City Journal

John H. McWhorter
What’s Holding Blacks Back?
It’s black attitudes, not white racism, that’s to blame.
Winter 2001

When I was ten, my mother made me read Roots cover to cover, and she’d coax me to curl up beside her to watch old newsreels of black civil rights protesters being hosed, beaten, and dragged off to prison. We watched Norman Lear sitcoms, so I’d learn from Archie Bunker and crew what blacks had faced in the past. Later, she made sure I read accounts of black America before the civil rights movement. I learned of black lawyers working as office clerks, black classical musicians stuck orchestrating cheap stage revues, brilliant black professors trapped in threadbare segregated colleges; I read of the Scottsboro Boys, Emmett Till, and the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Such things filled me with horror—but then with relief, even triumph. After all, wasn’t the point of All in the Family that Archie was powerless in the face of his daughter and son-in-law’s racially progressive positions? Didn’t his black neighbors have the moral upper hand—and wasn’t it they, not Archie, who got to move to the Upper East Side? By my twenties, in the 1990s, I felt grateful and excited to live in times of bracing progress for my race.

Yet during the decade I came to realize that this feeling made me odd man out among most black Americans. In every race-related debate—whether over Rodney King, O. J. Simpson, the Million Man March, Ebonics, or affirmative action—almost every black person I knew, many with backgrounds as comfortable as my own, started from the fierce conviction that, decades after the Civil Rights Act, whitey’s foot remains pressed upon all black Americans’ necks. For most black Americans, the rapid increase of the black middle class, of interracial relationships and marriages, and of blacks in prestigious positions has no bearing on the real state of black America. Further, they believe, whites’ inability to grasp the unmistakable reality of oppression is itself proof of racism, while blacks who question that reality are self-deluded.

Doubtless some black leaders mouth the ideology of victimhood for political advantage: “Confrontation works,” as Al Sharpton has calculatingly observed. But most rank-and-file exponents of the “racism forever” worldview really mean it. Their conviction rests on seven articles of faith, carefully passed from person to person at all levels of the black community. These beliefs, rather than what remains of racism itself, are the biggest obstacle to further black progress in today’s America. And all are either outright myths or severe distortions of truth.

One: Most black people are poor (and middle-class blacks are statistical noise). Almost half of the blacks surveyed in a Gallup poll supposed that three out of four black people live in inner cities. Yet in 2001 most black people are neither poor nor even close to it: by any estimation, middle-class blacks outnumber poor ones. And at last count, only one in five blacks lived in the inner city.

Two: Black people earn 61 percent of what whites do. Though accurate as a nationwide median in 1995, this figure is dragged down by the disproportionate number of single black welfare mothers. Black two-parent families earned 87 percent of what white two-parent families earned in 1995. Also distorting the median is the disproportionate number of blacks who live in the South, where wages are lower overall. If you look only at specific areas rather than at the nation as a whole, black household earnings in 1994 exceeded whites’ in 130 cities and counties across the nation.

Three: An epidemic of racist church burnings has swept across the South. There was never any such thing: about 80 black churches were burned from 1990 to 1996—but then over seven times that many white churches burned as well.

Four: The CIA created the inner cities by pumping drugs into them. This one pops up in pamphlet after pamphlet at leftist marches and gatherings; it is taught to many black college students. But the San Jose Mercury’s charges on this score proved false. Yes, some CIA agents aiding the Nicaraguan contras decided to look the other way and allow them to profit from some drug sales to California, but that’s hardly a plot to addict blacks in all of America’s inner cities.

Five: Because black men are disproportionately incarcerated, racism reigns eternal. This belief assumes that blacks do not commit crimes any more frequently than whites. But if black men make up almost 50 percent of the prison population, they committed roughly 42 percent of violent crimes in the 1990s, and many studies have shown that, when severity of crime and past record are taken into account, there is no bias against blacks in the criminal justice system. At its inception, the War on Drugs, often interpreted as a “War on Blacks,” had the strong support of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members aimed to stem inner-city violence. If these black officials, who at the time exhorted Congress to “save our communities,” were racists, then the definition of this term is beyond my comprehension.

