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John McWhorter Loves Barack Obama, The Rest of You Black People, Not-So-Much

All this week, and all the next, The Black Snob is taking a look at the views of black conservatives on Barack Obama. We’re examining who likes him, who doesn’t. Who will vote for him and who won’t. So far we’ve looked at the views of Amy Holmes, Condoleezza Rice, Alan Keyes, Colin Powell, Armstrong Williams and more.

I’d never heard of John McWhorter before until earlier this year. Unlike the other black conservatives I’ve written about in this series I didn’t have much of an emotional connection, good or bad, to him. He seemed to fall into the garden “pearl clutching” variety of black person who faints upon hearing “She got dem Apple Bottom jeans, boots wit the furs.”

There’s nothing wrong with that, per say, but the obsession with “popular culture as boogeyman” to the point of neglecting all other factors societal decay can become a little wearying. But like a-many black intellectual before him, he has this whole BET = low-test scores theory down pat.

McWhorter describes himself as politically independent. On moderate/conservative blog Booker Rising he’s referred as a “moderate-Liberal.” He is also a senior fellow the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank, so you can draw whatever political inference you want from these markers.

McWhorter’s primarily a linguist with his specialty being Creole. He’s written several books on the subject as well as many books on race.

He has the polished resume and acumen of a talented-tenther, teaching at Cornell. Getting his PhD at Stanford. Blaming rap music for the decay of black youth. Criticizing blacks for latching onto outrage for the frivolous but remaining mute on the serious. (The last of which I agree to a certain extent.)

He often posits that African Americans are mired in a culture that encourages underachievement.

None of this will change, he says, until African Americans regain the seriousness of purpose and moral authority that helped lift them from slavery and segregation. Also, he contends, affirmative action has to go, as he believes it sows self-doubt among blacks and animosity among whites.

After reciting a litany of problems in test scores and school attendance surround blacks, McWhorter pours on his analysis until his audience is drowning in a combination of outrage and confusion. All this criticism out of self-love (or loathing, depending on who you ask) doesn’t settle well with many blacks. Many African Americans have consistently seen any alleged dirty laundry airing as the business of hucksters wanting to bash black people all their way to the bank.

It’s not so much about saying ignorance is a bad thing as there is a plurality of agreement there. But saying it in public offends the sensibilities.

Critics call McWhorter’s thesis superficial, opportunistic and reminiscent of black cultural critics who make a quick name for themselves — not to mention hefty speaking fees — at the expense of African Americans.

“You remind me very much of [William B.] Shockley, who waded into a field for which he wasn’t prepared,” Rae Alexander-Minter, an Audrey Cohen vice president, tells McWhorter after his speech at the college. Shockley won the Nobel Prize in physics, but is infamous for promoting incendiary views of genetic differences between the races.

These views do not endear McWhorter to black people. And his words sound no better coming out of his mouth than Armstrong Williams’ mouth or Bill Cosby’s mouth.

McWhorter, like Shelby Steele to some extent with Condi Rice and Colin Powell to a greater extent, writes about Obama as if he is very much one of his “own,” a highly educated black forced into the same lot with lower income, lesser educated and less refined black plebeians, for better or for worse, in an unholy, smothering, co-dependent union.

Many educated blacks feel a real since of duty to lesser educated blacks. It’s best orchestrated in WEB DuBois theory of the “Talented Tenth,” that the 10 percent who make up the black upper crust will lift the other 90 percent out of despair. This is born out of racism, an illness that is inflicted upon a black person regardless of tax bracket. Some deal with it through polite discourse, like Rice and Powell who live by example. Others like Bill Cosby go on speaking tours wearing sunshades screaming about fast food and video games.

After discovering him on The Root and learning about the Creole background, I was interested to see what he was thinking this political season.

On the candidacy of Barack Obama here are a few things McWhorter had to say:

To The New Republic on Obama’s “race” speech:

It must be understood what a maverick statement this is from a 40-something black politician. In the black community one does not sass one’s elders. One is expected to show a particular deference, understandably, to the generation who fought on the barricades of the Civil Rights movement. That is, to people of Jeremiah Wright’s vintage.

For a light-skinned half-white Ivy League-educated black man to repudiate, in clear language and repeatedly, the take on race of people like Julian Bond and Nikki Giovanni is not only honest but truly bold.

