Hi everyone, and welcome to another episode of Conversations with Coleman. Before we get started today, I just wanted to say thank you for the support that I got for the first episode. It was really overwhelming and ah I’m humbled by by the level of support I’m receiving. A lot of people were wondering how they can support the podcast and now I have an answer for you all. That answer is Patreon. Go to the description and click on the link. Donate at the five dollar level and you’ll get a special episode each month, audio only, where I talk about a topic that might be in the news or not in the news and that will only be available to people who support the show. But I’m never going to put any of the main interviews behind a pay wall because I want as many people to have access to the work I’m doing as possibly can. So with that said, my guest today is John McWhorter, who is a professor of linguistics, also teaches a bit of philosophy and music at Columbia University, one of my favorite commentators on the issue of race in America. Also, just a really observant ahh person and amazing critic of American culture, writes for The Atlantic. He’s written probably over ten books and we talk about a lot of different topics including you know, how he came to have the views he did on race, which are sort of quote unquote “heterodox” or “contrarian.” And ah we talk about the relationship between the decline of religion and race. We talk about his thesis that anti-racism in America has taken on the character of a religion ,and much more. So without further ado, John McWhorter.
CH: The first book I read of yours was called Authentically Black. It was an essay collection.
JM: You read that one first?
CH: That was the first one I read…
CH: …yeah. And I don’t know how I became aware of you, but I just went to the Columbia Library, typed in your name and picked out the first thing. And as I was halfway through that book, I don’t, you probably don’t remember this, but I was a freshman and I was in class, I’d been reading your book for a few weeks and I took a bathroom break in quotation marks from class and who do I run into in the bathroom, but John McWhorter.
JM: I do remember this, but I have not remembered it was you.
JM: I do remember. Yeah.
CH: So there I am urinating next to you….
CH: …ah very intimidated and I I probably just said your name to you like a like a crazy person.
JM: Hamilton, third floor.
CH: …that yes, that’s right. That’s right. And ah, you were very kind you spoke to me for a few minutes and it was, it was quite an experience…
JM: …in that little bathroom.
CH:That’s right. Yeah.
CH: And, privately we’ve talked about how similar to what you did for me, Shelby Steele did for you when when you were younger.
CH: So my first question is, what did Shelby Steele do to you? What were your default assumptions before you read him?
JM: That’s an interesting question. And especially from you, given the the sequence that you’re talking about. I grew up being taught what I now refer to as the usual gospel some of which is true. My mother was a teacher of social work. She taught a course at Temple University that I think was actually called Racism 101 outside of quotation marks, where she was teaching the first generation of young educated white people that racism is more than just cross burnings and that was valuable. But I could always tell when I guess this was just partly because I’m strange and I think that’s true of all of us, you know, black heterodox people. I’m just individually odd. I could tell that a lot of what I was being told didn’t quite seem to square with reality, but there seemed to be an extent to which systemic racism wasn’t the only explanation for a lot of black problems. But there was something which, one is not supposed to call “culture.” That there was something going on with what people thought being black meant that interfered with success. And I learned pretty quickly to keep those sorts of views to myself and because I had a much blacker upbringing than I think a lot of people would understandably think, I just thought I must be wrong somehow. There must be some things that I’m missing. So even as late as when I started teaching at Berkeley in the late 90s, and I’m listening to the whole debate over the elimination of racial preferences and supposedly the reason that most black people have to be admitted with lesser dossiers is because of poverty and people kept talking about certain neighborhoods in Oakland. And I thought to myself, “But most of the black kids here at UC Berkeley are not poor. They didn’t grow up in those neighborhoods or ones anything like them.” And the issue with the grades and things is something a little deeper than you know, what, you know census tracts they come from. And for a couple years, I tried so hard to turn my brain away from that assuming that there was sociology I just didn’t know. And so, Shelby Steele’s book, and actually I read him before all of this happened. It’s a gradual evolution of mind in the 90s. But Shelby’s first book, his best book Content of our Character made me realize, “Wait a minute. This is a black person who grew up in the United States, is committed to the black cause or at least had been previously. It’s not that he’s some strange outsider. And he thinks exactly the way I do. He clarified a lot of my thoughts. And I thought to myself, “Wow, he’s right and he must be right in that he gets this mational book award from people who don’t even want to hear it.” I thought I must not be completely crazy. But even back then, I would try to discuss some of his ideas with educated smart black people who just dismissed him out of hand. But it got to the point where I started thinking, I get the feeling that even though these people outnumber me, and even though you know, I can’t say that I’m better than them in any way. I was beginning to think, “I’m right and Shelby’s right and these people are misled.” And so to me every time I think of The Content of Our Character, I think of this sort of weight off of my chest and…
SH: …it remains one of the 10 best books I’ve ever read. And I’m not fishing for a compliment from you about mine. But the idea was I thought, “This, more of this book should be written.” and when I started writing mine, you’re going to think I’m just saying this, I thought part of the reason I’m writing this, given that I’m going to take so much shit for it ,as I thought I want there to be young black people who read this and realize that they’re not alone. And for a long time I got the feeling that wasn’t happening and I just kind of given up. You are a beautiful example of why I needed to just sit tight.
CH: No. It really does matter to, you know, that you had a book that was in the library. You were a real person at my university that everyone who takes your classes tends to speak highly of them. You’re like a real human being.
JM: That’s good to hear.
CH: It did have the character for me of reading thoughts that I had had my whole life. but didn’t…
CH: …know that you were allowed to say.
CH: So like, when you don’t know, when you’ve never heard someone respectable say something, you assume that there must be some reason you don’t know.
