach the class–that is, to prove it. So, my first lecture for that class, then and for the next several years, was a survey of the languages of the world, in which I deliberately threw onto the board sentences from as many languages as I could fit into the ninety minutes, pronouncing them, and making sure to always write them out from memory.
[k4127] I needed only that first lecture for the crucial purpose of letting those kids know that I knew a lot more than they did, just like their other professors–i.e., that I was normal.
[k4131] Some would say that I shouldn’t have had to prove myself to this degree. And technically they are right: In an ideal world, I would not have.
[k4137] To just pretend not to mind students’ possibly wondering about my competence, or to carefully restrict my sense of competence to how black people feel about me, would be to elevate being alienated over trying to do something about what alienates me.
[k4327] Whatever I think about black history and memes and the rest, people who have devoted their academic careers to studying the black American condition almost never come to the kinds of conclusions that I do. Aren’t they the authorities?
[k4435] Contempt for middle-class blacks runs throughout Anderson’s Streetwise. For middle-class blacks who left, “Ostensibly they are motivated by concern about crime, drugs, poor public schools, run-down and crowded housing, and social status…but for many there may be a deep emotional desire to get as far as possible from poorer blacks.” Does Anderson by chance mean that these uppity negroes just don’t like their own kind? But why is Anderson apparently unconvinced that crime, drugs, bad schools, and crowds are enough to make someone want to leave a neighborhood?
[k4449] But to Anderson, these guys were heroes.
They walk confidently, heads up and gazes straight. Spontaneous and boisterous, they play their radios as loud as they please, telling everyone within earshot that this is their turf, like it or not. It may be that this is one of the few arenas where they can assert themselves and be taken seriously, and perhaps this is why they are so insistent.
[k4455] To Anderson, sticking it to The Man is everything. I have read that passage of his so many times I have it memorized; it is, to me, horrific, to an extent that helps make one write a book.
[k4462] Instead, let’s just lay out what people like Anderson and Cashin are saying in plain language, which also leaves out words that have taken on distracting connotations: Middle-class blacks who moved to the suburbs should have stayed in the ghetto to serve as role models for poor blacks, and the fact that they didn’t do this reveals them as morally dim.
[k4762] My ideology stipulates that residual racism is not a block upon the advancement of a group, and that a perfectly level playing field is therefore a fantastical distraction in a society in which hierarchy and power will always thrive.
[k4776] I am almost nauseated at the thought of white liberals teaching urban blacks in the late sixties to apply for welfare and to take offense at calls for them to work for their payments if possible. It was this “crack” that the government shunted into South Central, and for this reason I consider the late 1960s to be a chillingly repulsive period in American history.
[k4906] There is something grievously wrong with an academic orthodoxy whose favorite thing to tell black people is that we are right in keeping fury at whitey front and center. It’s wasteful of good minds. It’s condescending to people who deserve better. It will be regarded, a century from now, as a low moment in the history of American social scientific inquiry.
[k4921] For that reason, I do not see the leftist orthodoxy in academia as presenting a case of any significant use to people who are seeking to solve black America’s problems.
[k4941] But just as often, black students harbor a quieter sense that school is something that merits only a certain amount of commitment because it is something spiritually separate from being a black person. Here, the alienation is less overt: It is less a conscious rejection of achievement than a lack of spontaneous inclination to pursue achievement with the near obsession that separates the men from the boys in schoolwork.
[k4946] When we see that the disproportion holds constant even among privileged middle-class black students, we cannot help concluding that the barrier in question is not one of class or opportunity but of race.
[k4950] One, the “acting white” charge would have arisen shortly after the Civil War. In fact, it only began in the late sixties.
[k4953] Two, we would expect that black students would have been underperforming compared with white students of similar backgrounds shortly after the Civil War. But again, this performance gap only began in the late sixties. Sure, poor black students in substandard segregated schools in the South did only so well. But there were a great many solid black public schools across the nation where black kids gave white students across town a run for their money, as Thomas Sowell has repeatedly called attention to.
[k4958] Black students who reject school as “white” do so while ones who lived when lynching was ordinary pursued education obsessively.
[k4965] Like any successful meme, the sense of school as something separate from true blackness is passed from one peer generation to another even among black kids receiving solid educations from white teachers deeply devoted to helping them.
[k4985] Everyone “wants to know” why selective college campuses don’t “look like America.” But there is always an elephant sitting in the middle of the room that no one talks about–the reason why it is so “challenging” to get a representative number of black students on campus: namely, that so few of them have grades or test scores high enough to qualify under the regular evaluation procedure.
