Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America. John McWhorter. Gotham, 2006.
March 22, 2009
John McWhorter’s Winning the Race has a strong sociological approach to the issues of black America, surveying the history of the development of the inner cities and the welfare system, leading to the dependence that later found expression in affirmative action and racial preferences. My background being more literary in nature, I do not have the grounding for assessing McWhorter’s sociological arguments and data and will focus on his discussion of racial preference and its dynamics, of which I have personal experience, on the ground shall we say, and extensive knowledge and interest.
Referring to radical race elites and leaders, McWhorter states,
“What people like this are seeking is, sadly, not what they claim to be seeking. They seek one thing: indignation for its own sake. And that means that the alienation that they are expressing is disconnected from current reality” (5).
Highlighting the psychological drive of the protest impulse, McWhorter continues,
“This is therapeutic alienation: alienation unconnected to, or vastly disproportionate to, real-life stimulus, but maintained because it reinforces one’s sense of psychological legitimacy, via defining oneself against an oppressor characterized as eternally depraved” (6).
He refers often throughout the book to the implicit theater entailed in such attitudes and the misguided strategy of relying on such theater for advancement and self-definition, instead of “rolling their sleeves up and working out concrete plans for change” (7). Putting aside the emphasis of more traditional black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, on personal responsibility and initiative, increasingly after the 1960s civil rights generation, “the main culprit was whitey and his ‘systemic racism’” (13). I cannot help feeling it’s an old story, but, one that cannot be told too often, still today, given the continuing mutual recrimination and the evasion of the obvious.
The more interesting chapters to me deal directly with affirmative action, racial preference, and the serious damage done by race elites allowing for years the continuation of the “acting white” mentality to spread and pollute the springs of self-reliance, independence, and education for black youth, in their inmost consciousness:
“To understand that we are dealing with therapeutic alienation rather than racism brings us to implications for grappling with the black-white achievement gap in the present and future…. To set the bar lower for black students out of a sense that the achievement gap is due to socioeconomics is mistaken. Because the factor is not socioeconomic but cultural and self-perpetuating, the lowered bar only deprives black students and parents of any reason to learn how to hit the highest note. Much of the time, there is not even any way for black people to know what it would actually be to perform at that level–because they never have to” (263).
A devastating critique of a devastating system, one that all people, white and black, have participated in creating and maintaining, much to the detriment of ourselves and our young people. McWhorter’s honesty about racial matters and race preferences is truly admirable. How else can we all come to understand what the situation truly is and then decide what to do about it? Alas, one can almost count on one hand the scholars intelligent and honest enough to state simply the truth about many “black students on campus”:
“So few of them have grades or test scores high enough to qualify under the regular evaluation procedure. In response to claims from the occasional whistleblower that standards are being lowered for black students, administrators are trained to insist that this is not true. Yet, simple and readily available data show that each year, there is but a sliver of black students with the grades and test scores considered sine qua non for serious consideration if students were white or Asian” (264).
Laying the blame squarely on “teen culture” and the failure of black and white parents and leaders to have sufficiently high expectations for all students, McWhorter faces what virtually no one else in America will. It’s our fault. We’ve got the pernicious system we’ve created, along with all the social and personal destruction that goes with it. I like the way he puts it at one point: “a new sense of black identity in the sixties has led to a quiet cultural disconnect from the ‘school thing’” (273). Instead of “self-defeating cultural patterns,” McWhorter argues for the cultural patterns that produce success for all people. For decades, Caribbean and African immigrants, Asian boat people, and others who have entered urban schools have flown past the kids held back by the misguided ideas of the race elites: “As long as black students have to do only so well, they will do only so well” (295). Like Ward Connerly, John McWhorter clearly advocates expecting more of black kids, knowing only then can society and educators elicit from students their highest potential.
In the light of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) and the misleading allegations surrounding gender that have been used to scare white females into voting against it, McWhorter asks a simple question that Michigan women ought to consider: “Whites listening to defenses based on ‘diversity’ should ask themselves a simple question: Would you allow this of your own children?” (308). Cutting to the quick and ending his book on the hopeful note that black kids are every bit as capable of competing and achieving as anybody else, McWhorter quite rightly states, lampooning radical race elites who benefit from the affirmative action gravy train, “The simple fact is that America is quietly getting past race despite the best efforts of the Soul Patrol to pretend otherwise” (377).
The work of John McWhorter ought to be even more widely known than it already is in Michigan and throughout the country. On November 8th, Michigan’s concerned citizens should turn more to his understanding of what went wrong and what is required for success.
If the University of Michigan is truly interested in the equal opportunity and success of black students, I challenge my alma mater to organize a conference, a summit of people who have two feet on the ground, as soon as possible after November 8th, with the following keynote speakers, hosted by U of M Professor Carl Cohen: Ward Connerly, Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, Bill Cosby, Juan Williams, and MSU Professor William Allen.
Ending racial preferences in Michigan and throughout the Nation is essential for creating an atmosphere of high and equal expectations for all our children, capable of Winning the Race, in all senses of the phrase. Together we will find our way towards a new meaning of what it is to be an American, as did Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man, not white OR black, but white AND black. And all the shades of humanity beyond.