Racial Profiling

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December 2000


Racial Profiling

The Mislabeling of Black Conservatives

By Jim Sleeper


John McWhorter:Losing the Race: self-sabotage in black America

Thomas Sowell:A Personal Odyseey

Click on the title to buy the book

With apologies to Spike Lee, I'd call "bamboozled" anyone who tosses Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, Stanley Crouch, and John McWhorter into a box labeled "racial conservatives" just because all these writers think that more pedagogical and legal color-coding would retard real diversity and justice. Calling them "conservative" for that only accelerates journalists' dismal scramble to reduce our vast racial sea changes to water fights between tipsy, if quotable, bathers. When public intellectuals join in the ideological labeling, they deflect even serious readers' attention from whatever the writers they mislabel are actually saying. Too often, such name-calling really just shields its perpetrators from criticism by their own partisan comrades for paying "the other side" any attention at all; such reviewers label a book less to clarify its positions, than, glancing over their shoulders, to "position" themselves.

These dolorous musings were prompted recently by Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy--who, in my Liberal Racism, lamented being called a "conservative" for taking race-neutral positions uncongenial to his fellow leftists. But now Kennedy has written that McWhorter's Losing the Race "is [his] bid to join Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom as an influential intellectual among racial conservatives." An editorial board member of The Nation, he declares in his Los Angeles Times review of McWhorter's book that "the most prominent, respected, and influential of the black intellectuals who comment primarily on racial issues are situated ideologically on the left," among them "Patricia Williams, Cornell West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., William Julius Wilson, Lani Guinier, June Jordan, Manning Marable, Orlando Patterson, Derrick Bell, and Michael Eric Dyson."

Wouldn't it be more accurate to call two or three of these worthies "racial conservatives," in that they work to conserve and enhance racial differences and the color-coding structures and strictures that sustain them? And isn't it actually McWhorter, Steele, Crouch, and the Thernstroms who nobly resist what the left, too, used to resist--the fraudulent claim that skin color betokens cultural "difference" and political belonging in socially positive ways (as distinct from defensive, divisive ones)? Are these questions still new? Are they still even questions?

Not for McWhorter and Sowell, they aren't. These two writers--the first a young political maverick, the second a true free-marketeer and conservative-movement workhorse who looks back on nearly 70 years of contrarian, often lonely, standard-bearing--answer the questions I've posed by favoring less emphasis on racial differences and rejecting them utterly as organizing principles of American political and civic (especially university) life. People who call such critics "conservative" simply for holding such racial-policy views often imply that capitalist elites are paying them to present black racial awareness and race loyalty as more dangerous than racism itself. But both McWhorter and Sowell take obvious pride in blacks' endurance, and both care a lot, if sometimes angrily, about blacks' failures.

What they don't support is the kind of race loyalty that accompanies the promulgation of racial differences in law. How that makes them conservative is a mystery to me. The most "prominent, respected, and influential" defenders of racial preferences against the 1998 Washington State referendum that abolished them weren't academics "situated on the left" but Boeing, Starbucks, and Microsoft. Ideological labeling obfuscates who's on what side of which battle. When the labeling is done by liberals or leftists, it is an attempt to reassure us that if we read Shelby Steele years ago in Harper's, we've already heard more than enough and that, just as we didn't seriously ponder the Thernstroms' research and arguments, we needn't bother to read the other "conservatives" now.

McWhorter's volume very engagingly reworks and expands what "we" have been missing, and since he's addressing young blacks as well as whites, he opens windows some of us may have left closed. The son of a black social worker who taught at Philadelphia's Temple University while raising her son in an integrated neighborhood and, later, a black suburb, McWhorter is an associate professor of linguistics at Berkeley. In his spare time, he is an actor and his stage presence can get the best of his arguments; but if Kennedy is right to judge parts of the book "analytically weak," that assessment is itself weakened by pre-emptive ideological labeling. Serious thinking about race resists such corralling in Kennedy's own useful Race, Crime, and the Law and, more recently, in Paul Gilroy's Against Race and Scott Malcomson's One Drop of Blood.

