Stupid Black Men: How to Play the Race Cardand Lose, by Larry Elder (St. Martins 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 peoples main problem. Presenting these and other forbidden views in his 2000 book, Ten Things You Cant Say in America, he took his place on the list of traitorous black pundits.
But Ten Things You Cant Say was only partly about race issues. In his new book, Stupid Black Men: How to Play the Race Cardand 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 entertainersall 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. Wilsons 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, theyre doing a bad job. In 2003, total earned income by blacks was $656 billion, a sum so large that this black GDPif blacks represented their own countryplaces them within the top sixteen countries in the world.
The book offers Elders 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 wasnt strong. He went home. He didnt pursue what he wanted to do in life. He let a barrier prevent him from doing that. The storys reporter, on the other hand, was surprised by Robinsons attitude, seeing Murrays withdrawal as a sign of quiet dignity.
The reporter would likely see the same dignity in Cornel Wests flight from Harvard after the universitys 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 its an indictment of our times that his Murray-like flight seemed, to many, the proper response.
Yet Elders 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 its because theyre 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 Americas 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. Elders depiction of victimology as common coin is therefore a bit passéa good decade behind the times. The race debate has shifted to the center, so that a book like Elders 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 Elders 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 Institutes Center for Race and Ethnicity. His book on hip-hop music and culture, All About the Beat, will appear in May.