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Notes From A Happy Warrior By: John McWhorter
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, June 26, 2002


"The larger currents of American public life inhibit nuance in discourse about race and social policy," intones Glenn Loury in an exchange he and I had in the May 2002 issue of First Things, after having in the same piece dismissed me as a "happy warrior, hacking away on the frontlines of the Kulturkampf." Loury’s stooping to facile character assassination only serves as a further demonstration of my argument: that the sea change in his views is based less on empiricism than emotion.

Loury insists that the "stigma" that blacks labor under is the key to race-based disparities in America, and that there can be no serious progress until whites finally "acknowledge" this and "address" it through policies that set lower standards of agency and moral fiber for African Americans. I have stated my disagreement with that premise, and consider Exhibit A to be that so very many blacks have achieved despite this "stigma" that there are now many fewer poor black families than middle class ones. This fact suggests to me that an intervening factor has held a proportion of blacks behind, and I identify this factor as the change in social policies that infected our polity in the late 1960s. I am hardly alone in that argument, but certainly cannot claim that I write with the authority of Moses. Nevertheless, typically of arguments from the left, Loury neglects to even address this primary pillar of my argument, caught in the paradigm that frames black success as "exceptional" regardless of its prevalence. As such, stripped of its verbose reiterations and sly attempts to class me and like-minded people as sinister members of an evil "movement," Loury’s response fails as a refutation of what I wrote.

Loury surely considers himself to have done his job in rejecting my point about the late 1960s as a "cartoon version of American social history." However, his sallies here are hardly as conclusive as he supposes. Let’s take them one by one.

Blacks were done in by "deindustrialization in the ‘rust belt’ cities" – too seldom is it asked precisely why blacks did not simply move to where the work was. In 1992, the mainstream media celebrated Nicholas Lehmann’s The Promised Land, depicting poor blacks in the teens and twenties moving thousands of miles north for work with sacks on their back. But then five years later, the new flavor of the month was William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears, depicting those blacks’ grandchildren as mysteriously incapable of following work two bus rides away.

This also bears on another of the obstacles Loury sees as having been decisive: "a huge, relatively low-skilled immigration quickening competition at the labor market’s bottom rungs." But blacks who migrated from the South settled in cities still teeming with new immigrants from Europe, as well as working class whites far from ecstatic at the further competition for jobs that the new black migrants constituted. But the result was nothing approaching the desolation of the inner cities that would emerge several decades later. And then there is the question as to just why such a large proportion of blacks in the 1960s lost out in competition for low-level jobs with the new wave of immigrants after 1965. That the expansion of welfare for poor blacks had something to do with this is hardly a "cartoon" analysis.

Or: blacks encountered "fierce resistance by working-class whites to housing and school integration." But blacks had attained great heights of self-sufficiency just a few decades before, in city after city, amidst naked segregation, and there is not a whit of evidence that what busing there was improved scholastic performance among black schoolchildren. One of the saddest legacies of leftist analyses of race in America is that blacks are lost unless "integrated" with whites. "If paying black women to have babies led to welfare dependency, then did they elect to ‘increase their supply of babies’ as the pay rate fell?" Here, Loury bases an argument on the idealization of individuals as isolated "rational actors" that is rapidly falling into disrepute in his own field of economics. Illegitimacy in the black community skyrocketed after welfare was expanded for poor blacks – period. Sleight-of-hand arguments based on outdated economic theory leave my point un-addressed that black illegitimacy was not a serious problem among poor blacks before the 1960s.

Obviously The Pill did "alter sexual mores across the class structure" – but I thought our issue was the explosion of illegitimate births, which the Pill would appear to have had little to do with. Crack cocaine "decimated" the inner cities? Yes, but then heroin infested inner cities as early as the 1940s, without the result being the hideous violence that became familiar in the 1970s. "Massive high-rise public housing projects sited exclusively in black residential districts" were the culprit? I have always been dismayed at the idea that black Americans are the world’s only people who are done in when living together in large numbers, and am perplexed at the apparent notion that for blacks and blacks alone, architectural altitude is somehow a formula for depravity.

There may be ripostes to all of these points. But Loury gives none. He supposes that I wonder how the man who once wrote much as I do now writes a book about "the enigma of the stigma," but decides that in the end, "This is neither the time nor the place for me to fully address that question". And he does not. That’s his prerogative, but it leaves my argument -- that the governmental and academic enshrinement of white guilt was the crucial factor in leaving so many blacks behind -- standing.

Loury takes my suggestion that his change of views is due to personal rather than academic concerns as unwelcome and inappropriate "psychological speculation" of an "ad hominem" nature. However, this is one of several indications that Loury gave my review, at best, a quick skim. I clearly note in my piece that I make this point with the sole aim of a sincere effort to parse what even Loury is aware of as a perplexing hairpin turn in ideology as viewed from the outside. Specifically, I wrote that I did not intend an ad hominem smear, but that at the same time I did not want to take the tack of accusing Loury of "selling out" or seeking attention. As such, the sole logical pathway from point A to point B that I could perceive is that, indeed, Loury’s personal crises forged a change in his intentions as a public figure. "How on earth would he (or anyone, for that matter) know that?" Loury sputters. Well, I’m sorry, but it was on view for the entire nation to read in the New York Times Magazine article about Loury, for one. And while I of all people am quite familiar with how media profiles can vastly distort one’s essence, there were too many direct, extended, and poignant quotes in the article by Loury himself making it inescapable that it was psychological rather than intellectual factors that played the main role in Loury’s transformation. Addressing this in the constructive vein that I did makes me not a "happy warrior," but a writer sincerely attempting to fathom the ideological change in a figure he has admired so much in the past. I make no apology for having done so.