CH: Why for example, like the phrase “black culture” is unsayable.
CH: Right? Like there must be something you don’t get.
CH: But then you hear somebody say it, somebody who clearly has good intentions, is clearly intelligent and, ah you know, it it it can open things up for you in a way. So I think it is important that that you wrote that book and…
JM: Thank you.
CH: …um. Thank you.
CH: Speaking of Columbia, I wanted to ask you, like I guess this kind of ties into Shelby Steele because Shelby Steele was a radical in the 60s.
CH: He paints in one of his books, I’m not sure if it’s White Guilt or Shame, he tells a story of being a radical, you know, flicking a cigarette in the, blowing smoke in the…
JM: That’s White Guilt.
CH: …in the face of the University president…
CH: …in the late 60s.
CH: And his transformation to to you know becoming a conservative conservative feel like in the past few months at Columbia here has been a, a kind of recapitulation of of that kind of tension over one incident that happened that I’m I’m sure you heard about…
CH: …it was with a a a young man named Alex McNab…
CH: …who Barnard, right?
I wanted to ask you about that. But just to bring people up to speed, what happened is a kid named Alex McNab, who I go to school with, went through the gates of Barnard College, which is the all women’s wing of Columbia University past 11 p.m. at the point where your, you have to show your ID, didn’t show his ID, and ah the security guards asked him over and over, kept refusing and then they ended up pinning him to a countertop for 20 seconds at which point he presented his ID. This was caught on camera. He was yelling in the library that it was racism. People were very upset. He ended up on Don Lemon and ah you know, the the security guards in in question got suspended and essentially the whole campus security got accused of racism by the administrators of the school and I I wrote a piece…
JM: in Grid, the…
CH: …yeah, giving reasons why I didn’t think this was a clear example of racism at all. And it was an injustice to the security guards that they were labeled that way. And, we we actually me and Alex had a mutual friend who set up a debate between us.
JM: I didn’t know this part.
CH: Yeah, so they were flyers all over campus. We organized it. We met a few times. He’s a, he’s a nice guy.
CH: And eventually it it got cancelled because he’s bringing a lawsuit against the school and his lawyers told him he could not….
CH: ….talk about the event publicly, but…
CH: Anyway, did did you observe this happening at camp, on campus at all? And did you pay attention? Did you have an opinion on it?
JM: Hm. I understand why he felt the way he did. And I get the feeling that the proper view of it, this is very much the sort of thing we’re talking about where you end up having arguments with yourself, but you learn after a while that you don’t need to argue so hard. The proper view of it, is supposed to be that he was Rosa Parks, that he shouldn’t have been asked, and he rebelled against that and then was you know, metaphorically conked over the head. And, and from what I gleaned from talking to a few students about it and I didn’t canvas the campus the way you in a way could, you’re immersed in a way that I just couldn’t be, but from, you know, poking one of my classes because I had a representative group of people and I wanted to get a sense of what the campus thought and then a few other conversations, I got the feeling that what you were supposed to think was that only a black man would have been asked to show ID and an awful lot of people sat and agreed with that, even though I heard from other quarters such as you, (chuckles) that an awful lot of people have been asked to show their ID, who were not black men. That it wasn’t so unusual what happened to him? And then there also seems to have been the issue that and this I don’t completely understand because I haven’t encountered this photographically, I didn’t see the video, but the way he was dressed might have made somebody reasonably wonder exactly who this person was quite beyond what the color of his skin was. So it sounds to me like with this episode and it doesn’t always come out this way, but an awful lot with these episodes it comes out to be much subtler than what people described. Did his being black have anything to do with why he was asked? Maybe, but was it everything or close to everything? I don’t think so. But, you weren’t supposed to say that. And I can imagine that you took a great deal of criticism unless there’s that certain Teflon quality you seem to have so far, but I would imagine you would have taken a great deal of criticism (chuckles) for that op-ed from some quarters. Did you, for example?
CH: Surprisingly little.
JM: I don’t know how you do it.
CH: What what happened, it was very bizarre because what happened is I had all of these Barnard women coming up to because I live with two Barnard women. Both of whom agreed with my take, both of whom told me they have never once gone through the gates past 11 p.m. and not gotten carded.
CH: These are white women…
CH: …(indistiguishable word) and I had I must have had five women at different points, coming up to me saying, “I agreed with your Facebook post on the on the Alex McNab incident, but not a single one of them liked the post…
JM: Mmhm. Oh no. Of course not, right?
CH: So it was this…I felt a little bit like I was witnessing what must have happened in the Trump election, more in the recent Australian election in microcosm where if you’re just like I I I would talk to people…you know, like the perception from people who were just reading the campus newspaper is virtually everyone’s on Alex’s side,
CH: … Coleman is going to certainly be the underdog in this debate…
CH: …but I was encountering totally normal people, liberals, just kind of default white liberals, not super woke but not not woke…
CH: …who were saying, “Actually, I agree with, actually agree with you there.”
CH: ..and but they but they just couldn’t say it.
JM: Never. And that is often the way these sorts of things are. Ward Connorly of all people, had something he wrote in one of his, well I think it was in his autobiography way back, that he would give speeches where people would be, you know, practically belligerent in the audience and then always afterward a certain person who’s basically, it’s a you or a young me walks up and quietly says, “I agree with what you’re saying, but that person has to do it after everybody else is gone. And I don’t remember whether Ward said this, but the truth is that an awful lot of people in that audience felt that way, but what normal human being, as opposed to say you or me wants to get mauled…
JM: …you know? Most students at Columbia and you know, not only the radical ones but just the ones you talk about who are you know, not not woke, they don’t want to get into these fights. They have a statistics final to take care of….
