October 24, 2001
The New Double Consciousness: Prospectives for the New Black Ideology
LAWRENCE J. MONE: Thank you for coming. My name is Larry Mone. I am President of the Manhattan Institute and we are very pleased here to be marking the 15th Annual Walter B. Wriston Lecture, which features one of the most interesting young scholars in the country, John McWhorter of Berkeley.
And we are also pleased that this dinner has become a great tradition in New York, which happens to be the greatest city in the world. So enjoy your dinner and we will start our formal program at 8:30.
Thank you very much.
[Singing – God Bless America]
ROGER HERTOG: That’s a tough act to follow. Okay, we’ve got get out of here on time, so let’s everyone sit down and let’s try to get on with the show. I am Roger Hertog, and welcome to the 15th Annual Walter B. Wriston Lecture.
Forty years ago our young President went to Berlin to protest the wall the Soviets had built to separate the peoples of Germany East and West. The words he so eloquently spoke move us no less today. President Kennedy said, “All free men wherever they may live are citizens of Berlin. Therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich Bein Ein Berlina.” [Phonetic] Today the spirit of those words ring loud and true as people around the world proudly say, “We are all New Yorkers.”
Much has changed since September 11th. New York has always understood evil, but it is different seeing it in the face of your own city. Hiding our own fear behind the mask of ordinary life, we all go on about our daily routines. But even the commonplace is suffused with self-reflection. When people ask any of us, “How are you?” It is as if we are in the grip of something sad and ineffable.
The New York Times has been running 15 obituaries a day. It will take a full year to run all the obituaries of the people who were murdered on September 11th. We have however, been blessed with a mayor who is a hero in the classic sense. A beacon of light in a moment of darkness. He urges us to resume the rhythm of our lives, lest we surround to our enemy.
But the act that stands out in my mind more than any other, was the mayor’s presence at a wedding the week of the 11th. Determined to affirm the future, he gave away the bride, whose father and brother, both firemen, had died.
Another New York Mayor, Theodore Roosevelt, some 100 years ago, said in another context, that the credit belongs to the man that stands in the arena whose face is marred with sweat, dust, and blood. The will to preserve freedom and democracy knows no time, and Rudy Gulliani stands among the best.
We are fortunate this evening to have the Deputy Mayor of the City of New York, the man who makes everything run, Rudy Gulliani’s right hand man, Deputy Mayor, Joe Loda. Please stand Joe.
New York has been dealt a stunning blow, one that will affect our city for a long time, but we have a history of strength and resilience. In the late 60s and 70s New York lost its way. We lost 600,000 jobs. The crime rate rose dramatically. Our great public schools began to fail, residents were mugged, but yet we, as always, endured.
Now it is important to know that all the news is bleak. Yes it is true that the number of visitors to shopping malls is down, hotel occupancy has fallen, Americans are traveling less, and even the number of television hours watched per household has modestly dropped. The very same survey indicates that the sale of contraceptives has as well fallen, and that the level of sexual activity is actually arising.
So you see Americans locked in their homes have found fertile and satisfying solutions. Maybe we learned something that we did not think was possible in the 60s and 70s. That we are now able to make love and war.
Following the biblical injunction, the Manhattan Institute too has been fruitful and multiplying. The number of contributors, I think of them as investors, have grown five-fold in the last five years, and they constitute a diverse group. Our contributors are equally divided between those living in and outside of New York, with individuals accounting for more than 50% of our gifts and foundations and corporations making up the balance. And this year looks, God willing, like a record again.
We have been honored and recognized, but there is always time for another gift. We have been honored and recognized for our work on both sides of the isle, but the compliment I treasure most is from the Nation Magazine. A member I shall say of the local opposition. In an article published earlier this year, they attempted to explain why the policy debate has been dominated by right of center organizations. Maybe it is because conservative foundations have spent their more limited funds, they say, the Manhattan Institute for all its influence gets by on a budget of $6,000,000.00, the equivalent of pocket change for any of the larger, more progressive foundations, and they do so because they act strategically.
How have we done it? Well, we have instinctively followed the rule of another great institution who celebrated their centennial year in 2001, Rockefeller University in New York City. When Mr. Rockefeller established this university, he realized that if a new university was to be successful, it had to be selective. He established what was known as the Rockefeller Rule of 3. It has stood the test of time.
Rule 1, emphasize basic research. Rule 2, pick a limited number of creative scientists. Rule 3, back them to the hilt. By sticking to these rules, Rockefeller University has become the supreme symbol of scientific excellence, and while we haven’t nearly achieved their level of success, and it is presumptions even to put us in the same category, we too have accomplished important things by following these simple precepts.
But the challenges that face us, the challenges ahead are large and significant. When the plane struck the Twin Towers on the 11th, the City Journal was ready to publish its fall issue. Myron Magnet, its great editor, he paid my wife to start applauding, decided that New York is what our magazine is all about and we needed to postpone, scrap everything and begin again. Myron and many of our scholars, will be working on many of the crucial policy questions facing our city in the coming years and they will be very significant, whoever [unintelligible].
