McWhorter: Today’s Woke Excesses Were Born in the ’60s

McWhorter’s reflections always of interest, including these on the “performative” aspects of activism:

Various books I’ve been reading lately have me thinking about 1966. I have often said that the history of Black America could be divided between what happened before and after that year.

It was a year when the fight for Black equality shifted sharply in mood, ushering in an era in which rhetoric overtook actual game plans for action. It planted the seed for the excesses of today’s wokeness. I wouldn’t have been on board, and I’m glad I was only a baby that year and didn’t have to face it as a mature person.

The difference between Black America in 1960 and in 1970 appears vaster to me than it was between the start and end of any other decade since the 1860s, after Emancipation. And in 1966 specifically, Stokely Carmichael made his iconic speech about a separatist Black Power, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee he led expelled its white members (though Carmichael himself did not advocate this), the Black Panther Party was born, “Black” replaced “Negro” as the preferred term, the Afro went mainstream, and Malcolm X’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (written with Alex Haley) became a standard text for Black readers.

I doubt most people living through that year thought of it as a particularly unique 365 days, but Mark Whitaker, a former editor of Newsweek, has justified my sense of that year as seminal with his new book, “Saying It Loud: 1966 — the Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement.” Whitaker has a journalist’s understanding of the difference between merely documenting the facts and using them to tell a story, and his sober yet crisp prose pulls the reader along with nary a lull.

But one question keeps nagging at me: Why did the mood shift at that particular point? The conditions of Black America at the time would not have led one to imagine that a revolution in thought was imminent. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had just happened. The economy was relatively strong, and Black men in particular were now earning twice or more what they earned before World War II. As the political scientist and historian duo Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom noted in their book “America in Black and White,” “Before World War II, Black bank tellers, bookkeepers, cashiers, secretaries, stenographers, telephone operators or mail carriers were rare. By 1970 they were very common, though far more in the north than in the south.”

And as to claims one might hear that Black America was uniquely fed up in 1966, were Black people not plenty fed up in 1876, or after World War I or World War II?

What Whitaker so deftly chronicles strikes me less as a natural development from on-the-ground circumstances than as something more elusive for the historian: the emergence and influence of that mood shift I referred to. Carmichael memorably said: “The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!”

The dramatic impact was obvious. But what did Black Power mean, and how much change on the ground did this kind of rhetoric ever actually result in? What were Carmichael’s concrete plans for action in the first place?

There was always a certain performative element in the man: not for nothing was he referred to as Starmichael. Whitaker recounts Carmichael’s proposing having Harlem “send one million Black men up to invade Scarsdale” — but really?

The N.A.A.C.P. head Roy Wilkins was infuriated at a crucial summit meeting between leading Black groups where Carmichael referred to Lyndon Johnson as “that cat, the president” and recommended publicly denouncing his work. This was a key conflict between an older style seeking to work within the only reality available and a new style favoring a kind of utopian agitprop.

Figures like Carmichael and Black Panthers Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and H. Rap Brown fascinate from a distance, with their implacable fierceness and true Black pride shocking a complacent “Leave It To Beaver” America. Plus their fashion sense — the berets, the leather jackets — was hard not to like. It all made for great photos and good television. But at the time, affirmative action and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, supported by those white “cats” responding to the suasion of people like Wilkins and Martin Luther King Jr., were making a real difference in Black lives, central to encouraging the growth of the Black middle class.

This difference between mood and action is relevant to the historian Beverly Gage’s magnificent new biography, “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century.” The book’s 800-plus pages are so Caro-esque in detail, context and narrative energy that I have dragged the hardback across the Atlantic and back; Gage somehow makes a page turner out of the life of a man with the stage presence of a toad.

Where Hoover comes in on the 1966 issue is a common observation of his, which was that the Black-led urban riots of the Long, Hot Summer, and the general change in mood from integrationist to separatist, was not solely a response to the frustrations of poverty. Of course, Hoover couldn’t get much further than seeing Black people as having simply given in to a general anti-establishment degeneracy, egged on by Communist influence. That was one part nonsense (the Communist one) and one part racism.

Hoover was bred in a Southern city (D.C.) at the turn of the 20th century, post Plessy v. Ferguson. He came of age embraced by a fraternity steeped in post-Reconstruction “lost cause” ideology about Black people. His late-career persecution of the Panthers with F.B.I. technology and tactics was nastier — and more reckless with people’s lives — than his earlier witch hunt against white Communists had been.

Yet, his sense that the new developments were not caused by socioeconomics was not entirely mistaken. Rather, I suspect that much of why leading Black political ideology took such a menacing, and even impractical, turn in the late 1960s was that white America was by that time poised to hear it out. Not all of white America. But a critical mass had become aware, through television and the passage of bills like the Civil Rights Act, that there was a “race issue” requiring attention.

It’s a safe bet that if Black leaders had taken the tone of Carmichael and the Panthers in 1900 or even 1950, the response from whites would have been openly violent and even murderous. The theatricality of the new message was in part a response to enough whites now being interested in listening.

The problem was that so much of the message, at that point, was a kind of Kabuki, as the Black essayist Debra Dickerson memorably put it a while ago. Savory, dramatic poses were often more important than plans. This was perhaps a natural result of the fact that the remaining problems were challenging to address. With legalized segregation, disenfranchisement and residential Balkanization now illegal, the question was what to do next and how. “Black Power” did not turn out to be the real answer: It all burned out early — Whitaker identifies signs that this would happen as soon as the end of 1966.

Daniel Akst’s lucid group biography, “War By Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance,” demonstrates people of the era engaging in action that brings about actual change. Following the lives and careers of the activists Dorothy Day, Dwight Macdonald, David Dellinger and Bayard Rustin, one senses almost none of the detour into showmanship that so infused 1966. While Carmichael made speeches that, to many, were suggestive of violence, and later moved to Africa, Rustin, for example, essentially birthed the March on Washington.

I hardly intend that Carmichael’s brand of progressivism has only been known among Black people. Today it has attained cross-racial influence, serving as a model for today’s extremes of wokeness, confusing acting out for action. One might suppose that the acting out is at least a demonstration of leftist philosophy, perhaps valuable as a teaching tool of sorts. But is it? The flinty, readable “Left is Not Woke” by Susan Neiman, the director of the Einstein Forum think tank, explores that question usefully.

Neiman limns the new wokeness as an anti-Enlightenment program, despite its humanistic Latinate vocabulary. She associates true leftism with a philosophy that asserts “a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a firm distinction between justice and power and a belief in the possibility of progress” and sees little of those elements in the essentializing, punitive and pessimistic tenets too common in modern wokeness. Woke “begins with concern for marginalized persons, and ends by reducing each to the prism of her marginalization,” she writes. “In the focus on inequalities of power, the concept of justice is often left by the wayside. Woke demands that nations and peoples face up to their criminal histories. In the process it often concludes that all history is criminal.”

Neiman critiques pioneering texts of this kind of view, such as Michel Foucault’s widely assigned book, “Discipline and Punish,” and his essay “What is Enlightenment?,” in which he scorns “introducing ‘dialectical’ nuances while seeking to determine what good and bad elements there may have been in the Enlightenment.” In this cynical and extremist kind of rhetoric, Neiman notes that “you may look for an argument; what you’ll find is contempt.” And the problem, she adds, is that “those who have learned in college to distrust every claim to truth will hesitate to acknowledge falsehood.”

All of these books relate to a general sense I have always had, that in 1966 something went seriously awry with what used to be called “The Struggle.” There is a natural human tendency in which action devolves into gesture, the concrete drifts into abstraction, the outline morphs into shorthand. It’s true in language, in the arts, and in politics, and I think its effects distracted much Black American thought — as today’s wokeness as performance also leads us astray — at a time when there was finally the opportunity to do so much more. I will explore what that more was in another column, but in the meantime, Whitaker, Neiman, Akst and — albeit more obliquely — Gage are useful in showing why 1966 was such an important turning point in the story.

