On a Friday evening in April, a grudgingly civil crowd of sixty UC Berkeley students and education professionals gathered in a campus lecture hall and prepared to consider whether John McWhorter, a Cal linguistics professor and author of the new book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, is a jerk. The ostensible topic may have been McWhorter’s thesis that the greatest barrier to African-American scholastic achievement is a notion of black authenticity that regards intellectual pursuits as at best incidental, and at worst something that white people do. But the real question was the young professor’s likeability.
McWhorter was game enough to stand before the crowd and make his case, but he did little to endear himself to the gathering. Eschewing the rumpled tweed of the academy, he opted for a suit more befitting a Broadway premiere; in place of a tie, he wore a black mock turtleneck neatly framed by a sleek, angular gray sportcoat. With his cultivated poise, a melodious, opera-trained voice that carried his meticulously standard English to the back of the hall, and prominent eyes that rolled toward the heavens whenever he considered a well-placed point, he gave the less generous attendees every opportunity to imagine him a dilettante playing at scholarship, an intellectual paladin, or in McWhorter’s stock phrase, an “oreo cookie.” Squaring off against him was Berkeley’s very own Pedro Noguera, recently departed for Harvard, who slashed away at McWhorter’s arguments to the delight of the assembly. McWhorter would later characterize the event as a leftist pep rally convened to “ridicule the baby-faced professor.”
Indeed, some questions from audience members were clearly designed to draw blood; one attendee likened McWhorter to Booker T. Washington, and another suggested that the young professor was merely repulsed by the color of his own skin. But even before the grilling started, McWhorter’s own presentation was peppered with defensive asides about the myriad attacks on his character he has had to endure in the last year.
This isn’t the only time that McWhorter’s speaking gigs have wandered from the subject. At a recent talk before the Independent Institute, an Oakland-based think tank, McWhorter was the very picture of defensiveness; while addressing a polite crowd of elderly white conservatives — perhaps the most receptive audience he has had to date — McWhorter squirmed as if he were surrounded by Kweisi Mfume’s bodyguard. As he ran through a list of slings and arrows that have been launched his way (“another thing they say about me is…”), the actual ideas presented in his book were eclipsed by the figure of McWhorter himself. His notions about race and education were somehow no longer the issue at hand, having taken a back seat to the saga of John McWhorter, the embattled black conservative valiantly struggling to uphold the tradition of the academy as a place where ideas can rise and fall based upon their merits, even as an army of intolerant liberals burn him in effigy on the steps of Sproul Plaza.
How interesting, then, to discover that McWhorter is one of those liberals.
Before McWhorter’s latest book garnered national attention and transformed him into a darling of the right, one of his most significant political acts was to vote for Ralph Nader — twice. “I couldn’t vote for Gore, because he would have made no effort to create genuine improvement in minority education,” he says. “Bush is not an intelligent man, and I’m not a Republican; I am in favor of the environment, and small government is not an important concept for me. Nader’s point that the parties are insufficiently different and in the pockets of corporations is true, and that was the only thing [in the campaign] that hit me in my gut.” McWhorter opposes energy deregulation and the recent challenge to Miranda, holds the New Deal close to his heart, and regards Clarence Thomas as an incompetent token. He even sits on the fence when it comes to that most progressive of prescriptions, rent control. As McWhorter describes it, he is a “centrist Democrat who can’t stand the way Democrats think about black people.”
If he were to sum up his ideological profile, McWhorter would undoubtedly say he is a liberal iconoclast whose career in higher education has led him to expose a certain complacency in the approach of liberal intellectuals to African-American underachievement. His closest white approximation might be Christopher Hitchens: hailing from a progressive tradition (McWhorter’s mother was a civil rights activist); moving toward more libertarian notions as he matures; and being something of a showboater, writing short, punchy broadsides that delight in skewering sacred cows. But while Hitchens can savage Mother Teresa and turn on Bill Clinton at the most vulnerable point in his administration — while only enhancing his reputation as an independent yet fundamentally progressive thinker — McWhorter’s choice of subjects has not allowed him such flexibility. You cannot write about race in this country, it seems, without exposing your deepest moral character to scrutiny.
