I've finally come back to my series of posts on race after too many days of not wanting to start a lengthy post. Since it's been two weeks since my last post in this series, I should start with some explanation of where we are now. [See this post for links to all the items of the series.]
The first set of posts examined the most deep-seated problems of racism remaining among mainstream white people in the United States, most of it unconscious and unintended, with some time spent on what ultimate goals we want to strive for. Now I'm looking at a very different kind of obstacle -- from within the black community. John McWhorter identifies three such obstacles in his Losing the Race, and this post focuses on the second one, separatism.
McWhorter isn't complaining about the tendency to congregate with those who have similarities to you along lines of culture, community, family, etc. He thinks that can often be a good thing. He sees some negative separatist tendencies within African-American culture in the U.S., with strong enough cultural support that the tendencies perpetuate themselves and with bad enough effects that they need to be stopped.
The psychological explanation goes back to victimology, which he defines as calling attention to victimhood where it barely (or not at all) exists not to find legitimate solutions but merely "to foster and nurture an unfocused brand of resentment and sense of alienation from the mainstream". Real and merely perceived harms can easily lead to attempts to find ways to see oneself as better than the other. This is human nature. Last month McWhorter published a look back at his first book on race, in which he points out that gossip is one element of this phenomenon that happens virtually to everyone. To distract ourselves from our own problems and failings, we take great delight in focusing on those of others, and it makes us feel better. (I've argued in other posts that I think this is the primary motivation for the religious right to seek so vehemently to prevent gay people from getting married. It's one of the few sins they themselves have never been tempted toward.) The result in the case of black culture is that it develops its own identity, not necessarily a bad thing on its own but bad in this case because it's defined in terms of the negativity of all else and the goodness of everything within itself.
Real or merely perceived harms against black people have led to a solidarity, an identification of oneself as part of a persecuted group. This has perpetuated itself through constant affirmations as being a member of that group. That's normal human nature. When it gets bad is when it denies reality. I believe strongly that there's such a thing as mainstream culture. I believe much less that there's such a thing as white culture. I'm not sure what that could mean in the complex realities of the current situation. There certainly was a white culture before the civil rights era. Segregation saw to that. Much of white culture was affected by black culture, but there was certainly a separation, and there was no mainstream culture that had absorbed enough of black culture for black people to be able to find themselves part of the mainstream. I think that's changed now, but the separatist attitude prevents many black people from seeing it.
Here are a few ways that mainstream culture is clearly not white. Look at popular music since the 1950s. In the early days of rock music, white aristocrats were offended at black music being tamed and made white. Nowadays, the black-originated elements of rock are embraced by most white people as mainstream. Hip-hop has become mainstream. The effect of black music on the American music scene is irreversible and so thoroughgoing that it's hard to see how anyone can get away with calling rock music white, even if many of the people doing it are white. It's not white. It's mainstream. Look at language. How many expressions do we use everyday that come from slang or once irregular patterns of speech developed from those who were former slaves? How much imitation do we see of black celebrities or black styles of communication (and remember that imitation is most often a sincere form of appreciation and shouldn't necessary be seen as condescending, even if it's not done well)?
The point isn't that there aren't white racial narratives that perpetuate themselves with negative impressions about black people. I fully agree that those are present in American society today, and we need to work to overcome them (and I devoted a few posts earlier in this series to exactly that issue). In that sense there is something that might be classified as white culture. However, it's not the sort of thing that infects every single element of mainstream society to the point that if it doesn't originate fully from black origins it's somehow no longer mainstream but simply white. What's really going on here and why it's negative is hard to see without reference to some key examples.
A couple years ago I was teaching an introductory philosophy class. The general topic was philosophy of mind and therefore unrelated to race in any way. I was trying to motivate the idea that it's very difficult to imagine what it must be like to be someone else to provide a way in to the point that we can't know for sure if other people see colors the same way we do, which is the crucial premise in an argument against materialism. (This thesis has actually been shown to be likely anyway given color research, since the signals two people send from their eyes in the same conditions aren't the same and therefore aren't interpreted the same way by their respective brains. Men and women tend to have differences in the way their brains respond to different colors.) I started the class from a very different direction, however. I asked a black student in the class if he thought it would ever be possible to know what it was like to be black. I usually continue into knowing what it would be like to be a woman, to be pregnant, to give birth, etc. This time somehow we got into some technicalities, and the conversation first went into a bit of a tangent. Unfortunately, I don't remember what that tangent was about, but I remember that I mentioned Colin Powell and what this student said in response: "but Colin Powell's not black!"