How to create a safer city – whether it is planes, trains, streets, homes, is now more important than ever. Manhattan Institute Fellow, George Kelling and Heather McDonald – she just sat down – who George Will has proclaimed the indispensable journalists, who will focus their attention and talents on offering solutions for a way in which the federal government, the police, the private sector, can make New York safer.
Steve Molonga, City Journal Contributing Editor, will lay out precisely what New Yorkers need to do to free its economy from unnecessary burdens and regulations, and attract business necessary to grow opportunity for our citizens.
Senior Fellow E. J. McMann will address the crisis by showing how prudent policies on taxes and spending are more relevant than ever.
Manhattan Institute went into business some 20 years ago, when a few committed New Yorkers believed that this was one of the greatest cities in the world, in fact, the greatest city in the world. They wanted to contribute innovative ideas to reverse the failed paradigm of the 70s.
Now more than ever, the role of the individual is critical to the city’s future. We have to work harder and smarter, and we have to find the strength within ourselves to continue to move forward.
I will conclude with a story that I think best captures this thought. I read it in the New York Times, so it is true.
At a concert at Lincoln Center just a couple of years ago, Itsop Pearlman came out walking out on the stage as he usually does. He walked across one step at a time until he reached his chair and sat down, laying his crutches on the floor. The audience sat quietly while he went through his ritual, waiting until he was ready to play. But something just went wrong. Just as he finished the first few bars one of the strings on the violin broke. You could hear it. It was like a gunshot across the room. There was no mistaking what the sound meant. There was no mistaking what Pearlman had to do. The audience briefly talked amongst themselves, figuring he would have to get up, put his crutches on again, limp his way off the stage. He didn’t. He waited just a moment, closed his eyes, and then signaled the conductor to begin again, playing from where he left off. Pearlman played with a passion and power they had never heard before.
Of course everyone knows it is impossible to play a Concerto with three strings. I know that. You know that. But that night Pearlman refused to know it. And when he finished the people rose and cheered, and he said, “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find how much music you can make with what you have left.”
Well that is what we all have to do. We each must make that music with what we have left and recapture the magic of this great city.
It is now my privilege to introduce William J. Bennett. Bill is the perfect kind of person for this evening. It is not that he is Brooklyn born. It is not that he has just a distinguished service in government, or that he has written and edited 14 books. It is because he has used his place in society as a public intellectual to establish his bully pulpit to instruct us, to help us learn about the moral principles that he feels so deeply about in our society. Simply said, Bill is willing to say and write things that most others only think about.
In his Book of Virtues and Anthology of Great Moral Stories, he tells us what virtues look like. What are they in practice and how they work. A couple of years later he took his theoretical training and put it into clinical practice when he wrote the Death of Outrage, Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideas. In his most recent book, Broken Hearth, Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, Bill issues a clarion call to all Americans that there is no more profound issue that the condition of marriage and families.
In the book he is currently working on he takes these questions to another level. The book is about terrorist attacks in America and what response to those attacks, what do those attacks reveal about us. I am going to say it again, what response to those attacks reveal about us.
I would be, I have to put this into some perspective. Bill as well, I don’t think ever sleeps, but while he is writing this book about terrorism and how it affects our lives, he is as well thinking about a 21 century version of the committee for the present danger. This is one on American culture and American terrorism. So he is trying to look at this from both sides.
We are really privileged to have him here this evening to introduce our 15th Wristen Lecturer, John McWhorter. Bill, I am pleased.
WILLIAM J. BENNETT: Thank you very much Roger. Ladies and gentlemen, good evening.
It is a really close group. A wonderful and warm feeling. It is great for someone for Brooklyn, as Roger said, to be here. Whenever I was invited to Manhattan I came, especially to the Pierre. I grew up in the St. George Hotel. Some of you remember that. It’s the only place we could swim.
But Roger said maybe I could mention to John McWhorter that V. S. Nipol, who gave a lecture here in 1990 and won the Novel Prize, and Roger suggested that if you play your cards right maybe you can too. However, I am not sure how far you want to go on that, because you could also become Editor of Commentary, which you may or may not want to do. And God forbid I see Tom Wolfe, you could end up dressing in all white suits and then your critics would say, “See.”
But it is good to be at the Manhattan Institute, a great conservative organization. You know it is a conservative organization when Roger announces there has been an increase in sexual activity and there is ambivalence throughout the crowd.
A couple of people laughed, a couple of people applauded, but mostly cheers – are we in favor of that or not? We are not sure about that.
Since the New York Times calls me the Moralities [unintelligible], let me make a proclamation – we are in favor of it. It’s part of creation. Check your C.S. Lewis [phonetic].