In the ten months between the start of his book tour promoting Losing the Race and his appearance before the Independent Institute, John McWhorter underwent a process of profound public exposure, during which he found the question of what kind of man he really is being actively debated. The book reviews, newspaper profiles, public debates, and, most importantly, his numerous television appearances became a crucible in which a public image of McWhorter as another Shelby Steele or Thomas Sowell was shaped. Slowly but steadily, this linguistics professor with a flair for the dramatic was transformed into a contrarian celebrity ideologue. With every irate black intellectual who heralded his book as a betrayal to the race, with every cable talk-show producer who programmed his number into his speed-dial figuring sometime he’d need to book a right-wing black, the figure of John McWhorter the conservative talking head was advanced a little further. And McWhorter himself collaborated in this process; booked into an eight-minute shoutfest with Julianne Malveaux, he must cringe and feel himself being unfairly pigeonholed — but he’s also watched his Amazon.com numbers shoot through the roof.
McWhorter’s book is selling vigorously, but the price he has had to pay is steep, both in terms of the enemies he has made, and the friends he is dismayed to learn he has. As George Will, the Washington Times, and even a conservative South African newspaper called the Natal Witness sing his praises, McWhorter is left to sit in his North Oakland apartment and wonder whether this notoriety will ever subside long enough for him to breathe again.
John McWhorter is a man who loves language (he is proficient in several, in addition to his credentials as a linguistics professor), Russian novels, opera, and turn-of-the-century black musical theater, (he teaches a course on the subject that by all accounts is quite fascinating). He also loves TV, and this can prove awkward when, to prove a point, he blithely refers to black sit-com characters — somebody named “Erkel,” for instance — as if everyone is as conversant in pop culture as he is. Raised in the Philadelphia suburb of Mount Airy, he did his undergraduate work at Rutgers University and has a doctorate from Stanford. In light of his ambivalence about affirmative action (he opposes it in education, but favors it in employment), some critics have pointed out that it was Stanford’s own affirmative-action policies that got him in the door, to which he replies that the accompanying psychological burden of being a quota baby has always stuck in his craw. Perhaps that’s true, but there is no doubt that McWhorter is entirely comfortable with his image of himself as a very smart man.
“I can’t win, so I’ll just have to say it — I’m a very fast writer,” he says. “It’s probably my biggest talent. Losing the Race did not take much effort to write. Most people think I must have poured over two years into writing it, but it was really a rather brief gesture, a sideline to my regular career…. The book was motivated deep down by the fact that as much as I wanted to be more a part of the black community than I was, whenever a race issue came up, I wasn’t thinking like most black people I knew. I found myself deeply irritating black people again and again. And it made me sad, because I grew up around black people, a lot more than my speech and demeanor suggest. There’s a sense of home for me among black people, [but when it comes to race and education], there’s an undigested consensus which is passively fed to students. It’s not that anyone’s trying to indoctrinate students; rather, everyone just assumes that that’s the only way to think.”
McWhorter’s private frustration crystallized during the controversy that surrounded the Oakland school board’s “Ebonics” resolution in late 1996. As a black linguist, McWhorter’s opposition to using black language structure as the primary means to communicate with Oakland’s African-American school kids made him a minor celebrity. “I could barely get through a meal without the likes of NPR, Dateline NBC, talk-radio shows all over the country, or the New York Times calling,” he writes in Losing the Race, “and over the next few weeks was quoted even in Europe.” But McWhorter claims that his colleagues hounded him as a heretic for daring to express views that they all privately shared. “While agreeing in private that the ‘bilingual’ approach [to African-American students advocated by the Oakland school board] is not necessary, such people share a basic conviction that the black-white scholastic lag is due in some way to the absence of Black English from the typical school curriculum,” he continues. “Thus the sense of a communal mission against racist inequity leads them to publicly remain in staunch support of ‘addressing the educational needs of African-American children,’… [and] my having expressed anything except support for the Oakland school board was processed as highly unsavory, even to people who essentially agreed with my public statements.”
