- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006


By John McWhorter

Gotham, $27.50, 432 pages

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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?

Mr. McWhorter’s conclusion, that a toxic combination of often well-meaning ‘60s anti-authoritarianism and utopianism doomed millions to failure, reinforces the arguments he and Mr. Steele have been patiently setting out in recent years.

Examining key liberal theories about the root causes of poverty, crime and family breakdown, he draws on examples not from South Central Los Angeles, Harlem or the South Side of Chicago, but turns his attention to Indianapolis.

Why? Because the city’s very ordinariness allows the reader to look at social problems through relatively fresh eyes. Or as Mr. McWhorter puts it, “No legends, no lore, no famous photos, no local schools of hip-hop and the blues. Just the facts.”

And the facts are, he discovers, that Indianapolis’s underclass emerged in much the same way as it did across America’s bigger cities. As for the conventional liberal explanations, from de-industrialization to housing discrimination and misguided urban renewal schemes, Mr. McWhorter finds them all inadequate.

For him, a shift in culture is the dominant factor. Which is, of course, extremely delicate territory:

“We are taught so insistently about how diverse we are, about how America is composed of distinct cultures of people. But is it really true that all cultural traits are positive ones? Or, is it really true that the only group with any negative traits worthy of mention is evil, Wonder-Bread, supremacist white America? Could it not be that all of us, alongside our positive cultural hallmarks, have some counteproductive cultural baggage that we need to deal with?”

One point should be made clear. Mr. McWhorter — a linguist and not a sociologist by training — does not underestimate the effects of poverty and deprivation. (It’s worth noting that he is in in favor of college preferences for those who grow up in “lousy conditions” rather than middle-class students who happen to be black.)

He is no hard-faced meritocrat. Nor did he vote for George W. Bush at the last two presidential elections, despite his obvious disenchantment with the Democrats. (I wish he’d explained why.)

No, his real target is what he calls “therapeutic alienation,” the product of a deep-seated sense of insecurity which results in “acting out in the name of action.” Gesture takes the place of genuine political debate, grievance takes precedence over self-criticism. Think of the rise of Al Sharpton, and you have it in a nutshell.

All of which seems fairly uncontroversial to those of us who don’t subscribe to the conventional wisdom. But Mr. McWhorter patiently works his way through the left-liberal counterarguments, and, in contrast to “Losing The Race” devotes a chapter to hip-hop’s role in shaping urban culture. (A musician himself, he once supplemented his grad student income at Stanford by playing cocktail piano in the plush homes thereabouts.)

Surprisingly, perhaps, he is quite a fan of rap, although that doesn’t prevent him briskly disposing of the idea that the “fight the power” rhetoric serves any serious political purpose. Those rappers that he has come across, on TV debates for instance, strike him as amiable lightweights whose only real interest is milking the MTV audience of as many dollars as possible.

When Mr. McWhorter duels with Coolio on Politically Correct, the celebrity homeboy gives him a hard time then explains, during the commercial break that he is only pretending to disagree for the sake of the cameras. Therapeutic alienation at its most brazen, you might say. But, hey, an outlaw’s got to make a living.

It is undeniably depressing to see how, time and again, facts come second to ideology. (The book would have benefited from tighter editing, to be honest.) Yet Mr. McWhorter ends on an unexpectedly optimistic note, pointing out that “Losing The Race” received a much more positive reception from ordinary readers than from the folk in the ivory towers:

“My sense is that the period when [the book] was published, as the millennium turned, was a kind of last gasp of the Racism Forever routines.”

Academe will no doubt keep the old slogans alive for years to come — tenure doesn’t come cheap, you see. The truth will triumph, he thinks, from the bottom up. It will be quite a wait, but in the meantime, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that even Joe Grim was counted out in the end.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times, and was the presenter of a BBC documentary about the novelist Richard Wright. His weblog is at www.clivedavis-online.com.

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