Internal Constraints

John McWhorter, author of the controversial Losing the Race, on what's really holding African Americans back.


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.

REASON: You talk about a "cultural disconnect" from formal learning. How can public policy address this?

McWhorter: I think one of the things that would help most would be school vouchers. Small schools with concentrated, innovative teaching have been shown to get through to black children. Although the possibility of getting all black kids into schools like that has never been great, we need to get as many black kids as possible into schools like that.

REASON: Most polls show huge support among blacks for vouchers and school choice. Yet you contend that blacks don't particularly value book-learning and education. Is there a paradox here?

McWhorter: If anything, black people value education more highly than white people because there is a sense that we are a culture climbing upward. The anti-intellectualism among blacks is more subtle. It's what happens once students are in school. Black parents value that you go get a degree, that you go get earning power, and maybe that you go be a historian or whatever. But the cultural dynamic senses learning as something that other people do, so there is kind of a block on engaging it on that more intimate level.

REASON: These traits—treating education as a means to an end—probably aren't limited to the black culture. Have you looked at other cultures?

McWhorter: The Irish were known to be anti-intellectual people before they became "white." That's a universal American quality. Black culture is different in that skepticism about pointy heads extends into the upper class. It all comes back to the fact that on average in 1995, among black students whose parents made $70,000 a year or more and had at least one master's degree or above, SAT scores were lower than the SAT scores of children from white families making no more than $10,000. That's scary. That's a really scary statistic. That's the problem.

REASON: Are you aware of the "stereotyping anxiety" research done by psychologist Claude Steele? He finds that if test-taking is preceded by positive messages, then black children do better.

McWhorter: It's an interesting hypothesis but I'm not sure how important that observation is. One reason is that it has been shown that women suffer from the same stereotype threat and yet girls are ahead in schools. One thing that I have never seen that research address is the extent to which actual tests and schoolwork in the real world present the stereotype threat. It's not so much that black kids are very threatened by school. It's that there is a sense in the black identity that school is an alien realm. It's not so much that it's seen as threatening, but that it's seen as something apart from what you regard as your essence.

There is a sense that to embrace school in a real way would be a step outside of your identity. Or better, your identity is one that does not condition you to embrace knowledge that doesn't have to do wholeheartedly with black people. You have to remember that stereotype-threat analysis is so appealing in the education community because it's a victim-based approach.

That doesn't automatically render it untrue, but it's interesting to think about what Claude Steele proposes as the solution, to the extent that he really indulges in talking about solutions: He advocated the setting of high standards. His idea is to let black children know that you expect the best of them. Doesn't that mean that affirmative action is not really a very good idea?

REASON: Not just affirmative action but race-conscious policies in general, because it appears that when you remind people of racial issues, it brings out the stereotype anxiety.

McWhorter: You're black. You're different. You're a victim. We think you can't do it, so we're making things different for you.

REASON: You support racial preferences in business but oppose it in education. Why?

McWhorter: Affirmative action is good when it redresses racism. That's why affirmative action was good in 1965. Affirmative action in business can counteract the tendency for sometimes-subtle cultural conflicts, or the "birds of a feather" phenomenon that can deny people promotions or even jobs in the first place. I think there is still room for discrimination to operate in places such as Coca-Cola, with it not having to be anybody's intention. So the idea of racial preferences is not anathema to me. But I do consider it to be chemotherapy: It's something that creates as much harm as good and you withdraw it the minute that you've gotten rid of the main symptoms. In education, that happened 15 years ago. In the world of business, I don't think that we're there yet.

REASON: The justification for affirmative action has shifted from a remedial project to a diversity project, ensuring that racial and ethnic groups are represented at certain elite institutions. Doesn't this mean it's more important in higher education?

McWhorter: Diversity is nice, but it cannot be weighted above competence. The diversity rationale was created as a kind of fig leaf. Basically, I think we can sacrifice diversity, which is a rather weak concept anyway, because we have a very selective sense of what kind of diversity we want.