A certain strain of black bloggers will be blowing their tops for a week, while some black writers of mature years will remind us in editorials that Wright’s vision of America is more present-tense than Obama’s speech implies.

McWhorter was a staunch defender of Obama throughout the Jeremiah Wright controversy. He wrote in The New York Sun about being genuinely impressed by Obama’s speech on race and how he dealt Wright’s style of sermon, which he pithily described as Sunday morning’s answer to “gangsta rap.”

If this is just political hardball, I get it. But I sense more to it. America prides itself on being ready for a black president lately. Well, in hearing Reverend Wright’s agitprop as performance rather than hate speech, Barack Obama is black indeed — in a way other than the uninteresting one of melanin. Yet I see this as irrelevant to how he would run the country.

That is, I, for one, am still ready for a black president. I wonder if the rest of America is.

Answering the two Obama questions of this series were easy because he already answered them for me in a piece for The New Republic. He drank the Obama-ade in full and he loves every ounce of it.

A President Obama, with his black wife astride the planet with him and their children growing up before our eyes, would mean something that, as a Race Man, attracts me.

The number of black poor would remain disproportionate, and pranksters would still hang nooses now and then. However, Obama would stand as ineluctable proof that something has truly happened.

If Obama was not a thinking man and had shown no interest in legislation targeting black people, none of this symbolic value would sway me. But he is, he has, and then there’s the symbolism, too.

Obama, with his message of unity, is fond of saying “we” in his speeches rather than “I.” Well, include me in.

Well, then! That settles it on two fronts.


Will he endorse Obama? He already did.


Will he vote for Obama? He’s fired up and ready to go.

But his statement also settles another thing for me on two fronts – McWhorter’s true and conflicting views of blackness.

I have to make fun of McWhorter a little because as a member of “other” class of black people who don’t listen to gangsta rap, like the plays of Henrik Ibsen and spent many Condi Rice days playing “Fur Elise” on end I can half relate to him.

Although I’m not as stressed out or as bleak as he is about the state of poor black trash.

On the talented tenth continuum, McWhorter falls somewhere between living-by-example and pissing-people-off-with-“the truth.” And he definitely sees a mirror reflecting himself in the life work of Barack Obama.

He likes the fact that Obama isn’t one of those inconvenient, race hustling, poverty pimps. He’s an Ivy-league educated, well-spoken “sophisticrat” — tastefully above race, and yet not so much above it to abandon the harpies he’s tied to back on earth.

But while Obama has described his racial journey as one of self-acceptance and personal discovery, McWhorter is operating from the perspective of black panic, helping save us from ourselves in an effort to emancipate himself from the racism that binds us together.

When I read McWhorter columns on Obama’s race speech and can see him painting a vivid picture where he and Obama are bound to us, but rather than shutter us into a closet and disavow knowledge of our ass-backwards existence they’ve decided to one-arm embrace in front a phalanx of flags and cameras even when our ghetto whitey-hating hillbilly asses almost ruined our last best shot at hope. Flavor Flav wasn’t thrown under the bus in Obama’s race speech. He was lovingly, patronizingly rolled away and covered in an elaborate Creole dust ruffle. That’s not crazy. That’s quaint Negro kitsch! The giant tchotchkes of Pigmeat Markum and a crack-addled Whitney Houston!

But until there are more black elitist snobs (or at least more black SUV pushing, Target-shopping philistines) McWhorter is going to have to keep admonishing us about our Lil Mama mp3, chewing gum in the back of class, drinking pickle brine and discussing the virtues of Konigs versus DUBs.

Personally, I prefer American Tru, but I’m old school. I’m almost p
ositive that if Frederick Douglass has put rims on his wagons they would have been “Sprewells.”

Check back to The Black Snob all this week and next, the series concluding on April 14th.

Sunday: Amy Holmes
Monday: Condoleezza Rice
Tuesday: Ward Connerly
Wednesday: Shelby Steele
Thursday: Alan Keyes
Friday: JC Watts
Saturday: Colin Powell
Sunday: Armstrong Williams
Monday: Michael Steele
Tuesday: John McWhorter
Wednesday: LaShawn Barber and Herman Cain
Thursday: Star Parker and Eric Wallace
Friday: Larry Elder and Thomas Sowell
Saturday: Juan Williams
Sunday: A final analysis, “Who Would Clarence Thomas Vote For?”

