'Beyond the Crisis in Black America' Author John McWhorter discusses his latest book, Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America.
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'Beyond the Crisis in Black America'

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'Beyond the Crisis in Black America'

'Beyond the Crisis in Black America'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In his new book "Winning the Race," John McWhorter examines the critical issues of the inner city. What transformed once-seedy, working-class neighbors into what he calls a `deathscape of despair, drugs and violence'? And why did it start to happen about 40 years ago, just as the hard-fought battles of the civil rights movement brought an end to legal discrimination? Why, in other words, did it get worse just as it should have been getting better? McWhorter does not put the principal blame on racism. In fact, he argues that black communities were much healthier in the 1920s, when racism was much worse, and in the 1930s amid the Great Depression, when poverty was much worse. As McWhorter puts it, `If black American history from the early 1600s to 2006 were compressed into 24 hours, something went seriously only at about 10:00 PM.'

Most scholars point to factors outside the African-American community, to the loss of jobs as many factories left town and to the loss of middle-class role models as black doctors and lawyers and school principals moved out to the suburbs. In his book, John McWhorter disputes those theories and argues that the engines of change were well-intentioned programs, like welfare that became an economic crutch, and, much closer to home, a newly prevalent attitude of victimization in black America.

Later in the program, what floods are doing to California's wine industry; and shades of Bronco Nagursky, throwback Doug Flutie sailed a dropkick over the crossbars in one of yesterday's football games. We'll find out what that was all about.

But, first: What happened to America's inner cities? Why? And what can be done about it? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

John McWhorter joins us now from NPR's bureau in New York. He's a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute and author of most recently "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis of Black America."

And happy new year, John McWhorter.

Mr. JOHN McWHORTER (The Manhattan Institute; Author, "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis of Black America"): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: So why are you blaming the 1960s?

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, Neal, that summary that you just did of the book was so perfect that it's knocked the wind out of me completely. That says it all perfectly. But it was the '60s because this was the time when you can see, based on the documentation of history, that there were profound changes in what was going on in black communities. And it's very important when you mention the part about welfare--it's definitely not the beginning of welfare that was the problem because welfare, of course, had existed for 35 years by then. It wasn't intended for black people.

It's that welfare administration changed deeply, specifically between 1966 and 1970, and it created a situation where it was possible for someone who had had children in whatever situation to never work again and to pass on that lifestyle to their own progeny, whether or not the male person who helped create the children was around, able-bodied or working. That kind of welfare hadn't existed until the late '60s, and that's a chapter of black history that gets lost when, in fact, it was that change in policy that created a great many of the things or enabled a great many of the things that became so tragically familiar in black communities.

And then there was also a change in what activism meant from the early '60s to the late '60s. And so despite the fact that it's a bit of a cliche to blame those nasty '60s for all sorts of things, the truth is that black America in 1970 was more different from black America in 1860 than any other decade in black America's 400-year history.

CONAN: But what was it about the attitude? You're talking about, I guess, a distinction between--What?--the SCLC and the Black Panthers?

Mr. McWHORTER: Mm-hmm, definite attitude or, more to the point, the SCLC and SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. There was a time when black activism, even when it was about breaking laws or non-violence or going to jail or making militant, as they used to put it, speeches, was meant for a pro-active purpose. The idea was to change legislation. The idea was to enact detailed slates of employment policy that were suggested. It's almost otherworldly sometimes seeing the sorts of things that--for example, that Bayard Rustin was suggesting.

Starting in the late '60s, you see this losing its moorings, and there is a group of people who is more interested in the getting arrested and the fiery speeches just for themselves. These people were around in the early '60s, but they were reined in by people like A. Philip Randolph. They were reined by people like Dr. King. Those people, for various reasons, ended up taking over starting in the late 1960s, and as a result you have a pattern of black leadership where the gesture, the performance, the pointing out that things are not the way they should be just becomes the end rather than all of that being a prelude to focusing on what we're going to do to make poor, black lives better. In other words, what many of us see as problems in today's black leadership are traceable in terms of it being the dominant way things are done to particularly that era. And the fact is that it is the 1960s.