[k5013] Basic human intuition leads one to suppose that there is something about black culture–likely a legacy of slavery and segregation–that makes the difference between the Asian kids and black ones.
But under the Dadaistic regulations of discussing such issues in the brie-and-Zinfandel world, arguments attempting to uncover the cultural realities that cause these discrepancies are dismissed as conservative “rhetoric” and tarred as threatening “resegregation.”
[k5076] The most famous example was Washington, DC’s, Dunbar High, where in 1899, students outscored all white schools in standardized tests.
[k5091] Certainly, plenty of white kids feel a sense of separation from school. But with black kids, the feeling is rooted in racial identity, which means that the sense of separation will be much more widespread among people of said race.
[k5095] During Jim Crow, black kids hitting the books were teased as “walking encyclopedias,” like all American nerds, but not for the more trenchantly injurious sin of “acting white.”
[k5103] Many are viscerally revolted by claims that the “acting white” charge has anything significant to do with black student underachievement. Yet, the fact remains that the charge is extremely common; it is, quite simply, a familiar and deeply entrenched part of black American teen culture.
[k5111] Our response must be one of compassion, not of dismissal. But our response cannot be one of what we might call compassionate denial.
[k5115] The Minority Student Achievement Network’s addressing the problem in middle-class districts is a clear indication, and an emblematic moment was when, at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Barack Obama called on us to “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white” and the audience went nuts.
[k5143] They report that even good black students report doing an average of 3.9 hours of homework a day compared with white students’ 5.4 and Asians’ 7.5. Their response is that “there is no definite number of hours students who work ‘as hard as they can almost every day’ are supposed to spend on homework.” That’s nice, guys–but black students still do less, period. They come up with the athletic surmise that perhaps white and Asian students are overreporting how much homework they do, but without an explanation as to why black students would not do so as well.
[k5169] The sense of separation from school is, like racism, a subtle affair, that students are unaware of as often as not.
[k5209] And Fryer’s results ringingly show that among black teens, one is less likely to be popular the better one does in school–to much more of an extent than among students of other races.
[k5263] Overall, I am aware of no academic study claiming that the “acting white” problem is a myth that even begins to address the issue with methods that withstand scrutiny.
[k5368] As late as the sixties, it was normal for an ordinary American couple to put out cigarettes for guests at a dinner party because most people smoked at least to some extent.
[k5386] A report by the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice concluded that in Minnesota, “Poverty is not at the root of racial gaps in test scores.”
[k5398] This is because of a mental filter–a meme, specifying that one must conceive of black students as poor people. A nice example is a letter that happened to appear in the New York Times from a concerned person: “What good is it to debate who is admitted to Harvard and the like if such students, the descendants of slaves or not, are ill prepared because of years of neglect in our public schools?”
[k5412] I have noticed a similar filter with many audiences. I have learned that when speaking on racial preferences, to make the audience understand my point it is necessary to remind them repeatedly throughout the address that I am referring to middle-class black students and not poor ones.
[k5427] Yes, one in six of the black students are poor. But what about the other five?
[k5452] Object that it is unfair to use immigrants as comparisons because they are uniquely driven to succeed–and it snaps us right back to culture.
[k5463] Now, to be sure, it is the soul of education to learn to be wary of our gut impulses in processing ourselves and the world around us. The world is not flat.
[k5465] Greasy food that tastes great clogs your arteries and kills you.
[k5516] Indeed, one wonders how much time people who blame white teachers for the achievement gap have spent in the classrooms in question. For example, Bob Herbert once wrote a New York Times column claiming that black students in New York are done in by white teachers who just don’t “care” about them. But while surely such teachers exist, it is unclear to me upon what basis Herbert implies that such teachers are a norm, or even half, or a third, of the instructors black students are exposed to.
[k5527] Discipline was most of what the teachers did all day.
[k5540] But if it were true that this kind of thing plays a significant role in why black students underperform compared with whites, then we would expect that at colleges where all the students are black, the achievement gap would disappear. This is not remotely true.
[k5552] There is, in fact, a clear indication that they can: Two-thirds of the black undergraduates at Harvard are of Caribbean and African parentage rather than being what on the campus is called “Descendants” of black Americans. This is typical of the Ivies according to anecdotal evidence I have encountered from administrators and professors working at several of them.
[k5556] But then, we must admit that the success of these immigrants’ children shows one simple thing: that racism is not a decisive factor in keeping black students from getting into Harvard.
[k5581] Our job is to teach black students to succeed despite bias. Anyone who thinks of that as backward or unenlightened is placing hating whitey over loving black people. You do not love someone whom you distract from coping with obstacles.
[k5588] As long as black students have to do only so well, they will do only so well.