What could this student possibly have meant? Colin Powell most certainly is black. Just look at his skin color. He's not on the darkest spectrum of the people who normally get classified as black, but he's well within its limits. He grew up within the cultural patterns of black America. I'm not sure what the statement is supposed to be getting at unless it's a direct attempt to distance himself from the success Colin Powell has achieved in the white world (i.e. mainstream society).
But is it white to be a success in the military? More black people are in the military than would be proportional to their numbers in society. As far as I know, promotion in the military isn't strongly correlated to race in any way. Colin Powell made his way to four-star general through hard work, natural talent, and an ability to develop the skills he needed at the various steps in that path. He was so good at what he did that he ended up being considered for the Chair of the Joint Chiefs, which he may well have gotten because he was the only black candidate (for all I know), but he wouldn't have been considered merely for that reason. His position now as secretary of state may be similar. I'm sure one reason Bush wanted him was because he's black, and he wanted an ethnically diverse cabinet. Still, he wouldn't have been on the list to consider if he were not qualified for the job, as he surely is. So why is it that he's not black? Not because he's given in to Whitey. It's because the people saying this of him have reflexively alienated themselves from anything they would consider white, and they see Colin Powell as part of all that. Somehow he loses his blackness for being successful in the world that's viewed as the white man's world.
McWhorter's new piece looking back at Losing the Race from current perspective (mentioned and linked above) says this: "To pretend that successful, contented black people making their way in an imperfect but promising nation are moral perverts, with nothing to teach their less fortunate brothers, flies so in the face of logic, compassion, and experience as to qualify as a kind of mental onanism." (I assume the reference is to Onan of Genesis 38, who refused to fulfill his familial responsibiliy by obeying God's clear command to provide an heir to his brother who had died by marrying his brother's widow according to custom but spilling his seed on the ground rather than inseminate her and provide offspring. What ended up was far worse for Onan and for his family than whatever Onan had imagined.)
Another student of mine works in the city school system. She's most definitely black, and I don't get the sense that she's even conservative politically, as Colin Powell at least sometimes tends to be (except on some race issues, such as affirmative action). She's had students in the city schools tell her that she's not black. She said the reason is that she enjoys being outdoorsy, going on hikes, going skiing, and (of all things) reading! (My wife reports similar experiences in the New York City school system about being seen as failing to be properly black for being interested in reading.) Another student of mine said similar things about her being a figure skater and swimmer. Those aren't black things to do, apparently. These two students of mine do things that are viewed as being within the realm of white people. As McWhorter would put it, that's seen as a place for black people not to live in but just to visit occasionally. Probably the most negative aspect of this is that learning for its own sake and school in general are viewed as part of the white culture and thus to be avoided as things in themselves, but I'll save further reflections on that for the next post on anti-intellectualism.
Another element of the Colin Powell story reveals another symptom of this separatist attitude, neither of which would have been noticeable to the black student in question. There was a reason I started with the issue of what it's like to be a black person, not because it's in itself the most helpful way in to the issue I was presenting but because I've seen a need to bring the more abstract philosophical issues home to students in introductory courses. I deliberately didn't leave it with male-female differences, though. I've gotten the sense that African-American students (though not black students in general) in philosophy classes sometimes will tune out unless they see something immediately relevant to their experience (and I mean their black experience -- if it's something relevant to everyone, they still tune out). I've never understood this, but McWhorter explains what's going on. There's this clear line between the things that are black and the things that are white. Anything that isn't an immediate part of life for black people in ways that aren't true of anyone else is therefore classified as white rather than mainstream, race-independent, or common to all (which in this case it obviously was).
I should say that the student in question told me at the end of the semester that he enjoyed my class and wished his other philosophy classes had gotten into such important issues. This was a metaphysics and epistemology class. One of his other classes would almost definitely been an ethics class. Somehow the issues of the mind-body problem, skepticism about knowledge, the existence of God, determinism and freedom, and personal identity with a serious focus on science fiction cases was more relevant to this student than ethics. Why? My suspicion is that I made some (not even very many) attempts to connect it to issues he considered important for black people, whereas his ethics class may not have done this. I know this is largely speculation, but I wonder if this at least played a role.