Source: Today’s Woke Excesses Were Born in the ’60s

McWhorter: Why Racial Discussions Should Also Focus on Progress


I have argued recently that a useful and inspiring history of modern Black America need not be dominated by discussions of white racism. And having done so, it seems reasonable for me to explain, to at least a limited degree, what I would envision as a potentially better approach.

Specifically, I wrote about a draft curriculum of the College Board’s Advanced Placement course in African American studies. So what other topics might it have included, to counterbalance topics — clearly worthy, yet incomplete — such as reparations, Amiri Baraka and the Black Lives Matter movement?

Let’s try, for one, the notion of Black power. The good word would seem to be that we never really have any. But that isn’t true, and any valid chronicle of the history of what’s been happening to Black Americans since the 1960s must not pretend otherwise.

We have now had a two-term Black president, two Black secretaries of state, one Black (and South Asian) vice president and a Black secretary of defense. These were all borderline unimaginable goals a generation ago.

Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., was elevated in 2020 to become the Catholic Church’s first Black cardinal. He was the first Black president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as far back as the early 2000s — a time at which Dennis Archer was also the first Black president of the American Bar Association.

Lowe’s and Walgreens, two of the nation’s largest retailers, are run by Black chief executives. The reason you probably didn’t know that is because there are now enough Black chief executives to bypass the notion of firsts. This contrasts with 2000, when there were only two prominent Black chief executives of Fortune 500 companies — Franklin Raines at Fannie Mae and Lloyd Ward at Maytag — although that, too, was awesome progress over what had come before.

Successes of this kind should be held up front and center, not dismissed as footnotes or all but buried in equal coverage of remaining disparities — although those should of course be covered elsewhere in a curriculum. The question is how people like this achieved as much as they did despite the obstacles, largely but not exclusively racial, they all faced. We might ask why there isn’t more focus on that question.

I often sense that we are supposed to think of people like this with a certain formulaic admiration. They are what are sometimes called “Blacks in wax” (after, presumably, the museum in Baltimore): nice to know about but ultimately fluky superstars irrelevant to what some might say Blackness is really about. Is the idea that, because they have not usually dedicated themselves to political protest in deed or gesture, it somehow makes them less impressive or less important? That itself would be a radical proposition.

Something else: A modern history of Black America should include how Black English has become, to a considerable extent, a youth lingua franca since at least the 1990s. It is absolutely a fact that attitudes toward Black English can be influenced by racism. However, this is neither the most important nor even the most interesting thing about the dialect. Beyond its awesome grammatical structures, it is fascinating that such a dialect primarily confined to Black usage just 50 years ago now decorates the speech of countless Americans who are not Black at all. And that is because how Black people talk has become an integral part of how America talks.

In Black English, “I’m going to” can be rendered as the marvelously terse “Ima,” as in, “Ima go downstairs.” Thirty years ago, I overheard a white undergraduate woman use this phrase with Black male friends. Then, white people using it were generally ones especially identified with and situated within Black culture — i.e., with a substantially Black friend group. Today I hear white and Asian young people use “Ima” all the time; it is no longer interesting. A student of South Asian heritage wrote a paper for me recently chronicling how his texting with friends, most of whom are not Black, was couched considerably in Black English, as a default medium with no performance or ridicule entailed.

And dismissing this as cultural appropriation won’t do. It’d be like Jewish people complaining that non-Jewish people say “klutz,” “schmooze” and “shtick.” Black English’s transformation of mainstream English has likewise been inevitable, harmless and cool. It’s something great that has happened since the 1960s.

A true and healthy history of Black America should also cover, with the same ardor that it does the L.A. riots of 1992, the efflorescence of Black film starting in the 1980s and continuing into the 2000s. After the Blaxploitation film flame burned out rather quickly in the 1970s, Black movies came out here and there. But starting with the electrically odd, goofy, plangent and true “She’s Gotta Have It” by Spike Lee in 1986, and Lee’s titanic oeuvre of films in its wake, it started to get hard to see every Black film that was released. (I had to give up around 1999.)

The comedies were often of a kind that both taught and amused (“Barbershop”); the romances gave Black women especially equivalents to movies like “When Harry Met Sally” (“Love Jones”); the dramas gave us our forms of movies like “Terms of Endearment” (“Soul Food”); and the gangster pictures finally gave us our James Cagneys and Lee Marvins (“New Jack City”).

A line one often used to hear in response to the idea of progress in Black film was that there existed no Black producer who could greenlight a movie alone. But that’s no longer true, now that Tyler Perry rules his own filmic empire. Some think Perry does not really count because most of his films appeal more to the gut than to the intellect. But then the vast majority of films always have, and I for one have never seen a film of Perry’s without at least one immortal performance of some kind, including, frequently, his own. And they are indeed often damnably funny.

That Black movies are now ordinary is something our historiography should chart and celebrate, much as it should a two-term Black president. The prospect of a film like “Black Panther” even getting made on such a lavish budget, much less being an international sensation, would have sounded like science fiction as recently as the 1990s. The prospect of a high-budget sequel with a mostly Black cast being made even after the star of the original had died? It beggars imagination.

One last example: From the Florida A.P. draft, one might suppose that the thing most interesting about hip-hop is its usage as protest music, given that in the draft music is so dominatingly associated with social and political purposes, advocacy and empowerment. Certainly, protest is part of what the music is; its confrontational cadence is fundamental to the genre. But as to the idea of a hip-hop revolution whereby the music was always supposedly about to unite Black America into some kind of radical political consciousness: How has that panned out?

Hip-hop has been a glorious revolution, indeed — in music, period. Be it party music, protest music, political music, obscene music or Dr. Octagon, a genre that started as street fun in the Bronx has transformed the musical fabric and sensibility of America — as well as that of the whole world. (I once watched a teen rap in Indonesian in New Guinea.) No one denies this, of course. But it is this basic triumph that should center its coverage in a course and be offered as a topic of engagement to curious young people.

I suspect that the idea that a Black historiography would not just wave at but stare at positive developments will rub some the wrong way. But the idea that our history must elevate protest as the most interesting thing about us is peculiar.

It’s worth noting that not that very long ago, Black American movers and shakers were of a similar mind in celebrating the victories more than the — very real — obstacles. In 1901, an issue of the Black newspaper The Indianapolis Recorder listed all of the city’s businesses owned by Black people and crowed, “If after reading the facts and figures as succinctly presented an inspiration comes to any who may be considering embarking in some business enterprise or renews hope in those who are now struggling to attain success we shall feel gratified.”

If a Black man could write that in the era of Plessy v. Ferguson, surely today our curriculums on Black history can recognize more clearly what Black people have accomplished, continue to accomplish and accomplish more with each passing decade. Just because time moves more slowly than we wish it did doesn’t mean we should not recognize its motion. Relaxing the impulse to hold the spotlight on what white people are doing — or not doing, or should have done — can be, among other things, a way to recognize what Black people have accomplished in a nation that brought them across an ocean as slaves.

The protest-focused perspective is rooted, it seems to me, in a take on being Black that was memorably articulated by the writer Ellis Cose in the 1990s in “The Rage of a Privileged Class,” his widely discussed book about middle-class Black people’s sense of alienation: “Hurtful and seemingly trivial encounters of daily existence are in the end what most of life is,” Cose attested, in what he described as the story of what it’s like to be Black in modern America.

Cose’s Weltanschauung is one especially prevalent among academics, artists and journalists. But most people — and most Black people — are none of those three things. I have lost count of how many Black people told me back in the day that they did not share Cose’s take on what we now call “microaggressions” as the very fabric of our existence. Many do share it, to be sure, but their positions share space with those of the other millions of Black Americans who feel closer to the way I do.

The story of Black people in America is much more than the story of what’s wrong with white people. To pretend that this isn’t true, to downplay or ignore decades of progress and accomplishment and to portray political activism — however important and necessary, and it is both — as Black Americans’ main form of accomplishment, is to suggest that white people have already won.