CONAN: And you say at that time there was a permanent change in African-American culture.

Mr. McWHORTER: Absolutely. It was a truly profound change and one that always amazes me. I think it probably is sparked partly by the fact that I happen to have been born in 1965, and so there's just this sense that I have--there was a before me and after me. Of course, it had nothing to do with me, however. It just happens that 1965 really did happen to be a turning point. And suddenly we had a situation where it was considered a mainstream opinion--not the only one but a mainstream opinion that black America's fate is tied to the eclipse of psychologist racist biases, what is now often called institutional racism or white privilege and things that we all know will never be completely gone. In other words, the idea has been since then that for black America to be whole, there has to be this utopian transformation that the civil rights revolution purportedly only did about halfway or, as many people would say, less.

The problem with that ideology is that, one, even if it were true, it would be hideously dispiriting because it means effectively that nothing ever will change. And, two, the fact is that, luckily, that contention is a historical byproduct of a good thing, which was the civil rights movement that accomplished the Civil Rights Act and that we can get beyond it. That kind of utopianism is not the only kind of sincere and successful progressive politics that we can have. But--and I'm just about finished--we can only understand that if we revise what we're often told by our very wisest and most well-intentioned of people what created the difference between seedy black slum and hideous black deathscape. And it wasn't, I'm afraid, what we're often told that it was.

CONAN: We may have a question or two for John McWhorter. If you'd like to pose one, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And let's begin with Rich. And Rich is calling from Rochester, New York.

RICH (Caller): Hi. How you doing?

CONAN: I'm good.

RICH: I agree with you in part in what you're saying. I think a lot of it has to come--comes from what you're saying. But I think there's a little myopic view there. I think the dynamics of things have changed. I think white flight has played a huge part. In the South, there's been a systematic building of ...(unintelligible) private schools to get around the desegregation, the movements of factories and all the other--you know, the blue collar working out of the inner city and all those. So all of those things play a role. To say that it's because of black attitudes and the way we look at things, I think that is a very myopic view. And for you to be, I think, fair, I you need to also include other things: the economic dynamics, the demographic dynamics and, also, the things that are done to protect people's worlds...

Mr. McWHORTER: Very important.

RICH: ...how--you're going to say the white Southern or whatever.

Mr. McWHORTER: Very, very important question, and that's exactly what I'm working on these days. And so, for example, the factories and the deindustrialization--that is a thesis that's been put forth by a great many brilliant people. I, with all sincerity, don't think it's correct, and that's because I've looked at deindustrialization in various places. And the one that I emphasize in the book is Indianapolis, and I'll just put it very simply.

In Indianapolis, the factories did not move away, and yet the exact same inner-city problems arose, one of many indications, including scholarly ones that we don't hear about, that that idea, although it's very memory friendly and despite the fact that its primary proponent, William Julius Wilson, is an august figure, is not as correct as we think, nor, frankly, do I think it was even a significant contributing factor, which I argue for very specifically and carefully in the book.

As for segregated schools, conflicts issue--we have to be careful, though, because even today we have many all-minority or all-black small schools taught by teachers who care on shoestring budgets that do very well. Way back...

RICH: Those are anecdotal, those ...(unintelligible) in Indianapolis that you're talking about. That's not the norm.

Mr. McWHORTER: Or if you go back to 1899 in Dunbar High School and various other high schools across the country...

CONAN: Dunbar High School in Washington, DC.

Mr. McWHORTER: ...that were all black--yeah, that's right--those kids were actually kicking the proverbial butts of the white kids, which is to show that just the fact that all the kids are the same color can't be seen as the problem. The problem's whether or not there's equality differential in the schools; that's a different issue.

