Not surprisingly, such attitudes rankle. "That's like saying 'Shazaam,' it's over," says author Wiley, whom McWhorter has characterized as a victimologist. Currently at work on a book about the children of Martin Luther King Jr., Wiley says, "You can choose your atrocities and spin it the way you want, but the spate of these books mirrors the turn of the last century.
"It's sort of a rollback. The war of the '60s, civil rights movement. The '70s was an attempt to create this [integrated] world. The '80s was the realization that no, it's not going to happen. The '90s we asked ourselves what happened? As far as I'm concerned, the horse is already out of the barn, the statistics are there, I'm trying not to turn a blind eye."
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."
To be sure, there is a strong and growing literature confronting the problems of young black men, says Marable.
"There is a certain kind of peer pressure within groups not performing well academically. That's a problem that serious scholars are taking up. You [have to] approach them within the framework of understanding the people and their culture. To me, it's not even a political/ideological thing, this is really deeply morally offensive. It's what Jean Paul Sartre and the existentialists referred to as mauvaise foi--bad faith--it's deeply dishonest. To give him the benefit of the doubt he may not even realize it."
Marable criticizes McWhorter's treatise for ignoring historical context, while Ellis Cose calls it un-constructive: "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. There are a lot of self-destructive things that black people do that we need to take an honest and serious look at. I don't have a problem with criticizing black folk, I do it myself," says Cose. "But he's punitive. He puts people in an ideological box."
Marable suggests that the ones who might suffer most from McWhorter's often bald observations are the students--the very group that McWhorter hopes to help by "breaking silence" on these matters. For whatever it stirs up, McWhorter sees this as a greater good. Particularly in this election year, when public education shares center stage. "For me, [education] is as important an issue as a woman's right to choose," says McWhorter.
"I think that vouchers are absolutely necessary, they are important to the quality of education for people who can't afford to go to private school. We have a problem with those ossified school boards. . . . I can't cast my vote for someone who won't face that down."
He hasn't been surprised by the fallout he's experienced over the last few weeks: the sharpness of the words, the depth of the anger. The subjects he tackles are all sacred ground. McWhorter says he's prepared. He bought a new big-screen TV, a stack of CDs, plants and wooden dinosaur skeletons to decorate his Oakland apartment.
"I thought, I'm really going to have to hunker down for this fall. I'm going to have to stay home and watch a lot of movies, because I'm not going to be able to walk around my campus." (In fact, McWhorter is on sabbatical this semester.) "But to tell you the truth," he says reflectively, "people are yelling and screaming, but this book has kinda focused it for me. I frankly think it is like religion. If someone believes in God, you don't try to talk them out of believing in God. They've been trained to look at the world like that. And some proper-talking, snooty college professor is not going to fix it."