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17 thoughts on “John McWhorter Loves Barack Obama, The Rest of You Black People, Not-So-Much

  1. I read both “Authentically Black” and “Losing the Race”,and came away from both feeling like he was beating a dead horse. He could have condensed both books into one.That said, and our differing politics aside, I reached out to McWhorter via email some years back, emerging writer to-this-guy-managed-to-get-not-one-but-two book-deals-writer. Admittedly, this was well before he really blew up in the media, but to his credit, he replied right away, and was very gracious and encouraging of me professionally.Anyway, just my little McWhorter story. Teehee.I still think you should look at Debra Dickerson. ;-) Some commenter here said she’s a self-described liberal, but I think she’s even more conflicted than McWhorter. Her essay, “Who Shot Johnny?” is a classic, btw.

  2. I just can’t get over this dude calling himself a “Race Man.” Perhaps I just have a misconception of the term… I’m about to Google it, because after reading these comments, he doesn’t exactly sound pro-Black. In fact, I could close my eyes and swear he was Sean Hannity or somebody.

  3. ferocious kitty: I’ve read that Debra describes herself as a Liberal as well. I read that around the time her book “The End of Blackness” came out and she was doing publicity, but I’d have to double-check. I never did buy the book (it might still be sitting somewhere in shopping cart on Amazon.com), but I’ll look into it.fantastically misunderstood me: I know. I thought the “race man” comment was weird to. The only time I’ve heard it is in reference to people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and it’s never been a compliment. So I don’t know if he was trying to infer that he is very pro-black despite what people have gleaned of him or if there is some less inflammatory usage of the term.

  4. “Race man” comes from a very specific historical context, and I believe that the contemporary usage of the phrase is a bastardization.A. Philip Randolph was a race man. Generally speaking, it was a black man who sought to uplift the race. There was no place for self-aggrandizement, and I always associated the term with a certain humility, so that counts Jesse and Al out, in my dictionary.

  5. I think the monolithic support of the Democratic Pary in our community is hurting us because… We do not have a chair at the Republic bargaining table and they represent close to half the number of elector officials.Democrats can safely continue to make promises every election year and never follow throughIt furthers the notion that we all look and think alikeNevertheless, the Republicans have to do a better effort to reach out to Black voters as well.

  6. adam: Since blacks have had the right to vote we’ve largely been one issue voters. Mostly because that one issue determined our entire quality of life and that issue is racism.This one issue vote existed after the Civil War when blacks were overwhelmingly Republican and it exists today with the Republicans now courting the bigots who used to run the Democratic Party.Until there is more parity between black quality of life and white quality of life racism will continue to be the deciding factor in how blacks cast their votes.After all, you don’t hear many white Democrats arguing that evolutionary theory is wrong and immoral but I know quite a few black legislators who feel that way and are also Democrats.Get rid of racism and I’d gather a good forty to sixty percent of blacks would be labeled as conservative, but since racism isn’t going anywhere anytime soon we will continue to pool as much power as we can as into a reliable voting block.Unfortunately, most white Democrats know that as long as there is a variance from indifference to out-right hostility to black people in the Republican Party we won’t be going anywhere. The best case scenario for us would be if there were more viable political parties. Like if a Progressive Party formed, breaking off from the Democrats that was for social justice, but also socially conservative. Tons of black folks would gladly ditch the Dems and hop that bandwagon. It would also be easier to get our candidates elected if the vote count was divided up amongst, at the least, three political parties instead of two. Our votes would become extremely attractive in this case because now you wouldn’t need 49 to 51 percent of the vote to win, you would only need 33 or 29 percent. We’re 12 percent of the US population and our percentages are even larger than that in parts of the south and some major cities.Do you know how many offices, mayorships, governorships, state and local reps would be black or brown if all you needed was 29 percent? Hell, do you know how many Asians would hold offices in California and the Pacific Northwest? The minority vote would be the hottest vote in America!I guarantee, if there were viable third and fourth party options for all Americans, shit would get done for black people (and other minorities). You need competition for minority power to mean something. As long as there are only two parties minorities will be always a little screwed over.Of course no new political parties is about the ONLY thing both white Democrats and Republicans agree on. They like their monopoly. Can’t have a bunch of pesky little upstarts stealing their precious bigot/black/brown/green/conservative/independent/female/liberal votes.But one can dream.