I do want to say a word though about you all, about Manhattan. I love Rudy Guilliani’s sly humor amidst all of this. It takes a hell of a lot to make all of America love New Yorkers, but he said they do, and indeed they do. What we had seen before in this country and Oklahoma, I think of Frank Keating, and what we have seen on a few other occasions, what we saw in New York and we saw in Manhattan. And you are among the nation’s finest people and you certainly live among the finest Americans. That was a great lesson that was taught by the people of New York. I always think of these situations as teachable moments. That comes from the Secretary of Education Business. There was a lot of teaching going on on September 11th, 12th, and 13th. Teaching about good and evil, teaching about responsibility. Teaching about what it means to be a professional, what it means to do your job. And I want to thank you for the lessons that you have taught us.
Now we go on, and we go on as Roger said with our family and our work, and we pray and we will fight for our country until we are not afraid anymore.
I would love to say more, but you have already heard enough of me and you are here to hear John McWhorter. He is an extraordinary human being, and you will much enjoy him. I want to say just three things about John.
McBeth says, “I thought I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more.’ That must be how some of John’s colleagues feel at Berkeley and elsewhere. Cont says that Humus [phonetic] is his alarm clock and woke him from his dogmatic slumber. I think John has been waking people up with his comments – riveting, smart, intelligent, penetrating, and unorthodox comments, particular on a university campus. And I am confident many of John’s colleagues are sleeping more, or not sleeping as well before he came on the scene.
Second, courage. Courage, Aristotle says, is the first of the virtues because it makes the others possible. It makes the others efficacious and effective in the world, and John has shown ample amounts of courage.
I think what attracts me the most to John though is his constant mindfulness of young people. He is again a teacher, and he offers an invitation to children to do their best, to offer their best, and why it is not worthy of them to give anything but their best to their work, to their schooling, and to their aspirations. I think two of the worst things we do in American life are rob the young of their innocence before their time, and second, let people have aspirations that are too small, that are too narrow, that are not as ambitious as they should be. And John tells every American child through his work and through his writing about the American dream and that they can be participants in that dream.
One last thing, John McWhorter came to a conference at Empower America earlier this year, and he said a number of things that people wrote down. One of the things that he said then, very memorable, was that many black Americans think of themselves as black first and Americans second. John said that in July and I told him that tonight I was going to ask him whether that has changed, or might change, because of September 11th. We are all sorting out what has changed and what hasn’t. And I wonder John, if I could, just by way of closing this introduction, as you that question. Do black Americans think of themselves now more of Americans? If they don’t, what can we do? What can all of us do to encourage them and to encourage all Americans to think of themselves as Americans? Because we must do so for the long haul that will be this battle.
It is my great honor and privilege to be at the Wristen Lecture, instead of to read the Wristen Lecture. It really is a delight to be here. It is a wonderful event and you have done a beautiful, beautiful job. It is my very special honor to introduce our speaker, Professor John McWhorter from the University of California.
JOHN H. MCWHORTER: Thank you to the Manhattan Institute and all of you for having me here. I am going to start as I often do with W. E. B. Dubois. In his landmark book, The Souls of Black Folk, in 1903. Dubois famously analyzed black Americans as possessing what he called a double consciousness, caught between a self-conception as an American, and as a person of African descent. As Dubois put it, “The Negro ever feels his Tunis – an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals and one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
As so often, Dubois’ teachings applies well to black Americans over a century later. In that vein, the double consciousness he referred to is often claimed to described modern black Americans, but with an implication that this is because of whites resistance to black true inclusion in the American fabric.
But these analysts are those who resist acknowledging that race relations in American have undergone seismic changes since 1903. Dubois’ conception does remain relevant, however, only in an evolved reflex of the ones that he described. Specifically, black America today is permeated by a new double consciousness. A tacit sense reins among a great many black Americans today. That the, shall we say authentic black person stresses personal initiative and strength in private, but dutifully takes on the mantle of victim hood as a public face.
Now for many, the private orientation towards personal empowerment will sound unfamiliar, and that’s natural, because most of us only experience black discourse from the outside, and thus naturally see a discourse in which victim hood is enshrined at all costs. Thus, in the last election, all but a sliver of black Americans voted for the presidential candidate committed to treating black people as victims. So-called black leaders – Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton promised that black Americans would continue to “resist” the Bush presidency.
And until the tragic events of last month, focused Americans on issues of genuine gravity, the race discourse was dominated by the notion that most black Americans remain mired in poverty and that black America’s main task today is therefore to agitate for financial compensation for the work of slaves none of us ever knew.
But, these affairs are only one part of the true story about black Americans in our moment. And much of this is in essence, the kind of histrionic smokescreen. We must note that before September 11th, nothing whatsoever had come of Jackson’s and Sharpton’s chest beating regarding resisting the Bush presidency. Jackson apparently considers himself our man to smooth our relations with the Taliban, while Sharpton, despite enumerable urgent issues facing blacks in his constituency, shows his melodramatic caper in Vicious as this year’s ply to keep himself in the spotlight.
