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John McWhorter Links Low Achievement to Black Culture

The Linguist's Fighting Words; John McWhorter Links Low Achievement to Black Culture.
by Michael A. Fletcher
published in the Washington Post.

JohnMcWhorter Students waiting in the lounge at Audrey Cohen College cluster in small groups, murmuring and shaking their heads as they read the flier summarizing the eye-popping views of the evening's guest speaker.

He's the one who writes that African Americans undermine their own progress by subscribing to "a cult of victimology" that leads them to loaf through school, mistake minor inconveniences for crippling racism and embrace an anti-intellectual culture that frowns on serious scholarship.

The students can hardly wait to get a load of whoever wrote this stuff. "Who is this guy?" asks Raemona Winningham, 34, a social worker and mother of six pursuing her bachelor's degree at this small college in lower Manhattan. "I'm reading this and not liking what I'm seeing. This is just a little too much."

John H. McWhorter has been here before. In the months since publishing his controversial new book, "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America," the black 34-year-old University of California-Berkeley linguistics professor has been in hot demand -- by both supporters and critics alike.

In recent months he has made dozens of speeches, often before people who were insulted by what he has to say and quick to let him know it. Some have called him a sellout, a self-hater and an Uncle Tom.

So he has learned to be particularly wary of audiences like this one, mostly black and relatively young, as he has found them to be the most likely not only to disagree with his views, but also to accuse him of betraying his race by even expressing them.

Sure enough, the rancor flows almost immediately. Mitchell Duneier, a sociologist who makes it clear that he holds a higher opinion of contemporary black culture than McWhorter, introduces the author by noting not just his thesis, or his four previous books (about linguistics), but also the fact that he speaks Spanish, French and German and has a decent working knowledge of Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Dutch, Swedish and Hebrew.

"He's uncool," Duneier concludes. The remark is a playful jab at McWhorter's contention that academic achievement is frowned upon among African Americans, a sanction he has clearly ignored. But for a moment, it comes across as a personal critique. This appears to startle McWhorter, who seems a bit miffed as he takes the podium.

Still, he sticks to his script, which starts with a painful but indisputable fact: As a group, African American students are the worst performing in the nation. They earn the lowest grades and test scores at every level from elementary school through law school. This pattern is not merely confined to those isolated in rural areas or poor inner-city communities. Even in prosperous suburbs such as Fairfax County, Va., Evanston, Ill., and Shaker Heights, Ohio, educators are struggling against a tide of underachievement among black students.

"You see it again, again and again," McWhorter says. "It is not a fluke."

The stubborn achievement gap separating black and white students is a problem that has baffled educators for years. From the beginning, African American preschoolers score much lower than whites in vocabulary tests, setting a pattern that is evident through graduate and professional school.

But while educators are well aware of the problem, there is no agreement on either its cause or its solution. Researchers have found that even though blacks complete less homework than whites, they spend as much time doing it. Also, blacks tend to spend much more time watching television than whites, but researchers have found no link between television watching and school achievement. And while much is made of black kids who ostracize high achievers, researchers have found blacks no more likely than whites to lose social status among their peers because they do well in school.

"The more we look at the data, the more we move away from a simple cultural explanation," says Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard University researcher. "There are behavioral differences that you can observe between racial groups, but they tend not to be behaviors that help you predict achievement."

Still, McWhorter is convinced he has put his finger on the problem. Leave it to others to blame poorly trained teachers, crumbling schools, Eurocentric curricula, the vicissitudes of class or old-fashioned racism.

He says the main problem African Americans face in school and elsewhere is the set of values they choose to embrace as authentic. Too many blacks dismiss school achievement as a "white thing," he says, establishing a predictable pattern they follow later in life by accepting distorted notions of "cultural blackness" that cast racism as an immutable fact and romanticize ghetto life.

Much of this, he says, is neatly capsulized in the lyrics of Lichelle Laws, a modestly successful rap performer raised in middle-class comfort, who sings: "Trying to get to Watts, but I'm stuck in [well-heeled] Baldwin Hills."

"There was no such thing as a Jewish man or woman standing on stage and singing seriously of how he was 'trying to get down to Delancey and Essex [formerly the heart of Manhattan's Jewish ghetto] but I'm stuck in [wealthy] Murray Hill,' " McWhorter writes. "If one tried, he would have been booed and no record company would have offered him a contract."

With this attitude, McWhorter says, there is little mystery why many African Americans are lagging in school and, ultimately, in many other walks of life.

