Soundings

John H. McWhorter
Racism Forever
A recent conference on black Americans descends into farce.
Winter 2002

After September 11, a few black pundits drew analogies between law enforcement’s new focus on Muslims and the supposed racial profiling of blacks, and Harvard’s Cornel West got in the fall’s most outrageous line—that the attack represented the “niggerization of America,” giving all Americans a taste of victimhood. But that’s about all we had to endure from the Racism Forever posse. The Al Sharptons of the world thankfully receded into the background. But only until November, when they officially reclaimed the spotlight during 2001’s “The State of Black America” conference, held in Atlanta.

Saturday Night Live’s writers would have a hard time outdoing the foolishness on display during the four-day event. Since to be black apparently is to be always under siege, Jesse Jackson described the investigation of criminally suspicious Arabs as the threat-of-the-month for blacks. “Tonight, Ashcroft and the CIA and the FBI and Homeland Security and the IRS can work together—so look out,” Jackson thundered. Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell cautioned: “While the rest of the country waves the flag of Americana, we understand we are not part of that.” And then there was dependable Reverend Al, hollering: “We don’t owe America anything; America owes us.” This one got a big hand, with some in the audience waving Black Power flags. How a demand for handouts represents power, nobody seemed to ask.

For all the heated rhetoric, however, the conference was a flop. Jackson ludicrously suggested that Maxine Waters would become “the Number One congressional leader,” but she didn’t bother to show up. Nor did other top-shelf invitees, such as Shirley Franklin and Danny Glover. Attendance generally hovered below 300 people, and many of them only came to see television celebrity Tavis Smiley.

In truth, this wasn’t a conference at all but vaudeville, designed to remind its audience that raging at white “hegemony” is the very soul of being “authentically black.” The pathetically low turnout, though, shows that blacks have grown tired of the show. Since September 11, millions of American blacks have hung American flags, not Black Power ones, on their car antennas. In Atlanta, where Campbell will soon step aside for a black female mayor—and during the same week that a black man became CEO of AOL-Time Warner—Jackson, Sharpton, and their ilk struck old battle postures, mistaking theater for real uplift. In the real “State of Black America,” the rest of us are moving on.

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