The Obstacle of Black Racial Consciousness

Last week in The New York Sun, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow John McWhorter  offered a thought-provoking column on contemporary black urban culture.  In the piece, McWhorter criticized what he terms the "stop snitching Zeitgeist," which encourages blacks not to report the criminal activity of fellow blacks to the police, as well as the casual use among black youth of the degrading epithets "nigger" and "bitch" as terms of solidarity and friendship.  McWhorter is well known for his sharp critiques of black urban culture, and this piece was no exception.

But McWhorter's analysis of the roots of this destructive culture, in my opinion, is incomplete.

McWhorter first argues that, "ironically, the eclipse of open racism and segregation" is "one reason black America has reached this point."  How so?  According to McWhorter, "these days there is more room for acting out" by blacks, because white society no longer oppresses blacks through violence and intimidation, and "all humans like acting out when they can."  So, on McWhorter's reading, blacks "act out" because their natural human impulse to do so is no longer being squelched by whites.  This explanation is not very persuasive, however, because it fails to address the serious problems caused by such "acting out" in the black community (e.g., crime, illegitimacy, poverty, etc.) that are not experienced to nearly the same degree in non-black communities.  If "all humans like acting out when they can," as McWhoter claims, why do such discrepancies exist?

Here, McWhorter blames the Great Society, which he argues "sowed the seeds for a black identity based on being bad."  The destructive effects of the welfare state on black Americans (indeed, on all Americans) are well documented.  But it is not at all clear that dependency on government, unemployment, and fatherless homes, as bad as they are, necessarily lead to gangbangers, crack cocaine, misogynist rap lyrics, and the like.  After all, many European countries have even more expansive welfare states than we do.  But, other than in Great Britain, they do not experience the same levels of social pathology that black Americans do.  Something more is needed to explain this situation.

That something more, according to McWhorter, is a post-1960s culture that "made the upturned middle finger into an icon of higher awareness."  This, surely, is a large part of the problem.  The anti-bourgeois agenda of the left-wing activists, who over the past four decades have conducted a "long march" through America's cultural institutions (the media, the schools, the arts, and the entertainment industry), has excused -- even ratified -- many of the harmful behaviors that are increasingly common in our society (e.g., sexual license and infidelity, divorce, illegitimacy, a preference for meaningless pleasure over lasting achievement, and a generally selfish and irresponsible attitude towards life).  Again, however, this explanation does not account for the higher incidence of social pathology among black Americans.

Where McWhorter's analysis comes up short, in my opinion, is in failing to acknowledge the obstacles posed by black racial consciousness in a majority white society.  Certainly he is aware of the problem.  Indeed, he noted in his piece that many of the features of black urban life he criticizes are facets "of a larger phenomenon: a sense among black teens and 20-somethings that being aggressive toward the opposition is the soul of being authentic."  Although he does not say so explicitly, "the opposition" to which McWhorter is referring here is white society.  The idea that black youths are simply "anti-authoritarian" (to use McWhorter's description) is at best disingenuous.  On the contrary, the problem McWhorter points to, but for some reason does not state openly, is that many black Americans are anti-white, and certain behaviors (e.g., refusing to report crimes to the police, who are seen as agents of white society) only make sense when explained in such grossly racial terms.

Hence, I agree with McWhorter that the civil rights reforms of the 1960s created "more room for acting out" by blacks.  But the resulting "acting out" -- which has been so destructive for black individuals, families, and communities -- should be understood as being motivated, at least in part, by the animosity that some blacks feel for the institutions and norms of "white society."  Unfortunately, since the 1960s, this animosity has been fostered and rationalized and institutionalized through the work of black nationalists and white multiculturalists alike.  While such feelings may be understandable from a historical perspective, the social and economic consequences of such feelings have been harmful in the extreme.   Consider, for example, the negative attitudes that many black students have towards academic success, which is seen as "acting white."  Such attitudes inevitably lead to academic failure.  Not coincidentally, black academic achievement has declined since the 1960s.  This is a clear example of the self-destructive consequences of black animosity towards "white society."

Without question, being an easily recognizable minority group in a society that mistreated your people for hundreds of years is a truly difficult and unenviable position.  But racial separatism is a dead end.  Without a sense of fellow feeling among all members of society, without a shared allegiance to the same basic institutions, values, and standards of behavior, a successful multi-ethnic society is not possible.  This is what the original civil rights movement was all about.  This is the worldview that inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.

Sadly, a different worldview has taken hold among elites in this country, one that emphasizes the intractability of racial and ethnic differences.  Perversely, by equating existing American society -- the richest and most powerful society in human history -- with white Americans (usually in a negative light), this worldview encourages black Americans to reject mainstream life, even as more and more opportunities for equal participation become available.  Yet the only alternative to "white society" is the very urban culture that McWhorter rightly criticizes.  As a result, "being bad" (in McWhorter's words) becomes the essence of being "black."  The gangbanger or pimp is seen as more "authentically" black than the storekeeper or engineer.  The true irony is that the mentality of white racists today is embraced by white and black "progressives" and their followers.  A more self-defeating frame of mind is hard to imagine.   

In short, what McWhorter cleary recognizes, but does not openly acknowledge in his column, is that racial consciousness itself has had harmful consequences for the black community in this country.  Granted, identifying with and assimiliating into mainstream society may be difficult for black Americans, for a host of reasons.  It may even seem unfair to expect them to do so.  Ultimately, however, so long as the very conditions necessary for success in life -- getting an education, not having children out of wedlock, staying out of trouble with the law, and so on -- are perceived as "acting white," then the black community will continue to be plagued by the problems that McWhorter decries. 

