John McWhorter on Race in America

Author and commentator John McWhorter talks about his latest book, Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya sitting in for Ed Gordon.

Author and commentator John McWhorter has often joined us on our daily Roundtable. Recently, NEWS & NOTES host Ed Gordon sat down with him one on one to discuss his latest book, "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America." McWhorter says he wrote the book, a follow-up to his 2001 best-seller "Losing the Race," because he thinks Americans' perception of modern black history is off.

JOHN McWHORTER (NPR Commentator; Author, "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America"): There's a sense that the inner cities took the tragic turn that they did because of various external forces when in fact I think that we've been sold a myth. There is certainly racism, but I think we're often taught that racism matters more than it does in the moment in which we live.

So, for example, we're often told that the old-time, stable black ghettos became today's inner cities because low-skill manufacturing jobs moved away. That's a myth. If you actually examine a city like Indianapolis where the manufacturing jobs stayed pretty much right where they were and yet the same inner-city problems developed, you see that that's not what happened. Really, if it were about the economy, then black America would have went very wrong in roughly 1610 or certainly 1870, 1890, 1920. Our question must always be, what happened to black America starting in the late '60s? And it wasn't factories moving away. And in the book I also discuss other things, such as that it was not that the middle class left and therefore poor people had no role models and started shooting one another in the face. It was not that housing project buildings were too tall and therefore concentrated too many poor people together. It wasn't the highways split what used to be coherent communities. We've been sold a bag of goods.

If black history were our 24 hours, something went terribly wrong in black America after 10:00 PM. Something happened rather recently. And the question must always be, why did things get so very, very bad just when in many ways you would think things would have gotten better? That's what "Winning the Race" is about. More than anything, it's a book of revisionist history.

ED GORDON, host:

So talk to us, in your mind, John, about what did go wrong. And, if you can, identify what you think are the two or three biggest bogeymans in all of this.

McWHORTER: Starting in the '60s, you see a certain shift in ideology where instead of things being about integration and constructive activism, there's a new strain of black consciousness that is opposed to white America in a more open-ended and less constructive fashion. And what happened was actually that white America, or at least a segment of white America, became more interested in hearing black people out. That's a good thing about the '60s. But there was a byproduct of that in that there had always been a certain kind of person who was more interested in the drama than in constructive action. There's always that type. But starting in the late '60s and after that, it became possible to be all about the drama and not really about constructive activism at all. And that was particularly easy because our people are so bruised psychologically. If you're hurting inside, then one way to heal that is to point to an outside oppressor who is worse than you, who is hurting you, who you are morally above. It's simple psychology. That sort of...

GORDON: But, John, don't you always need both, whether it be the Booker T. Washington-DuBois debate or to use Adam Clayton Powell as the illustration vs. someone who is more tame in people's minds, certainly in white America and the middle class perhaps? Black America--a Roe Wilkins, for instance. Don't you need both sides?

McWHORTER: You certainly do, and I think in a healthy black America you have both in the mix. But the issue is what dominates. And so you find interesting contrasts. Like Richard Wright wrote about grinding ghetto poverty back in the '30s and '40s, and a lot of the black intelligentsia, movers and shakers, thought that that was not a constructive message, that you're supposed to stress the positive. Today, we think of Richard Wright as exactly what's needed, as something that black people need to know, that white people need to know. And if you're too sunny, then often that's seen as questionable, such as many of the things that were said about "The Cosby Show." And next thing you know, you have certain kinds of black leaders who have careers stressing the negative. They're not cynical. I don't think that they're poverty pimps or anything like that. But that new mood, I think, has created more problems than it has helped anyone.

Then the second problem was that there's what I call the lost chapter in black history, which is that before 1966, welfare was a mean little business, often it was bigoted in its administration, that could get you by in a pinch, but there was always a social worker checking to see that you were doing certain things. And the multigenerational welfare family barely existed. It was almost impossible to live that way. And so poor black America worked for a living. Not a glamorous existence by any means, but you worked.

In the late '60s, white leftist agitators changed welfare profoundly with poor black people in mind here in New York City. And as a result, just four years later, welfare was now a program where you could live on it forever. It didn't make anybody rich, but if you had a kid, then you could live on the government for the rest of your life, especially if you happened to have more children and no one cared whether you got a job, no one cared whether the father was around and able-bodied. The kind of welfare that we knew until 1996 didn't exist until the late '60s and it turned black America upside down. I think that we need to think about what progressive black action is.

Welfare reform, where you can be on welfare for five years and you're being trained for a job, does not create people with middle class shiny happy lives, but it has certainly been better for black America than the way welfare was. Now welfare reform was pushed by Republicans and passed very reluctantly by Democrats, and yet we're told again and again and again that Republicans are anti-black. Question.