McWhorter's provocative contribution may not escape the "racial conservative" epithet and, with it, forfeiture of the "prominence, respect, and influence" the liberal-left enjoys when it looks in the mirrors of its favorite publications and conferences. But Losing the Race is rigorous and substantial enough to accelerate the long overdue transformation of our racial discourse. It's worth reading for the sheer courage and clarity of its impassioned plea to American blacks to stand up against what McWhorter calls deep currents or "cults" of "Victimology," "Separatism," and "Anti-Intellectualism" in American black (and too much white) discourse and behavior.

He likens the pervasive, unconscious, and therefore seldom-challenged grip of these three dispositions to "viruses" or even addictions. These are "due neither to [black] opportunism nor deliberate obstinacy, despite frequent claims to the contrary," but to "an externally imposed cultural disorder that has taken on a life of its own." That's intriguing, but sweeping, and while diagnosing a "virus" is better than blaming the victim, it doesn't always serve McWhorter's demand that blacks heal themselves more and blame whites less. Some of his research on matters far from his ken (such as events in New York) leans too heavily on one or two polemical accounts.

Occasionally, his rhetoric does get the best of good arguments: "The general sense that the black person operates according to different rules was eloquently demonstrated ... by the muted concern with the open sexism of the Million Man March--what group in America could any of us even imagine convening an all-male march in 1995 other than African-Americans?" Well, gee, two years later there was a huge, all-male Promise Keepers' rally on the same site, and most media coverage was respectful. Still, McWhorter has a point. Feminists were more vocal protesting the latter, and The New York Times' Frank Rich put himself into contortions to make the Promise Keepers' racially conciliatory revival seem more ominous than Farrakhan's loopy, sometimes sinister misleadership of so many decent, yearning black men.

If McWhorter's rueful examination of what can only be called black pathologies sometimes makes him sound "conservative" enough to dazzle the starboard side of the lecture and talk-show deck and enrage many on the left, I hope he'll resist any temptation to affiliate with whatever camp offers instant funding and applause. His voice is wholly his own, and it should make conservatives and Republicans uneasy: He challenges the Thernstroms' claim that we can forego affirmative action because, long before it, blacks were advancing fast enough to keep on gaining without the strong medicine of preferences, whose side effects are so subtly debilitating that we have quietly defined "deviancy" down in order to stop noticing those effects. Yes and no, says McWhorter: "Applied reasonably, affirmative action can be a badge of moral generosity and sophistication ... of which our country ought to be proud." But, he adds, "history marches on, and the country we live in is vastly different from the one in which affirmative action was established." And he wants to phase it out. I don't see him differing on this from Orlando Patterson, whom he cites approvingly (as he does Kennedy, incidentally.)

McWhorter also rejects Shelby Steele's emphasis on the manipulative, guilt-peddling uses of black "victim power." He argues instead that widespread black abstentions from transracial efforts are not conscious tactics or poses, and certainly not responses to insuperable racial barriers, but symptoms of "a subconscious psychological gangrene" that has outgrown the white racism that generated it. With well-framed arguments and harrowing stories, McWhorter depicts victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism commingling to hobble even relatively comfortable, non-confrontational young blacks who have great opportunities before them. It clearly breaks his heart to see so many default so casually, with untroubled smiles. His accounts of such routinized, subtle separatism aren't about Farrakhan & Co. but about more than a few black kids' little daily self-exemptions from standards they consider "white" but which are essential to social decency and vitality, let alone personal success. Such people adopt "white" manners pleasantly enough when they need to, but McWhorter peels away the veneer to expose a steel plate of resistance to any transracial civic culture or common destiny.

His point here is that it's not just Rep. Maxine Waters, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Derrick Bell, and lesser-known imitators who enjoy keeping the presumption of racism. Many more enjoy the same "ironic and addictive contentment in underdoggism," he claims. Waters, Sharpton, and Bell do speak for many blacks, he insists, not because racism is rising, as many blacks believe, but because the viruses of victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism have created a counter-reality within which they live and move. Mistrust feeds on every possible irritant, duping them into racial fatalism. And guilt-ridden white elites suborn and accommodate them, making their delusions all the more sustainable. McWhorter's portrait approaches Seneca's plaint: "We are too ill to bear our sicknesses or their cures."

But no one who indulges this fatalism escapes McWhorter's spirited, uproarious ire. He does blame blacks' "ideological sea of troubles" partly on whites who can't learn that "a person you excuse from any genuine challenge is a person you do not truly respect." He's mordantly frank about the consequences at Berkeley, where he arrived just when Proposition 209 abolished affirmative action, driving cocooned blacks and morally insecure whites into howls of outrage, prophecies of doom--and necessary, if wrenching, adjustments.

