NOTE: this excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.
Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell? Well, good for them.
There are more middle-class black families than poor ones? Well, okay—but still.
There are eight times more black-white married couples than there were in 1960? Yes, but.
The editor in chief of Newsweek, the president of Brown University, and the CEO of AOL-Time Warner are black people? Nigger, please.
There is so much good news in black America today that if we could transport a black American into our era from even as recently as the 1960s, they would wonder whether some trick had been played. But in certain quarters of black America, people are almost embarrassed to see such things brought up and can only celebrate them in a backhanded fashion. These people, as well as white fellow travellers, give the impression that if race conditions improved to the point that it would no longer make sense to say "We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go," they wouldn't quite know what to do with themselves and would even be a little irritated.
Stanley Crouch tells us, "One should always keep a hot poker ready for the backside of injustice, but it is important to polish the crown when you've damned well earned it." Yet so many find it distasteful to even go near that crown, much less polish it—at least in public.
What they want us to think about is Robert Parsons.
On a June night in 2005, Parsons, a black father of four, was at a barbecue on a public playground in Brooklyn. Two men drove up and suggested a private conversation in a grassy area not far from the playground. The first gunshot got Parsons in the stomach. The force spun him around and the murderer finished Parsons off with a shot in the back. He died at the hospital.
Parsons was hoping to make a mark as a rapper, and to the best of people's knowledge, the people who killed him, who were rappers as well, decided they could use a little less competition. Or maybe they had mistaken him for someone else. In any case, he would have had his thirtieth birthday two days later. "It's like I'm walking around without a heart anymore," his mother said.
Parsons's murder took place in a struggling ghetto setting sadly familiar to us all. In his case, it was Brooklyn's Crown Heights, infamous as the neighborhood where in 1991 blacks rioted for days and killed a young Jewish scholar after a young black boy was killed by a Hasid in a traffic accident. Looming over the playground was the Ebbets Field Apartment housing project, hideous twenty-five-story towers plain and tall that, bafflingly today, passed as visionary public architecture in the early 1960s when they were thrown up (so to speak). The project was built for low-income people, and there is no shortage of them in the district they are in: Every fourth person in the zip code lives below the poverty level. Crown Heights has been one of the neighborhoods identified by the New York City Health Department as most in need of aid for substance abusers. Segregation? Indeed—the area where Parsons died is 85 percent black.
That the middle school near the housing project is named after icon of integration Jackie Robinson qualifies as an irony today. Middle School 320 has been one of those tragic inner-city schools we hear so much about, with the graffiti, the broken windows, and the threatened takeover by Edison. At one point it had a single guidance counselor for 1,400 kids, and it has had an extended school-day program aimed at distracting students from violence.
And then, Parsons's murder was, as it happened, one in a string of three that took place in blue-collar black New York that week. Two days before, fifteen-year-old Phoenix Garrett was selling homemade CDs in West Harlem when a thirteen-year-old from Queens shot him dead after an argument; the killer sat unfazed at his arraignment. Then, the day after Parsons was killed, just twenty blocks from where Garrett died, a twenty-one-year-old black man was shot dead while waiting for his food at a McDonald's.
So—Condoleezza Rice, Brown University, jungle fever marriages? Mere abstractions in Crown Heights, which is, we are often told, the real state of black America.
And that means that there is still, as Randall Robinson so deftly had it in the title of his best seller of 2000, a debt that America owes to black people despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The American government did not do enough, the argument goes. Black America needs a Second Civil Rights Revolution.
Ask people who think this way whether they think black America's problems will sit unchanged until there is a Second Civil Rights Revolution, and they will usually deny it. But then ask them what they think needs to happen, and note when they start reciting the usual historical grievances and decrying the "persistence of racism" that their views logically imply, whether they consciously parse it this way or not, that "revolution" is indeed the only way out. For our informed race warriors, black America's problem is white people.
