BRIAN LAMB, HOST: John McWhorter, author of "Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority," is it true that you really told your mother at age 5 that you wanted to be a writer?
JOHN MCWHORTER, AUTHOR, "AUTHENTICALLY BLACK: ESSAYS FOR THE BLACK SILENT MAJORITY”: I did. I love writing, and not just writing, I love writing books. And when I was 5 years old, I was writing these little, quote, unquote, "books." I remember one of them was about the human body. So on one page, I'd draw an esophagus, and then on the next page, I'd draw a stomach. And then I'd staple them together. I've still got some of those "books." I don't know why I've always liked writing books so much, but nowadays, I'm very happy that I actually get to write books that a couple of people read. Yes, 5, literally.
LAMB: Was there a time in those early years where you realized that -- or some teacher or somebody said you're pretty good at this?
MCWHORTER: No. I can't say that I've usually been mentored, partly because I kind of tend to go it alone. I don't know how this is going to sound, but I knew I could do it. You know, generally, one of my sicknesses is that I generate from the inside praise of myself. I don't usually need it from others. And that's inborn in me, too. It's a good thing and it's a bad thing. But no, no one told me. I just knew that this was what I needed to be doing. It's very strange, but it’s just me.
LAMB: How many years did you spend in Philadelphia?
MCWHORTER: I lived in Philadelphia from birth in 1965 until -- it's technically hard to say. Well, actually, no, it isn't -- until I was 11. And then when I was 11, our family moved to a small town called Lawnside in south Jersey, but that basically meant living in a suburb of Philadelphia. So you could say that in terms of living in the Philadelphia area, I lived there through my teens. I went away to college a little early, and I don't know if I lived in Philadelphia any more then, but you see what I mean.
LAMB: And what about your parents? What were they like? What did they do? Are they alive?
MCWHORTER: My father was a college administrator, especially in the kind of second act of his life. He started out as a photographer for Philadelphia. And he is no longer alive. He died in 1996. And my mother is alive. She's retired now, but she was a teacher of social work. She had a Ph.D. in child psychology. She taught at Temple University in Philadelphia. My father worked at Temple University. There was a period where they were a couple who both worked at that school. So they were both in that business.
LAMB: What was your high school time period education like? Where'd you go?
MCWHORTER: I went to a good high school. I went to Friends Select School in downtown Philadelphia, which was a Quaker school. So I had a good, solid private school education. With all the talk now about the decline of public education, I always feel fortunate that I was not exposed to that. I went to Simon's Rock Early College after 10th grade, though. And so I actually did not finish high school. A little secret is that, technically, I'm a high school drop-out. I do not have a high school diploma, but I have managed to get some other degrees.
LAMB: What kind of grades were you making all through this time period?
MCWHORTER: I made very good but not excellent grades, again because of my peculiarity. I was making A-minuses and B-pluses. I could have made -- and the occasional A. I could have made A-pluses, but I made a conscious decision that I didn't want to because it would have taken a particular kind of extra effort, which would have meant that I couldn't pursue my hobbies. And I've always had these hobbies or interests, as I call them, since I was young. I wanted to write my little books when I was little, and as I got older, there were things I wanted to read. There were things I wanted to learn. There was stuff I wanted to watch. So I never told anybody this at the time. There were two or three kids in the class of about 60 who always did a little better than me, but I didn't mind because I was busy. So I made very good grades. Could have done better, but didn't feel like it.
LAMB: Well, was there an early time when race mattered to you? Was there a period where the consciousness of being not white mattered?
MCWHORTER: I was brought up to be proud of being black, and I mean proud in a real way, proud to the point that I never had to say it, but I never had any problem with my color. I know that early in my life -- earlier in my life, my friends tended to be black very strongly. I had a tacit sense that real people were black and white people were other. I was given that, in particular, by my mother. And during the teen years, that started shifting. I wasn't conscious of it at the time, but I started to feel a dissonance with what black identity was thought to be as you became a teen in the late '70s and the early '80s.
And so nowadays, my life is not as exclusively black as it used to be. But if anything, I used to consider it almost an advantage. This is going to sound corny, but for me, if you had asked me at 12 how I felt about being black, I'd say proud because what with all of the obstacles that there've been, look how far we've come. And I'm glad to be part of that. I used to think it'd be kind of boring to be white because you don't have that story. So there's that.
As far as racism goes, little, tiny things happen to me here and there, but one thing I do have is somewhere in me, I'm sure it's genetic -- there's a certain -- certain -- there's an ego. You know, I'm pretty thick-skinned, and I was a really -- I was a very headstrong kid. I tended to be a leader in social groups. So if anybody did present me with any sense that it was wrong to be black, I -- frankly, I would have looked down on them. I wouldn't have been able to receive it the way I get the feeling many people receive it.
To be honest, I still feel that way today, and I wish more black people did.
LAMB: This book is called "Authentically Black." What is it? And where did you get the title?
MCWHORTER: Well, I don't know where that title came from, actually, because for me, the titles are always hard, and they always come out of some -- some bizarre quick inspiration. I honestly even now -- must not have been that long ago. I don't remember how I came up with the title.
But what I mean by it is that I think nowadays, a great many black Americans are caught in a kind of a bind. There is a sense that to be authentically black, to have a kind of sophistication about your color, that your job is to emphasize black victimhood in public. Your job is -- I hate to say it, but to exaggerate the extent of your victimhood in public. And in general, when race issues come up when white people are around, you are supposed to cloak the race in tragedy and downplay the progress that has been made. The idea is that we're not all the way there, and that whites are on the hook, as it's often put. Don't let white people off of the hook.