JM: They’re they’re breaking up with, you know, whoever they’re with. They’ve got lives to lead. Most people aren’t terribly interested in race issues because race issues, you’re one of about 4,000 things that a human being might be concerned with. And so yeah, you’re not going to get the truth. I found with some people I tried to talk to about it and by some, (chuckles) I mean to white people that there was just no point in trying to have a conversation. As far as they were concerned, they had read the usual things and they just assumed that this was good old-fashioned racial profiling and it was clearly important to them. And I can imagine how it feels because I would be doing the same thing if I were white. They were getting a sense of validation out of acknowledging this supposed truth that this boy had been beat up because of the color of his skin. And so then the episode passed, but yeah that was the sort of thing where if I’d been an undergraduate, I would have watched it and thought to myself really does nobody ever get stopped? Was that really Rosa Parks, except here it is several decades later? But I I wouldn’t have said anything in college. I knew the anger that you get. I knew how you get hollered at. I knew that, you know would keep you from having certain friends and that many people don’t let go of that sort of thing. They’ll hate on you for years.
JM: So I just would have kept quiet, kept it to myself and then maybe wrote about it years later in Losing the Reason Authentically Black. But this stuff is hard because there is this um, religion as I’ve written about which is that if you’re white you validate yourself by showing that you know racism exists. And if you’re black part of what gives you a sense of being interesting, part of what gives you a sense of validation, a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging is to frankly exaggerate about racism and cutting through that is a very delicate thing. And so you have to you have to choose your battles.
JM: I would not have written that up it at your age. I simply did not have that kind of bravery, but I’m glad you wrote it because as we’re seeing and I wouldn’t have known this when I was in my 20s, an awful lot of people agreed with it, who just would never say so in public. And so part of our battle is to get people more comfortable with being themselves in public.
CH: Well part of why I wrote it was precisely because I’m also black on the same campus and I know the general vibe. I go through those same gates all the time. I know what the security guards are like. And if I had had more distance from the situation, I probably wouldn’t have been as exercised about it…
JM: Sure. And exercised.
CH: ….right? Right. Um. Yeah, and also I had a white friend, Jeremy, who sent me an email saying that sometimes he went through those same gates with his headphones on, forgot to show his ID and they chase him and hound him, right?
JM: Of course.
CH: So if anything, it seems more likely that it was due to his being a male on an all-women’s campus at night than than to being black.
CH: Um. But you know, anyway, I want to get back to the religion point because this is a a point you’ve been making for years now and there’s one piece in The Daily Beast, one in The Atlantic that anti-racism takes on the character of a religion. And and it’s interesting to me that with your conversations with Glenn Loury at Bloggingheads, which you’re you’re now known is kind of its own space for freedom…
JM: Somehow, yeah. (chuckles)
CH: …that’s an interesting point of tension between you and Glenn because whenever you talk about anti-racism as a religion, that certainly rings true to me and I like that framing because there are so many so many similarities with how you’re not supposed to ask pesky questions. There’s a symmetry between original sin and white privilege…
CH: …There’s a kind of reverence for history in in religion as well as in a a…
JM: A mysterious future where everything is going to be resolved.
CH: Right. Right. There’s a, reparations will be a a reawakening, begins to sound somewhat like the Rapture.
CH: …but Glenn ah comes comes from more, a perspective that’s more sympathetic to religion so the analogy doesn’t seem to quite do it, do the same job in his mind that it does for yours.
JM: Yes, rubs him the wrong way. Yeah.
CH: Right, um. But I was on a podcast a few months ago with my friend Yascha Mounk and we were talking about this and he asked me a question that I thought was a very good one.
JM: He asks good questions.
CH: He does, which is assuming that there is a kind of religious impulse intrinsic to human beings and given that Christianity is somewhat in decline, at least in the circles you and I would run in…
CH: …the circles that are being overtaken by anti-racism.
CH: It’s one thing to critique anti-racism as a religion, but it’s another thing to say what would replace it?
CH: Given that there is a hole, a religion-shaped hole that needs to be filled with something…
CH: …and I I found that I came up with some answer…
CH: …but I didn’t have a great answer.
JM: Yeah, that’s a tough one. You know, it almost certainly is from and I’ve thought about this quite a bit actually. It’s partly something that a secular person might almost viscerally crave. You almost seek the mysticism. You almost seek wanting to believe in something larger. Certainly, you seek belonging and whether you’re white or black, all of those, you know high-fives that people do when they, you know, basically mention some anti-racist tenant or some analysis, you know, “You know that Alex McNab was all about racism, right?” And then the you know, you’ll watch people (high five clapping sound) do it.
JM: All of that is about connection. Yes, human beings need that and I don’t think it’s an accident that rather, you know secular (chuckles) even pagan, mostly over-educated affluent whites are so Mormon-style religious about race. But to be honest, I’ll give you a very chilly answer. I think that that is and I say this as an atheist, I don’t like to talk about this too much, but that doesn’t mean I don’t talk about it at all. I do not believe in God at all. I am not agnostic. I am an atheist. And I don’t feel bereft about it. And as far as I’m concerned the anti-racist thing to the extent that it’s religious and yes, I mean this and I’m not going to walk it back, is a slide backwards. I think that humanity would be better off. It won’t happen in my lifetime. Humanity, we would be better off without religious thought of that kind because that kind of thought is anti-empirical. I think we should be as comfortable as we can with empiricism and dealing with fact. I won’t be writing a book arguing the point. (chuckles) But to the extent that people find anti-racism so attractive it’s because there’s a part of us that reaches back to what we’re founded upon, which is that we are social beings. That some people would argue that evolutionarily we almost need to believe in something beyond the mundane, it probably helps knit people together socially, which would have gotten passed down in genes. But if we’re going to do what human beings do well and do it better, we’ve got to let go of anything that involves carefully turning a blind eye to facts in the quest for a warm but inchoate sense of belonging that as often as not impedes rather than fosters social justice. And so as far as I’m concerned, no, nothing should replace it because…
CH: Mm. Mm.
