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Spring 2001
   
Why Blacks Should Give Bush a Chance
John H. McWhorter
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As an African-American, I was raised in a tradition in which voting Republican was simply not done, and in my mature life I have—traditionally—voted Democratic or Independent. Yet this year, I am coming to realize that the George W. Bush administration is the most promising for black advancement in 35 years. Not since the Johnson administration has there been more concrete movement to free African-Americans from their status as the country's problem race—and the lessons we've learned from LBJ's failures mean that this administration will avoid the pitfalls of the War on Poverty's hand-out philosophy. Who would have thought that a Republican administration would give such promise of reaching the long-sought goal of turning things around for black America?

Predictably, leftist black pundits who claim to represent the black view in America won't grasp the import of this moment. Brent Staples of the New York Times informs us that "black Americans' distrust of this administration is running extraordinarily high." Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, histrionically comparing the irregularities in the Florida vote count to the evils of Selma, urge black Americans to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Bush administration. Yet these are calls to distrust and resist a golden opportunity for black America.

The hopeful signs are everywhere. Take public education, whose notorious failure in inner cities is one of the main problems that black America faces today. Bush and his education secretary, Rod Paige, seem serious about finding a solution. They recommend giving parents federal funds to send their kids to private schools if their local public schools fail to educate them. The administration has soft-pedaled the controversial term "vouchers" because of liberals' call to "preserve the public schools"; but whatever you call the policy, it stands a good chance of ensuring that children, especially disadvantaged minority kids, get the education they need for upward mobility. A Gore administration, coddling the teachers' unions and the bloated educational bureaucracies in return for votes, would have ensured this basic right to significantly fewer black children.

The leftist conviction that the discrepancies between blacks and whites in educational achievement can't be eliminated until there is no inequity of any kind in American society discourages attention to the good things that actually happen to minority children when they move to private or charter schools. Even among disadvantaged students, many of these schools are working miracles in fostering a culture of academic achievement—on small budgets. Yes, some schools of this kind fail, but there would be no reason to expect otherwise—and we certainly cannot say that large numbers of public schools are doing any better.

And in the meantime, recent studies suggest that when vouchers present underperforming public schools with the threat of demise, then—big surprise—the schools improve. While the educational bureaucracy and leftist pundits desperately seek to invalidate these studies, more disadvantaged black kids will be getting better educations during the Bush administration than at any point over the past 40 years.

Bush and Paige emphasize frequent testing of all students. Given that black students of all classes notoriously underperform on standardized tests, the black community should hail a policy that would expose their kids to tests regularly. Sure, teachers might "teach to the test." But, while cause for concern, this is a lot better than teaching students nothing—especially when black students' difficulty with such tests holds them back from admission to selective universities and professional schools.

Leftists who distrust meritocracy viscerally resist subjecting minority children to frequent standardized tests. Such people should try reading minority students' applications to colleges and graduate schools and seeing the dismayingly low SAT and GRE scores that intelligent black students submit so disproportionately. What pulls black students down on these tests is a culturally ingrained sense that the kind of thinking that the tests entail is a white endeavor rather than a race-neutral ritual. Curing this ideological handicap is a challenge. Recently, University of California president Richard Atkinson proposed a solution from the left: eliminating the SAT from UC's admissions process, like cutting the Gordian knot. However, a more reasonable solution—one that would treat black students as humans of ordinary ability and resilience—would be to give them more practice.

The view from the left on education has proven itself bankrupt in imparting knowledge, curiosity, and critical thinking. Typical has been the education bureaucracy's rejection of Bush's call for Head Start programs to teach children more regularly, at an earlier age, and according to a more standardized format than previously. Minority children, credentialed educators warn, will be so frustrated as to turn away from learning forever. But in fact they will gain the advantage that most middle-class children already have of learning the basics of reading from the age of two.