And the reason for this is because it's often felt by many people, in a certain level of their consciousness, that if whites are let off the hook, if whites start getting too comfortable, then that will spell the death of the black community, or at least the part of the black community that's been left behind.
LAMB: When did you first start thinking like this?
MCWHORTER: Really at about 12, but it's become especially clear in my mind over about the past about two or three years. And that was just the first part. The second part is that this is not the way black people talk to each other. This is not what you hear at one of our Thanksgivings or at one of our Christmases. This victim routine is not something that the typical African-American feels in their bones. It's not something that you pass on to your children.
Most black Americans, I would venture, in private, when we're just among ourselves, sound an awful lot like Shelby Steele, sound an awful lot like Clarence Thomas. None of that stuff is difficult. Most if it is quite logical. But there's a sense that you're supposed to have a different idea when you go out in public, and that informs what we see so much of, in terms of the black presentation of the black condition.
And that's what I mean by "authentically black." There's a sense that you're not authentically black unless you are in touch with your victimhood. And while this is understandable, it creates a lot of cognitive dissonance. I think it distracts a lot of young people from educating themselves both in a literal way and in how to get along in a less than perfect but still very promising world for them. And I think that we need to address that. It's the kind of thing that needs to be given a name. It's this new black double consciousness.
I'd like to see that end. I'd like to work against that. I would like to help put a meme into our general consciousness that will spread, which identifies this and starts questioning what we really mean with our public statements. So that's the long-winded answer to that question.
LAMB: Rutgers? Your undergraduate work?
MCWHORTER: That was a brief interlude. I was at Rutgers for two years, and I got my BA there and...
LAMB: In what?
MCWHORTER: Got my BA in French because it was easy and...
LAMB: Two years?
MCWHORTER: Well, I got my AA from Simon's Rock Early College.
MCWHORTER: And then I did two more years at Rutgers.
LAMB: Because -- you took French because it was easy?
MCWHORTER: I took French because I was good at languages, and I really like languages. And I had an adviser who made me take a whole lot more languages. And so I got a degree in French, and by the end of that degree, I realized that French literature was nice, but what I really liked was languages. And after a while, I ended up becoming a linguist because of that. But if I had it to do over, I would have gotten that BA in something like history or maybe some kind of literature or maybe some kind of science. It was a rather passive degree. I got a degree in something that I was already good at, instead of challenging myself more.
LAMB: What did you do after Rutgers?
MCWHORTER: After Rutgers was NYU. I went to NYU, and I got a master's in American studies. Really, what I wanted was to be in New York City. I had fallen in love with New York because it's close to New Brunswick. And American studies was a way for me to study American popular entertainment and its history, which is something that interested me then, still interests me very much now, in an academic way. And it also enabled me to be assigned a lot more novels and a lot more history, the sorts of things I felt I had missed somewhat in getting my BA. So it was a nice degree.
I flirted with the idea of going ahead with American studies, but I really wouldn't have been very good at it. And so really, I ended up spending three years in New York City. So those were my intermediate years.
LAMB: How many languages can you speak?
MCWHORTER: Speaking is something that I don't like to lay claim to because I don't think you really speak a language unless you've lived in it for about a year. And I've never done that with a language. So I can speak various languages, but you know, badly. I can pick up a newspaper and read in 12 languages. To me, that's the skill that I've worked on. Can I pick this up and read it without having to work very hard at it? That I can do.
Speaking -- just a few days ago, I began a very strange task because I decided I am going to really speak one of these. I'm taking these Berlitz one-on-one intense Russian lessons, where they just throw you in a room and beat you up in the language for hours at a time. So next time we have an interview, I'll say that I can really speak Russian. But for now, just reading.
LAMB: Why do you want to do that?
MCWHORTER: Because it's like Mount Everest. They're there. I find it so immensely gratifying to teach myself to be able to read in and even halfway speak a language that I wasn't born with. That sort of thing has entranced me since I was young.
LAMB: What are the scope of those 12 languages that you can read?
MCWHORTER: Oh, let's see. I don't think about it much anymore. There's French and there's Spanish and there's Italian and there's Portuguese. There is German and there's Dutch and there's Swedish. There is Hebrew. There's Russian. There is Swahili. There's Japanese. And what am I leaving out? Something...
LAMB: What language…
LAMB: Which is what kind of language?
MCWHORTER: Esperanto's an artificial language that was created by a peaceful-minded gentleman in the late 1800s. And there are still Esperantists around. It's supposed to be an international language. Really, it's a kind of a watered-down Romance language, and I always just thought it was cute, really. So that one.
LAMB: You said it bothered you when Randall Robinson was giving a -- when he -- correct me -- Howard University -- was he giving the talk? No, he was at the graduation...
LAMB: ... and he heard a graduate get up and say, Thank you in French, Spanish, German, whatever.
LAMB: He was upset because she didn't speak Swahili.
MCWHORTER: Yes. Yes. His idea was that she should be speaking a language native to her. The truth is that Swahili is an east African language, and it's pretty safe to say that not a single slave brought to this country spoke Swahili. And then, of course, you get into the whole idea that it was wrong for her to speak European languages, rather than African languages. I found it a very parochial passage in the book, but...
LAMB: You're talking about his book, "Debt"?
MCWHORTER: Yes, that's "The Debt" -- his book, "The Debt" -- in favor of reparations. And in general, that book has a flaw that I see in a lot of writers' work that I perceive, which is a notion that it's the job of the authentically black person to stress a kind of allegiance with Africa, which is a romantic idea. And of course, it has a certain logic to it, but we're not Africans. It's been a very long time, and Africa is a very, very different place than the nation where we African-Americans have grown up and will never leave and know nothing else but.