  7. Anonymous says:

    here’s another black repub that i’ve never heard of before…let me see what else i can find out about this guy…thanks for a job well done..*starrie*

  8. “When I read McWhorter columns on Obama’s race speech and can see him painting a vivid picture…” Priceless!As usual, fabulous post. I can’t recall having heard about McWhorter prior to this–I’ll have to go back and do some research on him.

  9. dewfish says:

    McWhorter is an okay guy, just too simplistic in his approach toward racism in america. It’s like you said, very “Cosbyish” in his approach toward black empowerment. He isn’t the first to say “why don’t you all just straighten up and fly right”, and he won’t be the last…..

  10. [quote]Unlike the other black conservatives I’ve written about in this series I didn’t have much of an emotional connection, good or bad, to him.[/quote]John McWhorter IS NOT A CONSERVATIVE!!I recently watched 3 hours worth of dialogue with him on C-SPAN “In-Depth”.He says that he loves being MISTAKEN for a “Black Conservative” by WHITE CONSERVATIVES. He goes on their forums as they expect him to play the role. Then he confounds them with his LIBERALISM. It is clear that for many of you his greatest offense is that he dare to ASK SOME ‘INTROSPECTION’ OF BLACK PEOPLE and this purges him from the liberal camp.I wonder if any of you that believe that the “Black Conservative” in “BLAMING THE VICTIM” and thus is out of touch would ever say the same thing about the Cornel Wests and Bell Hooks of the world for going too far the other way – nearly ABSTRACTING Black people and our cultural choices as playing a central part in the outcomes in our lives?[quote]These views do not endear McWhorter to black people. [/quote]Endearment as a GOAL?”If you are going to TELL ME THE TRUTH you had better sugar coat it or otherwise I am not hearing it”.What about the reverse? “Though YOU ARE THE DOMINANT IDEOLOGY over my people but we still suffer despite your tremendous gain in power…..I will still support you because YOU KNOW HOW TO TALK TO US……even if your ideas don’t work out too good for our progression forward”.Black Snob: For a PEOPLE who “KNOW THEMSELVES” and know what they want in their lives – why is it that ENDEARMENT such an issue?While I am not a woman – I can imagine the long line of ‘rose bearing, smooth talking PLAYERS’ who have charmed their way into the lives of various women only to end up being emotionally destructive duds in the end.For men that woman who ‘TELLS YOU WHAT YOU NEED TO HEAR’ but not always in the format you wish to hear it turn out to be solid and valuable PARTNERS for men like me. Speaking for myself only, instead of RESPONDING to the verbal critique with anger – I step back and peel away the unsavory package by which the ‘constructive feedback’ was delivered in. I then take the essential elements that remain and MEASURE THESE AGAINST THE REFERENCE OF THE ‘MAN I WANT TO BE’. I guess the varied responses to ‘criticism’ vs ‘words of endearment’ boil down to what one is ultimately interested in in the long run? CORRECTION or PACIFICATION.

