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Self Sabotage

Spelling Trouble

By David J. Dent

Losing The Race
Self-Sabotage in Black America.
By John H. McWhorter.
285 pp. New York: The Free Press. $24.

John H. McWhorter shares what he calls ''the very first memory of my life'' in his book ''Losing the Race.'' It happened in that turbulent year, 1968: ''A group of black kids, none older than 8, asked me how to spell 'concrete.' I spelled it, only to have the 8-year-old bring his little sister to me and have her smack me repeatedly as the rest of the kids laughed and egged her on. From then on, I was often teased in the neighborhood for being 'smart.' ''

McWhorter, who now teaches linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, says this incident did not occur in one of those low-income neighborhoods often perceived to be the factory producing black youngsters wanting to be so unwhite that they reject and scorn the kind of intelligence that makes for good spelling. McWhorter says he was smacked for being smart in the comfortable black middle-class haven of Mount Airy, a Philadelphia suburb.

That it happened there forms the base of McWhorter's argument that the black middle and upper middle classes are destroying the possibilities and dreams of the civil rights movement. He says a deep anti-intellectual current -- often considered characteristic of the underclass -- has swept into the culture of black privilege and is complemented by an identity clouded in separatism and victimization. In McWhorter's view, this sense of victimization produces a misguided moralism that makes anything black, like O. J. Simpson, always right. He argues that this anti-intellectual strain is largely responsible for the test-score gap between black and white middle-class children. He says this destructive force in black life must end, along with any reliance on affirmative action, before blacks reach true equality.

McWhorter relates several encounters with irresponsible black middle-class students at Berkeley; these, along with other personal experiences like the Mount Airy episode, form the core of the limited original evidence he offers to support his contentions. He often leaps to broad generalizations from personal experiences and observations that are, most often, inadequately explored. For example, he mentions seeing a television program, featuring the actress Nell Carter, in which her character expresses an intense interest in Russian history: ''It struck me as a false moment, and I wondered whether the script had originally been written with a white actress in mind. I couldn't help thinking of how very few black people I have ever met who were so passionately interested in a subject that had nothing to do with being black.'' McWhorter breezes by without considering whether his response reflects his own limited exposure to African-American culture and his inability to see black life in America without polemical lenses.

Too often McWhorter does what many blacks accuse whites of doing -- he draws a conclusion from any negative encounter he has experienced with another black person and assumes it is the norm; whatever violates it is the exception. ''I once met an aspiring black linguist who had spent two years in China without learning Chinese beyond what he needed to buy food at the market,'' he writes. ''Most people who spend two years in a foreign country come back speaking the language. . . . This was the only linguist I have ever met who spent two years abroad without becoming bilingual, and it is not likely to be accidental that he was black. Separatism has a way of discouraging black Americans from learning foreign languages other than French and Spanish . . . and Swahili.'' He produces nothing empirical to support this.

He rightly defines the black majority as middle class, but never imagines that population beyond the confines of the argument against affirmative action. It sometimes seems as if that horrifying day in Mount Airy eternally looms over his view of black Americans. He too often appears simplistically to divide the race into two camps -- those under spells of victimology and separatism and those like himself. ''I am not alone,'' he writes. ''An increasing number of black people are questioning the cognitive dissonance between the vast potential of their lives . . . and the insistence of so many blacks around them that America remains a racist purgatory.''

His argument remains captive in a closet of his own experiences, with scant assessments of academic studies, and data on the test-score gap that are never explored with the rigor they deserve. Yet the book's shining moments are tied to that shortcoming. McWhorter's accounts of personal encounters are riveting even when they do not fully carry his arguments. For example, he shares some details of his successful climb to tenure that, in his view, did not escape the suspicion of affirmative action. He firmly believes his colleagues, despite his stellar record of publication, can never get beyond a reductive thought: ''It was perfectly obvious that in the back of most minds was 'Of course he got tenure -- they wouldn't dare deny tenure to a black person unless he was hopeless.' ''(He does not offer any data to show that black professors have an easier route to tenure than others and barely addresses the many stories that suggest otherwise.) In McWhorter's view, all the blame goes to affirmative action -- none to the troubling visions of colleagues who cannot see his success without thinking ''affirmative action.'' And should affirmative action be abolished to appease the limitations of those professors?

McWhorter often celebrates the economic advancement of blacks as evidence that racism in the United States is not as severe as many claim. One is left wondering why he or anyone should celebrate the rise of the black middle class if the majority of those well-off blacks are locked in the cults of victimology and separatism -- and choked by anti-intellectualism -- as he contends. That thought underscores the great frustration in reading ''Losing the Race.'' Even when I find myself disagreeing with McWhorter, I could not help thinking of more solid, substantial and constructive ways to state his argument.

There is documentation that finds some blacks rejecting academic success for fear of being called white and in order to be ''cool.'' One might argue this is complemented by the American disdain of the nerd that looms far beyond black culture and did not begin there. Yet the test-score gap, though not sufficiently explored in ''Losing the Race,'' is real. McWhorter at least brings attention to its possible connection to the anti-intellectual strain that he confronted in Mount Airy and that he says he finds in his black students. This issue is not served when many blacks avoid it. McWhorter stirs the waters. Unfortunately, he does not clarify much in the process.

Correction: December 24, 2000, Sunday

A review on Nov. 26 about ''Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America,'' by John H. McWhorter, referred incorrectly to the author's childhood neighborhood, Mount Airy. It is part of Philadelphia, not a suburb.

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