According to the left's version of compassion, black students, because of society's inequity, ought to be excused, by affirmative action, from serious competition, and many blacks find the Bush administration's disapproval of such racial preferences one more reason for distrust. But affirmative action means subjecting blacks to lowered standards—"the soft bigotry of low expectations," as the Bush campaign deftly phrased it. In my view, this policy was a necessary evil in the 1960s, when America was still overtly racist. But such a policy, like chemotherapy, should be administered only as long as necessary, given the havoc it wreaks upon the body politic while curing a local ailment. More and more thinkers, both black and white, argue that the time to end it is now. After all, they point out, when the University of California ended racial preferences, the number of black students fell at only two schools and increased at most others.

One political party envisions lowered standards as black Americans' fate for the foreseeable future. The other supports improving schools so that blacks can compete on their own. A Martian recently landed in America would wonder just why a group suffering from a legacy of being considered inferior would warmly embrace lowered standards and fiercely resist being prepared for competition.

The evidence so far is that ending affirmative action produces real benefits for minority kids. In California, only when the elimination of racial preferences was clearly permanent did the University of California start serious outreach programs in minority schools to prepare students to submit competitive applications. And in Texas, eliminating racial preferences seems to help achieve the very goal we are supposedly striving for: closing the performance gap. Studies by psychologist Ryan Brown at the University of Texas show that the belief that they were selected because they were the best qualified candidate makes minority and women students perform better than those who believe they were selected because of race or sex—even when both groups of students are in reality equally well qualified. We are unlikely to hear about this study in the New York Times, since the left wing would rather excuse minorities from serious competition than equip them to win.

Republicans emphasize social conservatism and family values. As quiet as it is often kept, so do many black Americans. The media and the movie and record companies give disproportionate play to the one-fifth of blacks who live in the inner city, and black leftists tend to identify "authentic" blackness with what Ebonics advocate Geneva Smitherman calls "the grass-roots folks, the masses, the sho-nuff niggers—in short, all those black folks who do not aspire to white middle-class-American standards." Yet these "sho-nuff niggers" are not the majority of black Americans, who are in fact a thoroughly buttoned-up culture in many ways.

A common black view is that whites are often rather libertine in comparison with blacks. The Harvard/Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation national survey of 1997 found that half of the black women polled would approve of returning to 1950s gender roles. The 1992 National Health and Social Life survey found that 83 percent of black women considered teenage sex wrong, and that 69 percent founded their sexual behavior on religious conviction. Overall, black Americans, even in the moneyed and educated classes, are deeply Christian. A 1996 Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies survey found that 76 percent of blacks favored prayer in the schools.

Such findings don't surprise me, as an African-American; ordinary black American culture graphically reflects attitudes like these. The typical black dance party at a university does not include alcohol; those who want to drink are expected to BYOB, and most do not. I have found, given my rather casual lecture style, that black students often look uncomfortable at my occasional up-to-the-minute slang or oblique off-color allusions that white students find funny. When I was in college, I went to a movie with an African-American woman of no especial religious fervor who insisted we walk out after the first 20 minutes because of the film's rampant sex, something only the devoutly religious white women I have known would have done. I took this in stride as reflecting a familiar aspect of black American culture—one that black Americans step away from when they insist on voting for the party whose ideology, which embraces resistance to establishment values as "self-expression," would dismiss my date's behavior as backward.

Black audiences regularly applaud calls for blacks to help themselves. Where welfare is concerned, this attitude is more consistent with the Republican idea that welfare programs should be time-limited, giving people a head start on fending for themselves, than with the Democrats' long-standing view that aid to poor blacks should mean open-ended handouts, which in practice have deprived most recipients of the incentive to succeed. Surely, a humane society will have a safety net for those truly incapable of fending for themselves, and no one expects the welfare rolls to be reduced to zero (current policy allows a 20 percent margin). However, the predictable difficulties of reforming welfare are preferable to maintaining a three-generations-deep culture of children growing up in a world where work is an option rather than a given. Democratic welfare apologists appear to feel otherwise—that life's imperfections justify changing the rules for black people, a stunningly condescending conviction.