You know, you think about something. This is actually -- here's a random observation. There is a -- the musical playing on Broadway right now, "Hairspray." I happened to look through the program, actually, the one on line. Almost every single black person in the cast, in their little bios, thanks God at the end. By my count, one of the whites do, and there are a lot more whites in the cast than blacks, which is to show black Americans are a very Christian people, not African religion, Christian. That alone, the language that we speak, is English. We don't speak those languages.
A lot of "The Debt" -- and not just that one because it's a common sentiment -- is based on this idea that our allegiance must be to Africans, that we must delineate ourselves as something different from other Americans. And that's based on the idea that if we don't do that, we're co-opted, that we basically just become white, and we've lost the battle. But the truth is that people like Robinson forget that white Americans are now a lot blacker than they used to be, in terms of culture, in terms of attitude, and that hybridicity is what we want. We can't have balkanization.
There are people who love that idea of the salad bowl, as opposed to the melting pot. But it's very simple. There's a very simple fact. There is not one recorded example in history or today, to my knowledge -- and I've asked a bunch of people about this who know better than me, and none of them has been able to come up with an example -- where groups of people live largely separately, rarely marrying out, in perfect peace. In any situation where you've got partitions like that -- i.e., this salad bowl -- then the reason for it is because one group is oppressing another or they are wary, caste boundaries of some kind in the culture. There's no such thing as the salad bowl except as a transition.
If we really want to get past race, getting past race doesn't mean whites will love us to death, and in the meantime, we will hunker down behind this barrier, kind of warily eyeing these people who hurt us in the past. That's not getting past race. Getting past race is, Lord forbid, all of us mixing together. Now, sometimes we don't like to talk about that because it sounds like the black person saying it doesn't like what color he is. And that's not true. We now are in our time, and I'm perfectly happy with it.
But the future is that we do have to get past it. And that means letting go of the Africa routines because, like it or not, we're right here. I like Africa. I study Africa. I am not African. I am an African-American, and I use that term because we're used to it. But I'm more of an American.
And what we have to do -- it's perfectly understandable why a lot of black people are uncomfortable with that characterization. Are you more American than you are black, or are you more black than you are American? I suspect the majority of blacks would be this one. It's understandable why that is, but we won't get past race until we get beyond that.
Now, getting white racism out of the way -- that was very important. Getting white residual racism out of the way -- that's something we can work on, although I don't think that it's a necessary condition, as many people seem to think it is. But another thing we have to get by is that we have to allow ourselves to be open to getting past race. Some of those things I cover in "Authentically Black."
LAMB: You graduated from NYU. You had a master's degree in American studies. You went from there in your education to where?
MCWHORTER: Then I went to Stanford, and Stanford is where I got my Ph.D. in linguistics. And I was there for five years, got my Ph.D. in 1993.
LAMB: How old does that make you today?
MCWHORTER: I'm 37 years old.
LAMB: And did you teach after that?
MCWHORTER: My first job was at Cornell. I had a teaching job at Cornell University, assistant professor of linguistics. Cornell was a wonderful school. Some things happened in the department then which made it a little less wonderful for me. And you know, the sun never shines in Ithaca. There are about -- there are six months where the sun never shined. To most people, that's trivial. To me, that's a problem. I moved to Berkeley, and I've been there ever since. Oversimplification. I had also done a post-doc at Berkeley, where they had gotten to know me, and I did that before I went to Cornell. But I taught at Cornell for the first year, and since then I've been at Berkeley.
LAMB: Why does someone study linguistics, besides you, who teach it today -- I mean, what kind of student do you have? And you refer in here to having groups of almost all black students from time to time.
MCWHORTER: Yes. That's a long story. Linguistics is a cover term for a whole lot of things. There are some linguists who study what kind of international genetic specification we have for language in our brains. There are some linguists who study how languages have changed over time. There are others who study how children acquire language. There are others who study how language is different from social class or social group or from gender, one gender to another. So there's a whole lot of ways of studying linguistics.
What I do is I'm kind of -- as usual, I'm neither fish nor foul. I study how language changes. I study what happens when languages come into contact. One of the aspects of this is Creole languages, which are hybrids of -- often, they are hybrids of European and African languages.
Now, the thing it, when I first went to Berkeley, I was joint-appointed between linguistics and African-American studies. That turned out to be a mistake, and so I undid that after a few years. But while I had that joint appointment -- and I should say that "Losing the Race," the book that I wrote before this, had nothing to do with it. I ended with the African-American Studies Department before, actually, I had any public presence as a race commentator.
But I during that time had classes where I would teach to students from the African-American Studies Department, and it would be but a tiny variation upon what I had also taught to white students. Then there was one year -- well, there were two years where I did a course on black musical theater history, and just for random administrative reasons, there was an all-black version and a virtually all-white version. And so that's where those comparisons came from.
LAMB: So your first radio interview came in 1996 at KPFW on an issue about the "N" word.
MCWHORTER: Yes. Yes, that's right. That was the first time I think I've ever been on the radio. It was KPFA, the local -- the...
LAMB: KPFW is what, Los Angeles?
MCWHORTER: Yes. This is -- KPFA is the...
LAMB: Pacifica radio station.
MCWHORTER: Yes, the lefty station in the Bay Area. And I did -- I talked about the "N" word.
LAMB: Why did they call you at that time? And how high a profile did you have?