The white people who moved their factories to the suburbs starting in the sixties and left urban blacks without dependable low-skill jobs. The white people who enforced under-the-table housing covenants even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and kept blacks from moving to follow the jobs. The white people who built sterile towers like the Ebbets Field Apartments, which discouraged residents from developing a sense of community and, with their dark staircases and remove from sidewalks, provided cover for criminal activity. The white people who pumped crack into poor black communities. Okay, it's not about individual whites standing right in front of you anymore. But there is still that Old Devil Systemic Racism that creates and preserves the world that Robert Parsons lived and died in.
For such people, black America's problem, then and now, is The Man. This is the fundamental message of countless prominent thinkers in scholarship and punditry on black issues, such as Michael Eric Dyson, Douglas Massey, Sheryll Cashin, Elijah Anderson, William Julius Wilson, Ishmael Reed, Cornel West, Deborah Mathis, Manning Marable, Tavis Smiley, Ellis Cose, Tricia Rose, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Troy Duster. These people differ in tone, but not in basic revolutionary ideology. This viewpoint is taught in colleges and universities. It is given an ample place at the table by the liberal wing of the media. It is treated as enlightenment by what we might call Blue America.
The argument that the world of Robert Parsons is the result of a fatal combination of economics, racism, architecture, and the cheapness of crack is a deeply considered one, promoted by people with a sincere concern for black Americans left behind.
It is also wrong.
This book is dedicated to explaining why this argument is wrong, and what this means for how we will chart black America's future.
What created Robert Parsons's world was exactly what these writers so indignantly insist did not: culture. Note: It's not that there is "something wrong with black people," but rather, that there is something wrong with what black people learned from a new breed of white people in the 1960s. It's something that manifests itself in many ways, generating a range of tendencies and events and customs that can seem unconnected but are rooted in the same source. We'll get to its role in black history since the sixties. But understanding that is easier with a quick look at one of its manifestations in the here and now, an episode of a type familiar to us all.
In the fall of 2003, a white supervisor at the University of Virginia's medical center was heard to say: "I can't believe in this day and age that there's a sports team in our nation's capital named the Redskins. That is as derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to blacks."
Here was a white person who had gotten the message about respect for minority groups, right? Apparently not. Some of her black subordinates decided that this was a "hurtful" statement because the woman had deigned to mouth the word nigger—hurtful enough to be worth a meeting with their union president, who in turn contacted the university administration. According to modern university ritual, the administration dutifully reprimanded the supervisor for her "offensive" moral lapse.
That alone was far enough from any connection to basic logic. But what's more, the union president suggested that she be fired outright, and spearheaded a protest by black hospital staff against the supervisor and "racism" at the University of Virginia in general. Soon, none other than Julian Bond, history professor at the school but also chairman of the national NAACP, joined in, prescribing that the woman apologize publicly and undergo sensitivity training.
Quite simply, what happened at the University of Virginia that fall was divorced from any conception of human reason; it did not follow from A to B. This administrator was showing her awareness of the hurtfulness of the word nigger, and sticking up for exactly the heightened sensitivity that her opponents consider an urgent missive to white America. Little did she know that her mere utterance of the word, even in condemnation, would set off the same trip wire that actually hurling it at a black staff member would have. She fell that afternoon into a kind of Wonderland, where common sense no longer applied.
The union president, clearly aware on some level of a certain disjunction between how healthy human brains process the world and the rhetoric of the protest, announced, "It doesn't really matter in what context this word was used." And that, too, made about as much logical sense as saying that two times two equals pi. When the person was condemning the word's usage, context indeed mattered a great deal—that is, it determined, with perfect clarity, the very meaning and intent of what the woman said.
People like these objectors at UVA leave many of us perplexed. A common response to them, most associated with conservatives, is to assume that they are being cynically manipulative, or that they are curiously "stuck in the past." Another common response is most associated with the left. This supposes that the person is responding to genuine, present-day abuse. Under this approach, it is considered a kind of higher wisdom to understand that racial progress is mere window dressing, and that modern versions of discrimination stain all black lives in ways that are subtle but decisive, best explained in college courses or ticklish conversations about "the race thing." To question this is blaming the victim or black-bashing.
Both of these responses to these people are mistaken. People like this are not opportunists. They are not mysteriously unaware that America in 2006 is not America in 1956. Nor, however, are they responding to real life.
What do they want?
