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Poisonous “Authenticity” By: Heather Mac Donald
City Journal | Thursday, May 01, 2008


The list of Afrocentric “educators” whom Reverend Jeremiah Wright has invoked in his media escapades since this Sunday is a disturbing reminder that academia’s follies can enter the public world in harmful ways. Now the pressing question is whether they have entered presidential candidate Barack Obama’s worldview as well.

Some in Wright’s crew of charlatans have already had their moments in the spotlight; others are less well known. They form part of the tragic academic project of justifying self-defeating underclass behavior as “authentically black.” That their ideas have ended up in the pulpit of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and in Detroit’s Cobo Hall, where Wright spoke at the NAACP’s Freedom Fund dinner on Sunday, reminds us that bad ideas must be fought at their origins—and at every moment thereafter.

At the NAACP meeting, Wright proudly propounded the racist contention that blacks have inherently different “learning styles,” correctly citing as authority for this view Janice Hale of Wayne State University. Pursuing a Ph.D. by logging long hours in the dusty stacks of a library, Wright announced, is “white.” Blacks, by contrast, cannot sit still in class or learn from quiet study, and they have difficulty learning from “objects”—books, for example—but instead learn from “subjects,” such as rap lyrics on the radio. These differences are neurological, according to Hale and Wright: whites use what Wright referred to as the “left-wing, logical, and analytical” side of their brains, whereas blacks use their “right brain,” which is “creative and intuitive.” When he was of school age in Philadelphia following the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision, Wright said, his white teachers “freaked out because the black children did not stay in their place, over there, behind the desk.” Instead, the students “climbed up all over [the teachers], because they learned from a ‘subject,’ not an ‘object.’” How one learns from a teacher as “subject” by climbing on her, as opposed to learning from her as “object”—by listening to her words—is a mystery.

One would hope that Wright’s audience was offended by the idea that acting out in class is authentically black—it was impossible to tell what the reaction in the hall was to the assertion. But one thing is clear: embracing the notion that blacks shouldn’t be expected to listen attentively to instruction is guaranteed to perpetuate into eternity the huge learning gap between blacks on the one hand, and whites and Asians on the other.

Wright also praised the work of Geneva Smitherman of Michigan State University, who has called for the selective incorporation of Ebonics into the curriculum in order to validate the black experience. Wright gave another shout-out to the late Asa Hilliard of Georgia State University, who told us, Wright said, “how to fix the schools.” Like Hale, Hilliard argued that disrupting the classroom through “impulsive interrupting and loud talking” is inherently black. His bogus Afrocentrism, propounded in his “African-American Baseline Essays,” metastasized in educational circles during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hilliard argued that Western civilization was at once stolen from black Africa and crippling to black identity. As the late Arthur M. Schlesinger recounted in his 1991 alarum about multiculturalism, The Disuniting of America, Hilliard urged schools to teach black students that Egypt was a black country; that Africans invented birth control and carbon steel; that they discovered America long before Columbus; that Robert Browning and Ludwig van Beethoven were “Afro-European”; and that the Atlantic Ocean was originally named the Ethiopian Ocean. (City College of New York laughingstock Leonard Jeffries—he of the infamous distinction between materialistic, aggressive European “ice people” and superior African “sun people”—contributed to Hilliard’s Essays, asserting therein that slavery was undertaken as “part of a conspiracy to prevent us from having a unified experience.”)

Approving of self-destructive behavior in school is just one part of the vast academic project to justify black underclass dysfunction. The academy has also singled out crime as authentically black, another poisonous idea that Wright appears to have embraced. In his NAACP speech, he mocked the tendency of “those of us who never got caught” to treat “those of us who are incarcerated” with disrespect. In other words, we all commit crime, but only some of us get nabbed for it.

This leveling argument recalls the bizarre doctrines of University of Pennsylvania law professor Regina Austin. In a widely reprinted California Law Review article from 1992, Austin asserted that the black community should embrace the criminals in its midst as a form of resistance to white oppression. People of color should view “hustling” as a “good middle ground between straightness and more extreme forms of lawbreaking.” Examples of hustling include “clerks in stores [who] cut their friends a break on merchandise, and pilfering employees [who] spread their contraband around the neighborhood.” It never occurs to Austin that these black thieves may have black employers who suffer the effects of black crime—as do the larger neighborhoods of which they form the essential fabric. Officially incorporating crime into the black identity, as Austin and Wright do, is a pathetic admission of defeat and marginalization.

To understand how such ideas become mainstream, one need only read the front page of today’s New York Times. There, television critic Alessandra Stanley thrills to the authentic voice of black America: Wright “went deep into context—a rich, stem-winding brew of black history, Scripture, hallelujahs and hermeneutics,” Stanley effuses. “Mr. Wright, Senator Barack Obama’s former pastor, was cocky, defiant, declamatory, inflammatory and mischievous.” One might think that Wright’s promotion of the idea that black kids can’t sit still in class would raise some worries, even in a television critic. Surely Stanley would expect her own children to listen to their teachers. But the white elite’s desire to avoid charges of racism cancels out all reasonable reactions to dangerous nonsense when such nonsense comes out of black mouths. The coverage of Wright’s speeches beyond the Times has been just as silent about their crackpot Afrocentric pedagogy, meekly following the agenda that Wright set by asking instead whether the black church, and not Wright, was under attack.

Wright’s speeches have shown how quickly academic insanity becomes incorporated into practice. And now we may be on the verge of seeing such madness spread into the White House. The mainstream media have had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into questioning Obama’s affiliation with Wright. By now, Wright’s 9/11 and AIDS diatribes are well-worn—and Obama’s repudiation of them a no-brainer. It is imperative that someone at CNN or the New York Times ask Obama whether he, too, believes that the way to “fix the schools” is through Afrocentric curricula and double standards in student discipline, and whether he, too, believes that blacks only think with the “right side” of their brains.


Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book, coauthored with Victor Davis Hanson and Steven Malanga, is The Immigration Solution.


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