MCWHORTER: Back then, nobody knew me from a hole in the ground. They called me because they -- I'm sure they decided they wanted a person who studied language who was black, which makes sense. And if you did some searching around, you would have found that there was a new young black language professor. And so then -- that must have been how it happened. And it was a little long -- a little after that that I started being consulted about the Ebonics issue from Oakland. And I'm sure even there it was, Is there a black language-oriented professor, somebody who knows something about black English? So I would be naturally the one to be found. And that's how -- that's how that began.
LAMB: So how did you get into this -- being a commentator on race?
MCWHORTER: Very slowly and not knowing it would ever come to me sitting here being interviewed by you. It just happened one step at a time. It really starts with various race episodes that happened over the years, where I just didn't agree with what everybody seemed to think that I was supposed to think. And so there was -- how did it go? There was the O.J. Simpson trial, and a caginess I noticed, many intelligent black people not wanting to just simply admit that the man murdered those two people. And then there was the Million Man March. I thought it was primitive. Only men? You know, what is this, 1900? I was embarrassed. And yet there are so many black academics who thought that it was the most fascinating and marvelous thing.
Kept my mouth shut on those two, but then came the Ebonics controversy, which was a bigger deal for me than it was for the country at large because I was there in the Berkeley-Oakland area.
LAMB: What was that? For those who didn't...
MCWHORTER: Yes. The Ebonics controversy...
LAMB: ... pay attention to it?
MCWHORTER: ... was that in late 1996, the Oakland school board let out a document which said that black students were going to be taught partly in black English, as a transition to standard English. The document was poorly written. People were almost eager to misunderstand. And so it sounded like these kids were going to be being taught in jive. The Oakland school board was dominated by people of a certain black nationalist sentiment, so they kind of dug in their heels, which made it worse. The media had a great time, partly because it was a slow news period around Christmas. So that's what that was.
I was the bad guy during that because when I got called up by the media, I told the truth. I said, I don't think that black English is the reason that there's a problem with race in education today. I said I think that the problems are sociological. And I didn't make any of my "Losing the Race" arguments about the culture. I hadn't really thought all that through yet. But I just said it's society. It has nothing to do with this dialect. And putting black English into the classroom, even though there's nothing wrong with black English, would just be a waste of resources.
That was considered a highly improper thing to say.
MCWHORTER: By all of the African-American language and education-oriented people in the industry. And I got my first hint of the "authentically black" split identity problem. I don't know how many -- well, I know how many, about three or four of the people who at that time wouldn't have been caught dead on camera or at a radio station saying anything except, Hooray for the Oakland school board, have told me, You know, John, I actually agreed with you. You know, you're right. It's not the dialect. But they wouldn't have said it on TV because they have a certain sense that when the camera's on, you do the victim routine, and you say that black kids have been denied their right to translation as bilingual. That's what you say on TV. That's the public face. Then, after a couple of drinks down in the lobby at the conference, you admit what you really think.
I really wasn't expecting that. I didn't know. I don't have that double consciousness, for various reasons. And so when the -- I was called, I told the truth. I didn't feel that I was supposed to cloak the race and victimhood as a kind of a canny strategy. So that was the third thing.
And the fourth thing, what pushed me over the edge and why I'm sitting here, is when the first class that was admitted to Berkeley without racial preferences was announced -- racial preferences had been banned a couple of years before -- first class where they had been chosen under the strictures of Proposition 209 was announced, minority -- the number of minority students had plummeted drastically. And the campus was festooned with posters, and there seemed to be a rally every day. Various people, including very smart, very seasoned older people, professors, people -- Ph.D.'s, were shouting that we were in danger of resegregation. The idea was that racism is in flower on Berkeley's campus. At the minority recruitment office, there were people in the office -- and these are black people -- black people who started telling the black prospectives that year they shouldn't come to Berkeley because Berkeley is a racist campus where the black presence is not desired. All this was going on around me.
This didn't make sense to me because, unfortunately, I had detected a major strain in the African-American students that I'd been teaching at Berkeley of lower performance that was not based on coming from poverty, which would have been too easy to even need explaining. It seemed to me there was a cultural factor, something that I had observed all of my life, never thought I would write a book that addressed. But it was there, and I thought there's a difference between a lot of the black students here and the white students. I've seen it in these classes. I've seen it with the students side by side in some classes. And I was thinking I'm not biased. I'm not making this up. There's something real here.
And I was thinking, What's the reason? Because it's not poverty. This is not societal inequity, but there's a cultural issue here. That's it. Then, in the meantime, around me, there is all of this claim that -- people are claiming all around me that SAT scores are meaningless, for example, or that the reason that black students have to be let in with lower grades and lower scores is because, essentially, black means poor, et cetera. It seemed to me to be a very false kind of debate going on.
And this really got me in my gut. It really -- I sat at a couple of meetings with concerned faculty that Chancellor Berdahl at Berkeley convened, mostly black faculty. I tried to get them to explain to me why is it that you think that middle class black students should be admitted with lower grades and scores?
And, it was clear that I had asked the wrong question, that no one was ever going to give me the answer to that question, that it was considered improper to even think about that.
It hurt me. I was thinking this is an elite college campus and this is the level of the debate and I as a young educated black person am expected to agree with this? You know somebody's going to call me up and ask me about this and I'm supposed to say that Proposition 209 was wrong?
And, it's interesting. My former advisor at Stanford, John Rickford says well that's McWhorter. Whenever he gets upset he goes off and he writes a book and that's been true of me, you know, since I was five.
And so with this one I just thought I've got to get this off my chest. Clearly, no intelligent person at Berkeley will listen to anything I have to say. I have got to keep this quiet. So, beyond the circle of my friends I thought if I'm going to say this I'm just going to write an essay and I don't usually write for no reason but I just sat down and I just wrote my feelings.