Source: Why Racial Discussions Should Also Focus on Progress

McWhorter: DeSantis May Have Been Right

Provocative title but substance regarding the diversity of views has merit:

In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida announced he would ban a draft curriculum proposed by the College Board for a new Advanced Placement course in African American studies, criticizing the educational merit of the course. This month the College Board released an official curriculum that revised the course by designating some of the writers and ideas in the draft curriculum as optional topics of study rather than core lessons.

The board claimed that the changes were responses to “the input of professors” and “longstanding A.P. principles.” I am unconvinced, to say the least, especially given the degree to which the counsel of these “professors” was mysteriously consonant with DeSantis’s.

I’d like to make clear that I disapprove of the vast majority of DeSantis’s culture warrior agenda, a ham-handed set of plans designed to stir up a G.O.P. base in thrall to unreflective figures such as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. If DeSantis runs for president, he will not get my vote.

However, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and in terms of how we tell the story of Black America, the board did the right thing, whether because of DeSantis’s threat or for more high-minded reasons. The take that I saw in the course’s original draft depicted the history of Black America over the past several decades as an unbroken stream of left protest against a seemingly unchanging racist hegemon. There is certainly drama in the procession. The Black Panthers, the Black arts movement, Black studies departments, Black Lives Matter. Incarceration, reparations and Black struggle. Amiri Baraka, Molefi Kete Asante, Manning Marable (all notably left-leaning writers). But Black history has been ever so much more than protest and professional pessimism; note how hard it is to imagine any other group of people whose history is written with this flavor so dominant.

This is not education but advocacy. And in no sense does racism mean that the difference has no meaning. The key issue is the difference between opinions that are considered and debated and opinions that are mostly uncontested and perhaps considered uncontestable — essentially opinions that are treated as if they were facts.

Of course, it is possible to teach about opinions rather than facts. When that is properly done, the opinions are presented along with intelligent counterproposals. Given that Black conservatives — or skeptics of progressive narratives often processed as mainstream after the late 1960s — were nowhere to be found in the A.P. curriculum (except for Booker T. Washington, who has been dead for over a hundred years, and Zora Neale Hurston, whose conservatism is all too often downplayed), it is reasonable to assume that opinions from the left were going to be presented with little or no meaningful challenge.

Certain takes on race are thought of by an influential portion of progressive Americans — Black, white and otherwise — as incarnations of social justice. To them, our nation remains an incomplete project that will remain mired in denial until these ways of seeing race are universally accepted and determine the bulk of public policy. These issues include ones in the earlier version of the A.P. course, such as the idea that Black people may be owed reparations and that one of the most accurate lenses through which to view America is through the lens of intersectionality.

I imagine that to people of this mind-set, incorporating these views into an A.P. course on African American studies is seen as a natural step, via which we help get America woken by appealing to its brightest young minds. But for all the emotional resonance, the savory intonation of key buzzwords and phrases and the impassioned support of people with advanced degrees and prize-awarded media status, views of this kind remain views.

To dismiss those in disagreement as either naïve or malevolent is unsophisticated, suggesting that racial enlightenment requires comfort with a take-no-prisoners approach and facile reasoning. Not even the tragedies of America’s record on race justify saying “I’m just right, dammit!” as if the matter were as settled as the operations of gravity

For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article “The Case for Reparations,” which appeared in The Atlantic in 2014 and focused on the injustice of redlining policies in mortgage lending until the late 1960s, stimulated a nationwide discussion. It was initially listed as a “source for consideration” in the course. However, for all the impact of that intelligent, influential and well-written article, the idea that reparations are owed is open to wide dispute. It is a proposal and one that many Black people reject. (Useful examples of that, from long before the Coates article was published, are here).

Some think that despite the injustices of the past, people in the present should achieve via their own efforts. Others contest the causal link between past discrimination and Black America’s current problems — a key plank in today’s reparations arguments. Some observe that Blackness alone is too ambiguous a concept in our endlessly hybridized society, i.e., they acknowledge what almost all believe, which is that our concept of race is a messy, contingent fiction. I think the Great Society programs, affirmative action, the loosening of welfare programs in the late 1960s, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 and other significant policies have already been conceived of as a form of reparations, if not under the name itself. Reparations advocates have some answersto those objections, but even they fail to establish reparations as a moral absolute. The issue remains a controversy.

Intersectionality is a similar matter, in part as it seems a stand-in for the more openly controversial critical race theory. The very definition of C.R.T. has become a shifting target, rather like the term “neoliberal” or what it means to say that two people dated. However, the implication in much discussion — that C.R.T. is a mere matter of the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, documenting that race, gender and other factors condition how people process life — is coy. No school of legal or academic thought could consist solely of that unexceptionable and even rather obvious observation. What worries many about C.R.T. are the conclusions its advocates draw from this intersectionality.

The original draft did not explicitly mention C.R.T., as opposed to intersectionality. However, it is reasonable to suppose that many teachers would use intersectionality as a springboard for instructing students, for example, that white people can be conceived as a single mass of domination and that racism is baked into America’s very essence in ways inescapable and unending. We must note that criticism of Crenshaw’s removal from the course — which took place in the College Board’s modified draft — often claim that detractors don’t want students to know the truth about America, something that overshoots the mere excision of the term “intersectionality” and implies a sanctioning of students being taught something broader and more judgmental.

Some C.R.T. advocates, for example, conclude that systemic oppression means that views from those oppressed via intersectionality must be accepted without question, as a kind of group narrative that renders it egregious to quibble over the details and nuances of individual experience. As the C.R.T. pioneer Richard Delgado put it, nonwhite people should protest based on a “broad story of dashed hopes and centuries-long mistreatment that afflicts an entire people and forms the historical and cultural background of your complaint.”

But this perspective, called standpoint epistemology, while intended as social justice, also questions empiricism and logic. Who really thinks that its absence from an A.P. course constitutes denying that slavery happened or that racism exists? C.R.T. advocates too often discuss white people as an undifferentiated mass, as in claims that white people resist letting go of their power, a view memorably promulgated by the legal scholar Derrick Bell. There is a rhetorical power in this sociological shorthand, but it also encourages a shallow classification of American individuals as bad white people and good everybody else. Fact this is not.

To pretend that where Blackness is concerned, certain views must be treated as truth despite intelligent and sustained critique is to give in to the illogic of standpoint epistemology: “That which rubs me the wrong way is indisputably immoral.”

And I hardly see this as applying only to people I disagree with. I have broadcast my views about race for almost a quarter century. Naturally, I consider my views correct — that’s why they are my views — and contrary to what some may suppose, conservative white people are by no means the core of people who often see things my way. I am always gladdened to find that there are quite a few Black people from all walks of life who agree with me. Yet I would protest seeing my views on race included in an A.P. course as facts or uncontested opinions.

There are certainly conservatives who think discussion of racism should be entirely barred from public life. This is, on its face, blinkered, ignorant and pathetic. But to pretend that controversial views on race from the left are truth incarnate is being dishonest about race as well. It sacrifices logic out of a quiet terror of being called racist (or, if Black, self-hating). How that is progressive or even civil in a real way is unclear to me. In being honest enough to push past the agitprop, I hate having to say that in this case, DeSantis, of all people, was probably right.

Source: McWhorter: DeSantis May Have Been Right

McWhorter: Police Brutality Is Not Always About Race

A reminder:

The brutal killing of Tyre Nichols by Memphis cops horrified and infuriated many Americans, not least because it was another in what has been an endless litany of Black men and boys killed by police officers in America: George Floyd, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and literally thousands of names less well known. There is one confounding detail in Nichols’s death, however. The five policemen who mercilessly beat the life out of him were all Black.

Thus, to understand the full tragedy of Tyre Nichols, it is important to ask hard questions about the culture and behavior of police officers — including grappling with the fact that whatever role race played in Nichols’s death, it was more complicated than the racist-white-cop-kills-Black-man framework into which we typically sort such horrific episodes. One possibility that needs further exploration is the role that poverty plays in determining the victims of police killings — a characteristic that overlaps with but is obviously distinct from race.

