John McWhorter thinks he has hit upon the reason so many blacks continue to respond to today’s America with an alienation that is “disconnected from current reality.” Why is it that earlier generations of blacks, whose lives were bounded by racial restrictions unknown to the present generation, managed to avoid falling into traps that led to abandonment of families in massive numbers and adoption of violent and self-destructive lifestyles?
Readers will recognize some of McWhorter’s themes from his previous books. Now, in Winning the Race, he targets the conventional wisdom that roots today’s black pathology primarily in past economic tribulations. For McWhorter, the roots are decidedly grounded in culture. This approach to the subject is not entirely unique and has been handled by other authors, most notably by Shelby Steele. McWhorter, however, strives to expand on why social deterioration occurred as it did.
By using as his model the black district of Indianapolis from the early years of the 20th century, he determines to debunk the theory that poor black communities came undone in the mid-1960s due to the loss of manufacturing jobs, the emigration of the black middle class to suburbia, and the impact of drugs. No, McWhorter claims, something much more powerful than deindustrialization and middle-class flight turned the black poor against themselves. That something was born in the 1960s, “when black America met the New Left.”
White liberals succeeded in getting government agencies and academic progressives to turn their attention to the plight of the black poor. The social and economic policies that resulted from this new benevolence irrevocably changed the culture of black neighborhoods. The creation of an “open-ended” form of government welfare that had never been known before proved disastrous.
In Indianapolis and across the U.S., welfare was not only free and easy to get but was vigorously encouraged by whites who viewed these gifts from the Treasury as a form of justice. The expansion of this new kind of welfare was specifically directed to blacks, says McWhorter, and it soon took its toll.
Another result of this encounter with the country’s radical liberals was the adoption of the counterculture disseminated by them. Blacks across class lines began to reject mainstream norms. In earlier times, writes McWhorter, alienation felt by blacks was often a spur to action, an incentive to roll up their sleeves. But now their alienation became a form of self-medication—a “therapeutic alienation,” something to be indulged, not overcome.
Multitudes of blacks began to fetishize the “evils of the White Man,” a preoccupation that became a crutch for what McWhorter calls a “spiritual deficit.” Liberal whites, in their desire to have allies in the crusade to undermine The System, fed this growing discontent. As blacks idled on the dole, claims McWhorter, the activists were unperturbed because “their actions were really about them, not justice or compassion.”
As in prior works, McWhorter does a good job of bringing to life the “world-within-a-world” that was the early black enclave in segregated America. In Indianapolis, as in Chicago and other places, in spite of societal racism, blacks carved out tolerable lives for themselves, and the general spirit among them, says McWhorter, was that of “a glass half full, not half empty.” In Indianapolis, a city where in the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan boasted 40 percent of the white male population as members, including the mayor and other officials, black students overflowed Crispus Attucks High School, while those who had to work during the day attended night school.
The black business district along Indiana Avenue was host to stores, restaurants, and other small businesses, as well as black-owned newspapers with national circulations. In the white-owned factories, blacks had the lowest-paying jobs and were rarely promoted to positions as craftsmen, yet in spite of overt discrimination, McWhorter points out that wherever they lived, “black people took the jobs that were available.” In 1940, 90 percent of blacks in Indianapolis were employed, and men who became fathers were expected to live with the mothers of their children.
Did this reasonably stable community life come to a screeching halt by the mid-1960s for the reasons offered by sociologist William Julius Wilson and others, who claim that the poorer classes entered a downturn when factories moved away from urban areas and the black middle class fled once the gates of integration were opened?
Or is McWhorter right that the demise of such enclaves was due to a new mindset ushered in by whites who were more concerned about bringing down the scorned establishment than with the genuine needs of the people whose cause they had supposedly taken up?
How well I remember such whites. At the time, New York City seemed to be filled with no other kind. The decade of the 1970s is recalled as one endless, futile rant with people who found an excuse to exonerate blacks from all forms of personal responsibility. I remember an especially terse encounter over an issue highlighted by McWhorter. He writes about the “massive high-rise public housing projects,” which liberals came to denounce for what they considered inappropriate architectural design for the poor, who supposedly were coming from neighborhoods of close communities. Activists railed against these structures of “inhuman scale,” and contributed to the decisions by some cities to demolish them.
The truth is that housing officials decided to raze them because the buildings had not been conceived with crime control in mind. As crime escalated within these developments, their concealed stairwells and entrances made it difficult for decent residents to escape the dastardly ploys of criminals.