Then I kind of thought maybe I'll do something with this and I didn't know what I'd do with it and my agent, Brockman, Inc. they happen to have a Web site, and I happened to mention to my agent, actually his wife who runs the company as well, Katinka Matson, I said that I had been kind of busy over the past couple of days writing this essay that I really didn't know what I was going to do with.
And, they asked me to put it on the Web site. It got some responses. To this day sometimes people look up that Web site piece when it was really the very first thing and doesn't really represent much of what I think now.
And, then my agent said why don't you make that into a book and at first I said no and I thought who would care what some linguist thinks about race? There are a lot of people out there who sincerely believe that I wrote "Losing the Race" because I wanted to become famous and see myself on TV.
I know why they think this and I occasionally say, even to people who like me very much and I had no idea that I would ever be on "Fresh Air" or something like that and they go oh, oh. But no, it's true. I really thought these things have been said before. It's hard to sell a book out there. It's even harder to sell a non-fiction book. Nobody knows who in blazes I am.
But I said all right, I'll write it. It might be kind of therapeutic and at least it will get my views out there. I thought at least people will stop assuming as they often do that I think of myself as a victim because of the color of my skin in then what was the year 1998.
And the truth is that a specialty of word processing these days, writing is not as hard as it used to be and I write pretty fast, so I said all right. So, I researched and wrote "Losing the Race." Much to my surprise it was a minor bestseller, not a big bestseller but a minor bestseller. That thing still sells like hotcakes.
And, on the basis of that, one thing led to another and I think one issue is that with the proliferation of news channels, the news media are hungrier than they would have been 15 years ago, so once you get called on to do one show if that goes decently you get called by three or four others.
And, next thing I knew I was being asked to write for magazines. I'm certainly not going to say no, and I've taken it one step at a time. I've learned some lessons along the way. I'm still learning them. But here we are and "Authentically Black" is a collection of essays I've been writing for the "New Republic" and for "City Journal" and there are a couple of essays in there that are written just for the book because I don't think I could get anybody to actually publish them so they can just be in it.
LAMB: Which ones are they?
MCWHORTER: Those are the first two. It's explaining what the authentically black issue is. I really can't think of any magazine that would give me the space to outline that, although I think it's the most important essay in the book.
And the second one, which is about profiling. Profiling is a real problem with getting past race and my views on it are not just that black people need to get over it. We need to work on that because I personally believe that there is a such thing as abusing profiling, although I do believe that to an extent you have to profile in order to save black people from getting killed.
But it can be overdone. We do need to work on our relationship between police forces and black communities because if we don't, then really I think that's the lynchpin of the problem these days. Twenty-five years ago if you asked somebody why do you feel that the black race is victimized, then there were all sorts of things you could list that black people had never been, all there are remnants of overt discrimination, that was one thing.
Today, if you ask somebody why they believe that, then you kind of talk them out of the usual wispier objections that they'll raise. The one that they will give you is that one out of three young black men are either incarcerated or connected with the criminal justice system, and last time I checked that's true and there is a serious issue with blacks, violence, crime, abuse, cover-ups by the police.
It's been getting better over the past four or five years but in some cities we're still not there yet and that iconography, which has also been fueled by its exploitation by the hip-hop industry, is front and center in many people's minds. When you see many black people walking around talking about racism, racism, racism, like it's 1910, you ask them what they're talking about.
One of the first things that comes up is that black men cannot walk out on the street without getting harassed by the police. These stories come up again and again too frequently to not be true and very often by black men who you have no reason to think would be a criminal no matter what they were wearing.
And, that's a serious issue. Now the truth is I couldn't get anybody to print that. That's another one. You know I'm not known for writing on just politics itself. The conservatives who like me find that to be one of my weakest points and the people on the left either think of me as somebody who's completely beyond the pale or if they want me to write it wouldn't be about profiling.
I consider that to be one of the most important essays in the book. I could only end up putting it there. Actually, the Harvard African-American something review did end up printing it and that was good of them but that's of course a very obscure source. But the rest of them are all pieces that appeared in magazines and I was glad to put them between covers because I wrote these with a definite passion.
"Losing the Race" was something where I thought it would just be a once off kind of thing. I really thought that book would be long forgotten even by now. These I definitely wrote because I figured if anybody wants to know anything else I had to say here it is. It's not about education. This is all the other stuff.
The thing about this magazine is that you put an article in a magazine. People read it and it gets thrown out. The Internet helps that a little bit but this makes those more permanent.
LAMB: Let me read from your first chapter something that a reviewer said on amazon.com, and before I read it, you refer a lot to the reviews on amazon.com.
MCWHORTER: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Was there quite a debate over your "Losing the Race" book?
MCWHORTER: Yes, Amazon reviews I find interesting for my own books and other people. There's this instant referendum from ordinary people out there. It's a great barometer and I've never thought about this before but early reviews of "Losing the Race" very often they were really nasty screeds.
For some reason as time has gone on, the reviews have gotten warmer. I forget how many stars it's up to but it hasn't got two, just two stars. So there's a very mixed response to "Losing the Race" but I always find those reviews interesting.
LAMB: Here's one of them. “I'm hesitant to write this review,” this person says. “On the one hand I absolutely loved the book, "Losing the Race," despite having started hating McWhorter from what I had heard about him. As I read it I found it harder and harder to disagree with him; however, I'm worried that McWhorter's argumentation will be picked up by truly anti-black people. I'm troubled by the fact that white people who already harbor prejudices against African-Americans now have yet another weapon.” Why did you put that in your book?
