John Leo
Black conservatives have paid a heavy price for holding views that run counter to the line set by the civil rights establishment. For more than 30 years, Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, both economists and columnists, have faced hostile crowds, hate mail and death threats. Most of this comes from their opposition to affirmative action and their argument that racism cannot be blamed for crime, poverty, illegitimacy and poor school performance.

Since disagreement means ostracism, conservative black intellectuals can expect to be shunned as heretics and Uncle Toms and to have their books ignored or dismissed much of the time. Advancement in the academic world is unlikely, since the campus culture tolerates little dissent from the conventional views of the old civil rights leadership.

"There is an awful lot of conservative sentiment in black America, but at the moment, the party line is ruthlessly enforced," said Shelby Steele, author of "The Content of Our Character" and a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Still, there are always some who resist the enforcement efforts. Current examples are new books by linguistics professor John McWhorter ("Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America") and Los Angeles talk-show host and columnist Larry Elder ("Ten Things You Can't Say in America").

McWhorter compares affirmative action to chemotherapy -- he says it was necessary in the 1960s but now the toxic effects outweigh the advantages, depriving blacks of the certainty that their advancement has been justly earned. Among black Americans he sees a "cult of victimology," which treats victimhood "not as a problem to be solved but as an identity to be nurtured." He thinks victimoloy is "felt like a religion." Once victimhood is tied up with black identity, he believes, racial progress is always dismissed as minor; the remnant of historical racism is viewed as an "eternal pathology" that blacks cannot escape.

A current example of what McWhorter means is the Rev. Jesse Jackson's repeated claim that the Florida voting was "another Selma, another Birmingham" for blacks. i.e., no progress has been made; the old hatreds are just as virulent as ever.

Separatism flows logically from victimology, according to McWhorter: the belief that whites will never let blacks in leads to the sense of black America as forever set apart, "an unofficial sovereign entity, within which the rules other Americans are expected to follow are suspended out of a belief that our victimhood renders us morally exempt from them." He thinks this rejection of the social norms of mainstream America helps explain why blacks have more trouble getting hired and promoted in the corporate world than whites do.

McWhorter's book got mixed reviews. Elder's more provocative book got almost no reviews (he says he has noticed two), but "The Ten Things You Can't Say in America" climbed the best-seller list anyway. The first of the "Ten Things" is a shocker: "Blacks are more racist than whites." The next two are almost as strong: "White condescension is as bad as black racism" and "The media bias -- it's real, it's widespread, it's destructive."

To Elder, the "so-called black leadership" is dreary, pessimistic and fixated on racism, which he believes is real but fading fast and no longer a serious obstacle to black progress. Instead of focusing on counterproductive behavior, Elder says, they keep busy pushing hate-crime laws, opposing welfare reform and school vouchers, and worrying about symbolic matters, such as how many black faces are seen on each TV show. He thinks these out-of-touch leaders are like World War II Japanese soldiers fighting on in Burma long after the surrender, unaware that the war was over.

Elder coined the word "victicrat" to describe people who live by a theology of victimization. He thinks the media work overtime to encourage victicrats: "The more shrill the 'white racism' stories, the better. They're burning black churches! The CIA puts drugs in the black community! Doctors practice racism! Banks redline! NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN practice broadcast racism! What do these stories have in common? They are mostly all untrue (expressions of) a widespread whites-are-out-to-get-blacks media bias."

Give McWhorter and Elder full credit for courage and candor. They write what they have to say without defensiveness or any implication that they are pleading for understanding. Both have had the usual death threats, and a group of blacks tried, with some degree of success, to drive advertisers away from Elder's talk show. "Why is it that we can't have a civilized discussion in the black community?" Elder asks, noting that President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill could do political battle, then share stories and jokes afterward.

McWhorter and Elder may be viewed as heretics and defectors by the academic and media establishments, but their views seem closer to those of most black Americans. Polls consistently show that blacks as a group have strongly conservative social views. The two authors may speak for more people than they know.


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

Be the first to read John Leo's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.