The McWhorter Conversion

One of the outcomes of the recent Eric Holder/New York Post racial “events” was a robust dialog between me and readers of both my blog and another WordPress blog, ChenZhen’s Chamber. Either as a sensitive human being, or as  a black man (I’m not entirely sure which), I found myself defending Holder’s comments and joining in the outrage against the Post’s cartoon.

The online discussions in which I was engaged ran the gamut from over sensitivity of blacks, to the ultimate failure of the civil rights movement due to “coddling” blacks into a subservient position in our society. In these conversations I played the role that I usually play, the role expected of me by many if not most of my black brethren. I complained about lynchings. I complained about law abiding blacks not being able to flag down a cab in New York City. Despite my protests, a nagging introspection continued to gnaw at me.

I thought back on my visceral reaction to Bill Cosby and Barack Obama and Reverend Eugene Rivers calling on the black community to essentially get its act together. The man deep inside me who was taught as a boy that “if it is to be, it is up to me” applauded the call for responsibility coming from these black leaders. Yet I was conflicted, a conflict I wrote about in a previous post:

The first issue is whether or not blacks should castigate other blacks in front of whites. When I watched excerpts of Barack Obama’s “Father’s Day” speech, I must confess to some discomfort. …  I have struggled with my feelings about this. It smacks of airing dirty laundry outside the “family”.

For example, didn’t the following comments from Reverend Eugene Rivers completely let white folks “off the hook”?

It is not—it is no longer adequate, when you have got a Serena and Venus Williams conquering Wimbledon, right, to argue that racism is the primary thing that holds black people back, when you have had two secretaries of state who were black for the last eight years.

What Senator Obama‘s done is say, I‘m taking the black community to a new level of understanding and responsibility. No longer are we going to trade in the politics of grievance. He‘s saying, listen, black community, you better than this. And we can correct the problems that confront us, because we‘re good enough to do it. And I‘m challenging you to step up.

via ‘Hardball with Chris Matthews’ for Tuesday, July 15 – Hardball with Chris Matthews- msnbc.com

So this tug of war went on in my mind about how we should talk about race. Then this past Friday night I watched Bill Moyers interview social conservative (and black man) John McWhorter. McWhorter had recently written a piece in The New Republic about racial dialog. An excerpt follows:

So what does our new Attorney General Eric Holder mean when he says that we are “a nation of cowards” for avoiding “frank conversations” about race?

The meanings we intend often correspond only fitfully to dictionary definitions. If someone asks “Do you have the time?” technically it would be answering the question to just say “Yes” and walk on. But there is a convention that “Do you have the time?” is taken as a request for the time to be shared.

Calls like Holder’s that we need to have “conversations” about race are coded in the same way …  Nominally, a conversation is simply an exchange of impressions. What people taking Holder’s line mean is something more specific.

One might ask them: To what extent will this conversation entail whites saying that they are tired of being called racists and being policed for ever more abstract shades of racist bias, with blacks acknowledging this and resolving to do it as little as possible?

Many would answer “not at all,” others “very little.” Virtually no respondents would see the “conversation” as incomplete without the above.

Now, we might ask the same people: To what extent will this “conversation” entail blacks teaching whites about institutional racism, ensuring them that black people still experience racism, and that our having a black president doesn’t mean that white people are “off the hook?”

I suspect most would answer “to a massive extent,” and that the vast majority of respondents would see the “conversation” as incomplete without a substantial degree of the above. This would embody the lion’s share of the “frankness” in this conversation, presumably.

After all, if Holder were really interested in a “conversation” on race, he would understand that America is engaged in one year-round. The claim that America “doesn’t want to talk about race” is hardly uncommon, and has a dramatic tang. However, take the past few years: Don Imus, Michael Richards, Jena, and of course, the coverage of Barack Obama’s campaign, which included white reporters diligently smoking out whites who insisted they wouldn’t vote for a black President.

