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N.J.'s Insult To Blacks
By John McWhorter
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed?
Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?
Why did Sharon stay away?
To Amiri Baraka, it seems "authentic" for a black poet laureate of New Jersey to spout this kind of street-corner excuse for thought. For those wondering what led the writer of those lines to be appointed a state poet laureate, the answer is the quota mentality.
New Jersey's State Council of the Arts and Council for the Humanities has admitted that it decided it would be Doing the Right Thing to make the laureate a person of color this time around.
Very noble - but Baraka? Where was the sense in saluting "diversity" by conferring the prize on a man who has spent 40 years writing poems and plays disparaging whites (and Jews and gays) as evil incarnate?
Then, too, one presumes that poet laureates will have an exceptional talent for wielding the nuances of words to express considered thought. But it is difficult to glean this kind of ability in the lines above, which (like most of Baraka's work) are gut-level barbershop rhetoric put to paper.
Stringing together visceral ejaculations does not make one a serious poet, regardless of race. This is clear to everyone when the writer is white. But a sentiment reigns, especially in academic and artistic circles, that the rules of the game are different when it comes to black people. Whites in this realm typically see it as a moral imperative to frame black people as eternal victims, too battered by the past to be subjected to serious competition.
Thus one shows that one is not a "racist" by setting the bar lower for black people, and hides behind the "diversity" line when the seams start showing.
But for all the good intentions, lower standards leads to lower performance, now as always and forever. Racial preferences (granting rewards out of proportion to performance) even bar their "beneficiaries" from learning what top-rate work actually is. The only way to learn to ride a bike is to take off the training wheels.
So the Jersey councils reaped what they sowed. Naturally Baraka, who became famous just as the preference regime was first stirring, feels that being black exempts him from the standards expected of a poet laureate.
An evening's armchair reading easily shows the lie in the story that Israel was tipped off about 9/11, but Baraka couldn't be bothered: His reason for being is not voicing the human heart, but railing histrionically at the Powers That Be.
Baraka may well not even understand that his post renders him responsible for thinking broadly - because he has spent a lifetime being lauded for mediocre work by whites with their hearts supposedly in the right place. His performance should surprise no one.
And anyone who objects that he is valuable as a "role model" should think again. At a library dedication the other day, schoolteachers brought black children to sit at the feet of a black figure more concerned with agitprop theatrics than seeking truth. The last thing young blacks need today is more of the message that idle rebellion is the essence of their race.
There's no point in trying to make Baraka resign; there are larger issues concerning us all. All the same, elevating him to represent the soul of an American state was an insult to Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and other serious black poets, and to black people in general.
Doing the Right Thing in the 21st century means realizing that lowering standards for black people is a return to the past, a rehash of bringing in "token blacks" to "lend some color." Sometimes the high ground is letting "diversity" wait until a person both "diverse" and qualified is available.
John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and associate professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley, is the author of "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America."
©2002 New York Post
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