Sunday, October 19, 2008

clarifying thoughts on McWhorter and Coates

So: the post I redacted is nothing that I'm terribly embarrassed about, just something that I dislike for its tone and its tenor. So I've included the entire post below, blockquoted, and here's what I want to say on John McWhorter.

First, both Matt Yglesias and Ta-Nehisi Coates have pointed out the central absurdity of McWhorter's piece, a hypothetical about a hypothetical following from a hypothetical. McWhorter's piece is also, of course, deeply insulting and condescending to Coates, treating him as a somehow "unascended" black man because he is unwilling, as McWhorter is, to declare racism an effectively powerless and dying phenomenon.

Here's the reality: there is a powerful financial and professional incentive for any black pundit to declare that racism is at an end. Why? Because the media loves that sort of thing, and conservatives love that sort of thing. The notion that somehow John McWhorter is a prophet capable of telling all black people that they need not worry about racism any more-- and, more importantly, capable of telling white people that they shouldn't worry at all about racism any more-- is predicated on the idea that any black man has a special ability to expound on racism. That's not true, and I think it's particularly undercut in this context, because while McWhorter is saying that race is no longer a limiting factor for him, he is relying on the privileged place his race gives him in speaking about race. He denies the power of race to oppress but relies on its power to amplify his argument.

This is why he has to disparage Coates, who I think it's clear from this piece he has some discomfort with. Coates has the same racial relevance added to his message. So McWhorter has to denounce him, and he does so by reducing Coates to a kind of caricature. Coates's refusal to declare racism some sad but irrelevant vestige of the past is a professional threat to John McWhorter. That's not dispositive on its own, but I think it is certainly at play here.

Let me be absolutely clear. Racism remains a powerful and pernicious force in American society. I encounter it all the time, and I don't live in the deep South or Appalachia but in New England. And there are very, very many principled people who are not racists who are deeply, deeply invested in the idea that racism is over, because they are made uncomfortable by our dialogue about race. That is understandable. But understanding the reason for this discomfort, and wanting to end this discomfort, doesn't mean that we should pretend that racism is a less entrenched phenomenon than it is. (Personally, I think that the greatest problem with our racial dialogue is it's tendency to exclude when it should include. My feelings on this issue should be predicated on the knowledge that while I think that we should be more comfortable talking about racism, at the same time we should make accusations of racism much less damning and damaging to those thus accused. If you'd like to read my thoughts on a more effective racial dialogue, click here.)

Too many principled white people, I believe, are committed to the notion that racism is a thing of the past because they are uncomfortable and fearful of our racial dialogue as it currently exists. Like I said, I want to reform that dialogue so people don't feel this way anymore, and I do have sympathy for those feelings. But I'm also disturbed by what I see is a growing exasperation with any discussions of racism at all. People-- liberals as much as conservatives, actually-- get as angry about the insistence that racism continues to be a major force in our society as they get about any other issue. Blogging that you believe that racism is alive and well in America is a recipe for angry recriminations in comments. Again, this isn't a product of racist people but of decent people who have been rendered so uncomfortable by our useless racial dialogue that they yearn to be told that race is over.

That is why there will always be pundits like John McWhorter. McWhorter's career is enhanced by the fact that he is performing the service of exculpating white guilt about racism. Now, whether anyone should feel personal guilt about the existence of racism is a separate question; my personal answer is no. But they fact is that McWhorter's opinion on the prevalence and power of racism is at least slightly suspect because of his professional interest in denying that is so. And if you don't mind my saying-- I actually think that it can be harder for black pundits to have a workable understanding of the state of racial animus in this country, for two reasons. First, no one wants to be rendered a stereotype, and the notion of the black man constantly railing against perceived slights is a particularly limiting and ugly straightjacket. Secondly, I think that because racism has been driven underground, I think black pundits are actually less likely to understand that there is hidden racism around them. People who are comfortable expressing racially insensitive opinions around others of their race may be much less likely to do so around black people.

