WINNING THE RACE: BEYOND THE CRISIS IN BLACK AMERICA
By John McWhorter
Gotham, $27.50, 432 pages
REVIEWED BY CLIVE DAVIS
All those experts who mouth conventional wisdoms on the question of race remind me of a long-forgotten boxer, Joe Grim, one of the old pros mentioned in George Plimpton’s superb collection, “Shadow Box.”
A hundred years ago, Grim’s sole claim to fame was that he was impossible to knock out. This didn’t mean that he was a good fighter. Far from it. He lost all — or almost all — his bouts, and as the venerable ring historian, Nat Fleischer, once put it, “He was slow on his feet and even slower in his thought process.”
The point, though, was that despite taking one fearful beating after another, poor Joe somehow managed to avoid being counted out. Heaving himself up from the canvas, his face a bloody mess, the man known as “the human punching bag” would stagger towards the ropes and gesture defiantly to the crowd, “I am Joe Grim, and I fear no man… .” Then the pounding would begin all over again.
Why am I mentioning this sad story? Because there are hundreds, if not thousands of Joe Grims scattered across campuses and the commanding heights of journalism, and no matter how hard they are pummelled by the likes of John McWhorter, one of the most thoughtful commentators on race in America, they plod on and on, heads down, eyes closed.
And, unlike Grim, these members of the self-anointed elite still believe they wear the champion’s belt. In their own minds, at least, there is not a bruise, not a scratch on their faces.
So it hardly matters to them that 15 years have passed since Shelby Steele demolished their smug orthodoxies in his classic study, “The Content of Our Character.” Academe being what it is, his opponents have been able to pretend that Mr. Steele is some inconsequential traitor to the race, a fringe eccentric who sold his soul to those wicked conservatives at the Hoover Institution.
Similarly, six years after Mr. McWhorter published “Losing The Race,” his analysis of how underachievement has sabotaged black America’s dreams of progress, most of his peers prefer to ignore his message. After all, it is much more to comforting to sway to the soulful cadences of that high-earning scourge of capitalism, Cornel West, than to listen to some quiet home truths from a senior fellow at that nest of reactionaries known as the Manhattan Institute.
So what is a man like Mr. McWhorter to do, but pull on his gloves again, step back into the ring and administer some more blows to the solar plexus? Which is entertaining, certainly — but also slightly frustrating for those of us who are on his side.
Because “Winning The Race” advances a thesis which should be pretty familiar by now: Namely that black America is still paying the price for a revolution in cultural norms which was a side effect of the broader upheavals of the 1960s.
How is it, he asks, that earlier generations that daily confronted racism in its most blatant forms, managed to sustain an impressive degree of social cohesion, while so many of those who came of age in the ‘70s and later — when institutional prejudice was far less widespread, succumbed to one pathology after another?