Six: Racial profiling is racism. It can be—but just as often isn’t. In some parts of the country, black men are so overrepresented in criminal activities that police officers, white and black, would be shirking their duty not to concentrate on them. Sure, sometimes profiling ends up detaining more blacks than their rate of conviction for the targeted crime justifies, as with drivers recently stopped and searched for drugs in New Jersey. But even here, officers generally have acted less out of race hatred than out of a pragmatic assessment that they can fill their quotas faster by focusing on a group that commits a disproportionate share of crime. Inappropriate, yes—and widely condemned as such: indication Number 674 that racism is on the wane.

I have always suspected that today’s profiling-must-stop contingent secretly believes that whites deserve black crime as retribution for oppression. But to halt all profiling would increase the number of blacks murdered, mostly by other blacks. And black leaders would cite this rise as further evidence of racism, as happened in New York in the 1980s, when cops turned a blind eye to a wave of black crime. Many of those crying racism about today’s New York City policing were sounding the same call about the Dinkins administration’s lax policing.

Seven: Excessive police brutality against blacks shows that racism reigns eternal. Certainly blacks have suffered greater police brutality than whites. But this constitutes not the prevalence of overt racism, but its last holdout; as Orlando Patterson argues, you’d expect racism to persist longest precisely among undereducated keepers of order working under conditions likely to spark impulsiveness. And most important, the police brutality situation is improving rapidly. For example, though I think Officer Justin Volpe would not have brutalized a white suspect as he brutalized Haitian Abner Louima, his expectation that the “blue wall of silence” would protect him proved false. In the Diallo and Dorismond killings, the undertraining of police officers to deal with chaotic, tense situations was much more at fault than white racism—and, of course, black officers have been involved in similar cases across the country, though such cases don’t get headlines in the liberal media.

These articles of faith add up to a deeply felt cult of victimology that grips the entire black community. Some subscribe to it fiercely; most accept it as a valid point of view, at least. The “serious brother” who launches into a tirade about the War on Blacks at a party sets heads nodding all over the room.

You’d think that a group committed to advancement would avoid such an obsessive focus on the negative, especially when the negative steadily fades from year to year. But blacks, inevitably, suffer from a classic post-colonial inferiority complex. Like insecure people everywhere, they are driven by a private sense of personal inadequacy to seeing imaginary obstacles to their success supposedly planted by others. Once the 1968 Kerner Commission report fueled that tendency by positing that American racism was an institutional, systemic matter rather than a merely personal one, black leaders and thinkers, haunted by the oppressor’s lie that blacks were inferior, worked obsessively to find evidence, often fantastical, of “the system’s” evil.

In the grip of this seductive ideology, blacks have made the immobilizing assumption that individual initiative can lead only to failure, with only a few exceptionally gifted or lucky exceptions. Yet many groups have triumphed over similar (or worse) obstacles—including millions of Caribbean and African immigrants in America, from Colin Powell to the thousands of Caribbean children succeeding in precisely the crumbling schools where black American kids fail. Indeed, thinkers such as Thomas Sowell and Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom argue that American blacks could have advanced—and were advancing—even without the civil rights legislation of the sixties and the racial preferences of the seventies, since black unemployment was at an all-time low in the mid-sixties, and the black middle class was already growing fast. But these facts can’t outweigh the almost narcotic pleasure that underdoggism provides a race plagued by self-doubt.