And, finally, on white flight, I worry about the idea that when white people leave, black people can't be trusted to take care of themselves because there aren't white people around and because a tax base falls apart. And just as a contrast, imagine, for example, black sharecropper communities. Now nobody would want to live in one. It was unjust that those kinds of communities had to exist. But these were places where white faces barely existed, if at all, and nobody would have wanted them to. The middle-class black person was a very marginal presence. And yet they are recalled often, almost fondly, as stable communities. And so just 'cause whites aren't around and just because black doctors aren't around doesn't mean that people start shooting each other in the face. I think that we need a different analysis.

RICH: Yeah, but my point of white flight isn't about them just moving. With that moves capital investment in the areas. Banks will not touch an area that has black people in it. Bank--I live here in Rochester, New York, and you don't see any capital investment in any sort of black businesses. Black businesses have a very hard time getting money from banks. So when I speak of white flight, I'm not talking about white people moving; I'm talking about the capital investment and the infrastructure that makes an economy that also moves with it. And they will not allow it to develop in black areas.

Mr. McWHORTER: That is definitely something that happens, and it's...

RICH: Well, that's very...

Mr. McWHORTER: ...something that creates a problem. But to say that that problem is due to the fact that white people simply don't like black people, I don't know if that's true today the way it would have been in, say, 1957. Don't you think it's more complex than that today?

RICH: Yeah, I think--I'm not talking about the white people not liking black people. Let's take an example. I go to a restaurant, guy says to me, `You know, I hired a black waitresss, but, you know, she stole from me.' He didn't mention the 15 white waitresses that he stole from and kept hiring them. It is endemic within many people, not all, to think that blacks are inherently whatever. So this guy says, `OK, I will never hire another person because this black waitress stole from me.' That is a microcosm of the thinking that goes on. If a black person's loan fails, they automatically say, `Well, you see what black people do,' not taken into account that they've given 10,000 loans to white people and 500 of them have failed, and they keep doing it. It is...

Mr. McWHORTER: There's an answer to that, but we have to wait for the music.

CONAN: We do. Rich, thanks very much for the call. Thank--appreciate it.

We're going to continue with John McWhorter, who can apparently host as well as write books. His newest book is "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America." (800) 989-8255 if you'd like to join us. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today with John McWhorter, a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute. His latest book is "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America," where he argues that black culture and attitudes were healthier when African-Americans faced far more obstacles than they do today. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And I want to get back to those points that we couldn't get to just before the break, John.

Mr. McWHORTER: Yeah, the last guy was very good, and I see what he's talking about. But, on the one hand, it's definitely possible that there are biases that create the judgment of, for example, a young black worker by whites. And who would say that those things play no part whatsoever? But our interest, of course, is whether those things play a significant part. And with all sincerity, I'm not sure that even the literature by people who are good leftist and liberals supports that.

So, for example, William Julius Wilson, who I think is a definite touchstone for any discussion on these issues, actually has it that, yeah, there is an attitude problem that's endemic among young, urban black men. Of course there are people of other demographics and profiles who have those problems. But in terms of proportion that there is a problem--and he traces it to the lives that they've had to lead, etc.--or a book called "No Shame in My Game," which I mention because it's in paper, inexpensive and written from a white, leftist perspective, talks about people who've gotten the short end of the stick, who are brown in New York, disadvantaged areas. And although she is very much on the side of the people and she has a kind of a utopian vision of what the system should provide that I don't think is useful because simply we know it's not going to happen and there are other ways, she says that there is this attitude problem, although she thinks that it's due to other things.

So that leaves us with the white worker who has encountered what people like this--and those two are an example of dozens and dozens of social scientists who would document this sort of thing--what are they do to do, given the fact that the attitude problem really is more common among people of a certain profile and others? That's a question that we have to ask, rather than, I think, in this particular case going back to the older message of: Don't have biased views against people. We have to police ourselves for that, but it's not always the answer. And more to the point, sometimes it's not even a significant answer to the more complex problems that we have these days.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in--Mike, Mike from St. Louis.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, Neal. Great program.