JM: …there are a great many people who really aren’t religious in any way, who I wouldn’t say are miserable or if they are, it’s not because they need to find Jesus nor is it that they need to find, you know, “the priest” Ta-Nehisi Coates or anything else. We just need to learn how to deal with reality.
JM: That’s tough. But that is what I believe.
CH: I I think I have a bit of a disagreement with that in the sense that I I’m also an atheist. I, ah, you know, I’m someone who certainly always wants to be committed to viewing the world empirically to to not saying things because they feel good…
CH: …but because they’re true…On the other hand, I’m also someone who goes on meditation retreats. I’m I’m kind of a Sam-Harris-style atheist…
CH: You know, like the I I I see the value of spirituality shorn of irrational beliefs and one reason I think we, so to speak are are are perhaps losing if if I I don’t want to frame it as a as a battle, but in the marketplace of ideas…
CH: …the ideas you and I tend to push, which are fairly similar, are not winning the day. I think that’s that’s clear to say, right? But I think one reason…
JM: No, but continue.
CH: You don’t think so?
JM: I know what you mean, but anyway, go ahead.
CH: Okay. I’m pretty (24:20 indistinguishable word). One one way in which the narrative the narrative, my narrative could feel much stronger and more viscerally true to people…
CH: …is if it had some kind of religious bent to it.
JM: Yeah. Yeah.
CH: So, for example, when I think of why it’s the case that Martin Luther King was so successful…
JM: Oh yeah.
CH: …talking about you know brotherhood and the content of our character, a message that is really universal, ah but people pushing the same message today just get mocked. I think well, he he he stood on this religious perch from which he could view the divisiveness of the black power movement and white racists as petty…
CH: …and terrestrial relative to the the unity…
CH: …that he could say is true of our world in virtue of his being a Christian. He had a meta-narrative that kind of dissolved all of the divisive narratives below.
CH: And I find as an atheist, it entering this conversation that has a very religious character, I lack a meta-narrative. You lack a meta-narrative.
CH: I think that’s a liability for us. And I don’t know exactly that that’s kind of what Yascha’s question exposed to me.
CH: And I I don’t know exactly whether that’s fixable,…
CH: …but it’s something I noticed.
JM: I completely get you, but…this is, there are two answers. First of all, and here’s where I’m going to have to strike that, “well you weren’t around when…” (in exaggerated old man voice) No, we’re only talking…
CH: Wow, wow.
JM: …about 20 years ago. (chuckles)
CH: That was amazing.
JM: That’s my Looney Tunes old man voice.
CH: (laughing 🙂
JM: But, back in the day as in like 1999, to have the kind of message that you and I have, I was, it’s interesting the way these days Twitter is discussed by regular people on Twitter and people talk about the flaming and the vitriol, etcetera. My thought has always been people have been treating me that way since the Clinton administration.
JM: It’s not new to me because if you were a black apostate,….
CH: Mmhm. Mhm.
JM: …boy, did you hear it! And the people in the middle that we’re talking about generally you didn’t really hear from much. They might write you a physical letter. They might write you a quiet email but people like that felt genuinely silenced and I think the mood in the country was different. So when I was you, I got praised mostly from white conservatives and you know, that’s great. But as far as black people went, there were a few self-identified black conservatives, but for the most part there was an awful lot of hate. These days, I think that part of the reason you don’t get as much of that as I do, part of the reason that I don’t feel as hated as I do now is because there’s a middle group or even a completely persuadable group, who have more of a sense of being a body, who have less of a sense that they’re one of only 17 people, and I think social media encourages that. And I find, you know, well, I’m going to, the next time I open up Twitter, I’m going to find all this hate mail, but I find that for the stuff that I do now, I don’t get nearly as much of that s-h-i-t as I used to. They’re people who will say, “I don’t agree with everything, but I respect what you’re saying.” That group of people is bigger and/or louder now than it was 20 years ago. So that I don’t feel like we’re losing. I feel like we’re smoking people out who feel more comfortable than they used to, and saying: “Yeah for black people, racism is there, but it isn’t everything. And I’m not a bad person if I think this.” And more and more black people who do not need to say their card-carrying Republicans and/or my parents are immigrants to say, yeah this message that were being given makes us seem like children. So that’s one answer. Second answer religion; people need something larger. Yeah, that’s true. You and I sound chilly. But you know what? I think something could replace the religion and I think that that is something, which is going to seem very shallow. We need there to be somebody who does what we do, who sounds better…
JM: …and what I mean is somebody who probably grew up differently than either you or I did, and who has a much richer, more identifiable black English cadence…
JM: …and sense of humor then either one of us do. If we could get somebody who had that vocal presence, somebody like Stanley Crouch. It was very useful for that, but he seems to have receded somewhat lately. That would fill in an awful lot of this religious aspect, because what we’re talking about is the viscera, we’re talking about warmth, we’re talking about sense of belonging. And there’ll always be a limit to, I know from my own self, I generally I genuinely feel talking about race, I’m only ever going to be so effective because “I sound like this” (with a cheesy, standard English voice). You know, I do it for someone like you, I do it with Glenn, but I “just don’t sound right,” (change in voice) but if it was somebody like Jelani Cobb, not that he would ever express the views that we do, he’ed sound right doing it.