Much of the conversation about police violence in recent years has been through a lens of systemic racism, white cops and antiracism reform goals. But a man (or a woman) who is killed by a police officer merits our attention and response, regardless of the race of either victim or killer. There has long been a theory afoot that hiring more Black cops would result in fewer shootings of Black civilians. But there is little evidence that this intuitive solution has any meaningful effect. (It’s worth noting here that there is substantially more readily available data regarding the race of victims of police violence than that of the perpetrators.)

More than one study has suggested that the difference in likelihood between white and Black cops killing Black people is much smaller than one might suppose. Expert observers on the subject regularly concur, and it is a commonplace in Black community discussions that one cannot necessarily expect any particular clemency from Black officers in tough situations. The Memphis Police Department is 58 percent Black and has a Black police chief; that did not prevent the horrific acts of violence perpetrated on Nichols.

As Duane Loynes Sr., an assistant professor of urban and Africana studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, told The Los Angeles Times’s Jaweed Kaleem, “Here’s a dirty little secret: Studies indicate that Black officers are just as brutal and at times even more brutal against Black bodies as their white counterparts.”

The point is not that we don’t have a grievous problem but rather that the problem is not exclusively racist white cops. It’s cops, period. (An important note: When it comes to nonlethal mistreatment, as opposed to police shootings, studies demonstrate the existence of outright racial bias. This is very much a problem but a very different problem from police killings.)

The way we are trained to view the situation is understandable but outdated. As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, cops killed people — Black and white alike — at much higher rates in major cities than they do now, as the criminologist Peter Moskos has shown. I grew up in the Philadelphia of that era, where Mayor Frank Rizzo openly condoned cops’ brutality against Black people. By morbid coincidence, I saw the gruesome videotaped beating of Nichols shortly after I rewatched Melvin Van Peebles’s pioneering 1971 film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” In the movie, Van Peebles plays a Black man on the run from racist white cops whose shameless, bloodletting brutality roughly corresponded to what some Black people of the period actually experienced. A lot of time has passed since then, but the way we discuss police brutality against Black people today can sometimes make it sound as if there is no difference between the situation Van Peebles depicted — of marauding, openly racist cops — and the one we face today.

Yet white Americans are also killed by police officers in appalling numbers — many more, overall, than Black Americans, owing to the fact that the latter make up only about 14 percent of the U.S. population. In 2022, The Washington Post’s database on cop killings documented that of 755 victims whose race was known, 225 were Black and 389 were white.

Because casual and sometimes lethal violence against Black people by cops is part of our shameful and still recent national narrative, names like those of the victims I cited earlier sometimes become national news stories. But the media rarely even covers police killings of white people, which don’t fit so neatly into that existing narrative.

So we largely missed the story that in 2015 in Paradise, Calif., a white officer, Patrick Feaster, shot a white man, Andrew Thomas, as he was getting out of the S.U.V. he had crashed during a pursuit, even as Thomas’s wife lay gravely injured on the ground at the scene. The parallel with what happened to Nichols is ghastly, as is that between Floyd’s murder and what happened in 2016 to Tony Timpa, a white man in Dallas. Although Timpa had requested police officers’ help because he was off his medication, he was killed when they pinned him to the ground as he called out desperately. It was recorded on the officers’ body cams. Members of Timpa’s family have contacted me wondering why the media had so little interest in what happened to him; last year, the officer who had pinned him was promoted.

A common response here is to note that nevertheless, police officers kill unarmed Black people at more than three times the rate they kill unarmed white people and that this disproportionate rate of Black killings demonstrates that racism affects whether cops kill. But this assumption seems oversimplified. One reason is that poverty also helps determine whether — and in what way, with what results — one encounters the cops.

The police are called to, as well as directed to, poorer neighborhoods more often than to middle-class or affluent ones. Poverty can nudge a person into criminal activities — including intrinsically violent ones, such as the illegal drug trade — that are far more likely to lead to dangerous encounters with cops. It is also not an accident that so many of these gruesome killings by cops happen when someone flees after being stopped because he already has an outstanding warrant. Such warrants are frequently outstanding as a result of poverty.

And in a striking parallel, unarmed Black people are not only more than three times as likely as white people to be killed by a cop but also more than twice as likely to be poor. In 2021 the poverty rate for white Americans was 8.1 percent, while for Black Americans, it was 19.5 percent.

We could propose that the match between these statistics bears no relevance to the issue of police violence and racism and dismiss them as a coincidence. But this would be willfully resistant to examining the significance of patterns in a way that no one would even venture in drawing parallels between, for example, poverty rates and obesity.

Police killings of unarmed or unthreatening American citizens are a national disgrace and one that requires action. But action requires comprehension, and the simplest explanation — “racist white cops kill Black people” — is clearly often not the correct one.

Source: Police Brutality Is Not Always About Race

McWhorter: Harvard, Herschel Walker and ‘Tokenism’

Valid observations on tokenism:

We are at a moment in which tokenism is on trial. This is true both in terms of the Supreme Court’s consideration of affirmative action in higher education and in terms of the candidacy of the former running back and political airhead Herschel Walker, who will become a U.S. senator from Georgia if he wins his runoff against Senator Raphael Warnock next Tuesday.

Remember how common the term “token Black” once was? Back in the day — the phrase really took off in the 1960s — tokenism was considered a prime example of racism. The hipper television shows would offer story lines in which Black people were put into jobs for which they were transparently unqualified just so the company could show a little color.

I learned the term “token” in 1975 at the age of 9. An episode of the Black sitcom “Good Times” had the teenager Thelma recruited by an elite private school sorority solely because she was Black. A white sorority sister visited the household to chat Thelma up. But after Thelma’s father saw through the ruse, the white woman dismissively referred to Black people as “B’s.” My mother told me that Thelma was being used as a “token Black.” She liked me to know about such things.

It was normal that a Black mom would teach her kid such things back then. But you don’t hear the terms “token Black” and “tokenism” as much as you used to. (Yes, “South Park” had a character named Token — now spelled Tolkien — as late as the 1990s. But part of the joke was how antique the term had already become.) The term has a whiff of the ’70s about it, and it went out of fashion because, frankly, today’s left cherishes a form of tokenism.

Our theoretically enlightened idea these days is that using skin color as a major, and often decisive, factor in job hiring and school admissions is to be on the side of the angels. We euphemize this as being about the value of diverseness and people’s life experiences. This happened when we — by which I mean specifically but not exclusively Black people — shifted from demanding that we be allowed to show our best to demanding that the standards be changed for us.

I witnessed signs of that transition when racial preferences in admissions were banned at the University of California in the late 1990s. I was a new professor at U.C. Berkeley at the time, and at first, I opposed the ban as well, out of a sense that to be a proper Black person is to embrace affirmative action with no real questions. I’m not as reflexively contrarian as many suppose.

There was a massive attempt at pushback against the ban among faculty members and administrators, and I attended many meetings of this kind. I’ll never forget venturing during one of them that if the idea was that even middle-class Black students should be admitted despite lower grades and test scores, then we needed to explain clearly why, rather than simply making speeches about inclusiveness and openness and diversity as if the issues of grades and test scores were irrelevant.

I was naïve back then. I thought that people fighting the ban actually had such explanations. I didn’t realize that I had done the equivalent of blowing on a sousaphone in the middle of a bar mitzvah. There was an awkward silence. Then a guy of a certain age with a history of political activism said that in the 1960s and ’70s he was, make no mistake, staunchly against tokenism. And then he added … nothing. He went straight back to rhetoric about resegregation, laced with the fiction that racial preferences at Berkeley were going mostly to poor kids from inner-city neighborhoods. It was one of many demonstrations I was to see of a tacit notion that for Black kids, it’s wrong to measure excellence with just grades and scores because, well … they contribute to diversity?

When the Supreme Court outlaws affirmative action in higher education admissions, as it almost certainly will, it will eliminate a decades-long program of tokenism. I’ve written that I support socioeconomic preferences and that I understand why racial ones were necessary for a generation or so. But for those who have a hard time getting past the idea that it’s eternally unfair to subject nonwhite students to equal competition unless they are from Asia, I suggest a mental exercise: Whenever you think or talk about racial preferences, substitute “racial tokenism.”