Blacks aren’t the only people who’ve sabotaged themselves through victimology. Take the eerily similar case of the Boston Irish, the target of contempt and discrimination in nineteenth-century America. By the 1920s, when anti-Irish bigotry had receded greatly, historical memory allowed Mayor James Michael Curley to maintain power by stoking Irish resentment very like today’s black resentment. Curley found “anti-Irish” sentiment everywhere: merit hiring systems were “anti-Irish”; “Anglo-Saxon” culture was fatally diseased. Even today, the remnant of this mentality still traps members of South Boston’s Irish community in crummy housing projects full of idle adults who have high rates of substance abuse and even speak a local dialect it takes a little while to wrap one’s ears around. In South Boston, as in South Central, a fatalistic skepticism that you can rise above your community and a deeply embedded wariness of mainstream culture thwart ambition even where opportunity is available.

The victimology cult has in turn engendered a cult of black separatism. Inspired by the Black Power movement of the 1960s, which violently rejected whites as terminally evil, today’s separatism, in the same vein, flirts disastrously with the idea that, because white racism ineluctably drives black people outside the bounds of civic virtue, blacks shouldn’t be seriously punished or morally condemned for criminal behavior. Black transgressiveness is understandable, even “cool.” A typical consequence of this view was the feting of the four black youths who maimed several people in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict, with the Nation of Islam setting up a defense fund for the “L.A. Four.” The most recent manifestation of the idea was Jesse Jackson’s intervention when a Decatur, Illinois, high school suspended for two years seven black teenagers who injured bystanders during a gang fight at a school football game. Jackson painted this response to thuggery as a racist attempt to deny “our children” an education.

The worst result of the sense that black America is a fundamentally separate realm is a widespread cult of anti-intellectualism. Consider the data: even in middle-class suburbs, increasing numbers of middle-class black students tend to cluster at the bottom of their schools in grades and test scores. Black students whose parents earn $70,000 a year or more make median SAT scores lower than impoverished white students whose parents make $6,000 a year or less, while black students whose parents both have graduate degrees make mean SAT scores lower than white students whose parents only completed high school.

Why? All through modern black American culture, even throughout black academia, the belief prevails that learning for learning’s sake is a white affair and therefore inherently disloyal to a proper black identity. Studying black-related issues is okay, because learning about oneself is authentic. But this impulse also implicitly classifies science as irrelevant, which is the direct cause of the underrepresentation of minorities in the hard sciences. The sense that the properly “black” person only delves into topics related to himself is also why you can count on one hand the number of books by black Americans that are not on racial topics.

The belief that blacks and school don’t go together has its roots in slavery’s refusal to let blacks be educated. But it gained strength in the mid-1960s, when black separatism rejected traits associated with whites as alien, and black students, in this spirit, began teasing their fellows who strove to excel in school as “acting white,” a much harsher taunt than merely dismissing them as nerds. When I was four—and this is my very first memory—a group of black kids in the neighborhood stopped me and asked me to spell a word. When I did, one of them directed his little sister to hit me repeatedly. I later watched a friend of mine treated similarly for answering such questions as, “How far is it from New Jersey to Florida,” and I’ll never forget being asked by one of his tormentors, “Are you smart?” in the menacing tone you’d use to ask, “Did you steal my money?”

The “acting white” charge—which implies that you think yourself different from, and better than, your peers—is the prime reason that blacks do poorly in school. The gifted black student quickly faces a choice between peer group acceptance and intellectual achievement. Most, out of an utterly human impulse, choose the former. Even if they open themselves to schooling in college or later, their performance all too often permanently suffers from the message they long ago internalized that “the school thing” is an add-on, not a mix-in.

The prevailing orthodoxy lays the blame on other factors, of course, but none of them withstands scrutiny. The fact that the children of working poor immigrants, including black Caribbean and African immigrants, often do well in school, disproves the claim that their working-class roots deny today’s newly middle-class blacks the “cultural capital” to teach their children to excel in school. The success of Southeast Asian immigrants’ children in the same terrible inner-city schools in which black students fail disproves the Jonathan Kozol gospel that it is the “savage inequality” of school funding that makes black kids fail. Though Kozol’s followers counter that immigrants are an inappropriate comparison because they are a “self-selected” population, rich in initiative, Latinos are also self-selected immigrants and yet lag behind in school almost as much as blacks—which shows that culture plays a major role among immigrants. Finally, educators often assert that white teachers are biased against black children, dousing their initiative early on and then tracking them away from advanced placement classes. However, studies repeatedly suggest that teachers track based on demonstrated ability—and, again, black Caribbean and African children do fine, despite presumably suffering the same treatment as native-born blacks.

