The Definition of a Sellout

Human Rights

Conventional wisdom has it that modern black conservatism has its roots in the philosophy of one Booker T. Washington, the Tuskegee Wizard whose advocacy of self-reliance, thrift, morality and hard work helped him build a respected university, a personal fortune and a political machine the likes of which have not been seen in black America since. But truth be told, given the Sunday-schooled, Southern-born outlook of large segments of black America the phrase "black conservative" is damn-near redundant. (And a black "compassionate conservative" would, in most quarters, be simply called a liberal.)

The theme of self-reliance, self-respect and hard work run through nearly every major black movement of the 20th century – regardless of political persuasion. But there's a reason why Clarence Thomas is considered conservative in pejorative sense of the term and Louis Farrakhan, who is pro-business, anti-abortion, pro-death penalty (believing it should apply not only to homicide, but rape as well) and condemns "government handouts" is not. That difference being that most people believe Farrakhan – no matter his labyrinthine contradictions and metaphysical snake oil – has some clue to the persistence of racism in America.

With a few notable exceptions, the class of black conservatives is not at the forefront of the conservative debates of foreign policy unilateralism, stem cell research or deficit spending. Rather they're given dominion over a fiefdom of unwashed Negroes whose social maladjustment is to be condemned as consistently, stridently and creatively as possible. And this explains why Bill Cosby's case of racial Tourette's syndrome last April was widely viewed as "conservative" as opposed to simply mean-spirited and incoherent. On some level, the terms have become synonymous.

Which brings us to our present concern John McWhorter. In the span of three years, since the publication of his initial foray into Negro punditry "Losing the Race" and its follow-up "Authentically Black," McWhorter has become something a negro-con phenomenon, appearing on television and talk shows and writing in numerous outlets. His arguments that blacks are done in by "victimology" not racism, and that black people are doomed by their own "separatist" and anti-intellectual tendencies amount to old malt liquor in a new 40-ounce. But no matter, it sells.

With McWhorter's school of conservatives we hear strains of Booker T. not so much in his views on thrift and hard work – because those are articles of faith across and political lines in the black community – but in his tradition of accomodationism and comically "putting on" for his (predominantly white) audience. Think about this in the context of McWhorter's obsessive concern – "proving" that there really isn't much racism left in the country and you suspect that his books serve – intentionally or not – as balm for the white guilty conscience. The message to black folk: what you think is racism is actually just coincidental occurrence. Change to song: We have overcome.

We just didn't notice.

Central to his indictment of black America on charges of self-sabotage is the idea that liberal soft-heartedness has made black mediocrity pay off. (He asserts that black students don't work hard, knowing that paternalistic white liberals will let them into the best universities anyway.) A mentor of mine once pointed out that there would be "equality" in America when a black person could be completely mediocre and still achieve astounding success. The point is that among the many pernicious side effects of segregation was its ability to hide white underachievement from black people.

McWhorter indicts universities that consider race as a factor in admissions, but paradoxically has no problem with police using race as a factor in profiling random citizens. After being stopped and questioned by police for walking while black, McWhorter reports in "Losing the Race," "I cannot say that I walked away from that episode furious that I had just been swiped by the long arm of white racism ... I felt that what had happened was a sign that the black underclass is America's greatest injustice, and that I ought to take it as a call to action to do as much as I can to help rescue the underclass so that such encounters with the police won't be necessary – because under the current conditions, whether we like it or not, they are."

The irony here is obvious: he actually endorses race-conscious admissions – if one is being admitted to the back of a squad car. And his steely, self-interested resolve to "uplift" the underclass echoes the same kind of paternalistic social daddying that was once common among white liberals – though it's hard to tell if this constitutes progress or not.

Amadou Diallo? In McWhorter-world, his overdeath is a sad byproduct of the fact that black people need to be policed more aggressively. These things happen. (Among his favorite acts of self-justifying logic is his point that crime in Diallo's neighborhood increased after his murder because the protests prevented police from patrolling as aggressively as they otherwise would have.) And this kind of absence-of-outrage when confronted by the outrageous is precisely why conservatives like McWhorter are so widely viewed with suspicion.

McWhorter is smart enough to know that racial profiling is based upon a logical fallacy. Saying that 99 percent of carjackings in Newark, N.J. are committed by black men is not the same as saying that 99 percent of black men in Newark are carjackers. If those criminals represent only 2 percent of the total population of black men in the city, but using race as the decisive factor in profiling, the police would create a pool of suspects 49 times larger the number of criminals. It doesn't take a quantum physicist to figure out that this is not the most effective way to end carjackings.

At points, McWhorter takes his white absolution agenda to laughable – not comic – extremes. Speaking of hip hop's role in the demise of black America, McWhorter presents this gem:

"Almost all hip hop, gangsta or not, is delivered with a cocky, confrontational cadence that is fast becoming a common speech style among young black males. Similarly, the arm-slinging, hand-hurling gestures of rap performers have made their way into many young blacks' casual gesticulations, becoming integral to their self-expression. The problem with such speech and mannerisms is that they make potential employers wary of young black men and can impede a young black's ability to interact comfortably with co-workers and customers."
Nah, dawg, you wasn't denied that job 'cause of racism, the manager just wasn't diggin' your gully steez, feel me? And given the fact that over 70 percent of hip hop is purchased not by arm-slinging black boys, but suburban white teens, it seems inevitable that 50 Cent will eventually be responsible for Great Depression-like levels of unemployment among white people too.

The tragedy is that John McWhorter could advocate persistence in achieving goals, hard work and self-respect without presenting a premature epitaph for American Racism. For all his gratuitously tom-istic humor and accommodation of white folk, Washington was aware of his own irony (he verbally disdained the importance of civil rights while secretly funneling the money of white philanthropists into legal suits that he hoped would overturn the most repressive elements of Southern racism.) Given the direction that this country has headed in for the past four years, we should've expected McWhorter's brand of neo-accomodationism to show up.

But at least Booker T. had good punchlines.

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