At the same time, Republicans, despite generally deriding affirmative action and tokenism as leftist sins, are reveling in tokenism in supporting Walker’s run for Senate and are actually pretending to take him seriously. But to revile lowering standards on the basis of race requires reviling Walker’s very candidacy; to have an instinctive revulsion against tokenism requires the same.

There’s no point in my listing Walker’s copious ethical lapses. Terrible people can occasionally be good leaders. With him, the principal issue is his utter lack of qualification for the office. Walker in the Senate would be like Buddy Hackett in the United Nations. It is true that Republicans have also offered some less than admirably qualified white people for high office. But George W. Bush was one thing, with his “working hard to put food on your family.” Walker’s smilingly sheepish third-grade nonsense in response to even basic questions about the issues of the day is another.

And it matters that Walker would have been much, much less likely to be encouraged to run for senator in, say, Colorado. In Georgia, it was the clear intent that he would peel Black votes from his Black rival, Warnock. Walker’s color was central to his elevation. A swivel-tongued galoot who was white would not likely have been chosen as the Republicans’ answer to Warnock.

But if Bush, like Walker and others, implies a questioning of standards — here, the idea that a high-placed politician be decently informed — is that so very different from those on the left questioning why we concern ourselves overly with grades and test scores in determining college admissions?

Yes, there are times when one needs to question the rules regarding traditional qualifications. But the Georgia runoff isn’t one of them. The last thing Black people — who are often assumed to be less smart — need is for anyone to insist that Walker is a legitimate candidate because, say, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t the most curious or coherent sort, either.

White Republicans have elevated a Black man to a position for which he is cartoonishly unfit. They have done so in spite of, rather than because of, the content not only of his character but also of his mind. Walker is essentially being treated the way Thelma was in that “Good Times” episode almost 50 years ago.

The past was better in some ways. The prevalence of the term “token Black” from the 1960s to the ’80s was one of them. And I promise — although I shouldn’t have to — that this does not mean I think Black America was better off in 1960.

But when Black students submitting dossiers of a certain level are all but guaranteed admission to elite schools despite the fact that the same dossiers from white or Asian students would barely get them a sniff, they are being treated, in a way, like Walker. The left sings of life experience and diversity, while the right crows about authenticity and connection. I hear all of them, intentionally or not, thinking about “the B’s.”

Source: Harvard, Herschel Walker and ‘Tokenism’

McWhorter: What a Report of Extreme Racism Teaches Us

Controversial but raises valid concerns:

It’s time for a few words on what we might learn from a Black volleyball player’s claims about what happened at a match she participated in at Brigham Young University this past August. I have refrained from commenting on this for a spell, in case there were further revelations. As there have been none yet, I shall proceed.

Rachel Richardson, a Black member of Duke’s volleyball team playing in a match at Brigham Young University, claimed that she and other Black teammates were “targeted and racially heckled throughout the entirety of the match,” such that they had to face a crowd amid which slurs “grew into threats.”

But a sporting match such as this one is attended by thousands and is well recorded, both professionally and also by anyone in attendance with a cellphone. To date, no one has offered evidencethat corroborates Richardson’s claims of racist verbal abuse, either independently or as part of an investigation by B.Y.U. There is nothing comparable in the security footage or in the television feed the school took of the match. No one at the match representing either school has described hearing such a thing happening. No witnesses have been reported as coming forward.

To be clear: It is possible that some racist spectator shouted a racial slur at Richardson at some point during the match. But it seems apparent that no rising tide of slurs and threats occurred during that match — that would be clear in the recordings. And Richardson’s having possibly exaggerated what happened casts into doubt whether there were any slurs at all, given that people leveling such words tend to do so with the intention of being heard by others, and no one present has come forward and explicitly said they heard it. Richardson and her representatives have presented no explanation as to why recordings via modern technology do not reveal what she claimed.

We cannot know why Richardson made this claim. Maybe she misheard common volleyball chants, as some have suggested. Or perhaps there were members of the crowd who did in fact resort to racist slurs that others either did not hear or are not willing to corroborate. But it’s hard not to sense that all of this is discomfitingly ambiguous — the likelihood that Richardson’s basic claim of being continuously heckled with racist slurs from the stands seems rather infinitesimal.

But this is why the B.Y.U. story is important. The message from this story is not just that interpretations of events will differ, or that in some fashion racism persists in America even if the details on this case are murky. We must also engage with the unfortunate possibility that the B.Y.U. story may be a demonstration of a pattern, one that we must be aware of to have an honest debate about racism in America today.

I have long noticed, in attending to episodes of this kind in our times, that claims of especially stark and unfiltered racist abuse, of the kind that sound like something from another time, often do not turn out to have been true. Accounts of this kind, I have realized, should be received warily. Not with utter resistance, but with a grain of salt.

The people making such claims appear to be thinking of horrors of the past and claiming that what supposedly happened to them shows that those horrors persist. It is difficult not to notice, for example, the parallel between Richardson’s claim and Jackie Robinson’s being called the N-word from the stands in the 1940s.

But while we have not remotely reached a point where racism does not exist, we have reached a point where some people are able to fabricate episodes of racism out of one unfortunate facet of being not Black, but human — crying wolf and seeking attention. This kind of thing was probably less likely when actual episodes of this kind, including lethal ones, were ordinary. Who would, on top of legalized segregation and lynching, make up racist violence? It would have seemed too trivializing of what actual people regularly went through. But today? Things are, while imperfect, quite different.

The classic, and perhaps officially inauguratory, example — and this is in no way to equate Richardson’s possible exaggeration to the prior, extraordinary event — was Tawana Brawley’s claim in 1987 to have been kidnapped and raped by a group of white men and then left in the woods wrapped in a garbage bag, covered with feces and scrawled with racial slurs. The sheer luridness of that scenario was always a clue that Brawley staged the whole thing, which she was proved to have done. A U.S. Justice Department report concluded that in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, Officer Darren Wilson did not callously shoot Michael Brown dead despite his having his hands up in surrender, despite Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson’s claim to that effect.

White lacrosse players at Duke did not rape a Black stripper at a party, despite the 88 Duke professors who published a newspaper ad implying the lacrosse players were guilty. And of course, the actor Jussie Smollett’s story that MAGA-hatted homophobic racists jumped him in the wee small hours and put a noose around his neck has not held water. Nor is it an accident that the scenario sounds less like real life than something that would have happened on the television soap opera “Empire” that Smollett was starring in.

Cases like these are not eccentric one-offs. It is painful to have to write that they are a pattern. The incidents could fill a whole book, and they have: “Hate Crime Hoax by Wilfred Reilly, a Black political scientist, covers over 400 cases primarily in the 2010s that were either disproved or shown to be highly unlikely. It isn’t that discrimination never happens. But the more extreme and ghastly the story, the less likely I am to believe it.

It is a kind of good news. Today’s hoaxes are often based on claims of the kinds of things that actually happened to people and went unpunished in the past. That today such things are sometimes fabricated shows, oddly, that in real life, progress has taken place.

My point is not remotely to ignore claims of racism. It is to be wary of the especially bizarre, antique-sounding cases. And so: Indeed, the racially offensive trash talk by the Los Angeles City Council members that surfaced this week was egregious, but talk like that, when speakers are unaware anyone else will hear, is common, sad though that is. That story does not disprove my point, because it happened in an ordinary rather than outlandish manner. Grotesque, racist private talk certainly still persists.

While we must always be maximally aware that racism does still exist, we must also know that not all claims of racist abuse hold water and that being aware of this does not disqualify one from being an antiracist. True antiracists know that Black people exhibit the full scale of human traits and tendencies, including telling tall tales — and yes, even about matters involving racism.