Finally, what of Claude Steele’s influential argument that middle-class black students underachieve in school because fear of confirming the stereotype of black mental inferiority makes them choke up on tests? I know from my own experience that there’s a grain of truth in this argument. But a tiny grain: after all, college assignments are not composed to test racial abilities. And all these conventional arguments neglect the elephant sitting in the middle of the room: if black students who try to achieve in school get sharply teased for it and threatened with ostracism, why would we not expect this to be the main cause of their academic underachievement?

One well-studied case decisively confutes all the conventional arguments. In tony suburban Shaker Heights, Ohio, funding is generous, support programs aimed at black students (about half of the student population, not an alienated minority) abound, there is no ability tracking (students track themselves), and such racism as can be found is too intermittent to destroy the academic curiosity of a human being of normal resilience. Yet blacks there cluster at the very bottom of the school, and black students report that they come up against the “acting white” charge whenever they try to excel. One girl interviewed there knuckled under to this teasing and saw her grades plummet, while white students interviewed talked about how, in many of their cliques, doing well in school was “cool.” Districts all over the country, including Evanston, Illinois, Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Nyack, New York, report similar results.

Victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism underlie the general black community’s response to all race-related issues. The response to affirmative action is a case in point. Blacks see it as a policy that appropriately bends the rules for a people denied the opportunity to compete on a level playing field—a notion that in 2001, when middle-class blacks are a massive and thriving group in American society, can only seem plausible through the lens of victimology. The defense of affirmative action on the grounds of “diversity” is an expression of separatism. After all, since there are not enough black students to be admitted to selective schools on the same merits as the other students, beyond a certain cut-off point blacks are being valued as much for their distinct and separate cultural traits as for their academic accomplishment. This is a state of affairs, moreover, that requires a strong dose of anti-intellectualism to accept without discomfort. And the same anti-intellectualism rests content with the flimsy reasoning behind all defenses of affirmative action: that because black students are overrepresented in underfunded public schools, for example, it is immoral for colleges to require a top-quality dossier from the black child of a doctor and a corporate manager, or that, as William Bowen and Derek Bok argue in the sickeningly overpraised The Shape of the River, affirmative action ought be continued indefinitely because its first generations of beneficiaries didn’t mind it and are happy with their lives.

Today, these three thought patterns impede black advancement much more than racism; and dysfunctional inner cities, corporate glass ceilings, and black educational underachievement will persist until such thinking disappears. In my experience, trying to show many African-Americans how mistaken and counterproductive these ideas are is like trying to convince a religious person that God does not exist: the sentiments are beyond the reach of rational, civil discourse.

After I gave a talk at a black bookstore outlining why the conventional explanations for black students’ underperformance don’t hold water, a matriarchal figure simply dismissed my argument by pronouncing that America is “set against” black students, period—to the applause of the entire room. Time magazine’s Jack E. White wrote a disparaging review of my new book, Losing the Race (“Come on, Professor”), which simply repeated the traditional explanations of what holds black students back, as if he hadn’t been able to take in my chapters arguing against just these points. During another talk I gave on the book, one black schoolteacher kept interrupting to insist, fantastically, that when black students accuse others of “acting white,” they are criticizing these students for not teaching their peers how to excel in school as well.

There was a time when fighting and decrying institutional racism was the main task at hand, and blacks of my generation owe a debt of gratitude to those who did it; our comfortable lives would be impossible without their efforts. Today, though, these people are well-intentioned relics of another era, an era they in their moment helped us to get past. Our main concern must be with new generations, who can fulfill their potential only in an America where victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism don’t flourish among black Americans. There are two main paths to this goal.