MCWHORTER: That is a perfect gem of a review. It sums up how a lot of intelligent African-Americans feel about telling the truth in public. I love that one.
That one shows that there are a lot of people out there who sense that there is this backlash coming, that because you still hear of somebody getting called nigger at some truck stop or wherever that there are these incidents, that if you open the paper you find evidence that there are still idiots out there, that we're always in danger of returning to the past, that we still are in a jungle out here.
And, therefore, this person reads "Losing the Race" and sees that it's really full of very ordinary insights. I always say that. There's not a bit of genius in that book, very ordinary insights, but he would rather that not get out there.
And, my response to people like that is to consider there have been black conservatives, if that's really what I am, who have been prominent now for especially a good 15 years, and Shelby Steele and in his previous incarnation Glenn Loury and Tom Sowell even further before, these people who are well known as black conservatives and they were saying these things very much in public. They were on TV. Shelby Steele had a best selling book that won the National Book Award.
They heard all the sorts of things that I sometimes hear. People have said what that reviewer said to them all the time. And you wonder, throughout the '90s what happened? You know did the floor fall out from under African-Americans because of these people?
Now many people would say yes, affirmative action is threatened, but then the way I feel is that racial preferences, as opposed to class based preferences, racial preferences being on the rope is a good thing and I am going to fight until my dying day to get that kind of ethos out of our system.
So, if that's happened, I consider that good and then making welfare a time limited program that gives people work rather than just a license to stay on the goal for the rest of your life, I think welfare reform is good. You have to have some welfare but what's been happening to it? It's a messy process but that's good.
So, those two things I would fight for, so it's not that these terrible things happened to the black community and I didn't know that they were going to happen. As far as I'm concerned is Shelby and Glenn and all of the others have had anything to do with those things then that's good. Ward Connerly in that respect for me is a hero.
Now then there are other things. In the meantime, we have three black CEOs. The mayor of Atlanta is a black woman. There are all sorts of things going on all over the country that would look like a different universe to somebody from even 1970.
The black middle class gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Race stays on the radar screen in terms of how a politician can get elected. Black studies departments continue to exist. During the '90s, the Harvard African-American Studies Department became a center of black intellectual thought and so on and so on.
Lots of great things happened, not to mention that actually the inner cities, many of them are still hell holes but they're not as hideous as they used to be. Things are very slowly beginning to happen in inner city communities partly because of the efforts of black people who don't get enough attention and that's why I have a leadership article late in "Authentically Black."
LAMB: Let me ask you just about that leadership.
LAMB: Al Sharpton, “But above all the academic is dedicated to seeking truth and Al Sharpton is quite simply an inveterate liar.”
MCWHORTER: That's it.
LAMB: Your words.
MCWHORTER: That's what I meant. For me whenever I see Al Sharpton I see a liar. Until he admits that he lied about Tawana Brawley in clear English in a major national venue, when I look at him I see a liar and for him to try to expand his national profile, such as he's doing now by running for president, is an embarrassment to the race because it makes it look like somebody who is an inveterate sandbox, self-aggrandizing, nakedly cynical liar like that is annointable as among the best of us. If one of us is going to run for president he should not even be considered in the running.
Now, on the other hand, he's also really not a very important figure, especially outside of New York City. Yes, he's a liar until he admits and if he did admit it about Tawanna Brawley, I would be more positively disposed towards him but what he did is like some fifth grade tattle tale hold out, liar, Al Sharpton, liar. So, that's what I think of that particular individual.
LAMB: "Jesse Jackson has no effect on the lives of most black people."
MCWHORTER: Jackson doesn't upset me as much as he upsets a lot of people because again he's just not an issue. The Rainbow Coalition is not a bunch of multi hued kids drawn in crayon like in one of those 1970s posters holding hands and rocking back and forth, somehow subsidized by Jesse Jackson's something. That's not what it is.
It's really these days just a way for Jackson to line his pockets and those of his friends. He had a book out with his son not long ago called, if I'm not mistaken, "It's all About the Money." So, it is for him. He's not an effective civil rights leader. I'm not sure if he ever was but today it's exactly unclear what he leads. He's not an issue.
LAMB: What about Cornel West?
MCWHORTER: Fine academic. I was very disappointed by his turning tail and running when his competence was questioned. The Cornel West issue last year came down for me to one simple thing. If for ten years you are an academic and you haven't written what most would consider an academic book, i.e. a peer reviewed volume probably unreadable by the general public. That's what academics do.
If you have not done that for about ten years and somebody asks you are you going to return to serious work? There are various things you can do. Cornel West may very well have decided I am too busy fulfilling my duties of a public figure to do that right now but believe me I'll get back to it. That would be understandable.
Now, as it turns out at the time he was indeed working on three intellectual academic books but he didn't say that. Instead, he ended up crying racism and going to another school and the message that I saw in that was that if an African-American scholar is subject to any kind of serious criticism from another powerful figure than that's racist and that you run.
It seems to me that black strength would have meant that he told Larry Summers listen I'm writing three academic books right now. You know here, maybe here's a manuscript, or maybe that would have been demeaning. I'm writing them. I'm insulted that you would even ask me about this and you can imagine what I can imagine him saying, and then going back to his study and working on those books and staying at Harvard and the media should never have learned about it.
It seemed to me that there was a new double consciousness there. Cornel West, I don't think would be genuinely insulted by that man. He's too powerful a figure to be insulted by this person who's just come to the university sitting there and asking him these questions.