Source: What a Report of Extreme Racism Teaches Us

McWhorter: A Language Test That Stigmatizes Black Children

Good example of a systemic barrier:

It can be hard not to notice that a suspiciously large number of children, of seemingly normal human linguistic capacity, are officially designated as language impaired. In 2019, two researchers set out to determine just how common this phenomenon is. Examining nationwide data, they found that each year, 14 percent of states overrepresent the number of Black children with speech and language impairments.

Just what does “language impaired” mean, though? Much of the reason this diagnosis is so disproportionate among this group and has been for decades is that too many people who are supposedly trained in assessing children’s language skills aren’t actually taught much about how human language works. And it affects the lives of Black kids dramatically.

The reason for that overrepresentation is that most Black children grow up code switching between Black English and standard English. There is nothing exotic about this; legions of people worldwide live between two dialects of a language, one casual and one formal, and barely think about it. Many Germans, Italians, Chinese people, South Asians and Southeast Asians and most Arabs are accustomed to speaking different varieties of language according to different forms of social interaction. So, too, are Black Americans. Black children, along the typical lines of bidialectal contexts like these, are much more comfortable with the casual variety of Black speech, only faintly aware that in formal settings there is a standard way of speaking that is considered more appropriate. Black English grammar is often assumed to be slang and mistakes. But it’s actually just an alternate, rather than degraded, form of English compared to the standard variety.

Here are the kinds of phrases that so many Black kids know and use effortlessly, phrases that are richer than standard English in many ways: “He be singin’”; “He done sung”; “He had sung and then he had gone quiet.” All three sentences are examples of how Black English expresses shades of actions in ways that standard English leaves more to context. “He be singin’ refers to someone singing regularly; you wouldn’t say that if someone were singing right in front of you. “He done sung” doesn’t simply refer to the past but to the fact that his having done so was something of a surprise, or something people urgently needed to know. Used on verbs one after the other in sequence instead of in the past-before-the-past pluperfect way that we use it in standard English, “had” in Black English indicates that one is telling a story; it is a narrative marker. None of this is broken. It is just different.

Now, suppose a kid raised in this dialect were asked on a test: “This bird is blue. What about this one?” “It red” would be marked wrong. Never mind that putting it that way is the way one would do it in the most standard version of Russian. If the kids tested see a girl with scissors and say “The girl cuttin’” instead of “The girl is cutting,” they are not just doing what Tolstoy would have thought of as normal but evidencing signs of linguistic impairment, as it is called.

The test asks the kid: “This is Jack. Whose dog is this? It is ______.” The kid may say “Jack dog” — in Black English, it is permissible to leave the possessive “-’s” out. Hence the late Black comedian Robin Harris’s classic routine about his girlfriend’s children saying, “Dem Bebe kids!” Apparently Harris had a linguistic impairment?

Imagine 7- or 8-year-old Black kids asked to repeat the sentence “My mother is the nurse who works in the community clinic.” If they happily say, spontaneously expressing it in the English they are most comfortable with, “My mother the nurse work in the community clinic,” they could be marked as linguistically deficient.

You don’t have to imagine this. Many of these questions are right from the CELF (Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals)-5 test, which is commonly used to assess children for disability status. And while the test includes modified scoring guidelines for students who may not have grown up speaking standard English, many test administrators do not abide by them. And even when they do, it can sometimes lead to underidentification of true language impairment when those test administrators cannot distinguish between language differences and language deficits. (This would help explain why the researchers also found that an estimated 62 percent of states underdiagnose Black children with these impairments.)

Tests like this one tend to be central to assessments of children as language deficient. The CELF-5 is used quite often. The dialect issue has been shown to be of key importance in overdiagnosis, which isn’t surprising given that, as Professor Catherine Crowley, from the program in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Columbia University’s Teachers College, tells me, in one subtest of the exam, 20 out of 33 of the constructions in the CELF-5 are used differently in Black English.

Imagine something else: If Black English were standard and a test asked white kids: Which is correct? “He ain’t be wearing that kind of shirt” or “He don’t be wearing that kind of shirt”? What would they answer? By the established parameters of Black English — and again, it is important to note that there are established parameters; this isn’t just slang — the correct answer is the second option. In that alternate universe, missing the distinction could get kids sent to a specialized classroom where they wouldn’t be taught according to their abilities.

I remember my mother, a child psychologist, talking as far back as the 1970s about Black kids being treated as linguistically deficient for being bidialectal; she resisted diagnostic tests as a result. Yet here we still are. Tests like this stay in place.

There are many areas in which I remain skeptical of the systemic racism analysis — for example, I am unconvinced that it’s systemic racism to require social workers to perform well on standardized tests. However, these speech evaluation tests imposed on children are something else. They can shunt kids away from mainstream opportunity when they have done nothing but grow up immersed in Black English as their linguistic comfort zone. Being born Black makes you more likely to suffer this abuse, whether it means your language impairment requiring special attention goes undiagnosed or your perfectly fine Black English is labeled a problem. Growing up with nonstandard English in general, as one study demonstrates about Filipino kids growing up in the United States from early childhood, can also lead to similar results.

It won’t do. But linguists can only have so much effect here. I have spent three decades listening to educators, psychologists, other linguists and speech pathologists giving talks about this lack of fit between speech evaluation tests and linguistic reality, and little seems to change except people in education circles being aware of and dismayed by the problem. Speech pathologists seeking to meaningfully participate in antiracism must start not just questioning but resisting en masse these outdated tests that apply a Dick-and-Jane sense of English on real kids who control a variety of coherent and nuanced Englishes.

Yes, all kids need to learn standard English in order to be able to access mainstream sources of achievement, not to mention to be taken seriously in specific contexts. This may not be fair. But the idea of standard English as a menacing, racist “gatekeeper” (which I have covered here) makes for good rhetoric yet will help no one in the real world. Certain dialects will be treated as standard as inevitably as certain kinds of clothing are considered more fashionable than others.

But for kids to be designated as linguistically deficient right out of the gate, based on notions such as that if they don’t always use the verb “to be” they don’t understand how things are related, makes no sense. It constitutes a dismissal of eager and innocent articulateness. And as such, it is an arrant and thoughtless injustice that must be stopped.

Source: A Language Test That Stigmatizes Black Children

McWhorter: Trying to Prove You’re Not a Racist

Useful overview by McWhorter of his sensible views. From a Canadian perspective, some of the issues that he flags also have relevance with respect to Indigenous peoples:

Since I started writing this newsletter, once about every couple of weeks I have received a missive from someone troubled by a controversy involving race, usually in the workplace.

These readers feel that their opponents in these fusses are unfairly tarring them as racist. Typical disputes they find themselves embroiled in include whether a school program should devote itself centrally to antiracism, whether it is fair to hire people ranking skin color over qualifications, whether reparations for slavery in a local context are appropriate and what they should consist of, and whether a piece of art should be deemed racist.

They seek my confirmation that they are in the right, that they are not racist, and presumably want to take that judgment back to the ring as proof that their position is not anti-Black. Sometimes they are under the impression that it would help if I addressed their colleagues over Zoom.

It has occurred to me that I should provide, in this space, an all-purpose response to this kind of letter I get. For starters, I’d like to offer a guide to my positions on the debates my correspondents seem to find themselves in.

To wit:

I do not support treating the word “Negro,” as opposed to the “N-word,” as a slur. “Negro” was not a slur when it was current, and the case for classifying it as one now because it is archaic is quite thin. Why look for something to be offended by?

I do not support calling something “racist” because outcomes for it differ for the (Black) race. For example, I take issue with the idea that there is something “racist” or “biased” about the questions on the SAT.

I do not condemn white authors writing Black fictional characters who speak Black English so long as it’s a respectful and realistic rendition.

I think the idea that it is cultural appropriation when whites take on Black cultural traits is ahistoric — human groups sharing space have always shared culture — and also pointless, given that Black American culture has always, and will continue to, infuse mainstream America. I also do not think arguments about power relations somehow invalidate my position. I think that it is in vain to decree that culture cannot be borrowed by people in power from those who are not.

I think the idea that only Black people should depict Black people in art and fiction is less antiracist than anti-human, in forbidding the empathy and even admiration that can motivate respectful attempts to create a literary character.