Eventually, McWhorter decided to write an article expressing how irritated he was by such lockstep thinking. The article quickly grew into an omnibus soapbox for every pet peeve he had about black attitudes about racism, white America, and education: the seeming uniformity with which black leaders overhype every isolated hate crime while quietly neglecting the epidemic of black underachievement; the constant search for evidence of racism and hatred, as if his racial compatriots were addicted to the gratification of shaming white people and wrapping the mantle of victimhood around their own shoulders; the teasing he and other bookish kids endured. Before he knew it, the article had grown into a book, and Losing the Race was born.
McWhorter’s book opens with one of the sillier moments of 1999, a bizarre scandal that briefly transfixed Washington, DC — not the Washington of Beltway and K Street, but Marion Barry’s Washington. Mayor Barry’s successor Anthony Williams had just been elected, and many wondered if this wonkish, modest, responsible man was “black enough” to relate to his constituents as intimately as his predescessor. In January, Williams’ white ombudsman remarked during a staff meeting that “I will have to be niggardly with this fund.” That “niggardly” is a Scandinavian word whose etymology has nothing to do with the racial epithet was irrelevant; the mere phonetic similarity caused enough of a furor to prompt the ombudsman’s resignation, which Williams quickly accepted. “Black talk radio was abuzz with indignation, almost unanimously in support of Williams’ decision,” McWhorter writes. “A former president of the National Bar Association, a mostly black group, was uncompelled by the fact that the word is not a racial slur, fuming, ‘Do we really know where the Norwegians got the word?'”
This is the sort of thing that drives McWhorter nuts, displaying what he sees as an almost ritualized need among African Americans to expose a deep hatred that they just know white people still keep in their hearts, a hatred that is just barely held in check by contemporary social conventions, but always waits for a chance to surreptitiously express itself. “Black Americans too often teach one another to conceive of racism not as a scourge on the wane but as an eternal pathology changing only in form and visibility,” he writes. “The basic sentiment that racism still lurks in every corner led naturally to a sense that the use of a word that even sounds like nigger was a grievous insult, in alluding to a raw, relentless oppression and persecution still beleaguering the black community from all sides.” McWhorter argues that racism is less an unbearable burden for the modern black community than an annoying inconvenience, one that cannot reasonably be seen as the source of every African-American social problem. Searching high and low for this elusive, malignant spirit, McWhorter believes, ignores a much more pernicious attitude within the black community itself, a wariness to engage with the rest of the nation, which inevitably keeps African Americans from accomplishing everything they could.
Such pointed criticism is always a dicey affair, and McWhorter certainly doesn’t flinch when he levels it. Indeed, he sometimes goes out of his way to get a rise out of readers who, he supposes, regard any departure from conventional thinking about race as heresy. Nowhere is this more evident than in McWhorter’s nomenclature of African-American intellectual pathologies, which he identifies as the “Cult of Victimology,” the “Cult of Separatism,” and the “Cult of Anti-Intellectualism.” Over the years, he argues, blacks have slowly come to see their status as victims of a historic injustice not as a problem to overcome, but an identity to be nurtured. Laboring in the shadow of this so-called “Cult of Victimology,” blacks allow themselves to see the world as a grand conspiracy to keep them impoverished and dependent; indeed, they actually take comfort in such conspiracies and self-indulgently nurse an indignant righteousness. McWhorter demonstrates this Cult of Victimology by describing a number of “articles of faith,” which combine to construct a world that is arrayed against African Americans: that there is an epidemic of arson attacks on black churches; that the CIA is smuggling crack into South Central Los Angeles; that the disproportionate number of black inmates is due to a racist justice system, etc. In fact, McWhorter claims, most of these assertions are either simply untrue, or can be chalked up to race-neutral factors (during the ’90s, for example, six hundred white churches burned annually for every fifteen black churches).