[k5596] Many sincerely thought that remedial programs and good intentions were all that were needed to remedy the injustices of the past. But they did not: In the seventies, countless black students crashed and burned trying to perform at levels that were beyond them.
[k5636] And as we would expect given the fact that there is no such thing as The Black View, Terrance Sandalow, former dean of the University of Michigan’s law school, has said, “My own experience and that of colleagues with whom I have discussed the question, experience that concededly is limited to the classroom setting, is that racial diversity is not responsible for generating ideas unfamiliar to some members of the class.” Pointedly, Sandalow writes, “Even though the subjects I teach deal extensively with racial issues, I cannot recall an instance in which, for example, ideas were expressed by a black student that have not also been expressed by white students.”
[k5645] Meanwhile, while we warm to black students for their “diverse” “contributions,” they themselves do not cherish being museum exhibits as much as “diversity” fans assume.
[k5672] Another study by Eric A. Hanushek, John F. Kain, and Steven G. Rivkin indicated that generally, higher-achieving black students’ performances are lesser the more black students there are on the campus.
[k5676] Then UCLA law professor Richard Sander has argued in a rigorous and closely reasoned study that in the name of diversity, black law school applicants are regularly admitted to schools whose requirements are beyond their preparation. This mismatch makes them end up doing disproportionately poorly as a result: A survey of 163 law schools showed that 51.6 percent of black law students ended the first year in the lowest 10 percent of their classes as opposed to just 5.6 percent of the white students, and that this gap did not improve over the next two years. In addition, black students fail the bar exam at a much higher rate than whites. Sander concludes that racial preferences actually decrease the number of black lawyers, since students admitted to schools where discussion is paced in a fashion that their qualifications and preparation allows them to keep up with are better prepared to pass the bar exam and establish practices.
[k5699] But the performance gap between equally qualified whites and blacks that they demonstrate is modest, whereas Sander shows that half of black students in 163 schools end up in the lowest 10 percent of their classes.
[k5716] Sander also shows that the black students who are accepted to top schools because of preferences but decide to go to a lesser-ranked school that better matches their grades and test scores have much higher graduation rates than other black students and are 50 percent less likely to fail the bar exam.
[k5957] The accomplishments of black Americans over those very four hundred years show that we can do better. Let’s stop just talking about how we could. Let’s teach our young people how to show that we can.
[k6023] The lyrics of rap music are therapeutic alienation set to a catchy beat. This includes, for the record, the “conscious rap” often claimed to refute a statement such as that one, as I will discuss.
[k6365] Out of the many ways that people can air alienation, one is to craft angry cartoons about young black men “icing” one another, one is to revel in rapping of women as animals, and one is to toss off leftish observations that the white man is holding black America down. Hip-hop combines all three. The last strain is the “political” Tracy Chapman part that hip-hop chroniclers put front and center, claiming that this is the essence of the music.
But then they are faced with the other two strains, which submit to no analysis as “progressive,” and are about just acting up for the sake of acting up.
[k6491] The difference between the jangly ragtime of Irving Berlin and the jangly rock and roll of Little Richard forty years later was a mere change in fashion. But the difference between Little Richard and 50 Cent is evidence of a profound alteration in the national psychology.
[k6588] William Van Deburg treats the conscious rappers as “organic intellectuals–gifted grassroots individuals who possessed a profound, popularly accredited understanding of group history and who were well attuned to the requisites of oppositional politics.” This is, really, an insult to black Americans’ abilities to forge real political change.
[k6601] Why are conscious rappers so uninterested in the political issues that directly affect poor black lives? Could it be because those issues do not usually lend themselves to calls for popping a ‘tude and smacking people and making the streets run red?
[k6720] Wax expresses what I have termed the setting in of new memes that thrive regardless of racism. She notes that while many think that “if racism is to blame, purging racism will do the trick,” that actually, “this is the myth of reverse causation.”
[k6922] The problem here is that with Republicans having no reason to court people who won’t vote for them, and Democrats having no reason to do anything for people who will vote for them no matter what, we are now the most politically powerless racial group in the nation.
[k7343] We can listen to the counsel of eminent Claremont psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: “If you achieve control over your mind, your desires, and your actions, you are likely to increase order around you. If you let them be controlled by genes and memes, you are missing the opportunity to be yourself.”
[k7351] Your “black identity” must be based not on not being white, but on being something positive. Ralph Ellison had some fine counsel on this score, suggesting that we embrace “that sense of self-discovery and exaltation which is implicit in the Negro church and in good jazz. Indeed, I had found it in baseball and football games, and it turns up in almost any group activity of Afro-Americans when we’re not really thinking about white folks and are simply being our own American selves.”