CONAN: Thank you.

MIKE: I have to say I have to agree completely with your guest's appraisal of the welfare state having sort of enabled--or broken down families. And the second part of that, in my mind, is the war on drugs that we perpetrate on ourselves because it's really a war against free economics. And it's--the context of the war on drugs is one of very high value for the poorest people in our society. And the decision-making process--I see the inner city quite a bit, and I see these SUVs drive through the neighborhoods, and it would be pretty difficult if I were a poor kid of whatever color to not be appealing to that whole lifestyle and, you know, what it exists, whereas if the war on drugs didn't exist, it would be just stupid to take drugs.

And kids are pretty smart, and they've figured that out pretty quickly--that being whacked out on drugs is not something to be proud of. But when you have the economic context giving so much value because of the illegality to this process, you create a whole subculture that is stuck. And kids don't get the opportunity to do what they should normally do--is start out with a simple job and making a certain amount of money and work their way up.

CONAN: Yeah.

MIKE: You know, they run some drugs for a hundred bucks, and they can never really learn how to work or be part of a productive society. And the community is put upon by this whole business, and, you know, it's our fault for pretending that we can stop drugs by passing laws.

CONAN: Well, Mike's argument about legalization of drugs is a subject for another program, John McWhorter.

MIKE: Right.

CONAN: But what about his point? Certainly it's had a huge impact on the inner city.

Mr. McWHORTER: Oh, for goodness sake, here's one from a supposed conservative, right-wing warrior, John McWhorter. As far as drugs go, from everything that I've seen it and in every way that I've come up with to look at it, if I could press a button, we would definitely legalize drugs because I think that would pull the carpet out from so much that ails the inner city. But it's one of those things. What I'm most interested in is what gives signs in our society of actually working as quickly as possible? And in my second career as writer or occasional pundit or whatever, I've seen that the resistance among the powers that be to the idea of legalizing drugs is so strong and so deeply rooted that there'd be no hope of doing anything about it for at least two generations. That's too bad.

CONAN: Dr. Kurtz spoke about that.

Mr. McWHORTER: But that means we have to...

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. McWHORTER: Yes. And--but that means that we have to just look at other avenues. But, basically, the caller is correct.

CONAN: Well, Mike, thanks for the call.

MIKE: Well, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye.

Here's an e-mail we got from Kathy in South Bloomingville in Ohio: `Several years back there was a great program on PBS about how the interstate highway system and--how it was routed through many black successful districts throughout the United States. I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, and near Roanoke, Virginia. And in both places, you could see how the community was physically divided and decimated. I get tired of the black community being blamed for not being entrepreneurial and successful when so much of what was just that was destroyed.'

Mr. McWHORTER: Yeah, actually I write about the highway issue in the book. If you take a community, imagine putting a road through it. Now what we're often told is that the road destroys community ties. Now that's clearly something that is likely to happen. But the idea that because the community ties are interfered with--that suddenly people start leaving their children to the women who they have them with and the women don't work and violence goes up and people become drug addicted, etc., etc., doesn't really follow.

I think a lot of that idea that the highway goes through the neighborhood and people are at each other's throats might come from some early '70s works. And one of the most prominent ones was the wrenchingly vivid description of what Robert Moses' highways in New York did to some working-class communities. And what he shows is not that when the highway went through, all of a sudden everybody went to heck. What he shows is that when the highway went through, certain places became havens for less-desirable people who moved in from elsewhere and has a different ethnic mixture, etc. That's different from saying that the people who are right there all of a sudden started exhibiting these horrible behaviors, which is what you often hear about, say, what happened to a black community in the Bronx when the highway went through it.

So the highways are not the best thing, and my aim here in the book and in anything I say is not to blame black people for their problems. I think it's always more complicated than that and in ways not that complicated, but more complicated than that. But when you put a highway through a neighborhood, people don't start shooting each other, no matter how much time goes by. There have to be other things to create the difference between, say, Bronzeville Chicago in 1925 and what that neighborhood was like by 1995.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and this will be Salem(ph); Salem calling from Detroit.