If blacks are spending a lot of energy nurturing an oppressed self-image, McWhorter believes, they almost studiously avoid any engagement with mainstream culture and regard it as foreign and hostile. This, he contends, results in a crippling and self-defeating refusal to enjoy some of the greatest works of literature or music ever produced, merely because it is a product of Western Civilization. “This alienates many black people from some of the most well-wrought, emotionally stirring work, art, and ideas that humans have produced, miring the race in a parochialism that clips its spiritual wings,” McWhorter writes. Finally — and crucially — McWhorter finds a Cult of Anti-Intellectualism within black culture which subtly imposes upon young African Americans a “cultural disconnect” between their lives and academic achievement. Thanks to this disconnect, he says, black students place no value upon intellectual pursuit for its own sake, regarding it as at best a means to get money, power, or respect. There’s no room, he asserts, for the sheer love of learning, for pursuing a fascination with fractal geometry or baroque architecture for its own sake. Instead, McWhorter believes that the Cult of Anti-Intellectualism teaches black students that intellectual curiosity is incompatible with black identity, and anyone who displays it is to be regarded with suspicion.
At this point, McWhorter is hardly at odds with many educational theorists; Pedro Noguera himself has complained about the low cultural value black Berkeley High students and parents place on education. Where he and McWhorter part company is when he confronts McWhorter’s insistence that it is this attitude, not impoverished, overcrowded schools or the shortage of black teachers, that plays the most significant role in undermining black educational performance. Citing the conundrum of Shaker Heights (a diverse Ohio suburb whose middle-class black students perform as poorly as residents of the most squalid ghetto), McWhorter argues that until African Americans purge from their souls this disinclination to study with passion, they will always be mired in mediocrity. (In the chapters that advance this argument, McWhorter cites my writing about Berkeley High in the pages of this paper.)
There’s no doubt that Losing the Race is pretty explosive stuff, but despite its thesis and the calculated baiting that pervades the text (describing poet June Jordan as a “sensationalist cultural demagogue,” for example), McWhorter’s book is actually grounded in a relatively liberal context. Here, for instance, is a typical passage on the roots of the problem McWhorter is addressing: “When a race is disparaged and disenfranchised for centuries and then abruptly given freedom, a ravaged self-image makes Victimology and Separatism natural developments.” At no time does McWhorter give in to the impulse to attribute his various “cults” to the disingenuousness of black leaders, as do writers like Shelby Steele and David Horowitz. And he devotes a considerable amount of space to decrying police brutality, which he regards as the last great vestige of racism in America. In short, there is no reason for the careful reader to mistake Losing the Race for a conservative tract aimed at cashing in on the misery of African Americans. But over the course of ten months, McWhorter’s work came to be seen as exactly that. And this hasn’t merely been the result of progressive reviewers denouncing his work; it is also the result of right-wing thinkers who think they see in John McWhorter a fellow traveler.
In truth, McWhorter knows that he can’t protest too loudly at this misrepresentation of his work. In June of 2000, when he sat down with his publicist and plotted a strategy to capture national media attention, they quickly decided that the easiest way to grab headlines was simply to tweak liberal intellectuals and wait for them to howl. “[My publicist] put together a press packet that excerpted the most provocative statements from the book,” McWhorter says. “Do black people need to get over racism, are black children the main agents of their failure in school, that sort of thing. It was designed to basically make a good lefty angry, to make my book look controversial in order to get it on the radio and create controversy. There was a lot of aiming at black radio stations as well, because, of course, the typical black radio station wants to have me on so people will call in furious, because it’s good for their advertisers.”