McWhorter gives a few other ways this separatism manifests itself. Academia is generally about furthering our knowledge for the sake of understanding ourselves, our world, and in general what's true. That doesn't seem to be what it's about for African-American academics, according to McWhorter. (I have little experience myself in this as a fledgling academic. The one black professor I know well, though never having read McWhorter, would agree with him on most issues related to race and would thus be a very bad example on which to base any generalizations.) He's seen many black academics do what's necessary to get a Ph.D., which in some cases allows work focusing on white racial narratives, black history, social policy that includes serious attention to race issues, and other issues that would be seen as black but often enough doesn't allow that. What tends to happen is that these black academics will do what they can to satisfy their white professors in the general ways necessary to get the degree, get a good job, etc., but when it really comes down to it the only work they see as important is the work they'll call black work.
Here are some examples he's seen to support that there's at least such a trend. A black linguist he knows went to China for a full year. He came back hardly knowing the language. Almost any linguist who had the chance to spend time in China would work hard to learn the language for its own sake. Why not? What are you doing in linguistics if you wouldn't see that as worth doing? It just wasn't interesting to this fellow. He relates some stories of black colleagues wondering why his own work was worth doing if it didn't involve either fundamental progess for black people or at least (or probably more importantly, in their mindset) pointing out all the problems for black people in this racist world. This is a symptom of the same problem I expressed above with black students' views of philosophy (and which has been confirmed by the experience of a quite liberal friend of mine who has been teaching longer than I have and is very concerned about race issues).
This second example leads to a deeper problem for black academia. In many cases what passes for legitimate work among black academics is just plain inferior, lacking in credible support or argumentation, and flat-out victimology. McWhorter gives case after case of black or African-American studies conferences where such work has been presented. The normal sort of response to criticism required normally for evaluation of one's work in mainstream academia is poo-pooed as insulting to black experience, as if Stating Something While Black is enough to satisfy all the requirements of giving reasons to support one's claims. This is only the case with issues friendly to the mainstream of black academia, which is wedded to the victimologist's mantras.
When someone like McWhorter says something against such racial narratives, he's called a traitor to his people who insults black experience himself, and no one addresses his arguments, e.g., against affirmative action as detrimental to the underrepresented minorities it was intended to help. Instead, they simply repeat the chant or laugh at the argument that still hasn't been responded to. (I should say that white liberals are often so taken by the victimologist line that they'll even do the same thing. When I was presenting McWhorter's views in class last week, one white student was smirking and having a hard time covering it up. The idea that a black cultural narrative causing reflexive alienation from mainstream society and thus the systems of learning inherent in it could explain the gap in test scores and academic success was so ludicrous to her that all she could do was laugh at the idea, yet when it came time to raise questions or objections she was strangely silent.)
[As a side note I want to say that this phenomenon isn't exclusive to African-American culture. I've seen Christians demonstate similar symptoms, not usually for the same reasons. Many Christians go into philosophy for apologetical purposes. They're not interested in the pursuit of truth per se, simply because they want to think more deeply about the life God has given to us. Instead, they see philosophy as a tool for evangelism. If they can prove God's existence or truths Christianity teaches that others often deny, then a better picture of Christianity can be used in evangelistic contexts. I know someone who took a number of philosophy courses and somehow ended up writing papers on Christian topics for as many as possible, even ones that seemed very far from the topic in terms of the course material itself. I confess that I did this with one term paper for a course on ethics, but it was while I was taking a class in philosophical theology, and I wanted to tie the two topics together (my paper in the theology class was on a different topic). The difference between this tendency and the African-American one is that the Christian one has less of a sense of victimology involved, at least most of the time. Sometimes it's with the sense that we should take back the academy, but it's even self-defeating if it's for that reason. The best way to take back the academy would be to have something to say, and something those who aren't Christian want to hear and will listen to, about topics that aren't viewed as specifically Christian. I think the same could be said for black academics.]