JM: And so if this keeps going, if there could be a couple of people, and I’m not saying that you or me or Camille or Thomas or Glenn don’t sound good, but we need different notes. We need some female notes, you know? It really sounds almost as if it’s basically we five or six guys and then somebody like Candace Owens…
CH: Mm. Mm.
JM: …there need there needs to be five or six, you know, black, pliable, heterodox people who don’t walk around defending people, and frankly who are a little more careful than Candace Owens. I think that we could get somewhere. And I think it could happen within, people going to play this back and I’m going to sound stupid but, in about five years I think we could see some change. I don’t feel as pessimistic as I did say 10 years ago. Ten years ago I’m blocking hits, it’s been that long I would say to Glenn, “You know, we will never cut through this nonsense.” I feel better about it now.
CH:, I mean wasn’t Barack Obama almost to that?
JM: Yes! Could have been but social media screwed it up. Social media made it easier to see cop brutality against black people, which is real. And more people ended up knowing about every one of those episodes. Add that and somebody as good as Ta-Nehisi Coates was at writing about it…
JM: …and then his career. And next thing you know, Barack Obama’s symbolism got washed away. If there had been no social media coming in, right as that man started occupying the White House, I think we’d be in a different place already. But social history is funny.
CH: Yeah, one one opinion floating around the intell-, intelligentsia that I think makes very little sense is that Barack Obama set race relations back. I think it’s a classic correlation without causation fallacy.
CH: And I I’ve I once had a very protracted argument with someone about whether social media was the cause of what has been called the Great Awokening…
CH: …by I forget who wrote the Vox piece. May have been that um….
JM: Was that Matt Yglesias?
CH: It may have been Matt Yglesias, yeah. And I I suggested that it was clearly a consequence of social media and…
JM: That’s what I told him, too.
CH: Yeah, I’m, and there are there are studies that correlate that find correlations between people who go online more often are more likely to view race relations as negative versus people who don’t…
CH: …which at least suggests that people are getting their perception of what’s happening from thirty second “Now This” clips, which don’t count as data. And when you look at all the data it prevents a far less pessimistic picture.
CH: I think people attribute far too much to the president.
CH: That’s one thing…
JM: In general…
CH: …about ah, political punditry…
JM: How much power could that one person have, right?
CH: Yes. Um. I want to loop back though to to my concern about the lack of muscularity and kind of our narrative so to speak.
JM: Muscularity’s a good word. (chuckling while speaking)
CH: Um. I think that when we talk about the conflict between race consciousness, the idea that your race is a deep part of who you are and colorblindness, the idea that your race is a trivial part of your identity, there is…race consciousness enjoys a perpetual advantage because it draws your circle, the the circle that circumscribes your tribe smaller.
CH: …and there’s always kind of an inertia leading or or favoring arguments that make your circle of concern smaller .
JM: People need that hug.
CH: Yes, definitely. And there’s always something militating against expanding the circle.
CH: And that’s why it it astounds me that Martin Luther King was as successful as he was, which in with a message that was so expansive. And, I can’t help but think that having a doctrine of universal humanity…
CH: …something that was tied to tradition and ah, you know, a specific text and a long history is largely what enabled him to do that…
CH: …and I can’t I can’t help but feel somewhat pessimistic that in the absence of that kind of thing,…
CH: …I’m gonna to be kind of I’m going to be having the same conversation about this when I’m your age and little will have changed.
JM: I think you might be very interested to see what it’s like in 20 years. You might lack imagination.
JM: I think we need to think about you know, Nonzero and Robert Wright, and what’s being called cultural appropriation but is really just cultures coming together. And I think that as I’ve often said, I think that the main driver of the Gospel narrative that we’re talking about now, but not the, skip King. King accomplished something. He accomplished something in a time when to be black concretely was a burden no matter what kind of black person you were. And I think actually though that we think of King is a winner now, but King works better for many people as a historical figure than he did as a living figure. In his time, in the 60s the 60s that I was not in as a mature person, it was Malcolm X and then more to the point, Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers who ended up taking over the narrative and it was a different kind of tribalism.
JM: So Martin Luther King is talking about the universal but also he has the religious element and you’re talking about God, you’re talking about Jesus, you’re talking about prayer. There’s an air of mysticism and music. The Black Power movement got it into it’s going to be just us brothers and sisters dealing with this oppression, which really brings you together. What Black Panther gives you a nice sense, Spike Lee’s latest movie gives a nice sense of how all of that must have felt. All of these, they’re in Colorado. This is a place, there very few black people in Colorado, (chuckles while he says that), but these people are bonding together, Panthers. They hate the cops. And the one thing that you get out of Black Panther is the sense of warmth that the lead character is tapping into by getting into this network, but I think that actually we have to go towards a more pan-human idea that is not festooned with anything that is anti-empirical. And I think really, to get back to what I was saying, it’s about the cops. It’s about perceptions of the cops. And if one generation of black boys in particular could grow up without any sense of the cops as their enemy, without any sense that being attacked by the cops in some way is kind of like “losing your cherry,” and that’s exactly the expression that Andrew Young and Martin Luther King used about being beaten up by Southern cops. You lose it that way.
CH: Mm. Mmm.