First, it’s time for well-intentioned whites to stop pardoning as “understandable” the worst of human nature whenever black people exhibit it. The person one pities is a person one may like but does not truly respect. Certainly whites must keep extirpating vestiges of racism, even within their own souls. But for David Howard to concur with his firing by Washington mayor Anthony Williams for using the word “niggardly” is condescension, not compassion; for Nathan Glazer to reverse his longstanding opposition to affirmative action because whites “owe” black people is to cast blacks as characters in a morality play, not to usher living human beings out of a historically conditioned wariness of school.

Second, it’s time for our selective educational institutions to eliminate affirmative action in admissions. This policy may have been useful in the 1960s in creating a black middle class. Today, however, the children of Bowen and Bok’s happy campers are hobbled from top academic performance not by poverty and residual bigotry, as their parents often were, but by a sense of spiritual separation from the whole endeavor of learning, an estrangement that set-aside policies and lowered standards cannot help. To achieve in any endeavor, people need incentives. As long as top colleges exempt black students of all classes from serious competition, their admissions officers shouldn’t wonder why so few black students submit top-class dossiers. Only without such a policy will parents, teachers, and school boards, genuinely alarmed at drop-offs in “diversity” in institutions of higher learning, start to help black children become truly competitive for selective schools. What happened after California ended legalized racial preferences in 1995 is a case in point. Programs exploded throughout the state to prepare minorities to be competitive and to eliminate their financial barriers to college.

Eliminating affirmative action will also help dispel black college students’ resentment-tinged anxiety that their white classmates dismiss them as affirmative action picks. It will promote richer interracial contact among students poised to become the nation’s leaders. The tacit understanding is that white students somehow ought not suspect that blacks got in under the door—but this is a hopelessly unrealistic fiction, given that in 28 selective schools in 1989 less than one in four white students with SAT scores in the 1250-99 bracket was admitted, while three out of four black ones with the same scores got in, as The Shape of the River reports. The black student who can confidently claim to be on campus for the exact same reasons that white and Asian students are there is less likely to embrace the myth, which many black college students cherish, that whites are all covert racists.

I believe the time is ripe for such changes. People often ask me how black people have received Losing the Race, expecting me to describe a fearsome litany of invective and condemnation. Sure, I’ve gotten some of that—one letter or e-mail a week, perhaps, along with the predictable tirades on black radio call—in shows. Doubtless plenty of blacks who don’t call in or write me also find the book repulsive. But almost all the letters and messages I’ve received from African-Americans from all walks of life all over the country have been positive. At last count I’ve heard from over 200 blacks, most telling me that my book says things they have long despaired of hearing from our so-called civil rights leaders. Black college students write, telling me that my book helped them understand the internal, cultural factors working against achievement. Older blacks write, agreeing with me that there was a crucial and damaging change in black ideology in the mid-1960s. I have even received three laudatory letters from black prisoners, all recounting how they subscribed to the party-faithful line in their youth but have rejected it since. I have also taken relatively little abuse on the radio shows: as one black man said to me calling into one of them, “Man, black people aren’t yelling at you because they think you’re wrong; they’re just mad that you’re saying it where white people can hear you.” My views, I’ve concluded, are really not so out of step.

Perhaps 20 years from now mainstream black thought will join me in stressing individual initiative and integration. And perhaps the national media will get on the bandwagon too. Today, when I’m interviewed on TV or in the paper, a disparaging comment from some black leftist inevitably is part of the story, though when a Derrick Bell or a June Jordan is interviewed, never do reporters feel the need to bring in Shelby Steele or Walter Williams for their “alternative viewpoint.” Let’s hope that in 2021, the networks won’t feel that any talk of black personal responsibility needs to be balanced by victimology from some fading anachronism like Ishmael Reed or Maxine Waters. That’s when we will know that we are past the coded fraud that passes for interracial discourse today and have made the kind of progress that yesterday’s civil rights’ leaders would recognize and applaud.

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