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The New York Sun


From Theatrics to Reality

July 17, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

On Monday Barack Obama made a speech before the NAACP at their annual convention about—brace yourself—black people being responsible for themselves.

Such a fresh notion: black people can't expect the government to solve all of their problems. I am supposed to write this column about how this is what the black community needs to listen to and how brave Mr. Obama is.

But I won't. Not because I don't salute him, but because he was doing something perfectly normal in modern black communities.

Just a couple weeks ago, after all, Mr. Obama was making the exact same kind of speech on Father's Day to an enthusiastic audience, among whom we can be sure there were precious few conservatives. Bill Cosby has been taking this message to black communities nationwide for years now, and they are eating it up.

In a modern successful black person's description of their pathway, anyone waiting for them to dwell at any length on what an obstacle racism was is usually frustrated: racism was almost always an occasional inconvenience, not an obstacle.

Sure, black people know racism exists. However, in 2008, the specific idea that black people's main problem is racism is largely limited to 1) academics and journalists, 2) people who have lived long lives and formed their perspectives in a different time, and 3) scattered individuals fond of this way of thinking, calling into radio shows and seeking out chat groups of like-minded people.

Yet there persists a notion that common consensus among black people is grumbling about the white man and how racism holds black people down. According to this notion, people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton somehow have black America in their thrall.

This misimpression is largely due to the fact that Messrs. Jackson and Sharpton are always good for news. Indeed, they can whip up black audiences. Almost any message exerts a certain pull when expressed with an "Ebonic" cadence at high volume, laced with loaded words like "legacy" and "subjugation"—and a catchy beat underneath it is especially intoxicating.

But for most black people this is passing entertainment, not real life advice. Peggy Noonan got this just right in May: black people can "summon the old anger" as a gesture of "human and messy and warm-blooded" solidarity. Then they go buy groceries.

If Jesse Jackson represents how black America thinks, where were the black people saluting him for his nasty little sidebar jab at Mr. Obama's Father's Day speech last week? The press has been overflowing with black condemnations of Mr. Jackson, including by his own son. The black community is happy to hear about responsibility, as any group of sane, self-regarding human beings would be.

For example, many suppose that given my "controversial" reputation, my public speeches must be a matter of staring down furious black audiences. Not really: I talk about how racism exists but that we have to focus on solutions, and then I give some. My question sessions are civil.

Typically there is, to be sure, one detractor, usually an academic, who sees it as their responsibility to try to give a "counterspeech" insisting that racism is what being black is all about. And always, after that person has gone on for a while calls arise for this person to hurry up and ask a question and sit down.

Or: a black academic given to Racism Forever ideology gave a bookstore talk some years ago, and much of the mostly black audience was opposed to the message. The author was treated the way people imagine I get treated. You'd never know this sort of thing from the press's depiction of black people, in which departures from victimologist thinking are eternally treated as news.

Hence the canard that Mr. Obama is talking about responsibility as a ploy to attract white votes. Anyone who says this cannot imagine that this may be the sincere opinion of an intelligent black man. They are, in this, behind the times.

The question is how to cut through this idea that black people thinking sensibly is something remarkable. The press must get past this, and so must the rest of us, including black people, among whom there persists among some a sense that responsibility is best discussed when whites can't hear it.

Nothing would cut through all of this like Barack Obama being president. Very quickly, it would be normal to hear honest talk not only at the barbershop or at the occasional church event, but from the White House itself.

Mr. Obama's NAACP speech, then, was business as usual. For the sake of America's conversation about race moving from theatrics to reality, I hope to see Mr. Obama take this business as usual to a higher pulpit.

Original Source:



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