If the problem isn't attitude, he says, why else would many new immigrants do well in the very same inner-city schools, staffed with the very same teachers that serve so many black students? And if the nation's school curricula are grounded in a culture irrelevant to blacks, he says, that culture is downright foreign to Indian, Korean or Chinese students who, by and large, do well in school.

Also, he argues, the problem must not be poverty since only 25 percent of black families are poor and as many as half can be considered middle-class. On the SAT, for example, the children of black parents who earn more than $50,000 a year score lower than whites whose parents earn $10,000.

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.

Needless to say, this line of thinking is stirring some angry reaction. 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.

Later, Alexander-Minter explains, "The issues McWhorter raises are important. But his argument is flawed. Let's just say, to blanket a race or group of people the way he does is ill-advised."

Ishmael Reed, a writer who teaches at Berkeley, is even less kind. He calls McWhorter a "hustler" who offers a line that will get him noticed but ignores realities such as the exploding market for black books, or the string of public opinion surveys that find significant percentages of whites still cling to patently racist views such as believing blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites.

"You have these academics who are removed from the African American community who use anecdotes and gross generalizations to make a career for themselves," Reed says. "He is sort of like a rent-a-black-person."

This kind of criticism leaves McWhorter shaking his head, but no less convinced that he is telling the truth. "I wrote this because all through the 1990s when a so-called black issue came up I didn't feel the same way most black people seemed to. I kept saying, where is all of this racism that I do not feel?" he says. "I certainly didn't write this book to become the 'new' black conservative."

But yet this is where he finds himself. Since McWhorter's book hit store shelves the conservative establishment has welcomed him as one of its own. (The book, however, hasn't made it to the major bestseller lists.)

Ward Connerly, the leader of a national anti-affirmative action movement, has called to chat him up. The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, has named him a contributing editor to its journal. Others have come across with ballet and opera tickets. And McWhorter credits Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, the conservative activists who wrote "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible," a book that argues against affirmative action and brims with racial statistics, for providing much of the raw data underlying his conclusions.

The Thernstroms, in turn, credit McWhorter for having the courage to tell it like it is. "I wouldn't have the credibility to say what he writes," says Abigail Thernstrom, who is white. "There would be this cloud of suspicion. This is a book written by somebody who feels an enormous amount of pain from what he is looking at."

McWhorter seems almost embarrassed by the name he is making for himself. He is also amused by the assumptions that people now make about him as a result of his book. Old friends who know him to have a healthy ego are shocked to hear him described as some kind of self-hater. And his newfound friends are surprised when they hear that Adam Clayton Powell, the late, legendary Harlem congressman whose type of activism was anathema to many conservatives, is one of McWhorter's heroes.

"Don't associate me with Clarence Thomas or any of those other people," he says. "I didn't write this for those reasons." Instead, he describes the book as one based on his experience. "Everything in my book squares with what I've seen all my life."

McWhorter says his "very first" childhood memory is of being surrounded by a group of black neighbors, none older than 8, who demanded that he spell the word "concrete." Although he was only 3 or 4 at the time, he spelled it correctly, only to be rewarded by being smacked upside his head by a little girl while the others laughed and egged her on.

As McWhorter sees it, in one way or another this happens to many black students. Worse, this did not take place in some poverty-stricken inner-city community, but in leafy Mount Airy, Pa., a middle-class Philadelphia community renowned as one of the first purposely integrated neighborhoods in the country.

McWhorter lived in Mount Airy for the better part of his childhood, before moving to Lawnside, N.J., a predominantly black town outside of Philadelphia. He and his younger sister attended private schools and his parents both worked at Temple University, his mother as a social work instructor and his father overseeing student activities.

Unlike many of his peers, McWhorter had no interest in sports as a child, preferring to stay in the house reading, playing the piano or listening to his Spanish language records. His tendency to be a loner is the thing that he believes allowed him to avoid the cultural abyss that he argues consumes so many black students.

"My parents were rather socially insular people who conveyed, without ever being explicit about it, that 'we' were not like 'them,' " McWhorter says. "It wasn't that I didn't spend time with other black kids. But I was inculcated subtly with a sense that 'You do not do what they do.' "

Not only that, he was also a bit of a nerd. He still cringes as he recounts the time his mother virtually pushed him into a neighborhood football game, where he quickly became a source of ridicule when he did not know which way to run with the ball. He also remembers hiding his strong interest in school from his neighborhood peers for fear that it would only prompt further derision.

