Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America
by John McWhorter
Gotham. 434 pp. $27.50
It is noteworthy that the subject of race, a matter of obvious intrinsic importance, has in recent years been relegated to the margins of American political discourse. This rhetorical neglect may or may not be of the “benign” sort Daniel Patrick Moynihan proposed in 1970, but it is hard to deny that the discussion of racial issues has become so bogged down in tired and unpersuasive formulas that the audience for it has largely disappeared. Although the civil-rights establishment continues to issue periodic denunciations of a pervasive white racism that can only be overcome through multifarious government programs, and although a certain number of whites duly murmur agreement, most people have sensibly concluded that this is a form of political theater to which attention need no longer be paid.
John McWhorter, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute and formerly a professor of linguistics at Berkeley, agrees that racial conversation in America has come to a dead end, and that a fundamental rethinking is required if it is to be turned in a useful direction. In his new book, Winning the Race, he directs his appeal to his fellow blacks, who, he thinks, have fallen victim to erroneous propositions and programs encouraged, and often initiated, by disastrously well-intentioned whites. His is not an unfamiliar argument, but he makes it fresh with new evidence and bracing rhetorical urgency.
McWhorter recounts the conventional story of race in America since the civil-rights revolution of the 1950’s and 60’s. For all the progress that has been made, especially with the expansion of the black middle class, there remains the degradation of the black inner city, with the attendant crime, drugs, joblessness, illegitimacy, and fatherless families. The fault for this, most blacks (and most white liberals) insist, rests with whites, in some combination of persisting racism and heedless policy-making whose result has been deleterious to blacks’ well-being.
While stipulating that black progress has not been what it ought to be, McWhorter vigorously dissents from the notion that blacks should look to whites as the source of their continuing discontents. Racism, he suggests, continues mostly in vestigial form; it is not today the vicious monolithic “system” that for so long made comprehensive black improvement impossible. The idea that “black America’s problem is white people” is simply no longer true.
McWhorter takes particular aim at a more subtle form of this same indictment that focuses on the post-1960’s transformation of troubled but livable black ghettos into decayed inner cities. This he sarcastically labels the “underclass saga.” Central to it is the argument, most fully elaborated by the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, that black communities began to fall apart with the disappearance of low-skill jobs as factories moved out of the cities to the suburbs or overseas. Other components of the saga focus on housing discrimination (which, reinforced by white flight, made it impossible for blacks to keep up with the job exodus), the loss among poor blacks of social role models as the black middle class deserted the inner cities, the creation of high-rise public housing projects that atomized black communities, indiscriminate highway construction that left hitherto compact neighborhoods divided and isolated, and an infestation of drugs—crack cocaine in particular—that wreaked general social havoc.
McWhorter concedes elements of truth in the saga, but overall finds it lacking in explanatory power. As others have done, he attacks the narrative at its heart: the supposed disappearance of factories and jobs. His own investigation of Indianapolis, a city not previously studied, leads him to conclude that, in general, factories there moved only a short distance from their former sites, remaining within reach of available transportation. And yet Indianapolis’s inner city underwent the same process of decay and degradation as did those places, like Detroit and Chicago, on which the job-exodus thesis is modeled.
Other aspects of the saga suffer from similar weaknesses. Is it really the case, McWhorter asks, that working-class blacks, deprived of role models, have had no choice but to lapse into social decadence? That housing discrimination stopped blacks from searching out jobs when, as he shows for Indiana, workers in poor white counties would often commute considerable distances to find work? That high-rise buildings and intrusive highways were enough to destroy black community? That drug dependence and drug dealing were simply imposed on black neighborhoods?
For McWhorter, the real problem with the saga, taken in part or in whole, is that it robs blacks of moral agency. Instead, they are pictured as people to whom things happen, defenseless victims of malign external forces that they lack the resources to resist. He has a different explanation for what his subtitle calls “the crisis in black America.” Like the underclass saga, it is an explanation that also implicates whites; but that is where the resemblance ends. For these are whites motivated not by racism but by high-minded good will.