JM: That was real. Today, I think people don’t use that terminology, but the idea is that part of coming of age as a black man is having some episode like that, and being able to share it with one another and to air it to the rest of the world. If that were not there, I think that I’d be interested to see what that generation of black people was like in terms of dealing with that need for fellowship, which you’ll even use oppression for if you have nothing else to use it for. Maybe it’ll turn out that they will resist thinking of themselves as just people because even without the cop narrative, they just can’t stand to walk along. But there’s a generation of people growing up who, even you are not in the heads of and I’m imagining 20 years from now, imagine people growing up in this particular world. And if the cop issue were solved, and of course that cannot happen in any clean way, but to the extent that we change that conversation, I get the feeling they might be more open to something other than this visceral sense of belonging we see that ends up being more counter-productive than productive. I’m open to being proven wrong because yeah just thinking of ourselves as people, that’s different. It might even be hard. It might be that you and I are odd in being relatively comfortable with it.
JM: And I have church. You know for me, it’s theater.
JM: For me, I don’t know why, I can’t explain it. It’s like Aristotle. It’s just, you know good for the sake of being good. It’s the ultimate end.
JM: For me that gives me a sense of belonging with people who like theater. I enjoy that, but it’s not based on feeling bad. It’s not based on oppression. It’s not based on people who don’t like me. Music to me is important. I sometimes have trouble relating to people who don’t get music. And frankly music beyond music, the just about rhythm in any real way.
JM: That to me is kind of religious. That people might always have, but the idea that your religion has to involve suspending your disbelief about obvious things, I want humanity to get past it. And I try to exercise my imagination in such a way as to imagine it. I could be wrong. Yeah.
CH: I want to go back to something you said ah about the 60s and what happened in the 60s and early 70s in black America. I came across a rather alarming study by Roland Fryer. I don’t know if you’ve seen this about the divergence in black and white baby names.
CH: …at the end of the 60s and early 70s…
CH: …in California.
JM: I don’t think I know this study, no.
CH: It is almost unbelievable. There there there’s a seven-year period during which the likelihood that any given name uh, so so like the average name being twice as likely for a black baby than a white baby…
CH: …that it went from being twice as likely to 20 times as likely.
CH: …which is, to say the measure of divergence ah increased by tenfold…
CH: …in a period of seven years.
JM: Yep. That doesn’t surprise me.
CH: And in the study, they attribute this, many of these names were African names.
CH: Kwame. This was in the era where everyone was renaming themselves. Ah. You know when Stokely Carmichael became…
CH: Kwame Ture and whatnot. But it it’s really an alarm-, just the degree of the transformation in the culture is alarming and the stickiness of it is alarming. So if think of the great jazz musicians, the celebrities that I love from the 40s and 50s…
JM: They’re named like you’re named.
CH: Charlie Parker.
JM: Coleman. (chuckles)
CH: John Coltrane. Right. Like you couldn’t tell what their race was by their name,
JM: By their first names, no.
CH: …but starting in the 70s we have what has at this point become a stereotype or a cliche of black people having very unique and lavish names.
CH: And to me, I see that as an example of the dynamic I mentioned before, which is that muscular narratives have an advantage over cohesive…
CH: …universal narratives and the degree to which cultural change can happen rapidly, but not happen in reverse.
JM: Mmhm. You know, it’s funny you bring that up. I um. Because I am just old enough to have felt that happening. Like I’m in a way a of the last cohort who would have been named something like John…
JM: …in 1965. Whereas by the early 70s when I was a little kid growing up there were little girls named Makeba. There were girls named Omar, boys named Omar and Khalid. And that was that was normal. I didn’t get the feeling that most of the people who had those names had been named out of hostility. It was out of a kind of pride, a new pride in blackness that in a way, it was sad there had not been before, and then after that, start the quote unquote “ghetto names.” So the idea is that black people have different names. I think that kind of thing can coexist with a sense of white people as not the enemy or if they are, not enough to matter. So the fact that all of the old jazz musicians had, you know, Fats Waller’s name was Thomas. That almost seems odd now. Why wasn’t his name Dequan? Well, if today, you know, that person’s name would be Dequan that could be fine. It would be nice if he were a Fats Waller, who played his piano and did what he did without any sense of the white man as prescribing his entire existence. And of course the white man did prescribe Fats Waller’s entire existence, but his great-grandson if he had one, which I don’t think he did, that would not be true. And it would be a shame if his great-grandson were walking around thinking of it that way. So yeah that that change happened. You know, there’s something else that I want to get on the record because I don’t think I have any other reason to put it on the record, but there was another change that happened in the wake of that time. It’s 1977. I have moved to a very upper middle class / (slash) affluent and all-black neighborhood called Rarrick Hills in Lawnside, New Jersey. And this this occurred to me yesterday that I had never written it down or mentioned it to Glenn Lowry and I’m going to mention it now. This is something that happened in 1977, which I think would have been different in 1967. There was a kid in the neighborhood and I’m not going to disguise it the way I have with the Clarence I talked about with Glenn Lowry. His name was Vernon. Vernon was handsome and muscular and all the girls in the neighborhood liked Vernon. And okay, that’s great, but I remember how Vernon was always talked about. He had like an epithet. It was like the wine dark sea. Vernon’s fine and he has a B+ average, always that B+ average. He has a B+ average, not A-, not an A average, B+ average. Everybody thought of that as just astonishing about Vernon. That was a real indication of black people and the scholarly after the late 60s because imagine a group of say Chinese American kids saying, “Whatever is really great and you know. He has a B+ ave-“
JM: It’s unimaginable. Or if those are immigrants’ kids, imagine American Jews long past the Lower East Side. Imagine them saying well, let’s give him a name, Ethan. “Ethan is really handsome and you know what, he’s got a B+.” It sounds like another planet. These kids, “Well, he’s got a B+ average.” They had already settled in and they’re not reading any Tom Sowell, not reading white conservatives. They’re just going around on their bikes. They have already internalized the sense that to be black means that you’re only so scholastic. So to be black is not to fail, but Vernon’s great because he has a B+ average so he does pretty darn good in school, but not so good that it would make him unattractive. So not so well as the weird guys like, you know, John McWhorter and his friends Chris and Vince were. They’re just too smart and therefore not effective. And this is not to imply that we looked like Vernon, but still it was considered a big plus in Vernon that he had a B+ average.