I revile any concept of equity that allows for appointing Black people to positions over more highly qualified non-Black ones.

I know that racism exists both on the personal and structural levels. But I also feel deep disappointment that the tenor of our times seems to encourage some Black people to exaggerate racism’s effects, to enshrine a kind of charismatic defeatism as a substitute for activism. And then there are those who outright fabricate having suffered racist mistreatment. I also worry that these kinds of things desensitize many observers from acknowledging the real racism that exists.

I think reparations are important — and happened already, decades ago with the Great Society, affirmative action, the expansion of welfare benefits in the late 1960s and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which encouraged banks to extend credit in low-income neighborhoods. I would not stand implacably opposed to new reparations today in the form of various kinds or even cash payments but am highly skeptical that a critical mass of Black commentators would accept them as true compensation. I can’t help thinking the race debate would stay where it is now.

condemn notions that there are white ways of thinking (such as being precise and stressing individualism) and Black ones (such as being intuitive and stressing the communal), such that Black people resisting “assimilation” is taken as a kind of higher wisdom. That vision of Blackness would birth no useful inventions, yield only the occasional out-of-the-box insight and is alarmingly close to tacky, Dionysian depictions of Blackness, such as those in Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.”

I consider it anti-intellectual performance art to retool educational institutions as antiracist academies that “center” the discussion of discrimination and other abuses of power in the instruction of all subjects.

Now that I’ve laid out a primer on my opinions, people who write me seeking support should keep in mind that quite a few Black people consider my stances on race to be a revolting kind of heresy.

Rather, as I have learned in my now lengthy experience with this kind of criticism, it’s that those who disagree with me feel — or perhaps have been taught to feel — that opinions like mine amount to giving white people a pass on racism, that they distract whites from engaging in the kind of thinking and activity that will help Black America. As such, they do not think of people like me as having opinions different from theirs but legitimate. They think opinions like mine are dangerous. I can imagine that to my critics, white people writing me for counsel is exactly what Black America doesn’t need. I am basing this on 25 years of receiving this kind of critique from various directions.

To witness a demonstration of the vigor and tone of this sentiment, please see the negative reactions that are sure to be part of the social media response to this newsletter — from people of all races. No Zoom talk could even begin to cut through such heated resistance.

Be under no illusion, then, that telling your colleagues my opinion about a race issue will be received by them as emanating from some kind of guru. You may suppose that it will be effective to say, “See? There are Black people who feel the way I do.” But to some of your opponents, those Black people may be seen as not just a different kind, but a wrong kind.

If people who don’t see race things my way continue to call you names and get in your way, you have my full sympathy. (And an overprivileged college professor like me isn’t the only one who would come to your defense. “Unwoke” views on race are quite common among Black people of all levels of education.)

But I consider myself engaged in a gradual process of — I hope — shaping our general consciousness on race via constant argument over decades of time. This is a long-game business. Views change slowly, incrementally, and writing is part of making it happen.

If you choose to present my take on race issues amid tense occasions anyway, you should understand that the issue is less my opinion than what you intend to do amid the response to it. My dear correspondents: Please know that it will require a degree of intestinal fortitude to withstand your opponents’ calling you a racist for agreeing with me. Know also, though, that if you’re up for that, you are joining me in that work I am committed to.

Source: Trying to Prove You’re Not a Racist

McWhorter: Proving Racists Wrong Is Not a Trivial Pursuit

McWhorter always worth reading:

To be a “heterodox” Black thinker on race is to be often accused of claiming that racism is extinct or doesn’t matter. For example, when he reviewed my book “Woke Racism” for The Washington Post, The Nation’s Elie Mystal described it as “a pleasing bedtime story to a certain kind of white person who is always looking for a magic Black person to tell them what they want to hear.”

But I’ve never said racism is defunct. I don’t think so now, and I didn’t think so back when I was a graduate student in the late ’80s and early ’90s. One semester, I decided to try my hand at a campus College Bowl-style competition. It was a quiz contest, questioning people on facts, lore — trivia.

Potential teammates gathered in a room, mostly unknown to one another until that day. We all crowded in, and I couldn’t help noticing that within about 60 seconds, the natural mixing process led to all the guys (there weren’t any women in that particular cluster) huddling over to one side to start forming teams — and excluding me and only me.

Yes, they were all white, and I was the only Black guy there.

But I’m not especially inept socially. It was pretty clear to me that the reason I was so baldly excluded was that they had quietly assumed that a Black guy wouldn’t know enough obscure information. That a Black guy wouldn’t be a nerd.

So I went, all hurt, to the campus diversity coordinator? I left, feeling “unwelcome”? I’m afraid not.

The reason I showed up at that event is because I knew I had something to offer when it came to knowing useless facts, thank you very much. And I figured that if those guys concluded otherwise because I’m Black, then as a bonus I could make a small contribution to our civic fabric, laying down one brick in a big wall of a case by showing them that in fact, you can both be Black and know some obscure things for no particular reason. Plenty of Black people do, after all.

Almost as if scripted, the question I was first given when called upon was about old-time musical theater. As readers of this newsletter know, that’s one of my favorite subjects, and I gave the correct answer. Those white guys saw something different from what they would have expected, and you could almost see it from their reaction. Mission accomplished; life went on.

My point isn’t that this trivial episode was somehow on a par with integrating a lunch counter in the segregated South, believe me. But it’s what comes to mind, from my own experience, when I worry that our era teaches us that racism is more interesting than achievement, that calling people out is more useful than proving them wrong. Last week, I explored the idea that the supposedly progressive approach to a standardized test with a disparate pass rate is to eliminate it. Related are ideas such as that antiracism means not requiring classics majors to learn Latin or Greek, or that the very idea of remedial education or the term “remediation” might be racist.

I will never embrace that perspective. Underestimation must be countered with demonstration, not indignation. If people stereotype me, what I want to do is show them just how wrong they are, not protest that they engaged in stereotyping. An analogy: No one would be swayed by someone who, accused of, for example, infidelity, sobs “You’re mean!” and has no further answer.

Now, there are times when history has made it challenging for us to show what we are made of, unlike when I happened to know the answer to that little quiz question. But the ordinary, vital, self-loving response to such a problem is to step up and learn how to show ourselves at our best. Yep, it’s a kind of Black Tax — having to demonstrate your worth before people consider you their equal. But in response to a slight or a remark, just saying “You shouldn’t have said that” instead? It just leaves us looking weak.

Freeman Hrabowski is a Black mathematician who helped found, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. The program has been fostering and guiding students of color through the challenges of STEM fields and preparing them for academic research since the late 1980s. Many Black and Latino students face obstacles to high achievement in STEM subjects — and the Meyerhoff program is geared toward solving that problem. Students are closely mentored, live in the same dormitory during their first year, are shunted to summer internships and are strongly encouraged to work in groups. There are over a thousand alumni of the program, most of whom are Black or Latino. According to the Meyerhoff website, program alumni hold 385 Ph.D.s, including 71 joint M.D./Ph.D.s, and 155 M.D.s or D.O.s. I recommend reading “Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males” and “Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women,” both by Hrabowski and several co-authors.

Hrabowski is, to adopt a fashionable expression, doing the work. Others, however, strike me as more interested in the obstacles than in getting past them. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an accomplished Black physicist at the University of New Hampshire who has argued that the exclusion of Black women in her field is linked to her notion of “white empiricism.” Namely, “white empiricism is the phenomenon through which only white people (particularly white men) are read has having a fundamental capacity for objectivity and Black people (particularly Black women) are produced as an ontological other.” Prescod-Weinstein wants us to consider that “white epistemic claims about science — which are not rooted in empirical evidence — receive more credence and attention than Black women’s epistemic claims about their own lives.”

Her argument is rather involved, and sincere from what I can see. However, at the end of the day, I doubt we gain more from its approach than Hrabowski’s.

There’s room for questioning standards, of course. Not every undergraduate needs to master ancient Greek. It was good that years ago, the College Board was prompted to remove SAT questions with verbal analogies that assumed middle-class life as the default.