A Martian observer–or a modern Tocqueville–would readily see that America was rather obsessed with race. Certainly we are an America ardently “conversing” about it year-round. What Holder wants is not a conversation but a conversion. …

I suspect those who call for this “conversation” know the claim has become more gestural than concrete. Otherwise, they would state their case directly rather than asking to “talk.” Really, who is imagining a goal, an endpoint after this “conversation”? What, or who, would determine that we had finally “talked” enough?

If white people are cowards for not wanting to be called racists, there is a fear as well in people like Holder. It’s not pretty to face that black people will excel, like everyone else, under less-than-perfect conditions. This “conversation” would be social history playing out quite perfectly–but history is never that consummately fair. The Civil Rights revolution was close enough to perfect, and Barack Obama’s election was even closer. Now, it’s time not for a callisthenic “conversation,” but for making our way in reality.

via Defining ‘Nation of Cowards’ Down.

McWhorter asks when have we talked enough? And is the conversation a true one when only the black man’s grievance can be the center of the conversation? McWhorter suggests that the time for talk is probably over … that there are actions that need to take place that are more urgent than talk:

BILL MOYERS: I brought a quote from the psychologist, Phillip Goff, “Psychological science has long known that words and pictures far from harmless can be the very instruments of dehumanization necessary for collective violence regardless of how innocently they are intended.” Do you agree with that?

JOHN MCWHORTER: Were we ever thinking that there was going to be an America where there was nothing that we could call racism? Because we are homo sapiens and we’re wired in certain ways. The idea that we could never have any biases, that we would never process people according to group, that there would never be some people who were more troglodytic on this thing than others, I don’t think that that corresponds to any kind of reality. We have made amazing strides. But the idea that we could ever have none? I don’t know. We’d have to be a different species. We’d have to evolve beyond. And as far as what he said about collective action, it’s just a matter once again of degree and likelihood. I think we know recently because of that horrible thing that happened in Buffalo, when you get on a plane, there’s a chance that, you know, something hideous might happen. But we don’t consider it significant enough to not fly planes. There is a chance, I suppose, that a cartoon of a chimpanzee being shot might strike a critical mass of white people to go burn down an all-black town. There’s a chance of that. I think it’s so small that really we need to be thinking about things like how much money and being poured into our public schools and how that might help more black children learn how to read. I’m more interested in that.

via Bill Moyers Journal . Transcripts | PBS.

McWhorter makes the case that all the talk about race obscures the real problems and does not help to solve them. His answer to Attorney General Holder:

BILL MOYERS: So how would you begin a conversation of a frank conversation about race with Eric Holder?

JOHN MCWHORTER: If he was sitting in front of me right now I would say, Mr. Holder, Eric, whatever it would be, are you afraid of the prospect of black America having to move on without calling on whites to acknowledge their racism? Are you afraid of the fact that despite the nastiness of our history, despite the injustice of slave ships, the Jim Crow, and everything else, that we’re at a point where even though we’re still in a position behind telling white people that they’re racist is no longer going to do the job. It’s not that I find it unfashionable or distasteful. You’re not going to help anyone doing that. Are you afraid of us really having to take responsibility for ourselves? And what’s important is I would say, Mr. Holder, you know that our taking responsibility for ourselves will involve calling on the government to do things to allow us to do that. So this is not some bootstraps argument. But still are you afraid of no longer talking about racism? Why is it that when you made a speech you wanted to take that line after Barack Obama’s been elected president? Isn’t it time to knock this off? That is what I would say to him. And, and I want to specify. It’s time to knock this off because it is not helping anyone anymore.

I have maintained in the various blog discussions that race is absurd. No one is black. No one is white. Yet we devote an inordinate amount of time talking about it. What would happen if we just stopped? What would happen if every time a young black boy or girl asked his or her parent “Mommy, what is racism?” the answer was “never mind … finish your homework”.  What if the black community truly adopted the adage “success is the best revenge”? During one of my conversations, my “opponent” threw the following video in my face:

How do we deal with racism? Actor Morgan Freeman says, “stop talking about it”.

