In his second book, Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority, John McWhorter goes further with his candid discussions on how many blacks, through self-defeating behavior, undermine their own ability to achieve. His work joins other studies that have helped to create a kind of genre for re-thinking aspects of the civil rights movement and exposing the excesses that have exemplified so much of the post-civil-rights period.
Drawing from a theme introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois of a “double consciousness” shared by blacks, McWhorter offers a new interpretation. A great many blacks, he claims, while privately taking responsibility for improving their lives, will, in public, dutifully take on the “mantle of victimhood.” Such blacks feel obligated to propagate the notion that black people cannot rise without the assistance of whites. Thus, it becomes imperative to downplay the improving conditions for blacks to insure that whites do not abandon the black cause.
Even the black who knows through his own personal experience that his progress is not fettered by whites assumes that whites are keeping other blacks down. This “Janus-faced double consciousness,” claims McWhorter, where one reality is lived privately, while its opposite is promoted in public, has become a kind of affirmation of “authentic” blackness. This “authentic” black understands that all black success is accidental and just a fluke. He places no value on achievement in mainstream society, for to do so would be selling out.
While exposing the role that the post-civil-rights leadership has played in compounding the already existing sense of victimhood among blacks, McWhorter also acknowledges a sad truth. That is, “sitting at the core of the African-American soul” is the belief that blacks are inferior. He correctly views this disposition as the initiator of much of the vituperation directed toward whites. In this self-defensive mindset, it is comforting to believe that the continuing “racism” of whites prevents any upward social or economic movement.
McWhorter claims that for many blacks, this sense of inferiority is a deep-seated problem, and they are not being dishonest about their perception of racial barriers, no matter how incorrect that perception might be. Those blacks in prominent leadership positions, however, are fully conscious of the cynical political ploys they engage in when they rail against the system, charging it with “institutionalized racism.” Their sole purpose is to play on the weaknesses of the vulnerable black masses.
Much of this book is a criticism of that tendency among blacks to keep whites locked into problems that should rightly be the purview of blacks. McWhorter says, “[W]hites have gone about as far as they will; the rest of the job is ours.” Yet, after this revelation of what is basically a psychological problem among blacks, which one would think should be dealt with by blacks themselves, McWhorter proclaims whites still somehow responsible for taking action to mitigate this self-defeating strain.
Despite McWhorter’s persistent disparagement of blacks who would keep whites “on the hook” and culpable for past, present, and future black problems, he engages in the customary practice of offering prescriptions for whites to follow. We are given a line-up of social programs that he views as detrimental to black progress and that, therefore, should be of concern to whites. For example, he urges whites not to sponsor an open-ended welfare program “that pays black women to have illegitimate children.” Whites should not “dragoon underqualified blacks into positions beyond their abilities.” And whites should not lower standards to accommodate blacks. Such approaches to solutions, claims McWhorter, deny blacks the opportunity to learn “how to compete.”
Every one of the policies specified by McWhorter, and which he designates as negative, are vigorously supported by black politicians and civil rights leaders. Yet it is incumbent upon whites to navigate around the wills of blacks’ chosen leaders and do what is “best for blacks.” Might one ask the obvious question of why whites are more responsible for helping blacks attain self-sufficiency than those who supposedly represent black interests in the first place and daily fight for the special privileges that McWhorter maligns?
Although his laundry list of whites’ obligations tends to be considerably shorter than, say, one drawn up by Jesse Jackson, it is a list, nevertheless. It seems clear that if whites fail to possess the prescience necessary to understand what blacks “truly need,” or if, heaven forbid, whites simply don’t give a damn about those needs, they remain on Professor McWhorter’s “hook.”
While giving the shaft to the historians of Afrocentric fantasies, who teach that just about nothing in the world was invented until an African conceived it, McWhorter does a fine job of outlining the “missing” history of American blacks. This is the story of ordinary people who created an economic base normal to the development of other ethnic groups.
This history of the successful businesses forged by blacks during those years, which were supposedly the “worst of times,” has never been of any interest to the civil rights charlatans since it cannot be used in the service of perpetuating victimhood. The fact of blacks’ successful entrepreneurial history is problematic for those who teach that blacks encountered restrictions, at all times and in all places, on their ability to prosper.
Although nascent and growing in this early period, the entrepreneurial spirit is evidenced in the thousands of businesses that were created in the North and South beginning in the late 19th century. One example is Chicago’s Bronzeville. As the city industrialized in the late 19th century, blacks migrated from the South, eventually populating a stretch of blocks on the south side. By 1917, over 700 stores and firms had been established. There were doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals. There also were theaters, several hotels, with the Hotel Brookmont billed as “The Finest Colored Hotel in the World.” McWhorter describes Bronzeville as a “thriving civic community,” where the leading churches, such as Olivet Baptist, with a membership of 10,000, focused on community uplift.