Those adjustments to reality can bring out the best in them, McWhorter believes, if only the rest of us stop coddling black students in order to reassure ourselves that we're not as racist as we so condescendingly but unconsciously are. "In my entire lifetime," he writes, clearing his throat for one of his best sallies, "I have never experienced anything more profoundly vexing than the thesis of William Bowen and Derek Bok's The Shape of the River, namely that affirmative action has been proven to be a good policy worthy of open-ended preservation because most of its beneficiaries are now happy with their lives and content with their jobs. Every smug, fawning review I read of this book was as irritating as an eyelash in my eye, and reading the book I had to pause several times to avoid throwing it across the room." There follows an indictment of what he considers the condescensions of Bowen and Bok (and of Ronald Dworkin and Nathan Glazer) more scorching than most others I've seen.

McWhorter doesn't deny his own quotidian encounters with racism, ranging from whites' ubiquitous, if subtle, wariness to outright abuses. When he was one of a very few blacks on a commuter train each morning, the seat next to him remained empty in an otherwise packed car. He's had unprovoked, insulting encounters with cops. Yet he insists that even systemic outrages such as police brutality and gratuitous racial profiling--and monstrosities such as the lynching of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas (which prompted swift convictions and an outpouring of local white contrition) and New York's Abner Louima case (which broke the blue wall of silence and sent the cop who'd tortured him to prison for 30 years)--are horrific precisely because they stand out against a backdrop of steady improvement whose breakthroughs are so unexpected they're often denied.

Here, too, he shows white liberals at their worst, projecting their own lack of respect for blacks onto working-class whites in biennial rituals of anti-racist outrage. He could say still more about editorial, political, and pedagogical elites' stunning indifference to whether the whites they blame for racist acts actually committed them or whether, if they did, they've thereby implicated everyone in Archie Bunkerland or Jasper, Texas. Every two years in this country, white-ethnic or "bubba" scapegoats are discovered and hounded by upscale media and activists, across months of high-intensity moral preening, for such ritual offenses as the fabricated rape of Tawana Brawley by white law-enforcement officers; the fabricated epidemic of arson against black churches by Klan-like racists; the fabricated regression to Plessy v. Ferguson by racist white voters after the abolition of special "black" congressional districts in the deep South (where, in reality, all five black incumbents who faced new, non-black majority electorates won with heavy white support); and the fabricated rise in brutality by white New York police officers (who've killed fewer than half as many people in all seven years of Rudolph Giuliani's mayoralty than in David Dinkins' four).

Thus does a white liberal "virus" enable black ones, and if my own experience is a guide, no argument McWhorter can make, no exhaustive revelation of white liberal myopia or black demagoguery, will stop The New York Times editorial page from rehabilitating a Rev. Al every two years, on schedule, to officiate at yet another blame-displacing ritual. They can't help themselves. It's an addiction that won't leave the upscale media until the addicts have retired.

So what hope is there in writing a book like his? The answer lies ultimately with young blacks, some of whom may read McWhorter only by flashlight under the bedcovers. Surely more of them are worthy of his high expectations than he acknowledges. He could have given more credit to countless older blacks eschewing victimology even when they can't overcome separation and who keep a dogged, if bruised, faith in much that McWhorter holds dear. It would be nice, too, if more whites would pay blacks the elementary compliment of holding them to standards they apply to their own children, standards far higher than those that need periodic rituals of contrition and blame-displacement to justify them.

Finally, if some conservatives have rushed in with condemnation where liberals fear to tread, they should be wary of trumpeting McWhorter's claim that virtually all blacks are infected by the three viruses. Any honest reader can supply experiences that corroborate McWhorter's account, but if racism is receding, as he insists, then surely, too, there are countless little daily acts of courage by blacks who shake the perversely comforting impulse to blame racism so incessantly that their anti-racism itself becomes delusional. That's the kind of bamboozlement Spike Lee has been probing, with mixed success, ever since Do the Right Thing. Some young blacks are ahead of him and ready to cheer what McWhorter is saying.