So, here I am at great risk of being called a sell out by civil rights advocates. I’m letting the white man off the hook. Well folks, I’m sorry. I don’t want to give comfort to bigots, believe me. But I am beginning to increasingly suspect that the antidote to racism is black success home grown in the black community by dint of personal responsibility and absolutely no excuse making. McWhorter argues that blacks really don’t want a conversation about race. They want a conversion of all whites to folks who understand the “black condition” and are forever apologetic about their role in it. When all the hand wringing is over, blacks are no better off than before.

I think at the ripe old age of 47 I am undergoing a conversion of my own. I call it the McWhorter conversion. It’s time to stop the race talk and start playing a winning game. It’s not like we don’t have role models. Just look at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Respectfully,
Rutherford

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21 thoughts on “The McWhorter Conversion

  1. “R”,

    I skimmed your article – very well written and thought provoking. Even if you’re a Democratic shill, I still enjoy reading your articles. Always have.

    But there is still one thing that bothers me. Maybe it was mentioned but I didn’t see it. And this is a question and not an accusation. It’s a generality so you can’t broad brush all people in every categorization of race, of course. But it “generally” holds to be true in my experiences.

    What is the problem with admitting that blacks and whites, when taken as a whole, do have different tastes? I grew up in a virtually all white school. I have a few acquaintances that are black but none that I run with – I like them but we are not social.

    And the reason we are not social I believe has little to do with race, and far more to do with “tastes.” I like my music; they like their music. I like my food; they like their food. We share a common bond about sports, but our social associations are far different aside from work. And both of us appear to like it that way.

    I can tell my black friends are far more comfortable around other blacks. There’s a guarded nature about their persona when around me. And I am somewhat guarded myself. Perhaps it is a lack of trust, but not a conscious one. But I don’t think it has so much to do with the color of our skin as the past associations in which we both were raised.

    I’m rambling and this is off the top, but hopefully you get the gist of my meaning. The bottom line is that I don’t find either of us racist. We are separated not so much by color but our preferences and comfort level.

    Make sense?

  2. It’s time to stop the race talk and start playing a winning game.

    It’s funny you saythat given the title of some of McWhorters books. I’ve long liked him and actually suffered through the Moyers portion of the same show.
    Interesting read

  3. Well written piece Rutherford. Now, it’s one thing to come out with behind the internet backwater of this blogo-sphere. The question is, will you bring this up at Thanksgiving? At the church? The BBQ? Will talk about this amongst whites and blacks at the same time?

  4. damn, it accidentally hit send before proofreading. Tex, you get all weird around blacks?

    Dead Rabbit can honestly say he does not give a royal f what blacks think about him.

    I get all clammy in front of hot women though. I just can’t be myself. It feels so awkward to just ignore the fact that I’m thinking about doing every sexual position from the Kama Sutra with them, all of which, in reality, would go down in a 90 second time period.

  5. Tex, you get all weird around blacks?

    WTH? 😆

    What makes you think that? I said I was a little more guarded around blacks in what I said; not weird. I’m a little more guarded around what I say around women too – except my wife who knows better.

    Now if I were running around with you and felt completely comfortable being a smart ass without penalty, like not having a gun cocked while placed at my temple, I probably would be a little different. But not much.

    How’s your wife 2.0? You’ve been negligent in reporting back.

    P.S. – I’ve “mentally” tapped about the half the women I’ve ever met.

  6. LOL…..that cracked me up Tex. Mentally Tapped.

    Wife is good. Into 2nd trimester now. Still throwing up alot, which I believe to mean to be proof of a solid pregnancy. We go in to find out the sex on April 1. Can’t wait.