SALEM (Caller): Hi. Thanks for your--thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

SALEM: I had a comment to make to your guest. I'm from Detroit, and I think Detroit is the example of what a city can be...

Mr. McWHORTER: Paradigm...

SALEM: ...the failure--what extent the city failure can be because of racial segregation, because of wealth that is not rightly distributed, equally distributed. But Detroit--in the past five years, there has been a very serious gentrification effort from the authorities. And the African-American population in Detroit is 82 percent, and now they're trying to get back, you know, people--you know, open businesses back in Detroit now, so on and so forth. And lately we've been seeing wealthy people going back, living downtown, opening ...(unintelligible) so on and so forth. And the city has been slowly changing.

But my question to your guest was: With this serious gentrification effort and the African-Americans being in the middle of this effort, why is their situation still so desperately poor, especially in Detroit? Do you have--the city is really changing, new buildings, new business, so on and so forth. But the point of African-Americans in Detroit is still there, and it's still, I think, a shame for America that it's claiming diversity and equal opportunity for all. Detroit has this spot in its--even with these efforts and the city, you know, coming back and picking up economically, there's still this tremendous plight. And I wanted to know what your guest has as an explanation to this.

Mr. McWHORTER: That's a very important point, and there's a good scheme that's good for our minds in that you have all of this opportunity that seems to be churning and yet a culture stays the same. Yes, it is not right that in our country we have that kind of racial disparity. Definitely it has its roots in racism, and the racism that mattered, I think, wasn't that long ago. But there are a million answers to that, but I'm just going to leave it at this. Let's say that we're in Detroit, and let's say we're in a certain kind of neighborhood. And there's someone who's standing on the corner. Let's make it a neighborhood where that person standing on the corner is a black American person, and he's selling drugs.

Now there are two ways of looking at it. One is that he's selling drugs because that's the only opportunity that he has. I daresay that that's the one that we're taught we're supposed to believe, as people who listen to NPR and read The Atlantic and eat Brie cheese, etc. That's supposed to be the compassionate view.

I think that there is another compassionate view. Suppose that person is doing that because it's all they've ever seen. They've grown up in a society where many men do that, especially when they get to that age. And certainly they see that you can make a certain amount of money. It's all they know; it's their norm. So if you're in Scarsdale, it's your norm to obsess too much over the SAT. That's not what all human beings do. It's what you do there. It might be a norm to develop all sorts of psychological disorders, whatever they do there. In this guy's neighborhood, that's all that he's ever known, and he may do that even if there were various programs he could have used, such as, for example, getting just a high school diploma or all sorts of things, not that those programs would have made him like a Scarsdale resident, except with brown skin, but he probably could have done better than that.

Now are we going to moralize against that guy? No. It's all he ever knew, just like what we do is all we ever knew. But the issue is: How do we address that kind of culture, so that we can connect people with the opportunities that are there, often those opportunities being special organizations often funded by large, white funding sources that are trying to help inner-city youth go in a different direction? So, yes, it's a grievous mistake that we have these kinds of disparities, but here, for years past the Great Society, I think we need to consider, as even social scientists do generally in footnotes or in final paragraphs, that what we see now in the present tense might be due to just people patterning themselves on all they've seen rather than forces still actively coercing them to do certain things.

CONAN: Because the welfare regulations have changed.

Mr. McWHORTER: Exactly. And what we see now is a culture that's blinking in the light after 30 years of tragic disincentives to do any better than that, which happens to people of any race. There are examples of white people being at the welfare teat after the Civil War. The Confederate Widow Program was vastly abused by people who were, by no means, black. It's just a natural thing. The new welfare system destroyed the community by appealing to the worst in human, not black, nature.