Meanwhile, Bush has further substituted for the old handout culture the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, allowing churches to apply for funds to help inner-city people rebuild their lives. Bush's approach shows real understanding that the transformation of inner cities depends on an inner transformation of individuals, a drive toward personal redemption that motivates people to take control of themselves and their surroundings. For 35 years, the belief that checks in the mail—no strings attached—were all that the chronically poor needed to join the mainstream has been the orthodoxy of the enlightened. But given that 35 years of experience have shown pretty conclusively that this unprecedented approach doesn't work, blacks' distrust of the Bush administration is all the harder to justify.

To resist the revamping of welfare is to encourage black misery and marginality. No Democratic administration since the New Deal has offered a more promising approach to black poverty than Bush's faith-based plan, and even the New Deal only included blacks as an afterthought. Civil rights leaders of the past would have been shocked to see a black America that embraces the idea of living on a permanent dole as culturally authentic.

The inability of so many black movers and shakers to see the promise to blacks in this administration is predictable. Since the late 1960s, black America has assumed that individual initiative is largely beside the point until all racism, even in its most subtle forms, has disappeared. Black thinking took this detour just as the Civil Rights Act enfranchised a race battered into an inferiority complex by centuries of oppression. Wounded people, infused with self-doubt, often seek validation in attributing their problems to external influences, and the anti-establishment ideology of white America in the late 1960s provided powerful validation of this tendency among blacks. Viewed through this lens, black students' lagging performance in primary school can only be due to inadequate funding. Lowered standards in college admissions is the only possible humane response. The only logical solution to inner-city pathology is handouts. And the people displaying these pathologies are heroes, resisting an ignoble system, and thus their values are "authentic," in contrast to successful blacks, who are "sell-outs" in joining that system.

Sure, there is racism in America—only a fool could deny it. But the issue in the year 2001 is how much: because ultimately, a race shows its worth not by how much it can exact from others, but by how much success it can achieve through its own efforts. And in America today, the stunning success of coal-black Caribbean and African immigrants, as well as of their children born here, who are not outwardly distinguishable as anything but African-American, is but one of many eloquent testimonies that for black Americans the possibilities are breathtaking.

Even under the oppression they suffered in the past, American blacks understood the value of effort and striving. Take the Tulsa story. In the early 1900s, black Tulsans had developed a thriving business district, with all the amenities that whites enjoyed on the other side of town—restaurants, hotels, banks, theaters, stores of all kinds. They had achieved this in a world where racism was more naked than anything that black Americans experience today. So virulent was it, in fact, that in response to a trumped-up story of a black man making advances toward a white woman, whites burned the district to the ground in 1921 and killed hundreds of blacks.

Black publications and Internet discussion groups have treated this story as a warning to watch our backs against the eternal hostility lying just beneath the surface in all whites. But the Tulsa story really provides us with a more enlightening message: that ordinary blacks accomplished so very much at a time when white membership in the Ku Klux Klan was as ordinary as belonging to the Rotarians, when there was not a single black in Congress, and when unabashed racism was conventional among whites.

Many other cities, including Washington and Baltimore, had similar black business quarters. Black Tulsa was not built by a once-in-a-lifetime effort by superstars but by ordinary people making the best of a bad situation. Yes, black Tulsa was beaten down—but in a vastly different era. However prevalent one considers racism still to be, few of us would argue that the blacks taking over the housing in their inner-city neighborhoods risk the depredations of marauding bands of white bigots. In fact, white banks are chasing those blacks around with loan offers.

Consider one further example of black achievement despite white hostility. Before the 1960s, black students in segregated schools often performed at the same level as whites if not higher—despite paltry school budgets and crumbling buildings. In 1899, black students at Washington, D.C.'s Dunbar High School were outscoring two of D.C.'s white schools, and until the 1940s Dunbar students continued to perform at or above the national average. Education specialists assert that black students' problems in school today are due to self-doubt ultimately rooted in the history of slavery and segregation—but students in 1899 were just a few decades past Emancipation. The parents of many of them had been slaves themselves.