JM: That was something that started only in the late 1960s. That’s the sort of thing that’s worrisome. And it shows that we’re not talking about people walking around manufacturing a sense of hatred of the white person. All of this stuff is baked in. This is people who would never consider thinking any other way and they didn’t drink it in from listening to somebody on the radio. You had this among little kids who are running around in the most beautiful black neighborhood on Earth. There wasn’t a white person for a two-mile radius, and so this had nothing to do with racism and had nothing to do with discrimination. There were no cops around. It was just a new sense of what black identity was. So that’s a bit of a divergence, but I wanted to get that down in case I got hit by a bus today.
CH: It, it reminds me of, so my my grandparents on my dad’s side went to Dunbar High School.
JM: Oh they went!
CH: Yes. My grandmother is…
JM: Oh that’s amazing.
CH: … my grandmother went to Dunbar. My grandfather went to Armstrong across the street.
JM: I’ve never known anybody who could actually attest to…
CH: Yes. Yeah, my great-aunt as well went to Dunbar.
CH: Dunbar for people who don’t know is a famous high school in a Washington D.C. It was an all-black high school before it was integrated in the 60s and it occasionally outscored the white high schools in DC. It’s if the famous for…
JM: In the early 20th century.
CH: Yeah it, famous for churning out many famous and highly acclaimed black people ah whose names I am blanking on now, but it it was….It kind of seemed like an anomaly in a sense because you had middle class and often poor black kids getting an education during Jim Crow that was as good or better than the education the the white kids in the same city were getting. And it’s an interesting case study in what makes school good. But the reason I thought of it when you told your story about Vernon is when I talk to my grandparents or my great-aunt about the kind of education they got at Dunbar, obviously, I I don’t know what it exactly was like firsthand and there’s so much first person data that is missed in the telling of stories, but I don’t get the sense that there was that…I don’t get the sense that anyone was teased for “acting white” if they did too well. I get the sense that people took a lot of pride in getting good grades and that getting good grades made you popular in a way that was not the case among black kids I grew up with. And it seems to me that was a consequence of changes in the culture in the 60s and 70s as well as a consequence of integration as well. I know you know ah Stuart Bucks book, Acting White…
JM: Which tells the whole story. Yeah.
JM: And of course nobody reads it, right?
CH: Yeah. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read. One thing he points out is when you put black kids and white kids together for the first time, you force busing in this way. And white kids have all kinds head starts for reasons that are are too obvious to go into. Then, the human mind I, he doesn’t say this way, but the way I would put it is that the human mind is a pattern-finding machine and it’s a politically incorrect pattern-finding machine.
CH: So if you notice patterns that are racial in nature, you will helplessly form a stereotype…
CH: …and apply it to yourself even, perhaps. And ah that that’s one thing that I find is very difficult for people to swallow when you ask: “What is the source of stereotypes about black people?” Because they exist…
CH: …whether they’re implicit or explicit they’re, racial bias is real.
CH: And ah, by the way, it’s not only white people that have it. It’s also black people with everyone.
CH: And I I often find the the the most blatant episodes of racism sometimes come from immigrants who aren’t white, who have no white guilt whatsoever…
CH: …but are, but nevertheless form racial biases and stereotypes…
JM: Utterly unfiltered.
CH: Right, right. And you know, so but there’s a competing view which is that it’s coming from the culture the the signal sent by society, the people we hold up in Hollywood movies. If only we could get culture to be more equitable, we could rid ourselves of racial bias. Ah. Stereotypes are being programmed from the outside.
CH: And this is a view that I don’t think is I think it used to be more true than it is. I think it perhaps accounts for a small amount of of the variance in stereotypes, but I think the primary effect at this point is pattern recognition. And that leads me to a rather depressing view that anti-black stereotypes and bias are not likely to significantly decline until those patterns themselves are not there or are mitigated.
CH: What do, how do you view that? Do you see those two competing visions as…where do you fall?
