The Ultimate Emancipation

Immediately after his confirmation by the senate, during which he was pilloried as racially "insensitive," John Ashcroft crossed First Street NE to the Supreme Court to be sworn in as attorney general by a friend, Justice Clarence Thomas. Ashcroft has named as deputy attorney general Larry D. Thompson, a black conservative who, testifying for Thomas at the 1991 confirmation circus, reminded senators and civil-rights groups opposed to Thomas that "black Americans need not and should not think alike." Recently, Thomas, in a Washington lecture, deplored the suffocating "orthodoxy" and "canon" regarding race, and "the silence of self-censorship."

The ultimate emancipation of black Americans is underway. It is an intellectual emancipation from destructive orthodoxies promulgated by many blacks or by well-meaning whites. Now comes an emancipation proclamation in book form, "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America" by John H. McWhorter, a black professor of linguistics at Berkeley.

McWhorter, magnificently without self-censorship, demonstrates that today's worst "soft bigotry of low expectations" is black bigotry. He rejects "the idea that white racism is the main obstacle to black success and achievement." The real obstacle is an interlocking set of three mentalities--"the cult of victimology," separatism as a coping strategy and anti-intellectualism. They sustain myths such as that most blacks are poor (only one in four black families is poor, and only one in five lives in an inner city) and that there is an epidemic of racist arson against black churches (seven times as many white churches are burned every year than there were black churches burned during the seven years 1990-1996).

Two generations after the triumph of the civil-rights movement, the rituals of victimhood, says McWhorter, have become central to black identity. Victimology causes blacks to deny the dramatic receding of racism, and to discount the "historically unprecedented" success of a disenfranchised minority in ending centuries of legalized discrimination by forcing, in a single generation, the overhaul of its nation's legal system. McWhorter says the "professional pessimism" of victimologists gives blacks the "balm of moral absolution" and belief in a permanent entitlement to exemption from the rules of a competitive society. Blacks who allowed "tribalism to trump logic" by rejoicing over O. J. Simpson's acquittal reflected "the bedrock assumption that because all black people are eternally victims, they are exempt from censure."

Victimology's central tenet--that in America blackness is an irredeemably tragic condition--leads to separatism, which manifests itself in what McWhorter calls the "decisive cultural trait" of anti-intellectualism. It, he says, renders young blacks, from all economic classes and regardless of life history, "culturally disinclined" to dedicate themselves to school as much as other students do. This makes for "an America where black people are our house entertainers and athletes."

"In 1995, the mean SAT score for black students nationwide from families making $50,000 or more was a mere 849 out of 1600. This must be compared with the mean score in 1995 for white students from families earning $10,000 or less--i.e., really, no money--869." This, after a generation of Head Start, affirmative action, special financial support for schools in poor neighborhoods, minority counseling programs and African-American studies curricula.

McWhorter does not mince words in ascribing the problem to a historically determined defect of American black culture. He says that the black undergraduates he has taught who have been among the best students in his classes have been of Caribbean or African extraction. And: "If we could abolish the inner cities tomorrow, black school performance would continue to be the weakest in the country."

Now, McWhorter teaches at Berkeley, so it is not surprising that, judging from what he sees and hears around him, he thinks the world is more irrational than it really is. The black students he sees have been taught by affirmative action that blacks have been "so profoundly broken by their history that modern policy must treat them as eternal cripples." And affirmative action "leaves black Americans with the most systematically diluted responsibility for their fate of any group in America."

Affirmative action at Berkeley and other elite schools rests on the myth that its beneficiaries come mostly from "struggling blue collar" families. At Berkeley, most beneficiaries come from families with incomes above $40,000. Why, McWhorter asks, do affirmative-action advocates "see no problem whatever in the black child of a municipal lawyer and a high-school principal in San Diego being admitted to Berkeley with lower grades and scores than the white child of an insurance executive and a travel-agency manager?" McWhorter's answer is that so many black thinkers are "comfortable portraying their own people as the weakest, least resilient human beings in the history of the species."

However, the 70 percent of minority parents who favor school choice refute McWhorter's overbroad indictment of black indifference to education. There may be "wariness" about schooling among many blacks, but not among the hundreds of thousands of black parents who are making heroic sacrifices to get their children out of failing public schools and into private schools.

However, he rightly says that an increasing number of blacks recognize the incongruity between "the vast potential of their lives" since the triumph of the civil-rights movement, and the insistence of many blacks "that America remains a racist purgatory in which all black effort is a Sisyphean affair that renders even just keeping one's head above water a victory." Many comfortable black politicians and the ossified civil-rights lobby are prospering as mediators between government and blacks portrayed as eternal victims and hence as permanent wards of government. But what McWhorter calls "the victimologist hustle" is nearing exhaustion. The ultimate emancipation--an intellectual and moral emancipation--is advancing.