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.
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:
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.
That is, I, for one, am still ready for a black president. I wonder if the rest of
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 positive 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?”