REASON: Doesn't it worry you that if elite schools stop picking by race, there would be a large decline in the number of black students attending those institutions?

McWhorter: If all schools quit using race as an admissions criterion, there would be a bleak 10 years where there would not be as many black kids on elite campuses as we might like. There would still be a good number, though. It's not as if black students are so utterly, uniformly awful that Harvard could not find any black students for its freshman class. Yes, the numbers will fall. But during that 10 years, word would get out in the black community and in the education community that black kids have to do as well as everybody else. Black people have shown that they can rise to any obstacle. We're not allowed to rise to any obstacle when it comes to academics. We're always given these lowered bars.

REASON: What about the argument that if you repeal racial preferences there will be an even greater dilution of standards as college administrators push to eliminate SAT scores and admit everyone from the top 10 percent of high schools?

McWhorter: It's very troubling, and it's going to happen. Admitting every student in the top 4 percent or top 10 percent or whatever is not an ideal policy. But at least you would have a situation where every black kid on campus can say they are on campus because they were the best among the people with whom they went to school. The SAT is a valid, if partial, measure of a person's preparation for a school.

If Berkeley and the University of California abolish the SAT, I would resign. It's so clear that the only reason UC President Richard Atkinson even proposed the idea is because he can't bear to see minority students actually challenged to do as well as everyone else.

REASON: You have taken advantage of affirmative action in your career, from fellowships to job offers. Why criticize it now?

McWhorter: There was a juncture in my life where I did use affirmative action to get a postdoctoral fellowship that got my foot in the door at Berkeley. It was a decision I made at a time when I was much less politicized than I am now. You evolve as time goes by. It was also a time when my back was up against a wall because of a very narrow job market. I look back on it and I realize that it diminishes my sense of accomplishment. I defend my right to question the policy after having gone through it. The "pulling in the ladder" argument is actually a rather nihilistic one, because any black person who got anywhere in life has been affected by affirmative action.

REASON: What changes have you noticed at Berkeley since racial preferences were abolished throughout the UC system in 1996?

McWhorter: The black kids are just as qualified—or sometimes, unqualified—as the white and Asian students. They are exactly the same. There is no longer a two-caste system at Berkeley, where the black and Latino students are obviously of lower preparation and lower caliber than the white and the Asian students.

REASON: You write a lot about how some African Americans are "culturally black," and others are not. What does it mean to be culturally black?

McWhorter: One, your speech reflects the conglomeration of traits linguists call black English. At the very least, you could be identified as black over the phone. Two, devout Christianity is central to black culture. Three, you sense residual racism as an obstacle to advancement. Today, that is a keystone to having what is a proper "black" identity.

REASON: You report problems with culturally black students regardless of their class and family background. What is your experience with black students who are culturally white?

McWhorter: Black students who are culturally white generally do not have the kind of disconnect from learning that I see in other blacks. Black students who are culturally black yet who are sailing through school are almost invariably people with Caribbean or African parents.

REASON: You've largely been rejected by black academics and intellectuals. The novelist Ishmael Reed, who also teaches at Berkeley, has even called you a "rent-a-black." You've been embraced by the conservative establishment. What's your reaction to that?

McWhorter: In terms of a great many other things, I am a very leftist person. I have a natural sense of ambivalence when I'm embraced by card-carrying white conservatives. I have to keep telling myself that I do believe a lot of what they believe and they are human beings. However, a lot of conservatives don't realize that black people have things to complain about. The idea that black people need to "just get over it" is an idea that I can't quite handle. Despite all of the huffing and puffing in Losing the Race, a lot of what I was trying to do is make clear that this is where black people are coming from. That's why I have a long section about racism and the black experience.

REASON: Do you ever find that you are invited to be the only black voice on a panel? To be a token, essentially?