  7. First off, am I the only one who finds it ironic that I’m about to discuss comments about race in a blog article that suggests we should be done talking about race? Oh well. 🙂

    Tex, you raise a valid point and it sadly illustrates the mess this country is in socially. Our relations with each other are to some degree like a milkshake. Normal human attraction based on common interests is the ice cream so to speak and prejudices, superstitions and negatively based biases is the milk. In our society, these are mixed together and virtually impossible to separate back into their component parts. When you think about your white friends do you really share lots of the same interests with them, or really only one or two. And if you lived in a social climate that surrounded you with more blacks, wouldn’t it be possible that you would share one or two common interests with some of them too? Only you can answer this.

    In another thread, someone (it may have been you, I don’t remember) mentioned the Black MBA group as an example of self-imposed segregation. My response was (and is) that a Black MBA group makes absolutely no sense to me. Why should being a black MBA be any way appreciably different from being a white one? Blacks run the gamut in interests, opinions and political persuasions so why they would get together just on the basis of “blackness” seems pretty absurd to me.

    To get back to your point, of course we choose our friends based on common interests but our society has made it a bit harder for blacks and whites to discover what interests they might actually have in common.

  8. BiW, obviously I owe quite a lot of this article to our conversation in the Chamber. I don’t retract any of the arguments that I made there but I do acknowledge that little productive comes from arguing these grievances. Special thanks for the Freeman video. I had seen it back in the day and loved it back then. Glad you reacquainted me with it.

  9. Now Rabbit and Tex, you’ve touched on the one thing that can unite the races (or at least most men across the races) and that is a common admiration for the fairer sex. I must confess I’m less choosy than Tex. I’ve “mentally tapped” about 75% of the women I’ve ever met. In fact to this day I’ll never forget the lambasting I got from a college girl-friend (as opposed to girlfriend) who caught me transfixed on the ample bosom of her dorm roommate. I never heard the end of it and cad that I was, I didn’t deny the ogling, which just got me in deeper hotter water.

    The question is, will you bring this up at Thanksgiving? At the church? The BBQ?

    Rabbit, you give me too much credit for a social life. 🙂

    Honestly, I don’t know many people who care to talk politics or social issues. It’s probably one reason I use the blog as an outlet. In fact, last year at a neighborhood party, my wife had the temerity to bring up liberal politics and we got distinct stink-eye from a couple of neighbors.

    As I implied in the article, I’m only beginning to become comfortable with this new found philosophy. The biggest pause it gives me is I do not want to become an apologist for out and out racists and too many times when bigots hear blacks advocate personal responsibility their response is “ahhh he’s a DIFFERENT negro … all the rest are lazy and shiftless”. That’s territory I don’t want to get bogged down in. So on the one hand, in social interactions, I’d probably voice these opinions with great caution. On the other hand, I’m becoming a lot less tolerant of the “blame whitey” mode of conduct advocated by some civil rights leaders.

  10. Oh, I forgot:

    Dead Rabbit can honestly say he does not give a royal f what blacks think about him.

    I don’t know you very well Rabbit but I suspect you don’t give a rat’s ass what ANYONE thinks of you. You are your own rabbit, so to speak.

  11. A big problem is that no one is willing to forgive slavery. Racial issues in the US are far better than in many/most other nations. Slavery was bad; so was what happened to the indians; so was what happened to the Chinese (they were treated very poorly after they immigrated to the US 100/200 years ago); so was what happened to the Kurds (under Saddam in Iraq); so was what happened to the Jews; So was what happened to the Chinese (when Japan invaded China).

