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Books and Culture

John H. McWhorter
Looking Past Race
Too many blacks are obsessed with racism, says Larry Elder.
26 March 2008

Stupid Black Men: How to Play the Race Card—and Lose, by Larry Elder (St. Martin’s Press, 336 pp., $24.95)

Larry Elder is the black conservative people love to hate in Los Angeles, where he hosts a top-rated radio show. He is actually more of a libertarian, but even so he voices the heresy that racism is no longer black people’s main problem. Presenting these and other forbidden views in his 2000 book, Ten Things You Can’t Say in America, he took his place on the list of traitorous black pundits.

But Ten Things You Can’t Say was only partly about race issues. In his new book, Stupid Black Men: How to Play the Race Card—and Lose, Elder zeroes in on what ails black America: an obsession with racism. Elder repudiates the “Sharptons, Jacksons, Clintons, liberals who prattle about the ‘unfinished’ business of racism in America, and other public figures, including some sports figures and entertainers—all claiming to ‘keep it real’ by stirring the pot and keeping blacks angry.” Even President Bush, when he spoke before the NAACP for the first time in 2006, made headlines by acknowledging that racism still exists. Among race-conscious liberals, acknowledging racism seems as important as being repulsed by the Holocaust.

But is it? Elder quotes James Q. Wilson’s 38 most important words for black Americans: “Finish high school, marry before having a child, and produce the child after the age of twenty. Only 8 percent of families who do this are poor; 79 percent of those who fail to do this are poor.” Few could deny the wisdom of that counsel, but many fail to see that it logically requires letting go of the racism fetish. As Elder puts it: “Racists do not prevent kids from studying, racists do not demand that men father children outside of wedlock.” And further: “Complete and total eradication of racism cannot instill the necessary moral values that create healthy, prosperous communities.”

Besides, Elder observes, “if racists hold blacks back, they’re doing a bad job.” In 2003, total earned income by blacks was $656 billion, a sum so large that this “black GDP—if blacks represented their own country—places them within the top sixteen countries in the world.”

The book offers Elder’s take on almost all of the race-related media dustups over the past several years, from reparations to Barack Obama, and we learn much. For example, shortly before the Duke lacrosse incident, four students from historically black Virginia Union University, two of them football players, were accused of raping a white University of Richmond undergraduate after a party. While the case against the lacrosse players was revealed as a tissue of lies, two of the Virginia Union men were actually convicted, while one pled guilty to lesser charges. Yet there were no aggrieved statements about the culture of football and its link to the abuse of women and other social ills. Because the Virginia Union story was about black-on-white crime, the media had as much interest in it as in a PTA meeting in Akron.

Another lesser-known story encapsulates what irks Elder. In 2005, black baseball great Frank Robinson said of black player Charles Murray, who left the game in the sixties because of racist abuse, “He wasn’t strong. He went home. He didn’t pursue what he wanted to do in life. He let a barrier prevent him from doing that.” The story’s reporter, on the other hand, was surprised by Robinson’s attitude, seeing Murray’s withdrawal as “a sign of quiet dignity.”

The reporter would likely see the same dignity in Cornel West’s flight from Harvard after the university’s president, Lawrence Summers, suggested that he produce academic work rather than rap CDs. For West, the Frank Robinson approach would have been to inform Summers of the three academic books he claimed to be writing at the time, and stand firm. But West chose to decamp to Princeton instead, and it’s an indictment of our times that his Murray-like flight seemed, to many, the proper response.

Yet Elder’s analysis only takes us so far. He asks: “If so-called black leaders and other influence-makers can simply halt the widespread use of the n-word by rappers and others, why not use this power to deal with urban crime?” He thinks it’s because they’re lazy: “Crying racism takes less effort than exploring why black children underperform compared to their white and Asian counterparts.” Elder fails to see that self-doubt cripples many blacks, leading them to mistake weakness (crying racism) for strength.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 suddenly left black people responsible for proving themselves before they had had a chance to overcome their internalized sense of inadequacy. After centuries of marginalization, this should not have been surprising. There were now two ways for a black person to make his way. He could embrace accountability and work to take advantage of the new opportunities. Or he could fashion a sense of legitimacy by playing the noble victim, exploiting white America’s new susceptibility to such postures.

The damaged black soul settles for doubletalk and elided moral vision in seeking self-affirmation. The “victicrats” whom Elder describes are insecure people who would be best off in twelve-step programs. But Elder also implies that such people are more important to the current racial conversation than they actually are. Most are getting on in years, having reached adulthood just as the whites who once barred them from Holiday Inns became hip to “the Negro problem.” For blacks of this vintage, the empowering novelty of thumbing their noses at whitey imprinted their worldview permanently. They will remain forever on the barricades, but they are no longer the future.

Black congressional representative Diane Watson, who tartly criticized Ward Connerly for having a white wife, is 74. Charles Rangel, who said after Hurricane Katrina, “George Bush is our Bull Connor,” is 77. Al Sharpton is a younger fiftysomething, but old enough to have drunk the sixties Kool-Aid: he has recounted how Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. passed the torch to him during that era.

The important thing to note is that there are no new Al Sharptons or Cynthia McKinneys. Elder’s depiction of victimology as common coin is therefore a bit passé—a good decade behind the times. The race debate has shifted to the center, so that a book like Elder’s is no longer even regarded as a dramatic statement.

In any case, to understand that the people Stupid Black Men describes are hurting inside is to understand as well that Elder’s title is infelicitous and risks preaching mostly to the converted. That would be a shame, because plenty of black readers, especially of a younger generation, could benefit from the truths he tells.

John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Race and Ethnicity. His book on hip-hop music and culture, All About the Beat, will appear in May.

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