His publicist had the author send a few similarly provocative op-ed submissions to the Washington Post and the New York Times. Their strategy hit pay dirt when Time Magazine took the bait. In its August 7 edition, Time columnist Jack White hit McWhorter hard in a piece titled “Are Blacks Biased Against Braininess?” “It’s a safe bet that a new book by John McWhorter … will make him a hero to the black-bashing crowd,” White wrote. “McWhorter says he’s uncomfortable being associated with authors acclaimed by white conservatives and slammed by many blacks — but hey, it goes with the territory. If you’re a self-described ‘proper-talking black guy who’s had all the advantages,’ you’ve got to expect other blacks to be outraged when you claim that being a ‘culturally authentic’ African American dooms you to being a dunce.”
“The review in Time magazine was the kickoff,” McWhorter says, “That article made the book.” Once White’s column hit the stands, McWhorter’s publicist was peppered with interview requests, including a short segment with Fox News prime- time talk-show host Bill O’Reilly, who takes particular pleasure in hounding Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other black leaders. Also on the phone was none other than Diane Sawyer, who asked McWhorter to appear on Good Morning America and chew over his book with a few critics and a roundtable of everyday black folks pulled off the streets of New York. The segment lasted twenty minutes or so, after which McWhorter wearily continued to debate his detractors off camera.
McWhorter had no idea what the consequences of appearing on Good Morning America might be, but he hoped it might lead to some invitations from other topical news shows. Still, he was baffled when he got his next big request: the producers of the ABC late-night show Politically Incorrect wanted McWhorter to sit down and trade quips with host Bill Maher.
Anyone who has watched Politically Incorrect more than once may walk away with the impression that the show follows a carefully scripted formula: Maher sits down with two or three Hollywood mavens, and together they do entertaining double-takes as a fringe conservative pundit says something outrageous. That, at least, was the formula that Maher’s producers described to McWhorter — and this time, they wanted him to be that conservative. “They were quite explicit that that was their game plan,” McWhorter says. “The episode taped just before mine was [conservative pundit] Larry Elder, who was jumped by the three people he was with.” Notwithstanding McWhorter’s discomfort at being associated with Elder — a man whose politics he hardly shares — what particularly struck McWhorter that September night was that the show’s producers didn’t want him to talk about race and education, or for that matter, about any of the topics covered in his book. Instead, they wanted him to denounce rap music, a subject that doesn’t once come up in Losing the Race.
“My job that night was to speak out against hip-hop, specifically the violence that erupted at the Source Awards,” McWhorter says. “I told them that I don’t have anything against hip-hop, and they said, ‘well, still….’ I was on Politically Incorrect for the very human reason that who wouldn’t want to be on Politically Incorrect, at least once? At the time, it just seemed fun and flattering.” During the commercial breaks, McWhorter says, producers scrambled up to him and whispered, “You’re doing great, but don’t be afraid to jump in and mix it up a bit, interrupt people.” In response, McWhorter tried to spice up the show by suggesting that his fellow guest, rap artist Coolio, was throwing responsibility for hip-hop violence onto “whitey,” but the show clearly belonged to Coolio, who flirted and mugged for the camera. “Coolio actually said to me during a break in the taping, ‘I’m pretending to disagree with you more than I do to make good television,'” McWhorter recalls.
After the airing of Politically Incorrect, McWhorter’s image as a black conservative was beginning to filter out more subtle readings of his book even as his visibility took a sharp upswing. In September, a Los Angeles television producer called McWhorter; he was putting together a nationally syndicated talk show with a Crossfire format, in which a conservative and a liberal fight over the issues of the day, and would McWhorter care to audition for the conservative role? (McWhorter promptly declined.) On November 29, the online magazine Salon published a critical review of his book by Trey Ellis, who wrote, “McWhorter reminds us of what every other black conservative has been reminding us of for decades…. [He] and his ideological forefathers Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell feel that a passive sense of whiny self-pity so pervades most of the rest of us black people that we’ve stopped trying to excel and instead wait around for whites to give us things.” A January 3 Washington Post profile of McWhorter quoted Ishmael Reed calling him a “hustler” and continuing, “You have these academics who are removed from the African-American community who use anecdotes and gross generalizations to make a career for themselves…. He is sort of like a rent-a-black person.”