    My point is, slavery was not all that special of an instance. It was one of the worst socially permitted crime ever to occur in the US (behind maybe abortion), but it wasn’t any worse than what has happened to countless other peoples. The way of life, as unjust as it is, is that the powerful will dominate the weak; I’m not justifying it, but that is what happens. 200 years ago, it was the whites fault that blacks were oppressed. We were judged in the Civil War, and payed the price in blood. Today it is the black communities fault they are poor and troubled. The inner city is bad, but oppurtunities exist for those who look for them. Those oppurtunities close faster than elsewhere, but they exist. The white community is no more, it dissolved because it didn’t feel that being white was important. Stereotypes exist, discrimination exists, but the future is brighter than many people would have you believe.

  12. Special thanks for the Freeman video. I had seen it back in the day and loved it back then. Glad you reacquainted me with it.

    Did you follow the crumb-trail back to my humble abode? I don’t remember tossing that out, but maybe I did. Point is I enjoyed the fact that we did have a real conversation that did not denegrate into name-calling and finger pointing.

    I’ll stop back by. It was fun.

  13. Honestly, I don’t know many people who care to talk politics or social issues. It’s probably one reason I use the blog as an outlet.

    That is why I got into blogging. I hooked up with a few people who are just to the right of Attila the Hun, and never looked back. To the credit of this ‘hobby’, it has made me far more informed, and and I learned a lot that isn’t taught in schools.

  14. RL, This is one of McWhorter’s better pieces IMO, however once you get to the core, it is essentially the same Republican ideology of personal responsibility for blacks but glosses over the accountability of White America.

    Yes, Obama told blacks, including black men that they needed to step up. But he also told America as a whole (not concerning race, however) that they also needed to step up their game in areas. In the conversation of race, it is frequent that black America is castigated and counseled for what they should be doing, but we never hear what white America should be doing as far as the race problem.

    And I am talking about systemic, institutional racism, which many times people are unaware that they are acting to the disadvantage of blacks. Like one of your other commenters, I could care less what someone else (black, white, or other) thinks about me. Personal prejudice or bias is not a pproblem except in major media like the chimp cartoon which sends dangerous signals to crazies.

    So conversation (and possibly conversion) will take place when both sides try to imagine what each other feels or is going through and then both sides also try to rectify their own shortcomings. Blacks have had to see the world from a white perspective since we arrived here and it is arrogant to refuse to try to understand what the other person is feeling.

    We also need to step up our game, both black and white. And there is no need to not differentiate ourselves. We do it geographically, professionally, in athletics, and every other area. I think that it adds spice or flavor to the mix that would otherwise be very boring. So difference or diversity is a good thing. One group just should not have a systematic advantage over the other.

    That’s my take.

  15. A big problem is that no one is willing to forgive slavery.

    This is exactly why discussion of race gets so hairy. How can forgiveness be granted when it has not been requested? Japanese-Americans received an official apology from our government for WWII internment camps. Maybe I missed the memo but I’ve never seen an official apology from our government for slavery. Now you might argue that this is a petty detail but it’s a detail nonetheless.

    I do agree with you, Solar, that no minority has a monopoly on suffering.

  16. Reverend, thank you for taking the time to contribute to this discussion.

    What discomforts me about your perspective is, if white people will not or cannot put themselves in our shoes. If they will not or cannot empathize, is that an excuse for our failure to graduate more than 50% of our black males from high school? Black people do not live in a vacuum and McWhorter makes a point to say that “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” is not the answer either. Government assistance is needed to some degree. But then, this is government assistance that should be needed by the poor and disadvantaged regardless of race.

    I’m also a fan of diversity but I find it a unique instance in the black community that we, in large degree, divorce ourselves from our real roots of Africa or the West Indies and “celebrate” a culture entrenched in “the blues” and in our struggles as Americans. The whole hip-hop culture seems steeped in areas that do not help us (e.g. “ho’s”, “bitches”, “pop a cap…”.). If you are calling for us to celebrate the history of our native lands, and encourage whites to share in that history, I’m all for it. That we embrace gangsta rap and are encouraged to do so by the white community, while they, for the most part decry their history of, for example, organized crime (i.e. Mafia) should be troubling to us.