Cornel West has never given me an indication of being that fragile. That's not the sense that you get but he felt that in public he was supposed to play victim and he did and I just found it a very disappointing episode myself.
LAMB: What do you think of Henry Louis Gates and the African-American Studies Program at Harvard?
MCWHORTER: Gates is fine with me. I don't know his academic group but of course I follow his journalistic pieces. I actually am now acquainted with him and he's a fine person. The African-American Studies Department at Harvard is definitely one of the best ones. I gave some talks there this fall as a matter of fact and smart, smart, smart, smart.
LAMB: How did they treat you?
MCWHORTER: They treated me very well and I think that's something because given the fact that as Skip once put it, it's so easy to toe-tag someone like me. They were actually very nice and very open-minded. Most of the course offerings in their department definitely lean left. They're not unique in that in terms of just our general academic culture but they were open, and yet they weren't fawning.
And so I gave a talk there about my vision of how inner cities formed, not really their politics and they let me know what they thought was wrong, which I wanted, but then on the other hand there was none of the gratuitous hostility. So, yes, good things.
LAMB: We covered you on "Losing the Race" at a bookstore and there was a little hostility in the room. I mean some of the people got up and I wanted to ask you about hostility. How often do you find people won't invite you to a campus? Black groups won't want to hear what you have to say or they are hostile to your face when you're making a presentation.
MCWHORTER: Well, you know, actually the truth is that I take a lot less of that than you might think. Generally, the response to "Losing the Race" has been very warm.
LAMB: What year was that?
MCWHORTER: That year - I'm not...
LAMB: What year was "Losing the Race" is what I meant?
MCWHORTER: "Losing the Race" was 2000. I'm not sure which bookstore. Oh, oh you mean Marcus Bookstore in Oakland. Yes, that was a tense session. But really I get so much love mail about "Losing the Race" that -- and I mean from black people.
LAMB: And what does that really say? What's that book about?
MCWHORTER: "Losing the Race" is basically an outline of a kind of cognitive dissidence as I perceived it in the black community at that point and basically I say that there's a tendency to exaggerate victim-hood and that the reason that -- and the fact that we do this tends to encourage a kind of a separatist sentiment among many of us, especially a feeling that black people are subject to different rules.
Then, I said that that separatist feeling tends to give black kids, in particular, a sense that school is for people other than them and there was a lot of school in it, so that was what "Losing the Race" was. And actually, I have encountered less hostility than you would expect.
Very rarely do I have anyone approach me in a hostile way, only one or two times and, you know, sure there's the occasional hate mail and people say things about me behind my back. But in general, I think that a lot of the things I say are things that most black people think on some level.
I just hope that I can define deviance downward so to speak and get us all used to telling the truth in public because I think it's part of our coming together.
LAMB: Are you still teaching at Stanford?
MCWHORTER: Berkeley, actually.
LAMB: I mean, sorry, Berkeley.
MCWHORTER: Yes, I'm on leave. I get them mixed up sometimes too. I'm on leave this year. I'm working in New York as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. I'm writing full time. But yes, I'm still at Berkeley and I'll be staying there.
LAMB: What is the Manhattan Institute and why are you doing that?
MCWHORTER: The Manhattan Institute is a think tank right of center but not hard right, which is the way I like it, and they publish a magazine called "City Journal" which I have been writing for, and they are basically this year allowing me to work with them.
They're also very good at getting all of we fellows at the Manhattan Institute media exposure, which is important if you want to get your message out there. And, I decided that I wanted to do something like that for a year. I'm also writing a new book, not about race, so it's a book that's required so much research that I would have had a hard time researching it and writing it in a real way while also teaching.
LAMB: What's it about?
MCWHORTER: This new book, it's about - the topic is so dull when you explain it but it's actually a fun book to read. It's about how, especially over the past about 15 years, our use of language has become more informal in all spheres and so you listen to speeches made by politicians in 1930. It sounds like Cicero.
Or you look at just a letter that somebody wrote to a friend, an informal letter, written in a kind of prose that today most undergraduates couldn't pull off. Or, the role that poetry used to play in middle brow America versus the role that it doesn't now.
All these things are interesting and it's a book that gives me a way of doing pop culture and history and language and personal anecdotes at the same time.
LAMB: You say in your book that you love TV.
MCWHORTER: I do.
LAMB: That you watch a lot of television, and you say that blacks watch on average of one of the surveys, 70 hours of television a week and whites 46 hours of television a week.
MCWHORTER: One survey said that yes.
LAMB: Why the disparity? That's a lot of difference.
MCWHORTER: I don't know why to tell you the truth.
LAMB: Do you think it's true?
MCWHORTER: Yes, anecdotally that is my sense. It was my sense growing up in particular that black people watch more TV, that we were more likely to leave the TV on while company was over and things like that. Yes.
LAMB: You know that's ten hours a day.
MCWHORTER: That's a lot of TV. Some of it is class. I mean I think that a lot of that statistic might come from the class skew in the black community more towards lower than there is in the white community. But we always watched a lot of TV, pretty good TV. We didn't watch schlock TV.
Like we watched Norman Lear sitcoms. We weren't watching the "Six Million Dollar Man," but still it was still TV, but I grew up suckled on it and I've never really been able to let it go.
LAMB: Why did you write about it in your book?
MCWHORTER: Here in the book the point about TV is that I take one book as a springboard for a general point which is that we tend -- there's a kind of an industry in academia towards finding how anything any African-American has ever done on TV or film is a stereotype.