Or, after writing the most influential book of reparations in 35 years, Randall Robinson is notoriously difficult to even reach for a request to debate his position. His book, The Debt, containing a mere few pages, out of hundreds on just what reparations would consist of, is ultimately a dramatic gesture. It is not a brief of concrete engagement, and so on.
But, we gain a strikingly different perspective from polls of black Americans over the past ten years. Such as that done by the New York Times of roughly 1000 blacks from around the country. In the year 2000, a mere 7% of blacks polled though racism was the most important problem for the next generation of Americans to solve. In 1990, 33% of blacks thought race relations in America were generally good, and in 2000 51% did. In 1992 29% of blacks thought progress had been made in race relations since the 19602. By 2000 58% did.
Results like this square quite easily with a black person’s ordinary experience. All of the positions commonly deemed black conservative are easy topics at a black BBQ today. Bring them up and you are almost sure to have at least half the room agreeing, often more, and the two or three professional victimologists among the group come away feeling on the defensive.
The problem is that when asked about race issues, when whites are present the next day, the same people who sounded a lot like Shelby Steel or Thomas Soul the night before, can often be seen to pause for a moment and then carefully dredge up episodes of possible racism that they may have encountered in their lives. Claimed that there aren’t enough positive images of blacks in the media, etc., etc.
In the black community today there is a tacit rule that black responsibility and self-empowerment are not to be discussed where whites can hear. Why is it that so many blacks are uncomfortable acknowledging their successes in public beyond the realms of athletics and entertainment? To the outside observer nothing could look more counterproductive. Yes, this tacit imperative is based on a certain internal logic. A guiding notion so deeply entrenched in modern black though as to rarely be explicitly declared that until all racism is extinct in the United States, any black success – and of course there is black success, but it is mere luck. And that meanwhile, most of black America remains decisively hobbled from doing better and showing up.
It is for this reason that whether racism exists, whether certain people are racist and to what extent, and endless explorations of the nature of racism dominate our discourse so. Why do we have to keep dredging it up like this? Is what one often hears whites wonder.
Well, the fact is that there is a concrete reason why so many black Americans feel that this is necessary. That until there is no racism, blacks cannot succeed in any substantial. And it is here that we have naturally passed from focusing on eradicating discrimination, to attempting to cleanse white American psychologies of racism. This transformation is elegantly depicted in a book I suggest everyone read, Elizabeth Lashquin’s new book, Race Experts.
A closely related conviction in black American is that the ills of black America of a sort, which will only be undone through actions on the part of whites, rather than blacks themselves in any significant way. Untold numbers of oppressed groups worldwide have risen to the top through their own efforts in this discrimination much more concrete than any that most blacks encounter today. But in everyday life, this is a rather arcane point, which gets lost and it is a consensus that black Americans' experience is somehow unique in this regard.
Black people roughly 60 and younger then, have spent their mature lives in a climate where it is assumed that black uplift will require that whites not be, as it is often put ‘let off the hook.’ This phrase is heard so often among black today that it is nothing less than a mantra spiritually resonant and virtually unquestioned.
Now with racism established has a more compelling topic to address that self-empowerment, which it is, which we have all seen. It follows naturally that black Americans who dare to suggest in a sustained and distinct fashion, that enshrining victim hood is not exactly the most progressive of notions, are regularly excoriated as traitors. This is often misanalyzed as a matter of blacks trying to hold on to power or patronage. But this idea cannot account for the prevalence of this perspective, even among blacks with no interest in such things.
What one is considered to be a traitor against is the unwritten agreement that our job is to make sure that whites realize that their feelings about us and what those feelings might lead to, are the main issue in addressing disparities between blacks and whites and nothing else.
Every now and then, these days an author such as me, cannot help looking at the reviews of his book on Amazon.com. We all do it. And a recent one from a black reader of my book, Losing the Race, sums up this orientation so perfectly that I am going to quote it almost in full. It is especially useful in how concise it is. It is absolutely perfect. Last week. “I am hesitant to write this review. On the one hand I absolutely love the book, despite having started hating McWhorter from what I had heard about him. As I read it, I found it harder and harder to disagree with him. However, I am worried that McWhorter’s argumentation will be picked up by truly anti-black people. I am troubled by the fact that white people who already harbor prejudices against African-Americans now have yet another weapon.” That sums it up perfectly. That is a very reasonably gentleman. Not a hothead. Clearly very intelligent. That is a very common opinion that one doesn’t want that book to fall into the wrong hands. Crucial to understanding what is going on.
Now it may seem paradoxical that people who privately emphasis their inner-strength so readily depict being a member of their race as being a condition of victim hood. However, a certain factor makes this paradox possible, and even natural.
In a 1991 gallop poll, almost half of the blacks polled thought that three out of four blacks lived in the inner city. One even sees black American scholars laboring under this impression.
