Will anyone listen?

Posted: Jan 12, 2001 12:00 AM
John H. McWhorter has joined a club to which few desire admittance. Though the 34-year-old Berkeley linguistics professor does not consider himself a black conservative, he has written a book, "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America," that is guaranteed to get him the same reception that Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Walter Williams and Clarence Thomas have endured. It is a brave and very honest book. But one is forced to wonder, sadly: Will anyone listen? McWhorter is an intellectually gifted man who was fortunate enough to be born to black parents who encouraged his industry and curiosity. It was fine with them if their son rejected basketball in favor of reading and listening to foreign language tapes. At 34, McWhorter has already authored five books (four about linguistics). He speaks Spanish, French and German, and can read Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Dutch, Swedish and Hebrew. But while his parents were undismayed by McWhorter's early interest in books and ideas, the same cannot be said of his peer group. Among his earliest memories is of being challenged by neighborhood black kids, none older than 8, who taunted him for being smart. They asked him to spell cement (he was 3 or 4). When he did so correctly, one little girl "smacked him upside the head" to the jeers and laughter of the crowd. This was not unique to himself, McWhorter insists, but is the nearly universal experience of academically serious or studious black children. A self-destructive anti-intellectualism pervades black America and exerts a downward pull on every aspect of black life. How else do we explain the differences in academic performance between blacks and whites that show up in pre-school and continue through graduate education? Those who argue that the answer is white racism must account for the superior performance of black immigrants from Africa and the West Indies. Presumably, they face identical problems with white racism. And those who believe in the racial inferiority of blacks must also grapple with the same data. As for the quality of schools where many black children live, there are two confounding statistics. The first is that Asian and other immigrants have done very well academically in some of the same inner-city schools, and the second is that the majority of black children are not attending crumbling inner-city schools. In fact, only about 20 percent of black children attend such schools. But even in suburbs and the better neighborhoods of cities, black children lag well behind whites. As Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom have noted in their book "America in Black and White," black children of parents who earn $70,000 per year do worse on the SAT than white students whose parents make $6,000 a year. And black children whose parents both have advanced degrees fail to score as well as white children whose parents have completed only high school. "All through modern black American culture," McWhorter writes, "even throughout black academia, the belief prevails that learning for learning's sake is a white affair and therefore disloyal to a proper black identity. Studying black-related issues is OK because learning about oneself is authentic. ... The sense that the properly 'black' person only delves into topics related to himself is also why you can count on one hand the number of books by black Americans that are not on racial topics." The system of racial preferences only reinforces these rigid codes. Only when black students are forced to compete fairly with whites will the tendency to see the world through victim's eyes recede. "The black student who can confidently claim to be on campus for the exact same reasons that white and Asian students are there is less likely to embrace the myth, which many black college students cherish, that whites are all covert racists." The "borking" of McWhorter has already begun. The NewYork Times reviewer pronounced the typical anathema by suggesting that McWhorter has had "limited exposure to African-American culture" (translation: He's not authentically black), and fellow Berkeley scholar Ishmael Reed has denounced him as a "rent-a-black-person" who plays into white prejudices. It requires rare spirit and courage to brave this assault. But maybe, just maybe, folks who weren't ready to hear it from Sowell or Steele or Williams may be ready to hear it now.