It's a very nimble game that you can go into. Anybody is a stereotype somehow. If you've got light skin then you're the tragic mulatto. If you're black and you're angry then you're the angry black man. If you're black and you're nice and adjusted, then you're a little bit too docile. If you are a black woman who's rather dark and not exactly small, then you're mammy all over again.
I've actually heard it said that if you're a black man and you're kind of portly, well then that means if you're playing a character with children that there's a new stereotype the pappy. And you see undergraduates just put through this sort of thing.
I think it goes too far because some really great work by black people ends up getting narrowed into this really rather self effacing and I think often inaccurate paradigm. And so, Donald Bogle wrote a book called "Prime Time Blues" for his thesis is that black people are still playing the same stereotypes on television that they were forced into in minstrel shows.
In 1955, yes. To say that about what you can actually see turning the TV on and watching black people do on TV now, nonsense, and it's also nonsense in terms of a black presence in film today.
And yet, as recently as this would have been two years ago, a black professor, a very sober and intelligent man said when I asked him, so what kind of racism does kind of -- what do you encounter every day or every week, I forget which I asked him? And he said well, for example, the portrait of black people in films.
He's parroting something that made sense in 1976. That's not true anymore and I'm afraid, you know, people are afraid of what my influence is going to be. I'm afraid he's going to teach young people how to think that way. So, that's what that chapter is about.
LAMB: Your father died you said in 1996.
LAMB: What kind of a guy was he?
MCWHORTER: I talk about my mother so much. Nobody ever asked about him. My father, Bill Cosby could plausibly play him if my father had been a famous man. He had that feel to him but not so goofy.
He technically had a Master's degree in education but culturally, sociologically he wasn't an educated man but he was good at educating himself on the things that he wanted to teach himself. He was a media bug and so he helped with the TV habit.
He also taught me old radio. He played "Fibber McGee and Molly" once when I was 13. It was just this amazing thing to me, you know, these people clapping and there's no picture. And so, he got me into that.
He was a very good musician and he gave me music. He taught me how to do stride with the left hand. He always made it seem like you weren't quite a man if you couldn't do the stride, so I learned how to do the stride.
LAMB: Do you play piano?
MCWHORTER: Yes and he -- I put myself through -- I shouldn't say put myself through. I made pocket change in graduate school by playing cocktail piano for parties and things like that, still miss doing it. I don't have time now.
But, yes, dad was cool. Dad was -- my sister and my father are the same person in that way, cool. I'm my mother, hot. I get upset easily, et cetera. And so that was dad. Dad gave me whatever style and dad was the -- I'm losing my words but dad gave me a certain ethos. I'm more my mother's child in a lot of ways but that was dad.
The primary parent was my mother, however, so I don't have a story of dad who made the money and dad who always taught me A, B, and C. He made a lot less money and he tended to really just kind of sit there.
LAMB: Did your parents stay together all through their marriage?
MCWHORTER: It's a long story but suffice it to say that they shouldn't have and when I was grown up they did finally split up.
LAMB: Now, your mother, what does she think of what's happened to you? I don't mean that negatively but of all you've come to write about and talk about, what does she think about that?
MCWHORTER: Well, it's an awkward question. My mother had an aneurysm about 15 years ago and it had mental effects such that today she is not in a positive to engage text in that way. I think that if that were not the case my mother and I would have some problems because mom, God love her, was a victimologist. Part of why I know the mind set so well is because I grew up with it and I grew up being taught it.
Mom also grew up in a different era. She grew up in the segregated deep south, so her views made perfect sense. My point in "Losing the Race" and all my writings is that we've carried something beyond when it's useful, not that it didn't make sense at a certain point.
But mom frankly was not a great fan of white people and she very much taught me how to see the world in color. She very explicitly told me I want you to think in a sociological perspective. And, I remember one summer she gave me a textbook. She would make me read big stuff. She made me read "Roots." "Roots" was four million pages long. I had to read it at ten, every word. I still remember it.
And, one day she gave me this textbook, which I now know was a highly leftist sociology textbook. She said, when I was 14, it's time for you to know these things. It's summer. You've got time.
Read this and it's this tone explaining the military industrial complex and societal inequity and she said you learn best from the page so you're going to read it and don't fake it because I'm going to ask you about all the chapters. That's the sort of person that she was.
I don't know. My mother sometimes writes me little notes where she says that she's reading "Losing the Race." Her condition is such that I don't think that reading could be very productive but she says she's very proud of me.
In real life, she may have been embarrassed or maybe as time went on, because my mother was somebody who knew how to cut through the BS, maybe as time went on she would have gotten tired of the victim routine and seen that it had outlived its purpose. Maybe she would have understood the book.
My father would have eaten it up. He had no use for the Al Sharpton kind of routine. It's too bad that he passed before the book came because he would have enjoyed seeing the attention that it got.
LAMB: What about your sister?
MCWHORTER: Holly is -- Holly is like my father. She's cooler than me.
LAMB: What does she think of what you're saying?
MCWHORTER: She agrees with a lot of it and to the extent that she doesn't, it doesn't upset her because she's a cooler head than I am. But she likes it. She gets it. Holly goes more to the left than I do.
She's more inclined to stick with: “this is why that happens and it can't be helped,” as opposed to me where I say: “yes, that's why it happens but if that's why, we have to stop pointing to ‘whitie’ all the time.” For me I can't help but rage on to that part.
She is less excitable than I am but she's fine with it, so we don't have any strains. Holly read most of the original manuscript of "Losing the Race" and I have always said that she helped to keep me sane. She reined me in in some places and that was a good thing.
LAMB: Here's the cover of the book. It's called "Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority." Our guest has been John McWhorter and we thank you very much.
MCWHORTER: Thank you.
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