Project 21 New Visions

 

McWhorter Takes Sides in Winning the Race


by Dutch Martin

Four decades after the civil rights movement's pinnacle, positive changes in black America are evident. While the small-mindedness of prejudice can never be totally extinguished, institutional discrimination is a thing of the past.

The black family, however, is suffering.

Before the marches and sit-ins, poor and working-class black communities were relatively stable and progressive. Children were taught to embrace hard work, education and personal responsibility in the face of systemic racism. It's a far cry from the poverty, welfare dependency, crime, drugs and fatherlessness plaguing black ghettos today.

Why has urban black America descended into such a decadent state of social pathology?

John McWhorter tackles this question in his new book, Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America. A recognized authority on race relations since his 2000 bestseller Losing the Race and critically acclaimed follow-up Authentically Black, McWhorter is brutally honest about why our communities have taken a turn for worst.

McWhorter recants widely held theories about why black ghettos have gone to hell in a handbasket. Among these myths is that factories - and their jobs - left the inner-cities for the suburbs.

"When work disappears, people move," counters McWhorter. Poor blacks migrated en masse from the Jim Crow South to northern cities in the "Great Migrations" after World Wars I and II. Racism there was less institutionalized, and blacks found jobs and an overall better way of life. The Second Great Migration acutally sowed the seeds for what would become the modern-day black middle-class.

It begs the question: If past generations successfully traveled regionally to find work, what prevented their progeny from moving to the suburbs?

McWhorter dispels the "factory-flight" myth by pointing out that, in his case study of Indianapolis, not all businesses left the city. City officials and local businesses went out of their way to recruit, hire and train low-income, low-skilled residents. However, as the old saying goes, one can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink.

Racism is not what caused inner-city blacks to lose their thirst for work. McWhorter cites two things that caused the black downward spiral in Indianapolis and nationwide:

  • The adoption of the counter-culture's defiant anti-establishment mentality created what McWhorter calls "therapeutic alienation." Righteous indignation against "The Man" was praised as a badge of black authenticity.

  • Welfare expanded from a temporary assistance program for widows with children to a federal bureaucracy that basically subsidized out-of-wedlock childbearing, personal irresponsibility and an aversion to work.

"Welfare culture" soon had such a stranglehold on many poor blacks. McWhorter exemplifies this in a quote by a welfare mother admonishing former New York City mayor John Lindsey, telling him: "I've got six kids and each one of them has a different daddy. It's my job to have kids, and your job, Mr. Mayor, to take care of them." That such an attitude would have been unfathomable among poor blacks before the 1960s shows that times surely changed.

Compounding the problem is the fact that liberal academics and leaders of the "cultural elite" firmly favor maintaining this status quo.

McWhorter further told me in an interview: "Alienation can provide a substitute identity - it can be, oddly enough, a comfort zone. But while it soothes the psychology, it hinders the sociology, so to speak. It helps hold us back."

John McWhorter's insights are important for several reasons. He takes readers on a journey back in time before the 1960s to show how black communities survived crushing poverty and systemic racism by ascribing to a cultural credo aimed at making the best of a bad situation. Then, he compares it to later, when institutional discrimination was in retreat and economic indicators were looking up for black America. McWhorter shows how embracing the anti-establishment zeitgeist all but nullified the previous culture and rendered many blacks - especially those at the lowest economic rungs - worse off than ever.

But McWhorter doesn't simply throw out blame. He offers hope and suggests how this situation may be reversed.

With this third installment in his series on race and culture in America, John McWhorter's Winning the Race is essential to the debate on race because it allows us to look at crucial issues in fresh new ways.

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Darryn "Dutch" Martin is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21. Comments many be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.


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