In 1998 Manning Maribel’s depiction of black America in the New York times was that a segment of the minority population moves into the corporate and political establishment at the same time that most are pushed even further down the economic ladder. This means that many successful blacks labor under an impression that they are exceptions rather than a norm. Most black Americans are unaware that, put quite simply, there are today more middle-class black families than poor ones. That is not known by most black Americans, and it really is an obstacle in our dialogue.
Then a related factor is suggested in poll after poll, which show that blacks tend to assume that even if conditions for themselves and their immediate communities are good, that they must be less so for most other blacks.
In the same New York Times poll last year, 72% of blacks thought race relations were good in their communities, but only 57% thought they were good in America. One sees that result over and over again.
Now this new double consciousness neatly explains various opinions and perspectives that are common in the black community that look quite counterintuitive to many outside observers. For example, Lawrence Otis Graham’s book, Our Kind of People, is a survey of the accomplishments of well-to-do blacks since the Civil War. The book is a very peaceful book. It is hardly written from the perspective that damages or disparities less fortunate black people. For example, Graham regularly champions the charity efforts that wealthy blacks have always held front and center.
However, Graham’s book has been savaged by many black readers. It is a very hot item in the black community. His reviews on Amazon are almost chilling to read through. Going as far as one reader who recounts having watched Graham day-by-day on a commuter train years ago and having supposedly seen him frustrated in his attempts to “be white” with his books supposedly a desperate cry for his legitimacy as a black human being. And it just goes on and on like that. Really difficult reading.
But, for readers like this, sustained attention to successful blacks threatens to imply that black success is possible, whether or not whites are racist, and whether or not whites are on the proverbial hook.
One might think that the black community would take a book like Graham’s as inspiring. But this can obviously not be the case when most American blacks embrace a commitment to keeping whites on their toes.
Now of course it is one thing to celebrate black heroes in isolation, such as one sees during Black History Month. But Graham’s book breaks the rule that one is not to imply where whites can see it, that black heroism could ever be a group trait.
The new double consciousness also explains why Colin Powell is only embraced as a black hero in a rather perfunctory fashion. It is difficult to perceive just what gains for the black community Jessie Jackson has been responsible for over the past 25, or even 56 years. However, he is readily considered a so-called black leader, even the officially sanctioned black leader, because he is committed to keeping the white man on his toes, regardless of what he does or doesn’t do. On the other hand, Powell, serving as Secretary of State, but in a Republican administration, is obviously engaged in neither policing white psychology, nor in calling whites attention to the hook that they remain upon. As such, a black man currently defending black Americans’ homeland from foreign attack is not considered a truly inspiring figure for blacks, for the sad reason that playing the blame game is tacitly considered the very essence of what is considered to be authentically black. As such, Powell is not seen as truly black. You hear it in private, not usually in public, but it is true.
Here is the verdict on Powell, from I suppose an authentically black man who once served as a congressional aid. “He is really just a slickly packaged white guy who has just enough melanin and makes just enough references to his past as a black kid in New York to seem empathetic to black people. He is like an Edward Brooke, but without the white wife. Instead Powell’s son has the white wife.” That’s a common opinion about Colin Powell.
But in reference to Powell, Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler, who the latter of whom is a black sociologist, have written a primer on how the military has achieved so much in creating interracial harmony. It is called All That We Can Be. It cites Powell’s autobiography approvingly. Moskos and butler valuably assert that “lamentable as the presence of white racist may be,” they put it, “It is not the poor issue. Indeed, afro-American history testifies eloquently that black accomplishment can occur despite pervasive white racism. It would be fool hearty to consider the absence of white racist as a precondition for black achievement.” Very simply. And what is important for us is that statements like that one are being heard increasingly from black American writers, thinkers, and ordinary citizens these days. And they show that the new double consciousness can indeed be refashioned into a single one, that of an American citizen who happens to be of African descent.
For blacks and whites to make truly constructive use of Dubois’ analysis, we must realize that for him the double consciousness was not a status badge of pride. It was a problem to be gotten beyond. As he put it, it was the longing to attain self-conscious manhood to merge as double self into a better and truer self.
There are many sings that this merging into a better and truer self is an ever-nearer possibility for black America. The new double consciousness was forged in the wake of the Civil Rights Act. When blacks freed from legalized segregation, ran against an intellectual and cultural climate dominated by the left, which taught that the establishment was permanent was an agent of repression and that human and sophisticated Americans must treat conformity to its norms as suspect.
The strength of leftist ideology in modern American shows how seductive such an ideology is and its power to exonerate one of responsibility for one’s failing and weaknesses.
Black Americans were especially susceptible to this canard. For one, centuries of abuse left the race with an inevitable inferiority complex. This is well documented by black academics and psychologists, and readily acknowledged, even at the black BBQs that I mentioned before. For people with this handicap, and ideology focusing on the evil of the system, was naturally a fatal attraction, providing an ever-ready bomb for a bruised self-conception.