So that's how I feel. I do think that John McWhorter is being unnecessarily hard on Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I likewise think that he has a vest interest in racism denial. My previous post contains no particular statements that I disagree with strongly, but it was unacceptably personal and unbearably self-righteous. (I'm still working on it.) It's for that reason that I've redacted that post, but in the interest of clarity and openness I'm posting the entire thing below. It's not up to my standards of fairness, friendliness, or courtesy, and for that I apologize to all of you and to John McWhorter.

He is now a senator. He is confronted one fine day on the steps of Capitol Hill by one of his old grass-roots buddies. He is called a "sell out." He is outraged....Either version of himself represents a choice of himself that he is to make; but either version doesn't necessarily support his claim to good faith, although both may support his claim to sincerity, for he could be interpreted as a sell-out who is trying not to look like a sell-out, a sell-out who has decided to make a change to appear, to his community and perhaps to himself, like Kierkegaard's opinionated man, as sincere....[H]is immediate claim to sincerity is rotten at its core, for he treats his choice as having already been made in order to evade it. He is in bad faith.

Lewis Gordon

Let's not mince words, shall we?

John McWhorter, here is the laurel the conservative media has awarded you: you are now one of the go-to "black men who deny racism". It's quite a feather in your cap! There's a lot of competition, for your role. People scratch and claw to be the voice of black racism-denial. They want that comfortable seat on CNN. They want the accolades that are reserved for anyone who assuages white guilt in the face of race, in the face of blackness. All you have to do, really, is to tell them the same old song: nothing is ever racism. They need feel no guilt. The whole white world can rest easy, assured that there is no such thing as white anti-black animus....

Oh, to be the Good Black Man, as Whorter has achieved! A lifetime of paychecks, and only for the price of being typecast. And what did Peter Falk say about the burden of playing Columbo, of being typecast? "I worked for life"? Small price to pay. Small price to pay.

Of course, McWhorter retains his "authentic blackness" for one thing: to leverage himself against white critics like myself. I am, after all, entirely white, and thus entirely incapable of rendering judgment on a black man in issues of race, or so our culture would have it. This is the glee of the white anti-black racist who finds a black man willing to absolve him of any accusation of racism. This is the black man who the College Republicans are a little too overjoyed to find in their ranks, the man who receives one too many hearty slaps on the back, whose transition into the body is just a little too smooth, a little too ordained. It's the habit of the person who considers themselves de-racialized to use his race to leverage opinions palatable to white people. McWhorter trades on the authenticity that is derived from his blackness while he simultaneously denies that he is the victim of any difference due to his blackness. One side of his mouth assures you that you should feel no guilt, that he is an ascended, raceless being, while the other side tells me that he will brook no criticism on issues of race from a white man. His white critics are irrelevant, his black critics, unascended, and he is free to render the judgment that pleases the white men who cut his checks, as long as he hops back and forth from one foot to another, raceless and racialized as necessity and his career require....


Anonymous said...

I encounter it all the time, and I don't live in the deep South or Appalachia but in New England.

This is one of the fundamental facts about race in the US that many commentators (esp. in the paid media arena) miss. Racism is not confined to the deep South and Appalachia. I have relatives living the Chicago area that are unreconstructed racists, though they are very old. I have heard some of the most vile racial speech in NJ, CT, CA, and MA - worse than I have heard in the South as an adult.

Yet in film and TV, racism usually seems to happen in states that belonged to the Confederacy.

What I do think is that both sides are right. Racism is dead/dying in corporate America. The incentives, both from EEO law and the composition of the labor pool, are to be race/gender/sexual identity/religion neutral. Where there is a problem is in smaller companies (and towns) and in the actions of individuals.

I won't say racism is hardwired, but our tribal roots had fear of the other as a survival trait. Eliminate the other and you have more resources for your tribe. We're still paying for it today as we try to reconcile that fear, our "melting pot" tradition, and ethnic/local pride/identity.

Anonymous said...

I get the sense that McWhorter and Ta-Nehisi have a very skewed mental image of each other, I say that particularly based on their bloggingheads episode.

McWhorter seemed pleasantly surprised, again and again, that Ta-Nehisi wasn't an Angry Black Man, but anyone familiar with Ta-Nehisi's writings should know that isn't really his niche, any more than McWhorter is a Token Black Conservative.