"We wanted to excel, to make something out of ourselves," says Bernard Tucker, a longtime friend who lived two blocks from McWhorter in Lawnside, and now lives in California where he is a service consultant for Office Depot. "In our neighborhood, the typical thing was to go to school, make mediocre grades, have kids, work in the general vicinity and not move out of the area. John and I were among the few who wanted something different."

McWhorter says it was a relief when at 15 he was accepted to Simon's Rock College, which is designed for high school students who want to begin college early. Not only did it free him from the neighborhood strictures, but it also allowed him, he says, to escape a household where his parents did not always get along.

After earning an associate's degree at Simon's Rock, he went to Rutgers University, where he earned a bachelor's. He went on to New York University for a master's, then to Stanford University, where he earned a doctorate in linguistics. He did postgraduate work at the University of California-Berkeley before he began teaching at the school.

But even in the cloistered world of academia, McWhorter says he could not escape the troubling attitudes that he says are prevalent among both black students and some of his black colleagues. Not only did he find black students not working hard, but he believes they tended to overstate the presence of racism to confound whites and fit in with one another.

He recalls a black student at Stanford who complained about being told by a white professor to drop calculus because, in the professor's words, "black people are not good at math." McWhorter says he does not believe a white professor would say such a thing at Stanford.

At Berkeley, a black woman he knows complained that she was tired of having to wear a "happy" face on campus to avoid being treated like a "criminal" by whites. While this anecdote got a rise out of many black students on campus, McWhorter dismisses it as utter nonsense.

More alarming than that, he says, is the nonchalant attitude too many African American students take toward their work at Berkeley, one of the jewels of California's public university system.

He had one black student who responded to an essay question with two "literally incomprehensible" sentences handed in with a "jolly, salutary smile." Another never came to class, even on days he was spotted socializing on campus. Others made only feeble efforts to do senior thesis work.

He says these are hardly isolated incidents. Students of all races have their share of academic problems, he contends, but not nearly as frequently as black students.

"I have found it impossible to avoid nothing less than fearing that a black student in my class is likely to be a problem case," he says in his book. "We are trained to say at this point that I am stereotyping, but I have come to expect this for the simple reason that it has been true, class after class, year after year."

McWhorter's strong views leave even academic experts who study racial achievement differences puzzled. Some call his opinions overly sweeping, given that most of his book was drawn from others' research and selected incidents from his own life.

"Given what he has observed, he can't factor out the extent to which he is the one producing these effects that he sees," says Ferguson, the Harvard researcher who has written extensively about black school performance and has taught at four top-flight universities.

"McWhorter's stuff seems to be extreme," Ferguson continues. "In my teaching career, I have had black students who will come out at the top of the class, the middle, the bottom . . . there is not a narrow stereotype."

McWhorter acknowledges that he is probably the "wrong person" to be making his arguments as he is neither a social scientist, an anthropologist or a trained education researcher.

Moreover, he sees himself as someone most African Americans do not recognize as a "real brother" -- something that he worries undercuts his authority. His appearance is unmistakably black, but "the tone of my voice is inherently rather condescending," he says. "I have very little black inflection. I sound white over the phone. I have a snotty voice."

Still, he does not regret a single word of his book. He is proud of the scores of letters and complimentary e-mails he has received, many from teachers, who say his arguments ring true to them. "Most black people who contact me agree with me," he says. "Most of us know this. We talk about it among ourselves."

That much seems to be true as he wraps up his talk at Audrey Cohen College. The audience that at first seemed eager to confront him now seems to be with McWhorter. Some raise their hands to share their own struggles with black people who seem to resent academic success.

"When I was in school, I was constantly teased for doing well," student Monge Codio, 27, says after McWhorter's talk. "It got to the point that I eased up on my school work in high school. Now, I'm playing catch-up."

Onetia Murray nods in a agreement. "You know, I don't agree with everything he says, but a lot of what this guy says is on the money," says Murray, whose 6-foot-4-inch son is always teased because he is something of a bookworm. "We have a large bookcase in our place and I heard one of his buddies saying that we're trying to be white. Tell me, what is that about?"

John McWhorter, Berkeley linguistics professor and author, has been criticized by scholars and others for his theory that African Americans are held back by their own culture, not by racism. "Everything in my book squares with what I've seen all my life," he says."I certainly didn't write this book to become the 'new' black conservative," says John McWhorter.

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