Furthermore, for blacks who came of age in an America where interracial contact was narrower, and black success was thinner on the ground, this perspective was even easier to accept as a psychological bedrock. I firmly believe that any ethnic group would have fallen into a similar trap, given the equivalent socio-historical variables.
I recall drinking in this kind of thinking unwittingly as a child. Very often it is all one hears. You hear it as resonantly through what is not said as through what is. Through the gesture, through the action, through the intonation. It is in the air. It is there, it is seductive, and it is powerful.
However, there are now millions of black Americans whose memories began after 1980. They barely remember the Reagan presidency, or Atari, or LP records, or McDonald’s hamburgers packed in Styrofoam. They think of Cheers as old TV, and they don’t remember a world without VCRs. And more to the point they missed the Black Panthers and Burn Baby Burn. And signs are that quite of few of them are less imprinted by the double consciousness than their parents. I am speaking of course of black young people.
In a poll by Yanklewich Partners for Time and CNN in 1997, 38% of black adults said race relations in America were generally good, but 63% of black teens did. 56% of black adults said the discrepancies in employment, housing, and income were due to discrimination, rather than failure to take advantage of opportunity. We have all heard that. But only 35% of black teens did.
Now the fact is that age can reverse views like these. Many young blacks pick up an oppositional orientation to whites in college for instance. But, recent historical events suggest further progress on this score. The new double consciousness entails a sense that blacks are somehow something other than American. America itself being too racist to embrace, even if there is no other country that blacks feel truly related to.
There is a temptation in some quarters to suppose that this is due to whites resistance to black uplift. But then all evidence suggests that blacks felt by default, much more American before the 1960s when racism was of course much more prevalent and extreme.
The recent terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC have already cast the mother African fantasy in a new light. I to my horror, just turned 36, and as such, I was too young to be more than vaguely conscious even of the Viet Nam War. As such, this attack has been the most horrific national event I have ever experienced. Especially given that I lived in New York for a year some time ago and it will always be my very favorite city on earth.
As my first, but not last gesture against the puerile under informed leftist idiocy running rampant on my campus, UC Berkeley, I have hung a flag prominently in my office.
Thus, I am extremely uncomfortable, and this is sincere, giving any implication of exploiting this crisis for my own local aims. However, if we are on the subject, the fact is, that an ironic byproduct of this catastrophe is that it has automatically made many blacks feel more American than within recent memory, at least mine. Where I live at least, American flags are flying on just as many black cars as white ones. This is Oakland in particular. The bracing concreteness of this tragedy distracts from the fundamentally theatrical, or as Stanley Crouch has amply put it, melodramatic quality of the idea that black America has made no significant progress since the Emancipation of Proclamation. It calls attention to what is good in one’s life, and the sheer potential available to any citizen of this country which, with all of its flaws, remains unparalleled in the opportunities that it offers to any citizen willing to make the effort to make the most of them.
And finally, my conviction of the new consciousness is dissoluble is partly personal. There is a kind of a fable that the black conservative ends up hunkering down in their bedroom against universal condemnation from the black community and the evil left. I haven’t experienced this. I get the occasional idiot of course, yes. But that is just the occasional person. Certainly mainstream reviews of my book were mostly hostile, but that is because the media always gives books by black authors to leftist black academics, most of whom make it painfully clear that they didn’t even bother to read the book.
But, in the meantime, since August of 2000, I have now received over 1000 letters, e-mails, and phone calls about the book from blacks who agree with what I wrote. And every article that I write, or television appearance that I happen to make elicits at least 20 more of those. I am stopped on the street by a black person who agrees with me at least once, often more, literally every single day of the week.
Now, the double consciousness issue is an urgent societal problem. And I am not patting myself on the back here. The point here, is that my experience shows that there are massive numbers of black American out there who right now are ready for a new discourse.
Now sure, there are lots of blacks out there who disagree with positions like these who hate people like me. And I don’t hear from those. But then for every black person that I do hear from, we can assume that there are more. The black American terrain is not what it looks like. It is just a matter of what we see most often on television and in writing.
Take for example, the black gentleman who wrote and supervised the NAACP’s ad against George W. Bush last year. He lives in Oakland, as it happens, and one day he happened to be the person who approached me as I was having a drink with a friend after work. He had seen me give a speech on CSPAN and he said he had never heard a black person with such ideas who was his age and gave no appearance of disliking black…
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Just that one broadcast left him questioning his beliefs on race. Now to make a long story short, and I am telling this story only for the purposes of our all understanding what we are up against, and it is not as formidable as you might think. He and I have become friends since. I am happy to say that this last week I began arrangements through a campaign manager with Ward Connolly’s organization to run him as an assemblyman in California on the republican ticket next year.