  11. [quote]Until there is more parity between black quality of life and white quality of life racism will continue to be the deciding factor in how blacks cast their votes.[/quote]Black Snob:What IF a major element of SOME White folk’s “quality of life” (ie: wealth) had to do with their willingness to accept unfettered CAPITALISM and then act the part and get financially rewarded for it? As you talk about the “GAP in Quality of Life” (with the assumption that RACISM is a major force that creates these bifurcated outcomes…..) is there any room to consider the differences in assumptions, actions and popular values as it relates to MONEY between Black and White?If Black people, for example, came to the conclusion that cut throat competition where employees are hired and fired purely on the needs of the CORPORATION and thus choose a more socialist model – does the Black community have the responsibility to ALSO accept that in providing this greater level of job security that the reduced capital aggregation as compared to another group of people is just one VALUE that they are not willing to yield on their way to billion dollar profits?[quote]Get rid of racism and I’d gather a good forty to sixty percent of blacks would be labeled as conservative, but since racism isn’t going anywhere anytime soon we will continue to pool as much power as we can as into a reliable voting block.[/quote]Black Snob – Indeed anyone who takes up the cause to “Get Rid Of Racism” may as well FIRST get rid of all murders in a society and THEN move on to the task of racism eradication. Better than exterminating racism is the steps that a group can take to REDUCE THEIR VULNERABILITY to the malicious actions of others – in the name of racial hatred.[quote]Unfortunately, most white Democrats know that as long as there is a variance from indifference to out-right hostility to black people in the Republican Party we won’t be going anywhere.[/quote]I strongly disagree with this statement above. It yields to the claim of a BINARY CHOICE where there is no such limitation. Beyond this if indeed there is a “conservative” element within our race who is suppressing this ideology that is most comfortable to them because of an EXTERNAL PARTY then indeed they are ‘selling themselves out’ to themselves and their natural orientation. What do you say of the MAJORITY BLACK COMMUNITIES where the White Man, Democrat or Republican is not an important force WITHIN? Should this otherwise “Black Conservative” again abandon what he knows to be in the best interests WITHIN because he doesn’t want to “sound like a REPUBLICAN”? Does such a notion strike against the very counter-rhetoric that we often hear? Didn’t Michele Obama, for example say something to the effect that “The Republican Party does not have a monopoly on FAMILY VALUES”? Why then would a person who is truly interested in the BLACK COMMUNITY suppress certain ideas for fear of not wanting to sound like a Republican? It doesn’t make sense to me. Isn’t THIS an example of a “Sellout”? Morphing in order to “get in where you fit in”?[quote] The best case scenario for us would be if there were more viable political parties. Like if a Progressive Party formed, breaking off from the Democrats that was for social justice, but also socially conservative. Tons of black folks would gladly ditch the Dems and hop that bandwagon[/quote]Black Snob – let me be the first to tell you that the key group FIGHTING such a movement would be the “Democrat Who Is Black”. They would be sent out by the beloved party to remind Black people all that they have done for “your people”. This operative, in fearing his own loss in position within the party structure would fight tooth and nail to prevent such a departure.After the first election loss to the Republicans while the break off party fortifies its own identity you will hear them being BLAMED for the harm that they caused to the Democrats and now the “adversary has gained power”. Keep in mind, again, this ‘adversary’ has little traction and no political offices held where Black people have any say in the matter. I am amazed at the fact that some people can detail the harm that Black Conservatives who hold no power within the Black community have done and thus deserve the scorn that they receive…..but these same people are not able to vocalize the same words about those who actually do hold power.Absent clear understanding of WHAT OUR OBJECTIVES ARE for all of this political activity – things are not going to change. 90% of the Black vote will go for the left. No alternative methodology starting from the grassroots will ever be developed because THEIR GROWTH IN POWER can only come at the expense of the force that ALREADY gets 90%. Only a SHIFT toward BLACK INTERESTS rather than DEMOCRATIC PARTY interests will allow our vote to be used as the bargaining chip that it should be used as.

  12. “McWhorter is operating from the perspective of black panic, helping save us from ourselves in an effort to emancipate himself from the racism that binds us together.”Great line! And so applicable!

  13. Good post, but I’m not sure McWhorter really counts as a conservative. I’ve been watching him talk with Glenn Loury on bloggingheads.tv and they’re a lot of fun to watch together.

  14. Anonymous says:

    If “conservative” can be reduced to, “does not believe in affirmative action and thinks modern Black culture does not take enough responsibility for its own uplift,” then, yeah, McWhorter is a conservative. If, however, Conservatism is described as a broad set of principles beyond one or two issues, than you have nothing to go on. I first met Mr. McWhorter over a year ago, and it was only in the last week or so that I had ANY idea that he is actually relatively famous. Before that, he was just an extremely well-spoken, intelligent guy with a lovely wife and a very nice singing voice. I knew him as that, of course, because we both hang out at a West Village piano bar. That was your FIRST clue- I and about 90% of the other people there are gay. “Conservatives” tend to have issues with that sort of thing (then again, so do many Black people, so maybe that just feeds into your argument.) The next clues aren’t ‘clues” at all, but statements from McWhorter’s own mouth. He’s not a religious fundamentalist. He’s pro-science. I don’t know if he opposes abortion, but he doesn’t advocate it being made illegal. I’ve never heard him get fired up over reducing government or keeping immigrants out. Based on what I’ve read of his statements over the last few weeks and what I know of him from our own conversations, I could not call him Conservative. Maybe he is and I’ve never noticed it- but that’s the point- you have NO proof and no reason to label him that way. Being called Conservative in New York is bad enough- being called a Black Conservative makes him sound like Clarence Thomas, and it’s clearly not fair to him. I may disagree with some of his views, but the man is absolutely rigorous with regards to how he makes his arguments, and that should be defended, rather than knee-jerk labeled a form of self-loathing or “panic.”