What they want is central to what, in other guises, created the world of Robert Parsons. The nut of the issue is that these people want neither justice nor healing. What people like this are seeking is, sadly, not what they claim to be seeking. They seek one thing: indignation for its own sake.
And that means that the alienation that they are expressing is disconnected from current reality. We can only truly understand black America's past forty years, its present, and its prospects for the future if we grasp that this kind of disconnection is very common, can have seismic effects upon the fate of a group, and can inhabit even the most brilliant of minds.
However, people do not behave this way to seek money or power. The reason this way of thinking has such a foothold in black American ideology is pain.
To black leaders a hundred years ago, that UVA episode would have looked as anthropologically baffling as sacrificing virgins. There was, however, one area of shared understanding between black leaders of yore and the UVA protesters. Centuries of slavery and segregation left a stain on the black American psyche, as well-known to blacks in 1903 as 2003. There are so very many books and articles exploring the damage that the White Man did to black Americans' self-esteem that I will assume that even people far to the left of me will not even begin to dispute this simple proposition.
That insecurity about being black is why this kind of alienation for its own sake—curiously exaggerated, melodramatic, and heedless of reason—is so attractive to so many black Americans today. It assuages a person who is quietly unsure that they are worthy or okay, by giving them something or someone to always feel better than. They seek this because slavery and segregation left black America with a hole in its soul—and why would it have not? But the fact remains that there is little connection between today's America and their alienation. It survives on its own steam.
This is therapeutic alienation: alienation unconnected to, or vastly disproportionate to, real-life stimulus, but maintained because it reinforces one's sense of psychological legitimacy, via defining oneself against an oppressor characterized as eternally depraved.
Therapeutic alienation is, itself, blind to race, and it was hardly unknown before the late 1960s. Alienation has always sometimes been as much theatrical as proactive. Therapeutic alienation can be as white as Anton Chekhov's Masha in The Seagull, "in mourning for her life" mostly because it is an endlessly interesting way of being. Therapeutic alienation is the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm. Even those most sympathetic to the countercultural movement of the sixties know that there was a goodly amount of performance for its own sake involved. It's part of how human beings are.
Therefore, the question at hand is why therapeutic alienation acquired such a hold on black America only in the sixties. Insecurity alone could not have been the reason. Therapeutic alienation was not as widespread or influential in black America in 1903, or 1943, or even 1963, the year of the March on Washington—at which times black people had plenty of clear and present reasons to feel insecure. Back in the day, the idea that it was progressive to obsessively tabulate black failure and propose that the only solution was for whites to become blind to race was rare to unknown in leading black ideology. Those who purported that blacks were incapable of surmounting the obstacles were generally tarred as defeatist—witness the reaction of much of the black punditocracy to Richard Wright's work. Most blacks were more interested in fighting the concrete barrier of legalized discrimination than the abstract psychological happenstance of racism.
Two new conditions were necessary for alienation among blacks to so often drift from its moorings in the concrete and become the abstract, hazy "race thing" that whites just "don't get."
One condition was that blacks had to be prepared to embrace therapeutic alienation, and ironically, this could only have been when conditions improved for blacks. When racism was omnipresent and overt, it would have been psychological suicide for blacks to go around exaggerating what was an all-too-real problem.
Second, whites had to be prepared to listen to the complaints and assume (or pretend) that they were valid. This only began during the countercultural revolution, within which a new openness to blacks and an awareness of racism were key elements. Certainly this frame of mind was not true of all or even most whites. But it became a common wisdom especially among educated and influential ones, such that it quickly infused university curricula and grounded governmental policies intended as progressive.
Even though there were still plenty of white bigots, the nature of black life in America changed. Many whites were now, for the first time, ready to nod sagely at almost anything a black person said. And in that new America, for many blacks, fetishizing the evils of the White Man beyond what reality justified was a seductive crutch for a spiritual deficit that we would be surprised that they did not have. It was the only way to feel whole. Even blacks less injured were still injured enough to let the loudest shouters pass, as bards of their less damaging, but still aggravating, pains.