Black economist Thomas Sowell has chronicled this school and similar schools in Harlem in the 1940s—only for black linguist and education specialist John Baugh to accuse him of advocating "the resegregation of schools." But black scholars would do better to let the past speak to us more constructively. Sowell is showing that if all-black schools could bring out the best in black students of all class levels even in an overtly racist America, then this success is a beacon for the possibilities available to us today.

These are the visions that must inform our response to the Bush administration. But the misidentification of racism as an obstacle rather than an inconvenience misleads black leaders into supposing that the measure of an administration is not the extent to which it lays the foundations for black individual initiative but the extent to which its representatives give indication of liking black people, of "feeling their pain" enough to keep the handouts flowing and the standards lowered. This mindset accounts for the black press's greater interest in John Ashcroft's appointment as attorney general than in the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which offers blacks concrete assistance in bettering themselves.

But because racism is, in fact, not a decisive obstacle to black success today, our emphasis must be not upon whether we are liked, but what the administration can do for us in terms of concrete uplift. This was clearer to civil rights leaders before the anti-establishment culture taught black America otherwise. In 1912, W. E. B. DuBois readily urged blacks to deny their votes to the Republican party, still thought of as the party of Lincoln, when the Taft administration caved in to pressure from the South and abandoned even the perfunctory commitment to black appointments to government posts that Teddy Roosevelt had displayed. DuBois instead threw his support behind Roosevelt's attempt at a comeback campaign as a Progressive.

Yet though we remember Roosevelt as having dined at the White House with Booker T. Washington, he was very much a man of his era in his views of blacks, and DuBois knew it. Roosevelt unabashedly considered blacks a "backward race" and quite openly viewed miscegenation as a weakening of white blood. DuBois, throughout his career up to this point, had stressed that his goal was not to get whites to love black people but to take away the obstacles to black self-realization.

And when Roosevelt refused to incorporate DuBois's proposed race policies into his platform, DuBois readily left him flat in favor of the Democratic candidacy of Woodrow Wilson. Again, DuBois was well aware that Wilson, who exalted The Birth of a Nation as "writing history with lightning" and "all so terribly true," did not "admire Negroes," as DuBois put it. The point was that Wilson offered the best possibilities for black achievement at the time, whatever he thought of blacks.

Even the Progressive plank that DuBois had offered Roosevelt contrasts tellingly with the modern civil rights agenda. DuBois wrote: "The Progressive party recognizes that distinctions of race or class in political life have no place in a democracy. Especially does the party realize that a group of 10,000,000 people who have in a generation changed from a slave to a free labor system, reestablished family life, accumulated $1,000,000,000 [in] property, including 20,000,000 acres of land, and reduced their illiteracy from 80 to 30 per cent, deserve and must have justice, opportunity and a voice in their own government."

When DuBois wrote, racism was a much more serious obstacle in any black person's life than today—he himself, one of the world's leading sociologists, was barred from employment by any white university. Yet he stressed the progress blacks had made, whereas any similar platform today would surely focus on black-white inequities. DuBois bases his call for justice on blacks' achievements, whereas today the civil rights establishment bases its calls for justice on simple moral indignation over the fact that racism is not yet completely dead and that advancement is more challenging for some than for others. DuBois reflexively espouses family life, while today's leaders hold up the high rate of black illegitimacy as one more evidence of racism's cruel effects on blacks and thus as one more argument for an open-ended dole.

In 1905, DuBois convened the first Niagara conference of progress-minded blacks in Buffalo. This was a time when dozens of black men were being lynched each year, and the conferees themselves ended up at the last minute having to book a hotel across the river in Canada, because no hotel in Buffalo (Buffalo, not Birmingham!) would take them. Yet in the "Declaration of Principles" that resulted from the conference, DuBois bitterly complained that black America "needs justice and is given charity." True empowerment, DuBois understood, is generated from within.

