Few nonfiction books have had as immediate an impact on public debate as John H. McWhorter's Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. Published last year by The Free Press, McWhorter's volume on race relations has won raves ("the importance of...Losing the Race is difficult to overstate" said the Weekly Standard) and attacks ("analytically weak...[and] irresponsible" said Harvard Law School's Randall L. Kennedy). Whatever one's opinion of it, Losing the Race has become one of the most discussed books on the topic of race relations in recent years.
The genesis of McWhorter's book lies in his first childhood memory. It was 1968 and playtime in West Mount Airy, an integrated Philadelphia neighborhood. "A group of black kids, none older than eight, asked me how to spell concrete," writes McWhorter. "I spelled it, only to have the 8-year-old bring his little sister to me and have her smack me repeatedly as the rest of the kids laughed and egged her on. From then on, I was often teased in the neighborhood for being 'smart.'"
McWhorter managed to overcome the teasing, even if he was never really able to leave it behind. Educated at Rutgers and Stanford, he is, at 36, a tenured linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, an accomplished actor in Bay Area theater, and, since the publication of his book a year ago, a huge (if controversial) hit on the lecture, panel, and cocktail party circuit. He's plenty confident that he's smart, and always has been. "When I was five years old," McWhorter says over a glass of wine in a hotel bar separated from the White House only by Lafayette Park, "I thought I was smarter than my teachers -- my white teachers -- and I would tell them so." (Perhaps it was a teacher who put the neighborhood children up to the slapping.)
He's also plenty confident that most other black Americans are smart. It disappoints him that they don't express their intelligence by achieving in school. "In 1995," McWhorter writes, "exactly 184 black students in the United States scored over 700 on the verbal portion of the SAT -- not even enough to fill a passenger plane."
The problem, argues McWhorter, is not a lack of black brain power or an excess of white racism. Rather, it's a dysfunctional black culture. Not just a "ghetto culture" that derides intellectual achievement, he insists, but mainstream, middle-, and even upper-class black culture. McWhorter identifies three self-destructive elements in contemporary black America: victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism. He spends 260 pages fleshing out these concepts, claiming the trio combine to keep black Americans from being the best they can be.
Many liberal academics and commentators have pilloried McWhorter. The criticism has been particularly strong among black liberals. Time columnist Jack E. White, for instance, disparaged McWhorter as "a hero for the black-bashing crowd," and accused him of peddling simplistic and damaging stereotypes. Other black columnists allow that he's on to something. In the Chicago Tribune, Clarence Page wrote that McWhorter "hits the mark so often that I think we African-Americans can ignore him only at our peril -- especially we African-American parents."
REASON columnist Cathy Young and national correspondent Michael Lynch sat down for an interview with McWhorter in June at the Hays-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., when he was in town to speak at a conference of the conservative group Empower America.
REASON: Can you summarize the thesis of Losing the Race?
John McWhorter: Since the 1960s, black Americans have been encouraged to work under the misperception that residual racism is an obstacle to advancement. Racism remains in America, but in most cases, it is not an obstacle to people being the best that they can be. There is a cult of victimology that claims we remain victims on some cosmic level until there is no racism in any white person's heart or any instances of discrimination of any kind. That leads to a sense that being black is a thing apart from being a human being in the United States. That's what I call the cult of separatism, and the sense that black people are subject to different rules and the sense that black people are germane to certain subjects and not to others.
The separatism finally leads to the anti-intellectualism, a cultural disconnect from the school endeavor. Anti-intellectualism is, of course, an American problem. But with black people, there is a sense that knowledge for knowledge's sake is a "white" thing. Therefore, you're not culturally authentic as a black if you engage in it. This is why African-American students, regardless of class, tend to not do as well as others do on tests and in grades.
REASON: You say that racism isn't an overriding obstacle. Do you think that white Americans underestimate the level of racism that still exists in American society?
McWhorter: Yes. It dismays me to hear some whites say, "What do blacks have left to be complaining about? Slavery ended 150 years ago." Certainly that's not right. I talk about the subtle forms of racism in my book: Every time anybody tells me I'm articulate, it's technically racism, because I would not be told that if I were white. What they mean is, "Blacks don't speak well, and you sound just like us."
REASON: What about writers like Ellis Cose who document the daily indignities and make them the centerpiece of the black experience? Do you think there's anything helpful in that or is it self-sabotage to talk about this?
McWhorter: The things Ellis Cose describes in his book The Rage of a Privileged Class are real and they should be documented. My problem is that there is a kind of orthodoxy among most black writers and thinkers that what Ellis Cose talks about is the main thing that we ought to be talking about. If you look at what black people considered important to talk about 75 years ago, they were interested in talking about progress and uplift and what they could achieve despite the obstacles.
Today, there is such a defeatist message based on all those indignities that Cose talks about. So, for example, let's say you're a black man in Manhattan trying to hail a cab uptown at midnight and a cab doesn't stop. Frankly, I believe that if something like that happens to you about once every two months, there are many white people much, much, worse off than you. I've been told this is a frivolous comparison, but I don't think so: I often think about a white person who weighs 300 pounds. For me that's a life in hell. The indignities that that person endures every day -- sitting in a seat, the teasing as they walk down the street. I can honestly say that 100 years ago, even a 300-pound white person was better off than any black person. Today that is not true.