McWhorter: There are often other black people present. The event I attended today for Empower America is actually the only thing I've done where I was the only black. This event was definitely Token Black City. I don't have any ambivalence about it. If conservatives need to show their message is not anti-black, and I believe very often it isn't, and if one way they want to show that is by having a black person be in their company, I don't consider that to be discrimination. "Token black" is a term that we've heard so long that we don't always think about the meaning anymore. It's not that they don't want me there. It's not that they don't agree with what I'm saying. It's that they want to show that they are not anti-black. And if they are not, then I consider myself to be doing a service by appearing.

REASON: You voted for Ralph Nader.

McWhorter: I did.

REASON: Yet you recommend in a piece for the conservative City Journal that blacks, who vote Democrat in overwhelming numbers, ought to give Republicans a second look. What could the Republican Party possibly do to attract black voters?

McWhorter: One thing and one thing only: Address racial profiling. The situation of young black men in the criminal justice system today is the main obstacle to a general revolution in black America toward the truly progressive ideologies of the past.

Thirty years ago, if you asked black people what the evidence was that racism pervaded the United States, they would have said, "Well, there are no black thises and no black thats." That's what I heard when I was young. Today, what you hear is, "One out of three young black men are in prison or involved in the criminal justice system." That is a mantra in the black community memorized from the age of 12.

Now, the fact is that in many communities, if you didn't concentrate crime-fighting efforts on young black men, you'd have a community preyed upon by criminals. A little-told story is that in many such communities, the actual residents are clamoring for more police enforcement, not less. And it's true that the statistics on profiling tend to be presented in misleading ways in the liberal media.

But those are things for the educated and the pundits to quibble over. Out on the street, there is a sense that the police are set against young black men. It's clear that black men get killed too often by the police. All we need is one generation of black children to grow up in an America where it could not be said that the police are set against young black men.

REASON: So much of racial profiling results from the War on Drugs. Don't we have to get at that as a root cause of prejudicial policing?

McWhorter: I'm afraid to say it in print: I don't think there should be any War on Drugs. It's an utter and complete absurdity, a puritanical holdover. It is one of the shames of the United States in the early 21st century. The real magic bullet would just be to make drugs legal. A lot of crime would go away immediately, that day. But it's also clear that we are not going to legalize drugs. With that reality, we must be pragmatic.

REASON: Libertarians such as Walter Williams and conservatives such as Thomas Sowell argue that it was a mistake for black Americans to place their faith in government as a primary avenue for advancement. They say that it's the market and private sector that offers black people more promise for advancement. Do you have any thoughts on that?

McWhorter: That was not true in 1965. Thomas Sowell is a hero of mine, but it still shocks me to realize he was saying things I'm saying today as early as 1970. That was too soon, I think. But today, they are both dead right. Walter says those things particularly well. The market is cruel, but it can also be extremely beneficial and extremely fair. I think for the vast majority of black Americans today, the solution is neither government in terms of government fixing things for us, nor is it leaders.

REASON: You've written about racial issues and popular culture. Do you think there are serious issues of how blacks are portrayed on television?

McWhorter: None whatsoever at this point. Black people are portrayed on TV in all of their aspects. If you only look at the networks, today that's like analyzing emissions from cars but only looking at General Motors cars. The networks are just a few stations of about 25 you have to look at. That battle has been won. In the movies, there are so many black films that nobody can keep up with them all. I used to see every black film that came out, bad or good, because I thought it was my responsibility. I could not do that now without being an obsessive.

REASON: What are your views on reparations for slavery?

McWhorter: In a nutshell, we already have them. Yes, there should be reparations. They are called welfare, workfare, affirmative action, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, every community development corporation that's remaking the ghettoes in our cities, scholarships specifically for black people.

In another universe, all of these could be called reparations. What slavery reparations activist Randall Robinson and the gang want is more stuff—although you notice that they tend not to be able to specify what the stuff is going to be besides identifying companies that profited from slavery. They want more stuff specifically labeled as reparations so that white America will acknowledge what happened with slavery. I think white America already did acknowledge that.