Monday, February 17, 2014

Two Nations 8

Is racism a problem that is significantly holding African-Americans back in the United States?  A number of white conservatives would answer “no.”  They would say that African-Americans who are poor or disadvantaged are themselves at fault for their predicament.  There are poor immigrants from all sorts of nationalities who have managed to succeed, on some level, so white conservatives ask what is poor African-Americans’ excuse.  John McWhorter is neither white nor is he a conservative (though he draws from conservative sources), but such an argument appears in his book Losing the Race, in some way, shape, or form.

Andrew Hacker in Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, however, seems to argue that reality is not that simple, that immigrants who come here lack the baggage that African-Americans have carried for over two hundred years.  Africans were brought here as slaves, and white society for a long time regarded them as savages, as less intelligent, as more suited to menial tasks or tasks requiring strength as opposed to tasks requiring intellect.  According to Hacker, many white Americans still walk around with that conception in their minds, even if they genuinely do not believe that they are racist.  Hacker may hold that African-Americans face barriers of prejudice that have not been there as much for other ethnic groups.  Asians and Jews, for example, are expected by white society to be intelligent.

I am about to make the following point with some trepidation, for who exactly am I, a white American, to comment on this?  I wouldn’t be surprised if both McWhorter and Hacker are correct, on some level.  Hacker argues that racism is holding African-Americans back, and I can understand that point-of-view: if many white Americans carry around in their minds negative stereotypes about African-Americans, then that will impact what opportunities white society gives to African-Americans.  On the other hand, McWhorter argues that there are self-destructive trends within African-American communities.  There is a trend of anti-intellectualism—-a hostility to book learning and doing well in school.  And there is separatism.  As McWhorter argues, if a white person is interviewing an African-American and detects that the African-American does not particularly care for being around white people, the white person may choose not to hire the African-American.  (Note: These are trends that McWhorter believes exist, not absolutes.)

Both, in my opinion, are problems.  In terms of what to do about them, McWhorter and Hacker offer insights about some things that the African-American community can do: organize study groups (McWhorter), or have African-American teachers who can be role models for African-American students (Hacker).  In terms of what white society can do, the answer is probably to work on judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

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