    I am probably rambling here because it is late and I need to go to bed. Bottom line, it would be a lie to say that all is peachy between whites and blacks and that is certainly not the intention of this article. The question at hand is how long do we wait for “whites to come around”? When do we finally say, screw it, we’re cleaning up our neighborhoods, we’re getting our kids to at least get out of high school, we’re going to keep our families together, and we’re going to succeed?

    We have a black man in the White House. Legal remediation for institutionalized racism is about 80% used up at this point. We now need a fundamental shift in our approach to the problem and what better time than now when EVERYONE regardless of race is being expected to shift based on the current economic crisis.

  17. Maybe I missed the memo but I’ve never seen an official apology from our government for slavery.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93135630

    In addition, it seems every other week some political shill is coming out to apologize for all of America’s egregious racial historical sins.

    And I will tell you my generation of whites feels absolutely no responsibility for those sins “R”. I find it insulting that somebody feels the need to apologize for me when I felt like I’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, nor do I feel any shred of guilt, nor should I feel any shred of guilt.

    And I hope that somebody like you would recognize most of it phony pandering.

  18. How can forgiveness be granted when it has not been requested? Japanese-Americans received an official apology from our government for WWII internment camps. Maybe I missed the memo but I’ve never seen an official apology from our government for slavery.

    Wow. Ok, here is where I guess I get to stir the pot some more.
    *dons flame-proof suit*
    The problem with that question is that it assumes I feel the need to ask. The fact is that I don’t. Slavery as an instution ended nearly 120 years before I was born. A lot of Americans fought and died to settle that question, among others, and it forever transformed this nation from a confederation of sovereign governments into a union of subserviant political subdivisions. I grew up with desegregation and a host of cultural desegregation messages, near an urban center. I worked to get where I am today. Nobody handed it to me. I don’t know of any secret white handshake that magically opens doors, quels resistance, or entitles me to preferential treatment. Even though one side of my family has been here since the founding of jamestown, anyone who starts getting in my face and wagging their finger while yelling “white priviledge” is fishing for a poke in the nose.

    If you really must know, I think there are several distinctions to be drawn regarding the quote above.
    1. At the time the apology was made to the Japanese and Japanese-Americans, there were still survivors to apologize to.
    2. I don’t recall apologies to the German and Italian Americans who were also interred for the duration of the war, although there were many, and many survivors who were left alive at the time of the apology to the Japanese.
    3. While security was not the only concern when the Japanese were interred, (yes, I am admitting that there were alterior motives), it was a valid concern, and seeing as our manpower and intelligence organizations were busy fighting a war, I think that while hindsight is twenty-twenty, and Monday Morning Quarterbacking is wonderful to show how smart we are when we know things that the decision makers didn’t at the time, but since the nation had just suffered a brutal surprise attack, and was suddenly on the defensive in an entire region of the world, I have a very hard time criticizing a gather up and sort later approach as it was applied.

  19. For starters, Tex and BiW, your beef is not with me but with Solar1. It was Solar who said that slavery ought to be forgiven. Now isn’t it harder to forgive when forgiveness has not been sought? Solar’s question assumes that there is something that needs to be forgiven. If you guys feel no “white guilt” (and I don’t think you should feel any) then you should not expect slavery to be forgiven since you see no act in the present that needs forgiveness. Lecture Solar, not me. 🙂

    Ok, Tex, it looks like I did miss at least half the memo. Did the Senate ever issue an apology? 😉

    I have a very hard time criticizing a gather up and sort later approach as it was applied.

    Yikes! “Gather up and sort”???? These are human beings we’re talking about. Do you hear how incredibly Nazi that phrase sounds?

    Still your comment comes at an interesting time when we are now learning the legal leeway that Bush’s legal advisers gave him to basically run our country like a banana republic. Quite frankly, with the latitude that Bush was given by his advisers, I have to admire the man for not taking MORE liberties than he did.

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