JM: Yes, I see. The problem is that a certain kind of person will respond to you by saying that withdraw the racism and those patterns will disappear. And so if we can teach America not to discriminate against people, not to have these stereotypes, then suddenly people’s behavior would change because the reason that they behave that way is because society doesn’t like them and has biases against them. And so if somebody sees that in a school as so often there are no black kids in the advanced placement classes, then anti-racism teaches us that it must be because white teachers are biased against the black kids, or it’s that society is so biased against black people that there’s no way those kids could ever have come in with anything like the preparation to ever get into an AP class. So the idea is that if we change society, then we will see black kids in those classes because the reason has nothing to do with, for example, a culture among the black teens that says that if you’re in one of those classes, you’re disloyal, that if you really work hard at school, you’re not a proper black person. And Bucks’ book is absolutely key. I wish it it had been done with a larger publisher because what he shows also is that black kids in integration often were treated quite badly by old-school bigotry from the white teachers. The white teachers didn’t like them often. And so it was a nasty situation that that cohort of black kids wound up in. And it set them against school, made them think of it as something that wasn’t for them. But then a cultural trait can be passed on regardless of external circumstances and not just for five minutes. And so that is when it was really about in 1966, the whole “do you think you’re white for liking school” idea set in. And it’s been passed on ever since encouraged by other aspects of the mood. Those Dunbar-style schools, Thomas Sowell shows that you found them across the nation and the closest connection I have to them is that in Atlanta um and now I’m doing a blank…it was named after I think, it’s either Frederick Douglass or Booker T, Washington, I forget which one. My mother went to that one and the house she grew up in was near that school. And that school was quite excellent. It then wasn’t. And the neighborhood is completely changed, but my mother remembered being called a “walking encyclopedia”…
JM: …and that hurt, but she wasn’t told that she thought she was white and that was because she was being called those things in the 40s. Whereas in the 60s, starting in about 1966, people would have said, “You think you’re white. That’s why you’re so good at school.” And so that changed at a time when nobody would deny that racism as nasty as it is, was receding. There’s a certain kind of person who says racism has gotten worse since the late sixties and frankly, very few people listen to that. We know it was certainly worse in 1950 than it’s been since. And when it was receding is when black teens started setting themselves against school in that way. And that’s not to say that they’re bad people, but it means that the idea that racism is always the cause of any kind of disparity is at least vastly oversimplified because in this case, those kids saying, “Vernon is fine and he has a B+ average” was it racism that made them set the bar so low? Well maybe in that there had been racist teachers a generation before who had set Vernon’s older cousins and his parents to think of school as something that was for white people, but it had nothing to do with how those kids at that time were feeling about Vernon. So next thing you know, you have what’s called “racism without racists” as Richard Thompson Ford put it. I wish that had caught on more, but it’s certainly not as high five simple as a lot of people like to say.
CH: Yeah, another thing that ah that Stuart Buck demonstrates in that book is the heroic attempts and successful attempts that recently freed slaves made to become literate.
CH: It’s a really, I think there’s a chapter in the book that just documents the the lengths to which people went to learn, how hungry black people were to develop their minds now that they could.
CH: And it really, it’s a goose-bumps inducing chapter to read. And you know, it shows clearly how again how cultures can change in a critical period of transition and then kind of become set in a holding pattern. Back back to the stereotype point though. One thing I I I don’t know why more people don’t ask themselves is, “Why is it the case that for example Asian Americans are stereotyped as smart?” Was it A) that immigrants arrived from China and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century and white people randomly decided to stereotype them as smart which then caused them…
CH: …to do better at school. That is a very not implausible story. But that’s the logical consequence of believing that stereotypes are only the cause rather than the result of disparities that we see, right? Clearly, I think what happened is people picked up on vaguely picked up on the fact that Asians tended to do very well in school and then formed a stereotype, which crudely painted with a broad brush as stereotypes always do, and misfired in many cases, but nevertheless picked up on a correlation.
JM: Sure. Well, let me push back a little bit on that because, say it’s 1935 and there are black kids doing so well at Dunbar and various high schools across the country and not that the media knew anything about them, but black people were thought of as stupid even then. And so despite what had gone on at all the black schools like Tuskegee, despite the Rosenwald Schools, despite the existence of W.E.B. Du Bois, black people were thought of as stupid no matter what black people did. Now presumably that stereotype began partly because of European views of Africans. And then what I think we can imagine the untutored person would think of slaves. And it certainly wasn’t slaves’ fault that they weren’t educated, but a person who isn’t trained to think about all of humanity, a person who is existing in about 1746 when this discourse was not as advanced, might naturally suppose as Thomas Jefferson did that black people must just be kind of stupid. And so it starts there, but today I think that we are at a point where let’s say that a white teacher sees a black kid in their class and thinks, “Okay. I have to worry about this one.” And people say, “Well, you’re thinking that for no reason at all.” You were quite correct that person is dealing with pattern recognition. They are seeing something that has gone on with black students in their own classes. They’re not internalizing the stereotypes of 200 years ago. And so you have to ask a different set of questions. With the Chinese, I don’t know how bright the Chinese were thought of as being in say 1915, the quote-unquote “pigtail” Chinese person, but once you had immigrants after 1965 coming here with the values that they carry in terms of education and achievement, very quickly it sets in that all Asian people are brilliant because you see so many of them working so hard in class and excelling. And so it’s not random, but it’s certainly not random that people end up wondering about black people these days and so a test comes up, firemen have to take that’s your typical, you know cognitive assessment test, and black people don’t do as well on the test because black people tend not to be as used to those sorts of tests for various reasons. And the NAACP starts arguing that the test needs to be eliminated because it’s discriminatory against black people. Well, the idea might be that you teach black people how to do better on the test, but instead even our modern-day equivalents of Thurgood Marshall have internalized the sense that it’s not a black “thing” to take a challenging written and irrelevant to race test. That’s rather alarming because it only ends up basically confirming everybody. Although they won’t say it out loud in a notion that in certain ways black people just aren’t as bright. Upon which, then we have everybody wondering why people think black people aren’t as bright, when the reason is that so many smart people insist that we’re not supposed to have to take tests. Stuyvesant and other schools in New York City are the same thing.
CH: You have one line that I’m gonna misquote right now.
CH: It’s something like: “You do not love someone whom you shield from obstacles.”
CH: You wrote this in one of your books.
JM: That’s Losing the Race Somewhere. I hate to admit that I almost remember it.
JM: And it’s something like: “The person who you pity is someone who you don’t genuinely respect.” Is it that line? Not that one?
CH: It’s not that long.
JM: Ok. (chuckles) So some other line. I may have forgotten it by now.
CH: But yeah, well, that’s what it reminds me of.
JM: Yeah. Well, that’s what this is.
CH: John McWhorter–thank you very much.
JM: Thank you Coleman.