And it wasn’t hard. It was very, very easy. One simply has to know how to talk to people about these delicate issues. And I have lost count of how many letters, e-mails, and phone calls I have gotten from black people all over the country who have told me that my writings and speeches have shown them a new way of thinking about race. And what is most important is that it is not as if anything I have ever written or said has been exactly rocket science. There is no genius there.
Our modern race problem is less intractable than often supposed. Modern black Americans are well poised and embrace the opportunities now available to them. And most have already done so. The problem remains as to address a particular cognitive dissidence, which is that since the 1960s black Americans have been taught that our successes are mere statistical static, because our fates are ultimately in the hands of others, and because everybody doesn’t love us.
This distracting notion stems from a perversion of sociological analysis that came to reign in the 1960s and penetrated thinking peoples’ ideas. And its counter-intuitive, anti-empirical, and spiritually destructive nature is increasingly clear to more and more black Americans.
The moment is ripe to turn a corner here. The administration is not a democratic one. Interracial mixture means less to most of the younger generation than many of us could imagination. Crisis for whatever its worth, tends to bring a country together in spite of itself. Now I am sure that someone speaking on a topic like this one has said the time is now to heal this breech literally once a year since about 1893. But I feel confident that this has never been true than this particular year.
Our job is to disseminate the message as widely as possible, that the race that reaches the mountaintop at last is one which embraces with vigor its achievements, trumpets them to all who will listen, and teach us as children that doing so in the face of obstacles only makes the victory sweeter.
Thank you very much.
MALE VOICE: We have time for a few questions. We have a couple of hand mikes that will be circulating on the floor. I will let John acknowledge the questioner. Once he does that I would appreciate it if you would just wait until the mike reaches you so that everybody can hear your question.
MALE VOICE: Thank you very much for a terrific talk. One of the things that black folks are not supposed to discuss in front of white people is something called the Acting White Syndrome. I was wondering if you might take this opportunity to talk about that, and is there any solution to that problem?
JOHN MCWHORTER: Well, the basic idea that American is an irredeemably racist nation, has conditioned an idea that one does not want to assimilate to it. And therefore, the African-American who conducts themselves according to mainstream norm is to too much of an extent, and speech is probably about 51% of it, and then you get to the other things. It seems to be signaling that they are somewhere exempt from this racist domination. And that is found very offensive by many African-Americans.
There are two solutions. One is to demonstrate that one can “act white” in the superficial ways that people are talking about, which is largely a matter of how you talk and how you move, and still be concerned with black uplift. That is something that a lot of people don’t know. Like my friend who is going to run as an assemblyman says, “Well John, one problem with most blacks who vote Republican or who are Republicans, is that they look and they talk like you.” He says that with affection, but it comes from somewhere.
And also it is a matter of time going by. There is a great deal of interracial mixture going on with people 21 and younger, such that a lot of us can’t really imagine. A lot of it is going to happen with hyberdicity. To the extent that there are many people who are concerned with putting us into little boxes. There are a great many people who are ¼ this and 5/8 that these days, where the issue is rather absurd. My own god-kids for example. Eventually we are going to be the past people and there are going to be a whole bunch of Tiger Woods and Mariah Careys who are basically running the country. That will help too. But in our moment, it is a matter of just showing that the stereotypes, and I think that white acting black Americans labor under stereotypes is vicious from a lot of black people as whites. But those stereotypes are not necessarily true, and I think that can be done if we are just seen more.
JOE DOLAN: First let me quickly suggest to my colleagues here tonight that you do in fact read his book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. Three themes he talks about – victomology, separatism, and the cult of anti-intellectualism in the black community, it is a fascinating and powerful extraordinary book. And it was on the New York Times Best Selling list, and it is in paperback.
But my question to you is this, what are the best ways one might discover, nurture, and advance young black leaders like yourself?
JOHN MCWHORTER: One thing, and I am not sure what the prospects are for this, and I mean literally I am not certain at this point. We need to have more African-American kids educated in small, and this may seem counterintuitive, but mostly minority schools. Because those schools have been shown to make great strides in not only teaching black kids well, but teaching them out of the idea that to excel in school, and by extension to excel in society is a disloyal thing to do. That can only happen if better things happen with the vouchers movement than has been apparent lately. That’s one thing that has to happen.
And another thing that has to happen is just familiarity. There are a great many people who are black who agree with the things that I am saying, which are not original, but they are afraid. And understandably so, because you do have to learn to take a certain amount of guff. Some people are just probably innately or whatever better equipped to deal with that. You have to have a thick skin, and not everybody does. Other people have other good qualities. But if there are just more people like this, then young people will not grow up with such as ossified idea of what being black means.
For example, if you are a young black person now, then if you have any sense of what a black leader is, it is not Martin Luther King, it is Jessie Jackson. That’s what you see. You are too young to know that there could be anything different. It is the only language that you speak.
