Monday, November 29, 2021

McWhorter Postscript


Lofgren writes in comments to yesterday's post:

I don't think McWhorter is proposing an alternative, "better" timeline. He's just making an observation about how the shift from Black-led street action to (often) White-led government action affect his own feelings as a Black man. Even in the quoted section, he explicitly says that he wouldn't want to live in the alternate timeline that you are proposing. It's not as though this observation is unique to him, though it is usually not framed around a personal feeling. Usually it is framed around historicity, specifically how ending segregation and the Civil Rights movement are often portrayed as great leaps forward for White people, who have learned an important lesson about sharing and caring and are graciously letting Black people act like they are equals (for now). A not so subtle implication, which MAGAs pick up on even if Liberals don't, is that all of this equality is kind of a trial offer from White America, which we can revoke whenever we want because it was not properly "earned" – i.e. taken from us – if it causes us too much trouble. This is not some crazy, out-there observation by McWhorter. He's not crazy to feel this way. It's the way the story is taught and the way that a majority of White America still views it.

I think you are being more than a bit unfair in your tweets and you seem to have missed important nuance. Like most eggheads, McWhorter wallows in nuance and likes to introduce extra nuance whenever possible, even when it is probably counterproductive or even illusory. You're criticizing him for failing at sci-fi style world building but he's just trying to express his feelings, not propose a spec script for HBO. It's not even like he is pretending to be rational. He's explicitly talking about emotions, not logic or reality. I don't think it's right to invalidate those emotions out of hand because they might lead to less optimal outcomes if he ever gets his hand on a time machine.

I have no idea where this reading is coming from. I was not criticizing McWhorter for "failing at sci-fi style world building". As Lofgren notes, McWhorter himself says that "none of us would want to rewind the tape and play things out again without the Civil Rights Act..." I was certainly not proposing an alternate timeline either. Did he read the tweets?

I was trying to remind people that the scenario McWhorter would have preferred, that Black people should have "clawed" their way upward like "other groups" of non-WASP Americans without government assistance, was impossible. That's how the joke works (it was a joke, as most Twitter friends understood). None of those things could have happened because there could not be Black police officers, Black billionaires, Black homesteaders, or Black school boards until after the civil rights legislation was passed. You could be imprisoned or killed for "clawing your way" or just looking at somebody the wrong way. You still can, in fact, as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts erode. And as he himself acknowledges in this passage, the civil rights legislation wasn't a gift from "on high" at all—it was the fruit of decades of nonviolent but unremitting, brave, and cunning struggle. It was African American people, leading and pushing white allies, who won it. But Black people can't, he says, take "a basic pride" in driving the civil rights movement, because in the end it merely "changed the rules".

Changing the rules was essential!

I'm criticizing McWhorter in the first place for accepting the story the way it is taught and the way that a majority of White America still views it, when he ought to know better. I know lots of people think that, but it's wrong. I'm criticizing him for acting as if Black people had a choice between being rugged individuals clawing their way like a stereotype picture of Italian Americans improving their personal status or acting collectively the way they in fact did to attack the entire system, and as if they chose a path in which they don't deserve to take pride.

And he's not just "expressing his emotions" on page 80-something of his new book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, which is where the Twitter extract comes from. He's deploying a sophisticated rhetorical strategy in the defense of his thesis, that

an illiberal neoracism, disguised as antiracism, is hurting Black communities and weakening the American social fabric.

We’re told to read books and listen to music by people of color but that wearing certain clothes is “appropriation.” We hear that being white automatically gives you privilege and that being Black makes you a victim. We want to speak up but fear we’ll be seen as unwoke, or worse, labeled a racist. According to John McWhorter, the problem is that a well-meaning but pernicious form of antiracism has become, not a progressive ideology, but a religion—and one that’s illogical, unreachable, and unintentionally neoracist.

That antiracists are the real racists (unintentionally, that's a nice twist), with their secret belief that Black people really are inferior and won't get anywhere without a leg up (ignore the increasing role of skilled and charismatic African American leadership at every level of the antiracist movement, right up to its advocates in the upper ranks of the Democratic Party), and the "majority of White America" is right to object to that. He's a lot smarter than David Brooks, but he's working the same territory, going back to George W. Bush and his 2000 campaign speech to the NAACP, with the "soft bigotry of low expectations": Stop whining about systemic racism, pull up your pants, kid, and get a job, just like Professor McWhorter here. Or Bill Cosby, you know, or Justice Thomas. Be one of the "good ones".

And setting it up with this attack on the civil rights movement of the 1940s through 1970s, for coming up with the idea of affirmative action.

This is why the discourse on systemic racism is of such profound importance, by the way: because it establishes with such clarity that Black people aren't inferior and that the job, in which Black people must not only participate but lead, is not to give any individual a leg up but to take barriers down for all. And, perhaps even more important politically, that benefiting from white privilege doesn't make white people racist (though it does or can make them not-antiracist). It is the racism of institutions—of zoning codes and rulebooks and contractual language, testing regimes and mortgage procedures, the mechanisms of segregation and hierarchy—that needs to be combated, not the (possible) racism of old Cletus down in the holler.

Which is why it makes the Right so crazy, I think, because their whole political strategy over the past 40 years has quietly been to persuade white people that they are inevitably pitted against African Americans, racist ("politically incorrect") by definition, as demography erodes their electoral power as a group (they've got a kind of Hastert rule for elections, where candidates aren't legitimate unless they have the majority of the white vote). As younger white people find out, especially in the last fraught couple of years, that there's no need for them to be racist, the strategy is failing.

Why McWhorter, the "cranky liberal", is on with that, I can't say. He's been doing it for kind of a long time, perhaps originally just to be quirky; it didn't seem as bad for the world when he started. Perhaps, like so many really gifted and hardworking people, he suffers from one of those impostor syndromes, and interprets it in racial terms and fears he's really inferior himself. If so, I wish I could do something to help him over that mistake. In any event, he's really made a bad choice here, and it matters.

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