This is not the only indication that Loury did not consider my review worthy of a serious reading. Again and again he caricatures my views or shoehorns them into those often expressed by other members of the "movement" he sees me as part of – missing the fact that I concur with him on the basic proposition that African Americans will be saved by a combination of the left and the right. "John McWhorter sees me as reiterating, in a slightly modified form, the tired liberal charge that blacks do not succeed because whites are guilty of moral malfeasance". But I trust that anyone who read my piece will see that I repeatedly note and praise Loury’s position that the "stigma" arises through largely unintentional conclusions drawn by individuals in local circumstances. My actual objection is the specific claim that the "stigma," real though it is, is a sentence to failure. I make that argument just as clearly and insistently. Has Loury read my piece, or skimmed it grousingly as one more tract from the evil right? In a similar vein, "McWhorter accuses me of quietly endorsing leftist positions because he imagines some leftists may agree with what I have written. He actually thinks this is a reason to reject my argument". Readers will agree that nowhere in the piece do I make this straw man of a claim. I think Loury’s argument should be rejected because it does not engage with the full range of facts applicable to it, period. On Loury’s speculations as to how the stigma might arise, I apparently accuse him of "playing fast and loose with the facts". I wrote no such thing: my problem with these thought experiments is that their purely hypothetical nature strikes me as a weak foundation upon which to base so urgent and extended an argument as his book. In the next paragraph, for example, Loury proposes yet another of these just-so stories: "So, imagine that an observer (correctly) takes note of the fact that…This may lead the observer to withhold credit from blacks…Perhaps blacks default more often precisely because…If under such circumstances observers were to attribute…" [italics mine].  I remain disappointed that Loury appeals to these hypothetical cases, deft though they are, rather than documented facts. I have little doubt that Loury’s opinion of my race writings would decline to the extent that I relied on imagine, may, and perhaps.

I point out this lapse in Loury’s argumentation out of honest engagement with his ideas. But Loury can only see me as writing with "animus". Yet I doubt if any reader can glean the "animus" in the calm essay that I contributed, in which I bend over backwards to meet Loury halfway as much as possible. Does Loury simply consider himself immune from serious engagement?

Of course, Loury accuses me of not having read him closely. On my switching his terms reward bias and development bias in one passage, mea culpa – but this was in the end a mere terminological flub. The substance of my argument there and elsewhere makes it clear that I read Loury’s text and assimilated his ideas. But at times, I sense that Loury has a tacit sense that arguments are only legitimate if couched in heavy social science jargon. But I consciously refrain from writing in that style on race (I save it for my academic linguistics work). I stand on content, not form – but this often seems to distract Loury from points upon which we actually agree.

One example: Loury claims "I do not argue that people view others in society through the lens of the scientific paradigms made famous by Thomas Kuhn. Rather, I hold that people adopt modes of learning about the underlying causes of social outcomes that, in their lack of a fully rational cognitive foundation, may be usefully likened to what Kuhn proposed about the way scientific communities assimilate new theories."  In other words, people view other people through the lens of Kuhnian paradigms – it is unclear to me what I got wrong here, other than neglecting the ten-dollar words and tapeworm phraseology. But more serious is his accusation that I claim Affirmative Action is the root of black-white disparities in student performance. I indeed peg Affirmative Action as one of the condescending set-asides that emerged from the post-Kerner Commission culture. But for Loury to pretend that I see this as the cause of the black-white scholastic lag is almost shocking. I wrote a whole book, Losing the Race, that addresses this issue at a certain length, where I identify larger cultural factors that create this gap, and identify Affirmative Action as a post hoc enabler of that problem rather than its cause. I have good reason to assume that Loury has read (skimmed?) Losing the Race, and he is unlikely not to have caught at least one or two of my copious public statements on what holds black students behind. I am somewhat bemused to read him charging me with sloppy reading and misrepresentation only to neglect a core argument of an entire book I have written.

To sum up, my position on Loury’s thesis is that the claim that "stigma" prevents a people from achieving and sends a disproportionate number of them into idle, nihilistic despair is mistaken. I continue to regard the victory of this paradigm, if I may, as the key misstep in African American ideology since the late 1960s – the position would have baffled most blacks at the turn of the twentieth century just a few generations past slavery and reading of lynchings practically by the week. And in this, I am neither unique nor a marginal crank from an ideological fringe. Increasing numbers of black people, while supporting Affirmative Action in the business realm (as I do) and seeing it necessary that America always have some form of welfare (as I do) and fully aware that racist "stigma" is well and alive (as I do) feel that residual racist sentiment is no longer the main factor that black uplift needs to address.

My asserting this does not render me a hopped-up, callow, opportunistic "happy warrior" promulgating "cartoon" arguments out of some kind of mysterious "animus" against Glenn Loury. It renders me just one more African American deeply concerned about the fate of his race, seeking the most effective solutions to their success. Loury has his right to his new opinions, and because race issues are not easy, I was sincere when I wrote that I hope in his future writings he spells out his positions more convincingly. I consider views from all parts of the political spectrum vital in moving us forward.  But if Loury continues to neglect how successful blacks were in the era of Plessy v. Ferguson, how sharply post-1960s poor black neighborhoods contrasted with ones from just decades before in a more deeply racist era, and how set-aside programs run the risk of depriving people of the incentive to do their best, then I will persist in my verdict that his argumentation is empirically incomplete.

 

 

 




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