Early civil rights advocacy, then, was about what we have achieved, and will achieve, despite racism. Political allegiance depended upon which party was most with this program of achievement, not which party "felt our pain." And today, it is the Republican party that points the way to the only future any race could want: one based on individual achievement, bolstered by the ordinary human resilience that overcomes inconvenience.

In contrast, what would have happened for blacks if Gore had won? A Gore administration, regarding welfare reform as a necessary evil, would have dragged its feet over every detail. Through court appointments and executive orders, it would have resisted the nation's growing dissatisfaction with affirmative action. Gore might have paid lip service to the rebuilding of inner cities by encouraging white businesses to move into them, but he would have strongly supported the resistance of black victicrats such as New York's Al Sharpton and Charles Rangel to the idea of "whitey moving in on our communities." Gore gave no sign of offering anything as concrete as the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to encourage these communities to rebuild themselves without relying on Starbucks and Burger King.

None of this is exactly rocket science. Our Martian visitor would readily expect that blacks, especially influential and thoughtful blacks, would embrace the Republican platform. But they reject it, angrily, and I know firsthand how angrily, since I received more hate mail in one week for one newspaper editorial urging blacks to reconsider the import of the new Bush administration than I did over six months for my controversial book, Losing the Race.

Why? Because the conviction that blacks remain hobbled by "the system" makes the "authentic" black person see the Democrats, in their relentless pandering to black victimology, as the only logical—the only possible—choice. This spirit explains why Toni Morrison famously called Bill Clinton our first black president. Sure, she partly had in mind his southern cultural heritage and his connection to black music, but she would not have given this accolade to Lyndon Johnson, say, despite his genuine commitment to desegregation—even if he had played the saxophone. What pushed Clinton over the black edge for Morrison was his theatrically displayed sympathy for the black plight.

Morrison's declaration eloquently demonstrates how completely the essence of "blackness" has been viewed since the 1960s as synonymous with victimhood. That feeling explains the contumely heaped upon blacks who are concerned with improving conditions for the race, but who seek improvement through other means than demanding charity under fancy names. Following his predecessor's lead, Gore would surely have breakfasted with Reverend Al and summitted with the Congressional Black Caucus, bringing up Colin Powell whenever affirmative action came up—and in the end, leaving all of us right where we were before his election.

In other words, Clinton's prowess on the saxophone doesn't change the fact that the Democratic party no more deserved the black vote last November than the Republican party did in 1912—a lesson that Black History Month might do better to impart than one more story about how much George Washington Carver could do with a peanut.

The idea that voting Republican is disloyal for a black person seems especially paradoxical in light of the Bush administration's galaxy of black officials, headed by Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Rod Paige. Equally important, too, are the lower-level hires. Okay, John Ashcroft may not give much appearance of feeling blacks' pain—but his deputy attorney general is the black Larry Thompson and his assistant attorney general in charge of the Antitrust Division is the black Charles A. James. Federal Communications Commission head Michael Powell is also African-American.

Many black observers, of course, believe that the very participation of these people in a Republican administration strips them of their "proper black" credentials: they are "carrying the white man's water," as it is often said. But this judgment only makes sense if "blackness" means seeing oneself as an eternal victim. And these people emphatically do not: Deputy Attorney General Thompson, for instance, chastises black leaders for having "stressed the status of black people as victims and advocated more government assistance as the only way of overcoming our problems."

Perhaps black people who see their mission as making white America feel guilty have a certain theatrical glamour, but in the end not one civil rights leader of this stripe has spearheaded any legislation that has made a significant difference in African-Americans' fate. Let's go back to what black uplift meant in the days when Adam Clayton Powell rammed desegregation legislation through Congress and spearheaded the War on Poverty as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee; when Thurgood Marshall won the Brown v. Board of Education case; when Martin Luther King awakened the hearts of America to racism's evils and helped make the 1964 Civil Rights Act a reality. There is nothing that Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Maxine Waters, or John Conyers, Jr. have accomplished for black Americans that remotely compares.