Here we are; now it's 2006. That's the first time I've said 2006. We're 10 years past 1996. But cultural effects still matter, and what our job is is to try to gently but quickly get poor black America past patterns that were established by those mistakes.

CONAN: Salem, thanks very much for the call.

SALEM: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: OK. If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail is totn@npr.org. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on. This is Kelsey(ph); Kelsey calling from North Kansas City.

KELSEY (Caller): Yes, I had a comment. Though--there's been a lot of talk of, like, white flight and that's a major reason for the African-American culture--the condition that it's in. But I'd like to make a comment along the lines that the cultural icons that the African-American culture tends to emulate are more towards, like, 50 Cent and the rappers and that whole genre. And then when you have people that speak against that, like Mr. Cosby, for instance, he's vilified. He doesn't get the airplay that those people like 50 Cent and the rappers normally get.

And another point I'd like to make is the fact that people like Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Jackson seem to get a lot of airplay when others that speak against, you know, the popular items of the day--they don't get as much airplay. And I think that has a lot to do with there.

CONAN: Well, there's a couple of questions in there, John McWhorter.

Mr. McWHORTER: I want to leave room for another caller, so I'll just complement that by saying there's an academic orthodoxy that has a kind of contempt for the black middle class that moved out of the inner city that is chilling. And I openly admit that it's chilling to me because it's my parents. In 1969, they weren't supposed to move out of the crumbling neighborhood they lived in because they were supposed to serve as role models for the poorer people who they left behind. Then often the very same people or people from the very same set will say that a Cosby or some other people that we won't name are wrong for criticizing the rap culture because people like 50 Cent and Jay-Z. And people don't only mean the conscience rappers. They mean people like 50 Cent and Jay-Z are somehow given a message to the powers that be and that, therefore, it's a good thing that poor black people have these rappers to look to as their new icons. Tupac would be a perfectly good example. I find this incoherent, and I think it's time that we look beyond that set for counsel on how to get black America ahead.

CONAN: But aren't those rappers expressing genuine emotion?

Mr. McWHORTER: They're expressing emotion, but for what? As I often say, acting up isn't activism. If you have emotion and you're in a newsreel on what went on in Birmingham in the early and mid-1960s, the emotion was designed to break down the walls of segregation and give people a chance to succeed. But if we've got a situation where there are women who are past their five-year limit on welfare and they're trying to do something besides live hand to mouth and create a good environment for their children or if we're dealing with an AIDS crisis or even if we're dealing with discrepancies in loans, insurance, cars, etc,. etc, what does it do for somebody to say, `Stand up, stand up,' or, `George Bush is a racist,' or, `I drive by and I see people sitting on their steps, mothers with children'? There's nothing wrong with that music, but it doesn't teach us to do anything, and so it becomes rather inert.

CONAN: Kelsey(ph), I'm sorry, I cut you off earlier.

KELSEY: No, what I was going to say is, when are submerged in that type of culture, you know, you're not really thinking about I could find the next, you know, fuel to get us out of the solar system in half the time or I could find something, you know, that's going to be a contribution to society. You're thinking--your whole thought process is totally opposite. You know, you're submerging yourself into a whole different criminal culture and it leaves no room for economic growth.

CONAN: OK, Kelsey, thanks very much for the call.

KELSEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

John McWhorter, welfare's been reformed. In 40 seconds, how do you change attitudes? How do you change culture?

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, that's always a challenging issue and I think that one way that we can do it is one person and one family at a time by focusing on the urban organizations across the country that are actually beginning to make a difference in brown-skinned inner-city districts. And in the book I discuss them. And I'm a little bit surprised that sociologists are not obsessed with them because they offer a kind of hope that the stirring rhetoric we often hear I'm afraid no longer does.

CONAN: John McWhorter, thanks very much for coming in. We appreciate it.

Mr. McWHORTER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: John McWhorter's most recent book is "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America." When we come back from a short break, we'll check in on the flooding in Northern California and what it might mean for the wine industry. Also, did you see that dropkick yesterday? I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


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