John McWhorter: How Welfare Went Wrong Writer John McWhorter says that what's gone wrong in black America demands rethinking. He suggests that black leaders excuse problems like crime and poverty, instead of solving them.
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John McWhorter: How Welfare Went Wrong

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John McWhorter: How Welfare Went Wrong

John McWhorter: How Welfare Went Wrong

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This week on MORNING EDITION, we're listening to the debate over African- American leadership. We've met Corey Booker, the new black mayor of a troubled city - Newark, New Jersey. We've also heard Juan Williams attack some black political leaders, including Al Sharpton, who's scheduled to join us later this week.

This morning, Steve Inskeep speaks to a writer who wants us to rethink what's gone wrong in black America.


John McWhorter is a linguist who now works for a conservative think tank. He suggests that African-American leaders excuse problems like crime and poverty instead of solving them.

JOHN MCWHORTER: And so what that means is not a kind of drive- time, right wing, talk show idea that black people need to just shape up. That's not the point.

INSKEEP: We asked John McWhorter to explain his point, and he made this provocative claim. He said that in some ways African-American community life was better in the 1920s and '30s, which means that he thinks some things were better in a time of open racism.

MCWHORTER: Oh, I wish that I were a filmmaker or had the power to have some wonderful film made of what life was like in a black ghetto in, say, 1932. And, of course, it wouldn't be paradise by any means. There was out-of-wedlock birth. There were gangsters. There were gangs. People were poor. They weren't happy, no doubt about that.

INSKEEP: There was segregation.

MCWHORTER: There was segregation. People had to live in those ghettos. But the fact of the matter is there was a certain coherence. The ghettos took a really nasty turn starting in the late '60s and early '70s.

INSKEEP: So if you're saying that African-Americans actually had a better period in American history and that things have gone wrong since then - but you don't agree with the traditional causes for why - what did go wrong?

MCWHORTER: Well, there were two things. Indeed, welfare was developed in the 1930s for widows. But welfare was vastly transformed in the late 1960s into a program that had no time limit, where nobody cared how you were raising your children. Nobody cared whether or not you got a job, and actually they almost rather that you didn't. And you could even be living with the man who fathered your children, and he did not have to be working. And really, it was a bigoted program. White women often got better benefits than black women.

But in the late '60s, welfare was reformed with poor - especially black women in mind. But it was only then that multi-generational families living on the dole became a norm in these communities. And so these things that seemed so innocent in the late '60s that didn't make headlines - welfare was changed bit by bit - actually, I think sent poor black communities to heck, so to speak.

I think a lot of people think that if you went back to that 1932 black ghetto that every second mother would be on welfare. No. It was impossible. That life didn't exist yet.

INSKEEP: Although, though, shouldn't we mention about that 1932 black ghetto, in that same year you might have found millions of African-Americans in the south living in conditions that were just a step above slavery - sharecroppers or worse, desperately poor - with no sense of community around them?

MCWHORTER: Yep. And so that's why I say that it certainly wasn't paradise then. The way that the sharecroppers were living was absolutely unpardonable. And the women who were not on welfare in the northern cities and the cities in the west and in the Midwest - were generally maids. And despite things like Buelah and Hattie McDaniel, there was nothing romantic about that job. You know, you didn't have any upward mobility.

But was it better for almost all the black women in a rough neighborhood to be working as maids, or for the same women to be getting check from the government and watching their 14-year-old daughters having kids? I think that the way it was back in the day was better, although we needed to improve from that. And that what was happening in the 1960s as employment opportunities were opening up for poor blacks that got derailed by what happened with welfare. It brought out the worst in human - not black - but human nature. Welfare has ruined communities of people of other colors, too.

INSKEEP: Welfare has now been changed - a decade ago, now. Has that changed your analysis at all, as what's going on now?

MCWHORTER: Absolutely. Welfare reform in 1996 was the most important civil rights legislation that had happened since the 1960s. And at this point, 10 years later, the women who used to be on welfare for a long time are not living great lives. They've joined what we now call the working poor.

And what we're seeing is a better situation, and now I think that we're seeing a movement towards turning policy towards helping the men that were done in by the program.

INSKEEP: You argue, Mr. McWhorter, that a lot of African-Americans are suffering from what you describe as therapeutic alienation. What is that?

MCWHORTER: What I mean by that is that a lot of people think - very naturally - that if people display alienated behavior that it must be because something is alienating them in the real world.

For example, if jobs are not the easiest to get, you might have an alienated pose - a sense that the mainstream is against you, that you don't want to join them. Not because you have found door after door slammed in your face, but because you've grown up in an environment where there has been a cultural fashion which takes that kind of opposition as a sort of wisdom.

Sometimes alienation can be a way of helping you to feel like you matter.

INSKEEP: You began this discussion by emphasizing that your ideas here are not right-wing radio bashing on African-Americans. Why did you feel it necessary to offer that disclaimer?

MCWHORTER: Because there is a sense that if your views as a black person in saying things in public are not approximately those of the typical university department of sociology, then you don't just have a different opinion, but that you're missing some sort of crucial wisdom - there are facts that you don't know, and that you're either naïve or if you won't move from your points then you're immoral. The things I'm saying are based on facts and history and even study by academics.

INSKEEP: Can you think of a moment when your thinking started to change?

MCWHORTER: When did I start my lurch to the evil right? Gradual. In the '90s, various things happened where I just found that my views just didn't quite seem to match what peoples' around me were. And I guess it started with my view of what the Rodney King verdict and riots meant. And then there was...

INSKEEP: What was your view?

MCWHORTER: My view was that what happened to him looked like a terrible thing, but that the idea that all black men were to see in themselves Rodney King - that this could happen to us - didn't jibe with my view. Now I should say that since then I've understood where that came from. Having learned more about the relationship between black men all over the country and police forces, I can see that. Like, I look back now and I see that was my naiveté.

But then there are others where I feel the same way now as I do today. The jubilation over the O.J. verdict, I didn't get it. Then the Ebonics controversy, I wound up on the wrong end of that as a black professor of language. And then finally there was the big controversy over racial preferences at the University of California when I was teaching there, and I couldn't make sense of that.

And next thing I knew, I realized there's a certain consistent difference here, and I guess I'm not thinking the way people think I'm supposed to.

INSKEEP: John McWhorter's books include Losing the Race and Winning the Race. Thanks very much.

MCWHORTER: Thank you, Steve.

MONTAGNE: And you can read an excerpt from Winning the Race - in which John McWhorter further discusses the concept of therapeutic alienation - by going to

Tomorrow, our series continues with an African-American business leader.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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