There was, first, the easing of regulations on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDK) in the late 60’s and early 70’s. This move, affecting poor blacks disproportionately, led to a vast expansion in the numbers on welfare, transforming it from a “stopgap” measure into a “multigenerational dependence program.” The loosening of AFDC rules, coming at a time of prosperity and declining unemployment, had nothing to do with economic necessity. Rather, McWhorter writes, the motive was “one part expiation for past sins against blacks and one part riot insurance.”
Whatever the reasons behind it, the expansion of welfare into a “lifestyle” had crippling effects on the black community: increased childbirth out of wedlock and an associated rise in fatherless families, a decreased incentive to look for work, and a general decline in individual responsibility. Nor was that all. As debilitating as were the effects of widespread welfare dependency, even worse was the spread in the black community of what McWhorter dubs “the meme of therapeutic alienation”—an outpouring of “indignation for its own sake” that was picked up mainly by blacks from the white counterculture of the 60’s.
This is McWhorter’s major theme, explored in a series of chapters touching on political and cultural behavior, black middle-class rage, the academic discussion of racial matters, educational issues (low performance, affirmative action, “diversity”), hip-hop music, and black leadership. In McWhorter’s view, the relentless negativity of therapeutic alienation proceeded mostly from widespread insecurity and self-doubt over the ability of blacks to take full advantage of the opportunities opened up by the civil-rights revolution. Slavery and segregation, he poignantly notes, had left black America with a “hole in its soul,” and that hole, still not fully healed, has tempted blacks to cling to outmoded and unrealistic notions of an all-devouring white racism, notions that have gotten them pretty much nowhere.
Much of McWhorter’s discussion of the sources and effects of therapeutic alienation covers oft-trod ground. Not so, his analysis of middle-class black anger, exemplified most vividly in Ellis Cose’s 1993 book, The Rage of a Privileged Class. According to the “rage” thesis, even highly successful blacks find their lives blighted by daily encounters with racist slights, ranging from persecution by police (“driving while black”) to being followed by suspicious store clerks, ignored by taxi drivers, or assigned restaurant tables next to the kitchen.
To all this McWhorter counters flatly that it is not the story of his own life or, more broadly, the lives of the high-achieving blacks he knows. Slights do occur, but they are emphatically not, as Cose suggests, “most of what life is” for black professionals in what McWhorter calls “this imperfect but promising nation.”
That tough-minded assessment is but one of the virtues of this admirable book. Unfortunately, it must also be said that Winning the Race would have benefited from rigorous editing, and indeed from being reduced by half. It is numbingly repetitive, padded with unnecessary examples, and bogged down in digressions and personal score-settling. One can only hope that forbearing readers do not allow these flaws to detract from their experience of a brave and often eloquent piece of social criticism, and one whose thesis deserves wide circulation.
In this book, McWhorter exhibits his own, appropriate form of black rage, directed against the posturing and theatrics of too many black leaders and the hypocrisies of guilt-ridden whites “pretending to like being yelled at.” And yet, for all its anger, Winning the Race is also a positive book, just as its title promises.
McWhorter teases out elements of hope in the nation’s current racial situation. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 has cut welfare rolls by something like 60 percent without increasing rates of poverty, and shows signs of ending the culture of dependence. Other statistical measures of urban pathology have also begun to turn around. In the meantime, both blacks and whites are tiring of the “mantras and buzzwords” of therapeutic alienation that have for so long made our racial discourse essentially inauthentic. Nobody talks seriously any more of either Ebonics or reparations.
George Orwell long ago instructed that the minimal condition for a decent politics is that we rid ourselves of cant. It is thus a salutary thing that our old racial conversation has come to a dead end. Winning the Race, whatever its flaws, contributes seriously to the necessary new beginning.