GORDON: There are going to be those, even with this book, who have said it of your writings and said it of the first book that there is this sense from you that you are blaming the victim, that the idea is a too simplistic look at what black America has to face.

McWHORTER: And, you know, it's very simple. In "Winning the Race," truthfully the blame is on white people. What really turned us upside down was misguided benevolence from whites who were under a new paradigm in the '60s, particularly with this change in welfare. So there's very little blaming the victim in "Winning the Race." I really do think that this was something that was started from the outside. I do think that, unfortunately, only we can fix it. And that's from the inside.

GORDON: One of the chapters I found most interesting was "What About Black Middle Class Rage?"

McWHORTER: Yeah.

GORDON: Talk to us a bit about that. And the interesting part here is there is another dynamic that goes beyond the simple has and have-nots, and that is the question that is often talked about in black America, and that is whether or not we're seeing the right kind of righteous indignation from the community.

McWHORTER: Yeah. The "Black Middle Class Rage" chapter was actually the hardest chapter to write because I tried to address just about any objection anyone would have to the kinds of views that I express in the book and that includes the one that many middle class blacks have that just walking through life on a daily basis is a matter of encountering various racist whites and snippy encounters and black men walking by car doors and hearing the locks pop down and things like that. People are thoroughly reasonable who say that and they can't be ignored. And I'm aware that many people will read a book like "Winning the Race" and think, well...

GORDON: But, John, you accept that people not only say that but they live that?

McWHORTER: Yeah. Yeah. And so in that chapter, I even stress we cannot say that people like this are lying, that it must be real. But the problem is that I'm 40 years old; I'm black; I look nothing but; and I can honestly say none of those things has ever happened to me. And I wait for them because I'm very aware that it's supposed to be a typical part of the middle class black experience, especially black male experience. And so I accept that these things are happening to other people, but I think we also must accept that they do not happen to me and to a great many of my black friends. And so that chapter...

GORDON: Though would you concede that they disproportionately happen to black men...

McWHORTER: Yes.

GORDON: ...even those of us who grew up solidly middle class, have had from the beginning almost six-figure incomes, etc., etc.?

McWHORTER: Yes, definitely. And so the challenge of that chapter is to somehow make sense of the fact that on the one hand, I don't feel it, but then on the other hand that other people who are perfectly sane do and that these things must happen. And the best I can do in that chapter is to say that, yes, these things happen. And I've had my encounters with passing racism--it's not the virtual daily occurrence that many people describe--but it's a matter of how you process it. For me to say that because someone gave me a dirty look or I heard someone make a remark or someone wasn't sensitive and that happening, you know, a couple of times every year that life remains prescribed by racism, I genuinely feel like I'm disrespecting my ancestors to say that because life is not perfect for just about anyone.

GORDON: All right, let me ask you this before we let you go, and it would lend itself to this question based on the title and subtitle of the book, "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America." What of a solution, John? Is this a road map, in your opinion? Is it simply to open one's eyes? How do you see the book and what's the answer to that?

McWHORTER: Eye-opening. And so, for example, we have to think about what progressive black action is. So, for example, welfare reform was not racist in cutting poor blacks off cold turkey; it was a good thing. Or, for example, if we let go of the idea that the power structure makes it impossible for black people to succeed and that we can see this in what happened in the mid-'60s, etc., then we can think about voting. You know, I personally have never voted for a Republican yet, but for black America to continue voting almost to a man for one party leaves us politically powerless. And if we think about No Child Left Behind as good for minorities, if we think about welfare reform as good for minorities, the faith-based initiatives as good for minorities, then we might reconsider what somebody who calls themselves Republican might do for the black community.

The Bush administration started out making some pretty noises. It hasn't worked, but suppose there was a Republican administration that actually stuck with it and so on. And so the second half of the book is showing how if we change our view of what really messed up poor black America in the mid-'60s, then it changes our view on all sorts of things going on now and on how we really make a difference. I think we should join organizations that are fighting poverty in black communities instead of waiting for a second civil rights revolution, which I think all of us know, no matter what our politics are, is never going to happen. Poor people need help now.

GORDON: Well, that much I think we all can echo. And whether or not you simply open your eyes or buck your eyes while reading this, it is an interesting read. "Winning the Race" is the title, "Beyond the Crisis in Black America." John, thanks for being with us today.

McWHORTER: Thank you very much, Ed.

CHIDEYA: That was NEWS & NOTES host Ed Gordon.

This is NPR News.

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