The primary purpose of my newsletter Issues & Views is to tell some of this remarkable story and to profile these ordinary yet special people. The spirit that built Bronzeville also built other black enclaves, including districts in Durham, Birmingham, Nashville, Norfolk, and Tulsa. No one would deny the real limitations to expansion placed upon these businesses by legal factors (every region was different), but within the parameters in which they could operate, a great many blacks were able to leave legacies .
This is a history worth celebrating and none of it is buried. Over all these decades, any NAACP functionary could easily have collected this data with the aim of inspiring blacks to pick up where these industrious entrepreneurs left off. But for today’s unworthy black leaders, history of this kind becomes interesting only when there is a sad tale attached to it, as in the case of Tulsa, where, in 1921, the successful black business district was razed during riots instigated by whites. Yet, the part of the Tulsa story that is ignored by those who bask in the details of the tragedy as “proof” of the white man’s perfidy, is equally sad.
After the residents had recovered from the shock of the riots, with grit and determination blacks rebuilt the business district. We learn from historian John Sibley Butler that the second death of the district came at the hands of blacks themselves. “In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the enterprises of the once proud district began to suffer because blacks won the right to spend their money freely anywhere in Tulsa.” This loss of a consumer base, which also spelled the loss of capital, and the later intrusion of urban renewal, effectively put an end to the blossoming revival. As the clamor for integration escalated, money ceased to circulate in black communities, which guaranteed swift and sure economic decline. An important reason that the general history of this black success is shunted aside is obvious—there must never be a hint that there were some advantages to segregation.
John McWhorter by no means hints at such an heretical idea. In fact, much to the contrary, his world is one that is moving beyond the restricting racial confines of mere integration. It is clear from several glowing passages sprinkled throughout the book that in his ideal world, racial progress is confirmed when hearing ebonics spoken by young white women, wrapped around such words as “dude” and “bitch,” or overhearing the friendly banter of Filipino teenagers as they call one another “nigger.” Progress is a deracinated amalgam of peoples, who accept the “endless waves of miscegenation” and the inevitable hybridism (his word).
Returning to his key discussion, McWhorter offers scorn for those in academia who would lower the bar of admission in their quest for “diversity.” He intones, “White guilt is a dangerous and addictive drug,” in addition to being “a craven, disingenuous and destructive canard” that is antithetical to black excellence.
He also takes on Afrocentrists like Randall Robinson, who call for American blacks to find their identity and cultural base in Africa, a vast continent of hundreds of disparate regions where over a thousand languages are spoken, with which blacks have no familiarity at all. On the subject of reparations, dear to the heart of Robinson, whose book is considered by reparations advocates to be the definitive text on the subject, McWhorter claims that blacks already have reparations. They’re called welfare, set-asides, affirmative action, college grants, etc.
It should be made clear that McWhorter is against affirmative action only in education because he believes that lowering educational standards creates a disincentive for blacks to succeed. Although for much of his book, one could get the impression that he supports a universal ban on affirmative action and special preferences in principle, such is not the case. He offers a sketch of what might be his plan for reparations. In an imaginary case where two candidates were “equally qualified,” he would, “ … propose that Affirmative Action policies … be imposed in businesses where subtle racism can still slow promotion.” And, he continues, “If it were 1966, I would have universities practice racial preferences as well … for the sake of a greater good.” But today, he claims, such an approach is “outdated.”
Prior to this clarification of his position, while reading his many statements of opposition to current affirmative action policies, I had wondered if McWhorter had any objections to these biased laws on the basis of their inherent unfairness. I soon got the message that the only negative rests in what he perceives to be the damaging effects of such policies. “Is it good for the blacks?” he seems to be silently asking on every page. He does not care about the constitutional implications of university policies that might reject qualified non- blacks, as in the case of the University of Michigan.
From McWhorter’s perspective, whites are not expected to express dissident opinions on race, or show disrespect for what he calls the “civil rights revolution.” And he more than implies that he sees nothing wrong with punishments for some forms of verbal dissent.
According to McWhorter, carrying on the “civil rights revolution” must still be foremost in every legislator’s agenda. Woe to that council member whose constituency insists that he concentrate on priorities other than the “needs” of blacks. Any legislator who fails to give top priority to the ongoing “revolution” is “not fit” to serve in a legislative body.
In this book, McWhorter takes on a lot of hot button issues and with each one he makes his case without flinching. What makes his book of value is his forthright analysis of the self-defeating attitudes and behavior that continue to hobble a great many blacks. His inside knowledge and candor make this a necessary book to add to the growing library of works that deal with this particular aspect of America’s enduring entanglement with race.
Elizabeth Wright is the editor of Issues & Views.