But the general theme should be that Black people can meet standards that other groups are meeting. The question shouldn’t be whether the standards themselves are appropriate. There will be skepticism, from some quarters, about our capabilities. But I see no Black pride in finding that skepticism — and the prejudice it entails — more interesting than countering it with actual achievement. What we are is what we have done, not what we have said.

Shelby Steele, whose classic, “The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America,” won a 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award, captured the essence of the matter in a 1989 essay. The increased opportunity of the post-civil rights era presented “a brutal proposition” to Black Americans: “If you’re not inferior, prove it.”

Black pride means, at the end of the day, proving it.

Source: Proving Racists Wrong Is Not a Trivial Pursuit

McWhorter: Lower Black and Latino Pass Rates Don’t Make a Test Racist

Needed nuance and greater sophistication in analysis:

The Association of Social Work Boards administers tests typically required for the licensure of social workers. Apparently, this amounts to a kind of racism that must be reckoned with.

There is a petition circulating saying just that, based on the claim that the association’s clinical exam is biased because from 2018 to 2021 84 percent of white test-takers passed it the first time while only 45 percent of Black test-takers and 65 percent of Latino test-takers did. “These numbers are grossly disproportionate and demonstrate a failure in the exam’s design,” the petition states, adding that an “assertion that the problem lies with test-takers only reinforces the racism inherent to the test.” The petitioners add that the exam is administered only in English and its questions are based on survey responses from a disproportionately white pool of social workers.

But the petition doesn’t sufficiently explain why that makes the test racist. We’re just supposed to accept that it is. The petitioners want states to eliminate requirements that social workers pass the association’s tests, leaving competence for licensure to be demonstrated through degree completion and a period of supervised work.

So: It’s wrong to use a test to evaluate someone’s qualifications to be a social worker? This begins to sound plausible only if you buy into the fashionable ideology of our moment, in which we’re encouraged to think it’s somehow antiracist to excuse Black and brown people from being measured by standardized testing. There have been comparable claims these days with regard to tests for math teachers in Ontario and state bar exams, and, in the past, on behalf of applicants to the New York City Fire Department.

One of the weirdest assertions in the petition is that the social work association “is suggesting that Black, Latine/Hispanic and Indigenous social workers, by virtue of their race, are less capable of passing standardized tests.” (The first-time pass rate for Indigenous test-takers was 63 percent; for those of Asian descent it was 72 percent.) But based on the numbers, it would appear some are, absent details of just how the test is racist.

If there were clear evidence of this, presumably the petitioners would have outlined it in order to make their case. But the petition doesn’t prove the exam’s design is fatally flawed and doesn’t show which test components are out of bounds. We must address this problem more constructively.

This will mean taking a deep breath and asking why it is that in various instances, Black and Latino test-takers disproportionately have trouble with standardized tests. The reason for the deep breath is the implication ever in the air on this subject: that if the test isn’t racist, then the results might suggest that they aren’t as smart as their white peers. That’s an artificially narrowed realm of choices, however. There is more to what shapes how people handle things like standardized tests.

Broadly speaking, standardized testing has been criticized in a variety of ways. A 2021 article in NEA Today, a publication of the National Education Association, claims, “Since their inception a century ago, standardized tests have been instruments of racism and a biased system,” an observation channeling an opinion common in education circles that standardized tests measure test-taking ability rather than proficiency. But these claims miss a dynamic that sheds light on this issue.

One source I’ve always valued is a book published in 1983, “Ways With Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms,” by the linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, who compared how language was used with children in a middle-class white community, a working-class white one and a working-class Black one. She found that in conversation, questions were wielded differently depending on the community. A key difference was that in middle-class white ones, children were often asked disembodied, information-seeking questions as a kind of exercise amid general social interaction. Heath wrote:

“Mothers continue their question-answer routines when the children begin to talk and add to them running narratives on items and events in the environment. Children are trained to act as conversation partners and information-givers.”

In the middle-class subculture Heath describes, children unconsciously incorporate into their mental tool kit a comfort with retaining and discussing facts for their own sake, as opposed to processing facts mainly as they relate to the practicalities of daily existence. The same kind of skill development that’s fostered by reading for pleasure or personal interest — as opposed to reading for school lessons — a ritual which preserves and displays information beyond the everyday.

Heath found that while the printed page is hardly alien to the working-class Black community (which she gives the pseudonym “Trackton”; her pseudonymous white working-class community is “Roadville” and her pseudonymous white middle-class community is “Maintown”), and questions themselves are certainly part of how language is used within it, particular kinds of questions about matters unconnected to daily living were relatively rare. A paperpublished in 1995 by the National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia cited Heath and notes that “the Trackton world is warm, buzzing with emotion and adult communication, an environment to which the child gradually adapts by a process of imitation and repetition.” However, it adds, “the language socialization of the Trackton child is,” in contrast to Maintown, “almost book-free.” One Trackton grandmother described part of the dynamic to Heath in this way: “We don’t talk to our chil’rn like you folks do. We don’t ask ’em ’bout colors, names ’n things.”

Yes, Heath’s book was written some time ago. Certainly, Black kids don’t grow up not knowing their colors or that things have names. But that quote does get at something in a general sense. Importantly, Heath’s study was objective and respectful. She isn’t a culture-wars partisan. Her point wasn’t that Black culture, or working-class culture, is unenlightened or that Black people or working-class white people are in any sense inarticulate. Neither she then, nor I now, say there is some flaw in Black or working-class white culture.

The issue is, rather, how we square what worked for the past with what will work for today. No culture can be faulted for lagging a bit on that. Working-class Black culture was born amid hard-working people in segregated America for whom higher education was, in many, if not most cases, a distant prospect, and language was used to operate in the here and now. Think of August Wilson’s plays.

That makes perfect sense in a working-class setting and is the way most people in the world proceed linguistically. Heath noted, though, about both the white and Black working-class communities she studied that “neither community’s ways with the written word prepares it for the school’s ways.” In that context, it’s easier to understand stubbing a proverbial toe on standardized tests at first.

I experienced this as a 1970s middle-class Black kid, coming of age just a decade or so after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., growing up in neighborhoods with lots of “post-civil rights” Black kids of various backgrounds. Middle- and upper-middle class Black families, while taking advantage of widened opportunities, could still dialogue in the way Trackton families did, and many still do. This is hardly limited to Black people. However, to the extent that we still have a wealth gap and an education gap, and that the poverty rate is disproportionately high for Black, Latino and Indigenous people, we might expect these groups, in the aggregate, to be affected by this aspect of language and its legacies.

Let’s recognize, then, that calling something like a credentialing exam racist is crude — it flies past issues more nuanced and complex. Heath’s study doesn’t have all the answers, and there are many working-class homes in which children are prepared with the conversational and analytical skills required to excel on standardized tests. But we might absorb the reality that circumstances will leave some people better poised to take tests than others, and that will mean pass rates on such tests will differ according to race at least for a while.

And let’s recognize that the pass rate on the social work association’s clinical exam goes up after successive attempts: According to the association, the eventual pass rate is 57 percent for Black test-takers, 77 percent for Latinos and 74 percent for Native Americans. Also, among social workers, Black people are overrepresented — over 20 percent as of 2017 — in relation to our proportion of the population, which hardly suggests an obstacle to Black participation in the profession.

Might there be a reason to adjust the exams? Perhaps, if, as the petition states, among the social workers surveyed in order to compose the questions, 80 percent are white people, even though Black and Latino people combined constitute 36 percent of new social workers. If nothing else, to eliminate the appearance of bias, the association ought to survey a representative group to generate test questions.

But insisting simply that it is racist, and therefore, constructively, immoral, to subject Black and Latino social workers to standardized test questions is itself a kind of immorality. It’s a squeak away from arguing that Black and Latino people just aren’t very quick on the uptake or can’t think outside of the box. What kind of antiracism is that?

Source: Lower Black and Latino Pass Rates Don’t Make a Test Racist