Sunday, February 9, 2014

Losing the Race 8

I finished John McWhorter’s Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, but I will most likely still be referring to it as I blog about other books for Black History Month.  In this post, I will highlight something that McWhorter says on page 217:

“The truth is that today, all of our anecdotes are valid and representative of the lives of million of black Americans.  I am not ‘lucky’ or ‘odd’ or ‘different’ to have never been barred from a store as a black man in the year 2000—-I am ordinary!  What all of the anecdotes good and bad spell is the reality—-racism is not dead (Nathan McCall, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Patricia Williams), but the situation is strikingly better than it was a few decades ago and is getting better all the time (Orlando Patterson, Glenn Loury, Randall Kennedy).”

Reality, in my opinion, is not always easy to emplot.  That’s why questions were swimming around in my mind as I was reading McWhorter’s book.  For example, McWhorter talks about a trend of anti-intellectualism that he has observed within the African-American community, and he argues that this is what explains lower African-American SAT scores and academic achievement.  Yet, in arguing against affirmative action for higher education, he seems to believe that many African-American students are advancing on their own merits, without the help of affirmative action.  After a proposition in California banned affirmative action for public universities, McWhorter notes, African-American enrollment declined at Berkeley, but it increased for solid second-tier universities.  So which is it?  Are African-American students holding themselves back through anti-intellectualism, or are they earning decent enough grades and SAT scores to get into second-tier universities without affirmative action lowering the bar for them?  Perhaps both are true, depending on where one chooses to look.  And perhaps, notwithstanding McWhorter’s arguments against the idea that the poor quality of inner-city schools is a significant factor holding African-American students back, there is actually something to the narrative that McWhorter is challenging.  Jonathan Kozol is not getting his narratives from nowhere!

People have their own stories and experiences.  An African-American once told me about how white people who were less qualified than he was were being promoted over him, and he also mentioned his attempt to get an apartment, and the landlord didn’t want to rent it to him because he was black.  A black man from Barbados said to me that he tried to get a job at a fast food restaurant, and the manager told him that he didn’t hire blacks.  Try telling them that racism is no longer a problem!  Granted, there may be laws against this kind of discrimination (though I am not knowledgeable about what exactly they say), but how many people have the time and the resources to spend in court challenging discrimination?

Then there was something that a white man once told me.  He wondered why African-American students who went to high school with him got advantages due to affirmative action.  I couldn’t tell him about the plight of African-Americans in inner-city schools because the students he was talking about went to the exact same school that he did.  That told me that, while the conservative view that racism was dead was flawed, so were some of the liberal narratives that I was hearing.  Or maybe there is something to different narratives that are out there, since people have different experiences.


  1. Nice series. With Oakland just up the road from me, I feel like the last 50 years of social experimentation has been almost a total failure. But maybe I discount the positives too much. My bigger fear is that much of the White community is embracing the same class values that the Blacks have suffered under.

  2. Michael Eric Dyson makes a similar point in one book that I read, albeit a bit differently: that anti-intellectualism is common to all sorts of groups, not just African-American communities.


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