Our Odyssey

Parts of Thomas Sowell's memoir made me think I was reading McWhorter: "Faculty and students alike seemed content to be at a university, rather than being preoccupied with what they were supposed to accomplish there," he writes. "Everyone from the most nave freshman to the most cynical dean seemed to be playing a role. The problem ... was not that they could not do the work but that they would not do it, unless they had to face exams where they could not fake it." This was Sowell's experience in 1963(!) at Washington, D.C.'s black flagship, Howard University, where he'd just begun teaching and where Lyndon Johnson would soon deliver his admonition to whites not to "take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line in a race and then say, You are free to compete with all the others,' and still believe that you have been completely fair."

Quite the contrary, insists Sowell in this personal but austere narrative of his odyssey, as a dirt-poor orphan from rural North Carolina who moved with an aunt to Harlem at age nine and fought his way through the public schools, night courses, and odd jobs into his 20s before becoming a Harvard- and University of Chicago-educated (and widely, if sometimes grudgingly, respected) economist. He's been a highly partisan conservative not only in his devotion to free-market nostrums but also in his newspaper columns. His long study of connection between economies and cultures has been derided by some as capitalist propaganda. Some of it is, but that doesn't make him a racial conservative.

Certainly, no one can accuse Sowell of denying racism, or indeed, of lacking black pride as he battled supine college deans, black and white, at several colleges to hold black students to high standards: "[I]t was not just a matter of their success or failure as individuals. These were black students and what they did or didn't do meant too much to others for me to let them flounder in their own immaturity and weaknesses. Behind many of these kids was some father driving a cab at night, after working all day, or some mother down on her knees scrubbing some white woman's floor, in order to send their children to college to try to make something out of them."

The difference between Sowell and McWhorter here is that the younger man teaches black students whose own parents were "affirmative-action babies" and whose substandard performance now has fewer of the excuses which Sowell was rejecting even when Johnson was invoking them 35 years ago. Sowell's tortuous personal path makes his straight-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes assaults on academic liberal racism credible; even when his summaries of his battles sound self-serving, he stays his course without moralizing or affectation. Reading these two books together has the odd effect of making both more compelling in their claim that a gratuitous racial defeatism has spread among blacks not least because it has been indulged by so much white hand-wringing and so little commitment to shared, high standards.

But if the euphemisms, denials, and their compensatory ritual psychodramas are to subside, more than the racial climate and the structural inequities some blame it on will have to change. To be sure, debilitating black separatism goes back a long way, and for good reason. But now that, as McWhorter and Sowell insist, blacks can shed such protections more readily than they think--and thereby help to make them even less necessary--a deeper, stronger virus grips the larger society. We're all a bit infected by a dubious sophistication that, beneath a veneer of corporate happy-talk, disdains embracing a common destiny. Racism isn't the only cause; so, too, are the rising expectations of force, fraud, and relentless degradation attendant on ever-more intrusive consumer marketing, which titillates antisocial instincts and atomizes "freedom" in "bread and circus" escapes.

That drains public life of citizens willing to sacrifice for a common destiny rather than show up only as delegates of their races, sects, neighborhoods, or professions. That cynical new ethos is inducing us more than ever "to privatize our pleasures and socialize our pains," as Robert Reich put it. "Why would I want to be integrated into a burning house?" asked James Baldwin long ago. A fragmenting civic culture can't nourish or vindicate those brave enough to leave the dubious succor of the racial and other camps into which others are fleeing.

That makes McWhorter's own brave stand a high-wire act. The barrier facing young blacks that he hopes to reveal isn't just white hostility but a larger vacuity, driven not by the left but by the quarterly bottom line and the marketing division. Even conservative culture warriors are discovering this. Neither they nor liberals have answered Baldwin's question. That's where the rest of us are needed, not to perform more rituals of racial hand-wringing and hand-washing, but to affirm--as countless blacks have done in big and little ways, against frightening odds--a transracial democratic culture and politics vibrant enough to challenge young Americans, not stupefy them.

Along the way, McWhorter and Sowell dare guilt-ridden whites and their black adherents to stand up against much of what they've been congratulating themselves for doing for about 20 years. If it still takes so-called "conservatives" to do that, I don't see why it makes them "racially conservative." Quite the contrary. The rest of us should listen to and learn what we can from them, before we label them. We might prepare one another that way to meet bigger challenges together.

Jim Sleeper, author of Liberal Racism and The Closest of Strangers is writing a book about American national identity and teaching a course on media and politics at Yale. You can email him by clicking here

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