The most insidious and harmful symptom of separatism, according to McWhorter (except perhaps the anti-intellectualism that he devotes two whole chapters to but sees as a separate issue) is the tendency to excuse people simply for being black. The above case of Stating Something While Black is one place this shows up, but there are more criminal examples of this. He sees responses among black people to the O.J. Simpson case as clearly stemming from separatist notions of morality. A number of black leaders defended O.J. Simpsons as having been excused for what he did, if in fact he did it (which very attitude requires suspending belief in all sorts of evidence that he did), simply because he is black. How can people defend a rich black man who married a black wife, lives a life of luxury, probably gets driven around by a white limo driver, and so on going on to kill his wife and her new lover in cold blood simply on the grounds that he's black? So now there's Killing While Black. Maybe Driving While Black is a bad thing worthy of arrest, but Killing While Black is reason enough to get away scot free. There's clearly a racial narrative at work here.
Other examples abound throughout his book. Tupac Shakur was raised middle-class but chose pathological thuggery. He has no guilt in the mind of the black community but is seen as a hero. The outright racism of Elijah Muhammad (including assassinating those who got inconvenient, e.g. Malcolm X) gets the same treatment. It's true that many white people have a fascination with the mafia, evidenced by the popularity of The Sopranos. Black people tend to do the same with black thugs while complaining of the inconsistency of white people doing what they do with the mafia while complaining about drug dealers and criminals who are black. What's different about the black case is that somehow it's excusable simply because the criminals are black. It's understandable that Farrakhan is a racist, and so on. After Rodney King, a bunch of black thugs found some random white guy to beat up quite brutally, painting his privates black in the process just to show that it was about race. Maxine Waters called this justifiable revenge for racism. Brutalizing someone is a crime except when it's Brutalizing Someone While Black.
Back when racism as an explicit attitude was running strong, black people had to enter the mainstream to succeed. They had to learn all sorts of things now considered white, and they didn't do it begrudgingly. They did it because they thought it was worth doing, not just because it was essential to succeed, merely as a tool, but because it was intrinsically worthwhile. It's true that W.E.B. DuBois focused his philosophical writing on issues important to understanding and overcoming racism and its effects, particularly on black identity, but he pursued philosophical study because he loved it and saw its value for life period, not just for black life.
This separatist mentality leads to lowered expectations, both intellectually and morally. That leads to lowered results in both areas, which furthers racist stereotypes. It also makes it more difficult to overcome those deficiencies due to the cultural opposition to such overcoming. It leads to being branded an Uncle Tom (as has happened with Colin Powell). An effect on some people that's harder to anticipate, but which McWhorter has a number of examples to support, is an unhealthy fear and distrust of all white people. The myths of victimology and separatism combine to lead to a sense that white people are out to get black people and are thus not worthy of trust. Some pathology is involved when this happens to a great degree, but it's an effect of the separatist narrative.
McWhorter gives the case of two black law students he knew, the only two in their class not to get jobs one summer. It turns out they were deeply distrustful of white people, wanting to spend as little time as possible around them. When white people were in a conversation, they would clam up and show a clear preference not to accept those people into their lives. Then they claimed racism was the reason they didn't get jobs. One primary criteria for choosing one candidate over another is how easy it is to get along with the candidate. If the person seems cooperative, open, and friendly, then that's a big plus. Someone who doesn't may even look good on paper but fails the interview. Given what McWhorter knew of these two people, it seems pretty clear to him that their own attitudes toward white people may have been the primary reason they didn't get jobs.
Separatism is settling for less. There's so much we can learn to appreciate about each other that separatism won't allow. What remains of racism is the most deep-seated part, the part that won't be overcome until white people can see how important the well-being and success of black people is to their own lives. The give-and-take of real relationships is crucial to overcoming the racial problems of our day. Separatism goes in exactly the wrong way. For everyone to see each other as important, we all need to see the mainstream as worth being incorporated into. White narratives that don't entirely correspond to reality need to be pushed off, and black ones do too. We're all interconnected, and we need to be more interconnected. We need to see what's important and valuable to us all as common ground, not as something relegated to the life and experience of the other, whichever group we find ourselves in, and I think we're all guilty of resisting that to some degree. Most of all, however (and I list this as key mostly because it's the thing most resisted at the popular level), we need to be willing to see mainstream things that aren't purely part of white racial narratives as not just white but as important and valuable to all, including to those who don't currently consider them to be important.