  15. Anonymous says:

    Terms and phrases designed to mislead. Funny how to self-criticize is somehow considered a betrayal. Incredible. As a former "revolutionary" (young lord & Uhuru Sasa School)and high school teacher (in Harlem), I find it typically "lightweight" of critics of McWhorter to suggest that his criticisms of our pathologies (Oh, we don't have any? Sorry,people, every race does)are somehow inappropriate, out of touch, Tommish, exposing dirty laundry (yea, lik our laundry is not already out there for all to see).The Brother is, sadly, right. Our culture breeds underachievement in too many ways. Yes, some get by, some get over, some get through, but you are lying to yourselves if you think the gang-banging thoughtlessness of the streets is somehow intellectually escapable (just inthe nick of time). No ya'll. If a white kid becomes a wigger, he eventually falls back on mom and dad, winds up in med school, after he's is done "slumming" (as They say). Our youth? What do they fall back upon after years of neglecting study as "too white" or too corny or too much part of a system of empty promises? I'll tell you what we need to hear. Left, right, conservative, liberals, old school, new school, bullcrud. Words and phrases designed to mislead. Like Chris Rock, I'm conservative in some things and radical in others. I'm radical about the shake up our community needs ("pull up your pants, brothers" – Obama) and conservative about how to really prosper after the long, hard rain of our political and social suffering. Everything else is distraction. The social revolution will not be televised…not even on BET. Do your homework brothers and sisters, serious, nose to the grindstone homework. Everything else is nonsense. Forget the usual measuring rods: we must regain our progressive stature and movement (you know, the movement that got sidetracked when the pathologies engendered by welfare and crack somehow became symbols of "authenticity). Or is somebody going to argue that the "babydaddy" syndrome, leaving so many of our children fatherless, is somehow positive or "in our nature," or some sort of "keeping it real" extension of our Blackness. To hell with that and the weak and baseless arguments of those who extol the ghetto as somehow fabulous. PS – If I were called a Tom, I'd actually be proud. Uncle Tom died resisting his evil master. You think Puffy, Jayzee, Simmons, Rhymes, doggy and all the rest profiting from and transmuting black music and culture into extensions of the gangworld would resist their master…resist the hand that feeds them? All they've ever cared about is "getting paid." That is the sum of all the suffering and struggling of black history? Trite little sell-outs getting paid? Yeah, we really need more of Katt Williams (a man who, 40 years ago would have been stoned for his comments about our women…the little beast!) And some of ya'll have a problem with a hard-ass truthteller like McWhorter? Homework time. No more excuses. Time to pick up where progress left off. Study to becomes doctors, architects, teaches, whatever technical skill will help us compete in this century. Do it not and we'll always be considered 2nd, even 3rd class citizens and people (and not just in America- the whole world is looking at us wondering what the hell happened after Martin and Malcom. Wake up!!!) Everything else is – let me make up a word – frontacious, feel good bull !!! (Ooooh, don't tell Naquan is doing poorly in math, it might hurt his selfesteem!!! —I complained to my mom about long division once. Yeah, once. She took a belt to my butt and asked me: You want to be stupid? while she was wupping me. I am now very good at long division. Enough softy softy don't tell ourselves the truth because our self-esteem as a people may be wounded. Yeah, let's continue that failed agenda of the past 30 years. I mean, after all, proportionately, we now have more black doctors and architects than ever before right? Wrong! We had more – proportionately – before all the feel-good, selfdeluding, "authentic" crap started distracting us.

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