But not everyone was so eager to dismiss McWhorter as another black conservative. In the December issue of the Washington Monthly, Jim Sleeper reviewed McWhorter’s book and warned against the tendency to regard those who break with liberal orthodoxy as merely having joined “the other side.” Calling McWhorter a “political maverick,” Sleeper pointedly distinguished him from Thomas Sowell and concluded, “McWhorter’s provocative contribution may not escape the ‘racial conservative’ epithet…. But Losing the Race is rigorous and substantial enough to accelerate the long overdue transformation of our racial discourse.”
During this time, McWhorter kept perversely reinforcing impressions of himself as a conservative by writing essays for outfits like City Journal, the organ of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. On January 7, McWhorter scored perhaps his biggest coup, appearing on Fox News Sunday with Talk of the Nation host Juan Williams and Brit Hume, the network’s most stentorian and dignified anchor. The eight minutes he spent hobnobbing with the cable equivalent of Sam ‘n’ Cokie irrevocably cemented his image as a black conservative in the mind of the public, even as the scene he encountered at the Beltway studio drove home to McWhorter just how weird things were becoming. Once again, the producers of the show were asking him to comment on something other than the subject of his book, presuming that McWhorter would happily offer a conservative perspective on anything related to race. “I was asked to come on Fox News Sunday to talk about the Bush election [and the Congressional Black Caucus],” he says. “That was a little out of left field, and I turned them down at first, because that’s not what my book is about. But they begged and pleaded, and the sweetener was that Juan Williams would be on, and as a good lefty I listen to NPR, so I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind meeting Juan Williams.'”
Soon after McWhorter arrived in the studio, aides ushered him into the dressing room and began applying a layer of makeup. As he endured their ministrations, McWhorter looked to the side and saw conservative pundit Fred Barnes going through the same ritual; Barnes smiled and greeted him with the camaraderie of a fellow soldier in a righteous cause. “Good to meet you,” Barnes said. “You know, we reviewed your book in the [Weekly] Standard.” McWhorter smiled gamely.
As he waited in the wings for his cue, McWhorter had another surreally pleasant exchange with a right-wing notable. “The segment before [mine] was really one of these starfucker moments,” he says. “Orrin Hatch was the first guest, and he was my first senator. We talked for a bit, but it was alarming, because he was clearly thinking of me as a recruit, while I was thinking, ‘Boy, your politics will never be mine.'”
A few days later, McWhorter arrived home and sat down to check his voice mail — and was floored by what he heard next. “Hello John,” said a vaguely familiar voice. “This is Clarence Thomas. Please call me at your earliest convenience. No formal offers, just wanted to talk.” “He gave me his home number and his work number, and I played it over and over, because it isn’t every day that a Supreme Court justice calls you at home,” McWhorter says. “So I called him, and I guess I can call him Clarence now. He talked about his philosophy and wanted us to keep in touch. We couldn’t talk long, because something came up on his end, but he wanted me to call him at home on a Sunday. He even said he’d give me the skinny on how the court decided to uphold the count in Florida, ’cause [at one point] I asked him, ‘How do you guys justify what you did?’ But I didn’t call him back. I wasn’t comfortable being that chummy with Clarence Thomas.”
Over the next few months, McWhorter’s discomfort would only grow, as right-wing thinkers appropriated his work for their own purposes. On January 30, Reed Irvine, the founder of the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media, wrote a column claiming that a silent epidemic of black-on-white hate crimes has been ignored by the liberal media, and that singling out black people for aggressive policing is entirely appropriate. “Racial profiling is justified,” Irvine declared. “Black author John McWhorter wrote, ‘black people commit proportionately more crimes than white people.'” In fact, although McWhorter attributes racial profiling to the need to fill quotas for drug arrests rather than a racist motivation, he unequivocally reviles the practice in Losing the Race.
