Too often, politicians reduce the debate over education to technical matters like standardized testing, teacher training, and Internet-wired classrooms. John McWhorter, in Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, has done his part to raise the level of the discussion. This gutsy, intelligent, refreshingly reasoned, and desperately needed commentary focuses on the educational needs of African-American students, but McWhorter’s comments about life in the United States of 2000 are instructive for everyone.
Too much educational policy is wishful thinking and misguided theory, but the destructive results are far from abstract. All segments of society have been touched by the staggering human costs of a failing education system, but by far the biggest losers are our nation’s African-American students.
McWhorter, an African-American teacher, was dismayed by lagging black academic performance. He finally came to the conclusion that an honest, albeit painful, examination of reality was the only way to close the educational gap between Asians and whites on the one hand and blacks on the other. He concludes that while black students were once held back by slavery, segregation, and their aftermath, today their valuable contributions are drowned out by a culture of anti-intellectualism marked by victimology and separatism.
McWhorter defines victimology as a tendency to dwell on pain and resentment for self-serving purposes. The author does not deny that racism exists; but he does believe that it’s healthier to search for solutions than to wallow in self-defeating rhetoric.
Victimology requires people to believe certain myths, and McWhorter systematically debunks several of these “articles of faith,” which serve as the basis for an orthodoxy that blocks the growth of a stronger black identity. He finds it absurd that people cling to victimology nowadays. Worse, it is an “affront” to real heroes.
Insisting that black Americans still lead lives of tragedy 40 years after the civil rights movement is a desecration of brave and noble black Americans who gave their lives for us. Martin Luther King did not sit in those jail cells so that black professors could make speeches about the hell they live in and then drive to their $200,000 homes in Lexuses and plan their summer vacations to Antigua.
McWhorter is generally gracious in discussing the movers and shakers in the national community. His humor and good nature shine throughout his work. Though he isn’t malicious, he vigorously challenges the irresponsible logic of Derrick Bell, Maxine Waters, June Jordan, and Ralph Wiley, among others.
On the subject of affirmative action, McWhorter’s opinions fall well outside the reigning orthodoxy of black America. He admits that there was a time when such a policy was needed, but he also thinks that, two generations after Lyndon Johnson, students are more handicapped than helped by racial preferences. McWhorter believes that today’s students need the “gift of competition.”
He builds his case against affirmative action on commonsense principles. What would black America think of the NBA accepting sub-par basketball players? Does anyone expect America’s world-renowned African-American jazz musicians to play less than brilliantly? Do we really think that black students are incapable of developing the discipline and performing the hard work that is required of great athletes, musicians, and scholars? Is racial pride enhanced by affirmative action? Can the student who gets into a top college via a racial quota system feel as proud about his admission as the white or Asian student who had to be accepted on individual merit? McWhorter answers “no” to all of these questions and persuasively argues that to expect less of black students is insulting.
McWhorter has a host of questions for his opponents: If money and attention are the problems, why haven’t huge amounts of spending and specially-tailored programs for African Americans improved academic performance? If racism is the problem, why do blacks from Africa and the Caribbean outperform native-born black students, and why do other minorities who report instances of teacher racism succeed anyway? If racism is holding black students back, why do these students perform essentially the same for teachers of all races?
Of course, anti-intellectualism is endemic throughout our culture. But black American students who see themselves as victims entitled to separate standards for behavior and performance are especially handicapped by it. Certainly, the status quo is not working. Maybe it’s time to listen to some new voices. McWhorter provides one; whether you agree or not, he deserves a fair hearing.
Lydia Smithers is a teacher in Annapolis, Maryland. James F. X. O’Gara is editor of Philanthropy.