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Stirring Up a Rage in Black America

Author John McWhorter argues in 'Losing the Race' that blacks are sabotaging their chances to get ahead.

October 17, 2000|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The hope was that the "rough places will be made plain," the crooked places straight. That was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, sketched vividly from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 37 summers ago.

After the marches were over and public policy clicked into place, many Americans hoped that equality--racial parity--would not just be a wish but a statistical reality.

But a generation later--from insurance red-lining to the persistence of hate crimes, the gap in academic achievement and loan acceptance rates--somehow that dream is yet to be realized.

Many black professors, journalists and intellectuals have taken these quandaries up for examination: the country's racial terrain--how it has broadened; how it remains roadblocked. The impediments to black success--from the classroom to the boardroom.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 18, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong attribution--A quotation pulled from Tuesday's story about the book "Losing the Race" misidentified the speaker. As the story indicated, Ellis Cose was the person who said, "The core of his argument--we, being black Americans, do do a lot of things to hurt ourselves--I think is true. But he takes the argument way too far."

This vast chasm cuts deep--physically and ideologically--not just across race lines, but intraracially as well. But what has become clear above all is that the discussion about the proverbial "playing field" should go far beyond whether or not it is level. Enter John H. McWhorter.

In a hotly debated new book, "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America" (Free Press), the 35-year-old UC Berkeley associate professor of linguistics has stepped into the already crowded fray, deconstructing race relations and dispensing political prescriptions. Seeking the source of the lag, McWhorter identifies what he believes are the key impediments to black America's success: the "cults of victimology, separatism and anti-intellectualism." A "flu," he suggests, has infected the mindset for generations--beyond control because it's "in the air."

Those "afflicted"--and McWhorter spares few--include prominent black thinkers such as journalists Ellis Cose and Ralph Wiley, academics Derrick Bell and Manning Marable and poet June Jordan. He also takes to task public figures like Al Sharpton and Rep. Maxine Waters. The roots of this victimology "plague," suggests McWhorter, a Pennsylvania native and graduate of Rutgers and Stanford, are inherent in the history of the African on this continent.

"Centuries of abasement and marginalization led African Americans to internalize the way they were perceived by the larger society, resulting in a post-colonial inferiority complex," he writes. "After centuries of degradation, it would have been astounding if African Americans didn't have one . . ."

But, says McWhorter, it's time to throw off that thinking, a chain itself. And he has an idea of the best place to start.

His laboratory, and consequently his target, is the college classroom--a place where he sees a dramatic disparity in intellectual engagement between his undergraduate students--black and other. "The sad but simple fact is that while there are some excellent black students," he writes, "on the average, black students do not try as hard as other students. The reason they do not try as hard is not because they are inherently lazy, nor is it because they are stupid . . . these students belong to a culture infected with an Anti-intellectual strain, which subtly but decisively teaches them from birth not to embrace schoolwork too wholeheartedly."

Being blunt about such sensitive matters, McWhorter argues, is the only way to "forge effective solutions to the problem of the education of black students." He believes it will increase opportunities for the next generation of African American adults.

'Losing the Race' Draws Mixed Reaction

McWhorter's bracing-as-ice-water tone is coupled with a penchant to minimize some of the stings and abuses of bigotry and racism that remain a vivid reality for many in this country. Not surprisingly, in its 2 1/2 months on the scene, "Losing the Race" has created a ruckus.

"At best it's a pedestrian ethnography," says Manning Marable, professor of history and political science, and director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. "It's not even that. It's a kind of individualistic commentary. Not grounded in any kind of systematic research. Not even qualitative research . . . there is no representative sampling here. Just endless anecdotes that are based on whatever his individualized perceptions are of reality."

Some, like conservative economist Thomas Sowell, laud him for his "candor." Yet others are less embracing. Jack E. White in Time, found McWhorter's theories suggesting that African Americans harbor "a pan-racial bias" against brainy-ness "absurdly simplistic."

McWhorter's positions are not exactly new, nor restricted to discussion of the black-white race paradigm. The 1990s, in particular, hosted a lively colloquy assessing the contemporary state of race and race politics, including expansive treatises written by those whose lives have bridged both pre- and post-civil rights worlds. A new library of memoirs written by the inheritors is emerging.

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