So, there is nothing to deplore about "black culture" in itself—our issue is what happened when black America met the New Left. And in the 1960s, black America's social consensus underwent a shift as transformative as the Reformation or the Enlightenment. Alienation drifted from being a spur to action to being a form of self-medication. Here is where legendary Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin became dismayed as a new generation of black activists began embracing the "heroics" of idle protest and theatrical rage, uninterested in rolling their sleeves up and working out concrete plans for change. Episodes like the one at UVA are today's expressions of that mood.
Importantly, though, our problem is emphatically not the foibles of a few highly visible black leaders, though therapeutic alienation surely motivates them. Therapeutic alienation has hijacked millions of ordinary managers, homeowners, educators, union leaders, diversity consultants, performers, local journalists, students, local activists, and other people, all quite unconnected to leadership posts in the NAACP or the Rainbow Coalition, and who usually seek no celebrity. This has included whites, including, as it happens, the union president at UVA. I refer not to escapades on high, but to a national mood channeling thought on the ground all over black America and among many whites seeing themselves as on our side.
Therapeutic alienation demands our attention because it has had effects far beyond lurid sideshows like the one at UVA. Once established among the thoughtful and influential in America in the sixties, therapeutic alienation began setting off chain reactions that made the difference between the seedy but stable black ghettos of 1950 (A Raisin in the Sun, Lackawanna Blues) and the hopeless deathscape black ghettos of 1990 (Boyz n the Hood, The Corner).
The keystone example here is when therapeutic alienation transformed welfare into a multigenerational dependence program. Until the late sixties, welfare allowed one to eat but was very hard to stay on for very long and was harder for black people to get than whites. The welfare world we now recall so easily was born only when white activists such as Columbia social work professors Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward devoted themselves to bringing down the American financial system by dragging as many people, especially poor black ones, onto the welfare rolls as possible. Their goal was to bankrupt the Treasury so that the Feds would give a guaranteed income to poor people. But in the end, all that happened was that generations of poor blacks idled on the dole, getting just enough money that they were doing better than they could in entry-level jobs.
But the activists were unperturbed by this. Writings and interviews by Piven and Cloward since show a crucial hole: They do not regret that their actions created generations of black people for whom working for a living is an abstraction. They claimed to be seeking something positive. So why was thirty years of self-destructive idleness in black inner cities an acceptable alternate outcome?
Because whether their efforts improved the lives of the people was less important than whether it lent them satisfaction, feeling that they were Good People fighting an Evil System. Their actions were really about them, not justice or compassion: Their alienation was therapeutic.
The problem was the wreck that their therapeutic alienation left behind: a transformation of what responsibility meant to poor black Americans. In poor black Chicago in the 1920s, it was considered alarming that just 15 percent of babies were born out of wedlock. But by the late seventies, a whole generation of black people had grown up in neighborhoods where it was peculiar if a baby was born to a married couple, women living on the government was the norm, and as such, young men had no reason to take care of children they created. In other words, this was the type of environment that Robert Parsons grew up in.
On which: Let's leave the statistics and look at an actual life. While the media reports regularly billed Parsons as a "father of four," we must not imagine that he was the head of a household raising said four children. Parsons had the kids with three different mothers and lived with none of them. One might expect that someone with four offspring would work nine to five (at least?), but Parsons worked only part-time. He was a "free spirit," apparently, and then he also had injured one of his hands. But really, there are so very many ways one can work full-time without having full power in one hand, and there remains the simple question as to why a man with four kids worked only part-time.
Upon which we cannot help but think about the view common among underclass black men that punching a clock is working for "chump change," regularly documented even by sympathetic sociologists. It sounds so "normal" now—but until the late sixties, this orientation was typical only of a bottom fringe of black "corner men," not a norm. Alienation caught fire. Parsons, for instance, seems to have at least flirted with stealing money instead of earning it: He had been arrested twice for robbery (as well as two other times for arms possession and drunk driving).
Yet, Parsons was not exactly an absent father; he visited his kids regularly and lit up whenever he was around them. And viewing him in context, it is impossible to condemn him because where he grew up, life trajectories like his have long been norms. Family and friends mourning his death spoke of his four kids by three mothers and his fitful employment as casually as women in Scarsdale talk of where their children are going to college. Born in 1975, Parsons grew up long after a new welfare culture had become established starting in 1966, and long before welfare was discontinued as an open-ended dependency program in 1996. Big surprise that he made his first baby at seventeen—his mother had him at eighteen.