Two weeks ago, McWhorter’s name surfaced in the pages of the New York Press, an alternative weekly whose editors’ idea of provocative copy is baiting the more easily offended elements of the left. The paper’s right-wing essays are collected in a section called “Taki’s Top Drawer,” and it was here that McWhorter was mentioned in a piece by Carol Iannone. The author began with a broadside against affirmative action, and then moved on to explain the superiority of conservative principles in solving a wide swath of social problems, including “combating poverty and improving lives.” Along the way, Iannone cited McWhorter as well as Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, and “the magnificent Ward Connerly.” The essay ran alongside one by Taki himself. The eponymous editor of the section used his inches of newsprint to tell a funny story about the time he told a young, liberal Swedish woman that “the happiest day of my life was when I heard that Olaf Palme [the Swedish prime minister and archcritic of Uncle Sam] had been gunned down.”
This gets to the heart of the liberal criticism of McWhorter’s book; that whatever his true motives for writing it, Losing the Race will inevitably be used as fodder for right-wing efforts to discredit all sorts of progressive social policies. Losing the Race, McWhorter’s critics argue, ultimately gives white people an articulate excuse to throw up their hands and abandon their black compatriots who, despite millions of dollars in government funds and decades of social programs, just can’t seem to get it together. “This is what’s wrong with his book,” Pedro Noguera said during his debate with McWhorter. “If the message these teachers get is that these kids don’t work hard, they will never ask themselves, What can I do to encourage? What can I do to inspire? What can I do to open doors? If they think that the problem lies with these kids and their culture, then they have freed themselves from all responsibility.”
For his part, McWhorter is still confident that far from playing into the hands of conservatives, he has considerably enhanced the national dialogue on race — and that the subtlety of his argument will just have to be strong enough to withstand its manipulation by unscrupulous ideologues.
Still, as the heat generated by his book has spread around the country, McWhorter has begun to feel the strain of such exposure. When the San Francisco Chronicle ran a fairly even-handed profile of him in February, it went so far as to point out that the professor “is decidedly pro-choice and resents being used as a football by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk.” (McWhorter despised the piece, describing it as biased and hostile.) What may have gotten under McWhorter’s skin was the story’s headline: “Why do black students lag behind? They don’t really try, a Cal professor says — and causes a furor in academia.” The headline was accompanied by an unflattering picture of McWhorter, who spent the day of its publication being confronted with what he considered to be a distorted image of himself on every street corner. One Albany bookstore used that particular edition of the Chron to paper over its storefront when it closed, and McWhorter remembers slinking by a Warholian sea of his endlessly replicated face — a face, the headline seemed to say, that had announced to the world that black people are lazy.
Such is the power — and the danger — of talking about race in America. The tragedy is that whenever McWhorter speaks about his book without the intervening scrim of the media, whether it be at Cody’s or Marcus Books — when, in other words, he is able to speak directly to other human beings, he usually manages to convey the gist of his work, and people walk away grateful for a sober dialogue. Even if they disagree with McWhorter — even if they sense the undercurrent of delight he sometimes takes in playing the role of the mischievous racial prankster — they usually leave with more textured views than when they came in. It’s mostly when reading someone else’s representation of McWhorter’s work that one begins to doubt his motives.
After a year of negotiating the delicate territory in which discussion about race in America takes place, John McWhorter has been left a little shaken. He is now living in a land of tension and fear that few of us will ever directly experience.
During my final interview with McWhorter, we sat at a College Avenue cafe and were about to begin when he said he had a special request to make. Pulling out a number of newspaper stories about himself, McWhorter pointed out the many photographs of himself that he considered less-than-flattering as he expressed the hope that whoever shot his picture for this story wouldn’t make him look like a foolish child. He is convinced, he said, that white photographers wind up distorting his image, and asked if we could assign a black photographer to shoot him. Shortly after this exchange, a young black man sheepishly approached McWhorter.
“Excuse me, didn’t I read about you in a magazine someplace?” he asked.
“You speak Russian, right?”
“Well, I read Russian.”
Stony-faced, McWhorter waited to hear what he had to say next. But the man just smiled warmly, said, “Yeah!” and turned and walked away.