Steven M. Warshawsky 
Last week in The New York Sun, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow John McWhorter  offered a thought-provoking column on contemporary black urban culture.  In the piece, McWhorter criticized what he terms the "stop snitching Zeitgeist," which encourages blacks not to report the criminal activity of fellow blacks to the police, as well as the casual use among black youth of the degrading epithets "nigger" and "bitch" as terms of solidarity and friendship.  McWhorter is well known for his sharp critiques of black urban culture, and this piece was no exception.

But McWhorter's analysis of the roots of this destructive culture, in my opinion, is incomplete.

McWhorter first argues that, "ironically, the eclipse of open racism and segregation" is "one reason black America has reached this point."  How so?  According to McWhorter, "these days there is more room for acting out" by blacks, because white society no longer oppresses blacks through violence and intimidation, and "all humans like acting out when they can."  So, on McWhorter's reading, blacks "act out" because their natural human impulse to do so is no longer being squelched by whites.  This explanation is not very persuasive, however, because it fails to address the serious problems caused by such "acting out" in the black community (e.g., crime, illegitimacy, poverty, etc.) that are not experienced to nearly the same degree in non-black communities.  If "all humans like acting out when they can," as McWhoter claims, why do such discrepancies exist?

Here, McWhorter blames the Great Society, which he argues "sowed the seeds for a black identity based on being bad."  The destructive effects of the welfare state on black Americans (indeed, on all Americans) are well documented.  But it is not at all clear that dependency on government, unemployment, and fatherless homes, as bad as they are, necessarily lead to gangbangers, crack cocaine, misogynist rap lyrics, and the like.  After all, many European countries have even more expansive welfare states than we do.  But, other than in Great Britain, they do not experience the same levels of social pathology that black Americans do.  Something more is needed to explain this situation.

That something more, according to McWhorter, is a post-1960s culture that "made the upturned middle finger into an icon of higher awareness."  This, surely, is a large part of the problem.  The anti-bourgeois agenda of the left-wing activists, who over the past four decades have conducted a "long march" through America's cultural institutions (the media, the schools, the arts, and the entertainment industry), has excused -- even ratified -- many of the harmful behaviors that are increasingly common in our society (e.g., sexual license and infidelity, divorce, illegitimacy, a preference for meaningless pleasure over lasting achievement, and a generally selfish and irresponsible attitude towards life).  Again, however, this explanation does not account for the higher incidence of social pathology among black Americans.

Where McWhorter's analysis comes up short, in my opinion, is in failing to acknowledge the obstacles posed by black racial consciousness in a majority white society.  Certainly he is aware of the problem.  Indeed, he noted in his piece that many of the features of black urban life he criticizes are facets "of a larger phenomenon: a sense among black teens and 20-somethings that being aggressive toward the opposition is the soul of being authentic."  Although he does not say so explicitly, "the opposition" to which McWhorter is referring here is white society.  The idea that black youths are simply "anti-authoritarian" (to use McWhorter's description) is at best disingenuous.  On the contrary, the problem McWhorter points to, but for some reason does not state openly, is that many black Americans are anti-white, and certain behaviors (e.g., refusing to report crimes to the police, who are seen as agents of white society) only make sense when explained in such grossly racial terms.

Hence, I agree with McWhorter that the civil rights reforms of the 1960s created "more room for acting out" by blacks.  But the resulting "acting out" -- which has been so destructive for black individuals, families, and communities -- should be understood as being motivated, at least in part, by the animosity that some blacks feel for the institutions and norms of "white society."  Unfortunately, since the 1960s, this animosity has been fostered and rationalized and institutionalized through the work of black nationalists and white multiculturalists alike.  While such feelings may be understandable from a historical perspective, the social and economic consequences of such feelings have been harmful in the extreme.   Consider, for example, the negative attitudes that many black students have towards academic success, which is seen as "acting white."  Such attitudes inevitably lead to academic failure.  Not coincidentally, black academic achievement has declined since the 1960s.  This is a clear example of the self-destructive consequences of black animosity towards "white society."

Without question, being an easily recognizable minority group in a society that mistreated your people for hundreds of years is a truly difficult and unenviable position.  But racial separatism is a dead end.  Without a sense of fellow feeling among all members of society, without a shared allegiance to the same basic institutions, values, and standards of behavior, a successful multi-ethnic society is not possible.  This is what the original civil rights movement was all about.  This is the worldview that inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.

Sadly, a different worldview has taken hold among elites in this country, one that emphasizes the intractability of racial and ethnic differences.  Perversely, by equating existing American society -- the richest and most powerful society in human history -- with white Americans (usually in a negative light), this worldview encourages black Americans to reject mainstream life, even as more and more opportunities for equal participation become available.  Yet the only alternative to "white society" is the very urban culture that McWhorter rightly criticizes.  As a result, "being bad" (in McWhorter's words) becomes the essence of being "black."  The gangbanger or pimp is seen as more "authentically" black than the storekeeper or engineer.  The true irony is that the mentality of white racists today is embraced by white and black "progressives" and their followers.  A more self-defeating frame of mind is hard to imagine.   

In short, what McWhorter cleary recognizes, but does not openly acknowledge in his column, is that racial consciousness itself has had harmful consequences for the black community in this country.  Granted, identifying with and assimiliating into mainstream society may be difficult for black Americans, for a host of reasons.  It may even seem unfair to expect them to do so.  Ultimately, however, so long as the very conditions necessary for success in life -- getting an education, not having children out of wedlock, staying out of trouble with the law, and so on -- are perceived as "acting white," then the black community will continue to be plagued by the problems that McWhorter decries. 

Steven M. Warshawsky