Again, it is impossible to condemn him. It's all he knew. But all he knew only began when whites, comforting themselves by fighting The Man and showing that they were not racists, decided that it was a form of higher wisdom to teach poor black people not to work. "Conservative rhetoric"? In this book we will take a good look at this lost chapter in black history and find out whether it is or not.
Middle School 320 sheds light on another example of alienation taking on a life of its own beyond contact with reality. By the late 1990s, 60 percent of its students were reading below grade level, and by 2001, just 6 of 357 students met the state math standard. A typical claim has been that low scores like this are because of insufficient funds. But before the sixties, black schools often gave solid educations on shoestring budgets; it is tragic how almost unseemly some find it to bring up schools like Dunbar High in Washington, DC, where black students performed excellently for decades. There were plenty of other schools like this, that blacks of a certain age regularly recall. These were the schools that educated the heroes of the Civil Rights movement. What happened to schools like Middle School 320 was not a matter of economics, but of culture.
Namely, a major difference between then and now is the sense among many black teens that doing well in school is culturally inauthentic, "acting white." This only became common coin among young blacks in the late 1960s, as the national mood embraced an especially open disidentification with the Establishment in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights victories. Once again, whites lit the torch on college campuses and beyond, but it took on a special life among blacks, as a new badge of racial authenticity. One prong in this was the "acting white" sentiment in school.
This distrust of school as "white" was thoroughly understandable among black people living just past legalized segregation, in an America where the social color line was still heavily policed. But forty years later, this "acting white" notion lives on even under circumstances that would no longer create it, such as in school districts where successful blacks are a norm and white administrators are deeply committed to minorities' achievements. Today, the alienation is no longer connected to reality. Rather, it hangs around instead because of its alternate usefulness, as a handy in-group sentiment. All teens, riddled with the uncertainties of an awkward age, cultivate alienation to express identity in various ways. Being "not white" is a way that is available to black kids.
But it is no longer a response to racism, and it comes at the price of scholarly failure and narrowed opportunities. Some leftist scholars have come up with studies supposedly proving that the "acting white" idea is a myth, but this oeuvre is advocacy masquerading as science, which a smart seventh grader could see the fatal flaws in. In this book, we will look at how neglecting the reality of self-generating alienation scuttles engagement with this and other issues in race and education.
Finally, there is Parsons's career goal as a rapper. Here is music cherished for being confrontational in the goal of fostering some kind of "revolution"—but full of aimless black-on-black violence and heartless abuse of women that makes no sense as politics of any kind. What the anger, the violence, and the sexism have in common is not political intent, but alienation—and of an aimless, self-medicating variety. Acting up is the goal in itself; the "revolution" idea is a fig leaf. One is in opposition, and that is enough. To what and for what is unimportant, an almost annoying question.
For example, Parsons belonged to a group called "The Brooklyn Hooligans"—but why, exactly, must the name hold the "thug" front and center? It's easy to forget how local to our times such music-group names are. The Mills Brothers, The Temptations, The Spinners . . . The Hooligans? Why would a group portray itself as criminals? Because it's a norm now: In Robert Parsons's black America the antiauthoritarian holds a special and proud place—but for its "feel," not out of intention to change anything. If rap were progressive, then by definition, very few groups would have criminal names because crime is not very progressive.
Yes, most of rap's buyers are white. But how many blacks would be comfortable to hear that the music is not a black American creation and not a reflection of black American concerns? Whites swoon to the antiauthoritarian too? Yes, but how dominant on the market is white pop that is all about singers giving America the upturned middle finger and backing it up with threats of violence—other than some white hip-hoppers who are imitating a model provided by, again, people we are taught are "authentic" blacks?
And then, what is "revolutionary" about how common murder is in the rap world, so much so that it is a news cliche? Parsons's murderers felt no shame in killing him over what was likely a trifle. This was normal to them. For the record, the person driving the getaway car was a woman. Black musicians were not known for shooting at and killing one another so frequently and casually until the hip-hop "revolution."
