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LOSING THE RACE Self-Sabotage in Black America By John
H. McWhorter; The Free Press: 284 pp., $24

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

September 03, 2000|RANDALL KENNEDY | Randall Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of "Race, Crime and the Law."

The most prominent, respected and influential of the black intellectuals who comment primarily on racial issues are situated ideologically on the left end of the American political spectrum. This cadre includes Patricia Williams, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., William Julius Wilson, Lani Guinier, June Jordan, Manning Marable, Orlando Patterson, Derrick Bell and Michael Eric Dyson. Although they sharply differ among themselves, they believe that the government must act in order to elevate the portion of the black population that languishes in isolated ghettos ravaged by poverty, disease, crime and wasted human potential. These writers are not unwilling to criticize self-destructive behaviors engaged in by African Americans, but they stress either the ongoing destructiveness of white racism or the white majority's current indifference to the ongoing harms created by past racial oppression.

Racial conservatives contend, by contrast, that the civil rights revolution and the affirmative action programs that followed have removed unfair impediments to African Americans and that preferential treatment for blacks now is not only unfair to whites but harmful to its intended beneficiaries. Black intellectuals are rare among the ranks of the racial conservatives.

"Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America" is John H. McWhorter's bid to join Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele and Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom as an influential intellectual among racial conservatives. A linguistics professor at UC Berkeley, McWhorter argues that African American culture is infected with a variety of ideological ailments that are much more responsible than white racism for retarding black progress toward full and equal participation in American life. In his view, victimology, separatism and anti-intellectualism are particularly destructive.

Victimology for African Americans is the tendency to exaggerate anti-black racial discrimination, to minimize black advances and to transform disadvantage "from a problem to be solved into an identity in itself." Those infected, according to McWhorter, perversely celebrate their status as victims even as they curse their perceived oppression. The principal symptom of victimology is its insistence upon a set of propositions that McWhorter views as demonstrably wrong. These include the belief that most black people are poor, that black people are typically paid less than whites for performing the same job, that the federal government funnels crack to black communities and that the disproportionately large number of blacks in prison is the result of racist law enforcement. McWhorter indicts a number of people whom he sees as purveyors of victimology. He scoffs, for instance, at the "rantings" of Bell and lampoons Jordan's "festivals of hyperbole."

The second of the ideological viruses that McWhorter isolates is separatism, a malady which causes sufferers to believe that "because black people endure . . . victimhood at every turn, they cannot be held responsible for immoral or destructive actions, these being 'understandable' responses to frustration and pain." According to McWhorter, blacks' unwillingness to condemn Tawana Brawley (who falsely claimed that she was raped by white men) or Damian Williams (who brutally maimed a white man during the Los Angeles riots) is indicative of the sickness. "[E]xempting all blacks from general standards of evaluation," he writes, "is a principal aspect of black identity." Black academics as well, McWhorter asserts, tend to make dubious claims and then feel entitled by their racial status to be exempt from any sort of criticism. Others, he alleges, indulge in a racial filiopietism that disables them from telling the truth about the Afro-American past and present.

Third, attacking anti-intellectualism, McWhorter asserts that "African American students on the average are the weakest in the United States, at all ages, in all subjects, and regardless of [socioeconomic] class level." He posits that anti-intellectualism is "a defining feature of cultural blackness." Blacks, he charges, "do so poorly in school decade after decade not because of racism, funding, class, parental education, etc., but because of a virus of Anti-intellectualism that infects the black community. This Anti-intellectual strain is inherited from whites having denied education to blacks for centuries, and has been concentrated by the Separatist trend, which in rejecting the 'white' cannot help but cast school and books as suspicious and alien, not to be embraced by the authentically 'black' person."

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