Happily, the frayed edges of the victimhood model of black advocacy are becoming so obvious that a few black thinkers are beginning to glimpse the promise of the current administration, even though only 9 percent of black Americans voted for Bush. Thomas Sowell is no longer virtually alone in insisting that individual initiative is key to solving black America's remaining problems. Counterbalancing leftist guilt-mongers like Brent Staples and Ishmael Reed, even in the mainstream media, are such thinkers as Stanley Crouch, Debra Dickerson, Ken Hamblin, Clarence Page, William Raspberry, Shelby Steele, and Walter Williams. Many of these thinkers would bill themselves more as moderates than as conservatives, but they all understand that the current administration offers more promise to blacks than blacks suppose.

Increasing numbers of black ministers are moving toward the Republican philosophy in rebuilding their communities, and a group of them met with Bush early in his administration. These clergymen's truly activist orientation toward solving racial problems is making the tinplate essence of Democratically aligned ministers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton ever clearer. What possible equivalence is there between the brass-tacks honesty and commitment of a Reverend Eugene Rivers of Boston and Reverend Jesse Jackson, who "counseled" Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, while himself having an affair with an assistant and supporting her and the child he fathered with her with funds contributed to his non-profit organization—which has moved black America ahead not a millimeter over 20 years.

Indeed, historians studying this period in American race relations will find themselves grappling with the disjunction between the pronouncements of black "leaders" and the views of ordinary black folk. As Robert L. Woodson Sr. notes in his under-read The Triumphs of Joseph, black citizens in polls have come out 83 percent in favor of school vouchers, 47 percent against racial preferences, and 91 percent in favor of workfare. These are not Democratic party responses, and they suggest a return to the guiding principles that animated the civil rights movement before the reign of the victimologist imperative.

It's in this context that the stories we can tell about George Washington Carver make sense. Look back, for instance, to one of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.'s best speeches: "Some of you say to me, ‘I'm not like you, I'm not a Congressman, I haven't got education, I haven't got work.' . . . But you're a human being! And you know what you've got? You've got your hand. . . .

"A young slave boy stood one day by the greatest ruler of his day, and God said to Moses, ‘What's in your hand?' Moses said only, ‘I've got a stick.' He said, ‘Well, let me use what's in your hand.' God used that slave boy with a stick in his hand to divide the Red Sea, march through a wilderness, bring water out of rocks, manna from heaven, and bring his people to Freedomland.

"What's in your hand? What's in your hand? George Washington Carver was so frail he was traded for a broken-down horse as a slave boy; and George Washington Carver, sitting in his science laboratory at Tuskegee told me, he said, ‘Dr. Powell,' he said, ‘I just go out in the fields each morning at 5 o'clock, and I let God guide me, and I bring back these little things and work them over in my laboratory.' And that man did more to revolutionize the agriculture science of peanuts, and of cotton, and of sweet potato, than any one human being in the field of agricultural science." That speech would be inconceivable coming from Jackson, who restricts self-empowerment advice to encouraging children to chant, "I am somebody," but who focuses his energy on shaking down corporations for giant payoffs or flying overseas to coddle Slobodan Milosevic and Liberian thug Charles Taylor.

Educated blacks often assert that black Americans hold a wide range of views, that only a fraction embrace professional victimhood. But a race does not express a "range" of opinions by voting, virtually to a man, for one party election after election and restricting approved discourse to variations on how many handouts we need.

Ideally, as many, if not more black Americans would vote Republican as Democratic. A party that respects us—by granting us the human privilege of self-empowerment—is the one that deserves our vote, regardless of whether or not that party gives evidence of thoroughly "liking" us. Our challenge is to achieve for ourselves, whether liked or not. If this is not an "authentically black" position to adopt, then the concept of black "authenticity" has become decidedly too abstract for me to grasp.

 

 

 
Blacks may not believe it, but the current administration offers them their best hope in decades for achieving true equality.
City Journal Spring 2001.
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