Yet, a common wisdom lately has it that because hip-hop is "in your face," it must be an urgent political statement. It is, in fact, therapeutic alienation set to a beat: infectious as hell and just as trivial. I will make my case in this book, which will also get to a common idea that the more considered lyrics of "conscious rap" contradict this kind of assessment (preview: they don't).
My goal in this book is a revision of how we see black America's past and present. They sound clever enough, claims that Robert Parsons's world is the product of factories moving away from Brooklyn, the Ebbets Fields Apartments being too high, too many black people living in one place, and so on. But they are based on a logical lapse. Life for most blacks before the late 1960s was endurable at best, in ways very concrete. Why did we not have the inner-city plagues so familiar to us when the best that all but a few blacks could expect was menial labor, whites were hanging black men from trees on a regular basis, and the police—or even just a gang of real "hooligans"—could beat a black person senseless without it even making the papers?
We need not pretend that poor black districts before the sixties were sociological paradises. Parsons's grandmother, for example, gave birth to his mother at about fifteen in the late fifties. Nor, however, will we pretend that there hasn't been something uniquely hideous going on in poor black America since—ironically—the War on Poverty. If the four hundred‚plus years of black American history from the early 1600s to 2006 were compressed into twenty-four hours, something went seriously wrong only at about ten o'clock p.m. Why?
My purpose will be to show that it must stop being considered "controversial" to acknowledge that cultural change played a central role here. Specifically, I believe that we cannot understand our past without fully facing that alienation and disidentification can thrive independently of modern causes because they can serve other psychological purposes. There can be no useful perspective on black America's trajectory that neglects the impact of therapeutic alienation. To move forward, we must trace it, face it, and erase it. This book, section by section, is about how we can do all three.
Tracing It. Young blacks started checking out of the workforce in the 1960s when the economy was roaring; the unemployment problem among them barely moved for decades regardless of how the economy was doing. At the exact same time, two things happened. One, rejecting mainstream norms became vibrantly fashionable in young America, and in black America this often translated into a bone-deep wariness of "white" norms. Two, welfare became an open-ended opportunity, led by people actively seeking people to bring onto the rolls. From now on, millions of poor blacks grew up in places where few people worked regularly and even fewer considered this especially unusual.
Yet, informed wisdom is that these developments had nothing significant to do with the social breakdown of the inner cities and that the main culprit was whitey and his "systemic racism." This makes no sense: It helps no one, and it will not do. The first half of this book makes this case.
Facing It. What turned black America upside down in the sixties was a new value placed on resistance as a fashion statement rather than resistance as a foundation for building. We will explore the roots and impact of therapeutic alienation, showing that it can shape history even when racism is no longer a significant obstacle. Of course, there are people who would disagree that racism has decreased enough to matter for most blacks. There are middle-class blacks who assert that their daily lives are still grinding battles against racism, asserting the "Black Middle-Class Rage" that Ellis Cose and others have chronicled. Also, there is a massive orthodoxy among social scientists that modern black America is much less different from black America a century ago than we might suppose. Engaging these views as closely as I am able, I find them invalid. They are further demonstrations that alienation can persist beyond its stimulus. The second section of this book addresses both positions.
Erasing It. In the final section, I will show that understanding therapeutic alienation is crucial for understanding not only our past but also our present and future. This is especially clear regarding three issues central to race discussions today: the performance gap between black and white students, the place of hip-hop in black identity and activism, and what constitutes black leadership in our times.
Leftist scholars and writers are frustrated that Joe Barstool has yet to understand that black America's problems are all responses to external evils beyond the control of any but a few superstars. But their paradigm has reached poor black America to the extent that as I write, young ghetto blacks who have revived the art of break dancing, or developed a new competitive dance craze called krumping, are telling the media that if they weren't doing this, they would probably be gangbanging. They have internalized the message that evil inequities all but force blacks below the middle class to go wrong. But this was not considered an informed or acceptable message in black America until, as it were, ten o'clock at night.
We must turn back the clock. The faster we do, the faster we will truly get past the race dilemma in this country.
Reprinted from Winning the Race by John McWhorter by permission of Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2005 by John McWhorter. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.