And then when you go into college, you are affect by, if you happen to choose African-American studies, or often if you don’t, you have affected by an ideology that white is evil and that black peoples’ job is to make money or support being black, but otherwise to just kind of show up. If there were more black people in academia who took the other view, not all of them, just more of them, then there would be more plurality.
I think that time is coming. I think that I am part of a whole group. We see more and more such people like that, and it is just a matter of showing people that that’s okay. Part of my mission is to show younger blacks that you are not going to get killed. You are going to get tenure, etc., if you express different opinions. Because the truth is that a great many people agree with these things already. They just don’t like being yelled at.
STANLEY: John, the only problem I have with what you are saying is that, of course I agreed with everything you said, but it seems to me as though you talk about black Americans still outside of the current American history at large. I mean in Arthur Schlesenger’s book, The Disuniting of America, he identifies that problem as a Jewish problem that came about at the turn of the century, when you had this popular play, right, in which the Jewish character say, “Some day there will be no this or that. We will just all be Americans.” Then another Jewish guy says, “Wait a minute, hold it now! We don’t have to do that.” “To be an American we don’t have to be that” disappearing. That’s one. Two, west Indians. You cannot leave out the influence of west Indians of certain sorts. [Unintelligible] is in there somewhere. Selling the idea that to black Americans that they were colonials. Which is not true of course at all. I mean black Americans helped make America. Colonials didn’t help make the mother countries. They just supplied raw materials.
Thirdly, I think that the idea that anti-intellectualism has roots in black America is of course, as you know, not true. It actually comes as a result of the end of the War of 1812 when there was this up rush of people who rejected European refinement and Herman Melville and all these people upset with them. The guys who had the Astroplace [phonetic] Riot when they were down up everything because they had heard that Americans didn’t have the appreciation for subtle dramatic expression.
In fact in Blacking Up, The History of the Minstrel Show, there is a long discussion of that.
And all I am just saying finally is this, none of these problems that we think of as black problems are less than entrancibly tied into traditions with all ethnic groups in America that we have all gone through. And I think that sometimes you may have a better success pulling somebody out of there by telling them, “You are actually not being black. You are following a tradition that comes from a place that you claim you don’t want to come from.”
JOHN MCWHORTER: Stanley, you are one – braver, and two, more idealistic than I am. I understand everything you are saying. You are right, except the Astroplace [phonetic] Riots, I think of that as a very American thing. I don’t know if that was a post-1812 issue. You could have had the same guys throwing the same stones in 1780 for one reason or another. That’s just my personal opinion.
But mainly, yes, all of that is true. I don’t believe, with all due respect – due respect. I have read so much of you, due respect, many people are not open to being sung to. When you talk about the grand currents of history, there are a great many people, especially African-American readers, who can’t hear that. The damage since the late ‘60s is too deep, and I found that my personal preference is to be very analytic.
Like for example, with many people where I try to do the conversion, it is a matter of who is better for you? Which of these candidates is going to do more you and your people? Boom. It seems to be that because we are an anti-intellectual country, to talk about history, for many people, they don’t get that. That for me is maybe the third step and I haven’t gotten to that.
So yes. But I have a certain callow mundane hard-headedness that you seem to have always gotten beyond.
MALE VOICE: You have spoken about your expectation that perhaps recent events may cause many black Americans to stress their Americanism before their African-Americanism. Many black Americans have in recent years adopted the Muslim faith. And the black Muslims, I don’t know what percentage of blacks have become Muslim, but I suppose part of them did so as what they perceived as a protest for racism in America.
Whatever the reason, would you are to advance a view as to what we might come to expect from the black Muslims in their reaction to recent events, particularly September 11th, whether they will stay with the Americanisms, which you I think hope for, or whether they will identify more with the Muslim or Islamic view and persist in an anti-American bias, which so far has unfortunately characterized the reaction of Muslim leaders in America who haven’t had the courage or insight to come out as American, in preference to their Islamic tradition.
I would be very interested in whether they will measure up to this American value, which you expressed.
JOHN MCWHORTER: It is early to say on that question. I am going to make an educated guess, and that’s the best I can do. I have been close to one black Muslim, that’s not enough. And I know a few others, so very little authority here. But my sense from what little I know, is that black Muslims do not feel terribly Arab, and I sense that most black Muslims feel like precisely that. Black Americans who have this other thing going. They don’t speak Arabic. Their diet is often not very much like most Muslims. They observe the holidays, but then they don’t. It’s a thing of its own.
My sense is that many black Muslims, if not most, are going to be subject to a sense of intelligent Americanism in this crisis, rather than identifying with people born in Syria and Jordan. That’s my guess, but I haven’t had much experience with that except that the person who, one of my teaching assistants for one of the classes I am teaching right now, happens to be a black Muslim. And the other one is actually a female Afghani Muslim. And so I have had a lot of interesting conversations. And he is as I have described, and I know that my good black Muslim friend would have been. That’s the best I can do at this point, and I would be very interested to see myself.