In my conversation with Miss White Liberal, a 30-ish academic committed to the cause of Black Liberation, I ex-pressed shock over a news item that a housing project in some American city, built only in the 1950s, was to be torn down in this, the 1970s. This was to be my first exposure to the inhuman scale argument that this good liberal insisted made understandable the ensuing anti-social behavior and criminal activities that ruled in most housing projects.
I asked if she had seen the photos in a recent New York Times article of truly poor people in Calcutta, who were living outdoors under pieces of oilcloth and cardboard. Did she not think that those people would give anything to take up residency in such buildings? Imagine what it would mean to have roofs over their heads and indoor plumbing. They might not turn the place into a paradise, I conceded, but I bet there would be no whining about buildings that lacked a sense of community, nor would there be any urinating in the elevators.
The good liberal lady spluttered and fulminated over my heretical declarations. Such whites thought nothing of dressing down blacks who took exception to their more deplorable and illogical notions of what constituted social justice. And a dissenter risked a verbal flogging for daring to suggest that some of the new policies that were being fortified as law just might interfere with the constitutional rights of whites.
Throughout the book, McWhorter continues his argument over what played the greatest part in the demise of black neighborhoods in the 1960s, claiming that the poor were “done in by white society’s misguided brand of benevolence.” As to the middle class, like most black professionals, McWhorter is protective of the group and insists that its exit from black enclaves in the 1960s played no role in the ensuing deterioration. These were the people whose behavior, moral standards, and attitudes towards thrift became models for emulation—the class to which the poor aspired to rise. McWhorter sings the praises of this bourgeoisie who, during segregation, were the creators of businesses and providers of employment, along with being founders and sustainers of charitable institutions, all of which disappeared with them.
This class of blacks is best described in Allen Spear’s book Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, where we see prominent leaders purposely discouraging blacks from creating institutions of their own. These elites feared that too many successful ventures under black auspices would send the signal that blacks did not, after all, crave integration with whites. Once it was clear to members of this class that the coercive power of government could be used in their behalf, they were eager to ride the wave of forced integration and abandon their home communities.
McWhorter singles out the militant elites and the disruptive roles they played throughout the campaign for civil rights. However, I recall not just those militants but members of the respectable black establishment as well, often represented by the NAACP, not so subtly intimating the possibility of “long, hot summers” if particular demands were not met. Members of both elites, the “official” middle class leaders and the posturing militants, often played off one another as they strove to keep whitey on edge and pliable to demands. Always in the air was the possibility of riot and social chaos.
McWhorter asks why Julian Bond’s NAACP busies itself today with trivia such as castigating some clueless white person for his misplaced words, while ignoring real internal crises among blacks. He answers his own question: “Because Bond is under the influence of a meme born in the sixties that elevates the thrill of shaking a fist at whitey, so seductive that it can distract one from less thrilling but more urgent work that actually improves people’s daily existences.” A cynic might suggest that Bond works the victimology game only because successful fundraising drives can be built around the depiction of ongoing suffering of a downtrodden people at the hands of a hopelessly racist society.
In a surprising discourse, McWhorter exhorts readers to drop the bashing of people who have come to be called “poverty pimps.” He does not like this term. It seems that we’ve all been mistaken, and there are no black leaders who are out to “line their pockets.” Leaders who have become prominent through their promotion of the victim mentality among the masses are not “callow charlatans” but are simply “processing black America through a psychological lens that assuages an inner hurt.”
He had me wondering if he believes that these black leaders bear no responsibility for helping to inculcate and nurture the very alienation that he writes about. They might have misled the masses, he implies, but only because they, too, are caught in that same “therapeutic alienation.” In this light, Jesse Jackson, who a great many people believe has extorted enough millions out of corporations and the government to transform several black ghettos, is simply caught up in the same tide as his brothers. Ditto for Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, and the many wannabes who are found in almost every black community.
In A Dream Deferred, Shelby Steele says that the leaders of a mass movement must keep adding fresh grievances to the original complaint. “It is their vocation now, and their means to status and power.” That perfectly describes so much black leadership since the 1960s, and it sounds like pimping to me.
Winning the Race is not as tightly argued by McWhorter as Losing the Race or Authentically Black and, when he is not making a relevant point, the book often drifts off into personal memoir or arcane psychological analyses. It is twice as long as it needs to be.
Elizabeth Wright is the editor of Issues and Views.