Atonement as activism

John McWhorter is a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University (he specializes in Creole languages), is black, and appears, politically, to be a Liberal/Centrist.  That, at least, should give him enough credibility so that one couldn’t from the outset totally dismiss his piece at The American Interest called “Atonement as Activism.”

It’s a two-barreled indictment, first of activist, writer, and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, about whom I can’t say much as I haven’t read him, and, second, about the self-flagellation of white people in the face of the indictments that Coates apparently levels at America: we’re a land of endemic, structural racism where blacks are due reparations and improvements in civil rights have been merely cosmetic.

All I can say is this: reparations is a hard problem, but I think something must be done to repair the damage of slavery and racism. That “something”, in my view, isn’t payments to individuals, but a concerted and real effort to improve schooling and alleviate poverty.

As for civil rights being in the same dire state as in the Fifties, that’s palpable nonsense. Right before I went to college there were separate drinking fountains and bathrooms for whites and blacks at the Williamsburg, Virginia Greyhound Bus Station, one could hear the word “nigger” frequently, and racism, however covert today, was far more overt. While racism of course still exists, it has become far more demonized, socially unacceptable, and prohibited by law when it comes to legal equality. It would be foolish to think that things haven’t improved. (I am not of course saying that there’s no room for more improvement!)

But McWhorter’s main complaint is that concern for civil rights now centers not on the plight of the oppressed, but on the guilt of the oppressor, i.e., white people, especially males. Rather than actually doing something about poverty and racism, he says, white folks beat their breasts and compete with one another to demonstrate their moral virtue.

This of course doesn’t characterize everyone, since many are involved in real acts to promote equality, not just yelling on Facebook and Twitter. But I realized that there’s something to McWhorter’s plaint when I saw all the posts about Roseanne Barr and her racism on my Facebook page, where almost all my friends are liberals. What seemed to be happening was that many of the posters weren’t really trying to do something about the racism instantiated by Barr (and yes, I see nothing wrong with her having been fired), but simply showing that they were on the side of the angels. Roseanne is a racist! (The unspoken message, of course, is “I’m not!”)

This is McWhorter’s thesis, and I’ll quote:

This brand of self-flagellation has become the new form of enlightenment on race issues. It qualifies as a kind of worship; the parallels with Christianity are almost uncannily rich. White privilege is the secular white person’s Original Sin, present at birth and ultimately ineradicable. One does one’s penance by endlessly attesting to this privilege in hope of some kind of forgiveness.

. . . It would seem that for some, bemoaning that reparations aren’t happening is as active, vital, and self-affirming as making them happen, or, better, moving on and considering realistic strategies for forging change.

The self-affirming part is the rub. This new cult of atonement is less about black people than white people. Fifty years ago, a white person learning about the race problem came away asking “How can I help?” Today the same person too often comes away asking, “How can I show that I’m a moral person?” That isn’t what the Civil Rights revolution was about; it is the product of decades of mission creep aided by the emergence of social media.

What gets lost is that all of this awareness was supposed to be about helping black people, especially poor ones. We are too often distracted from this by a race awareness that has come to be largely about white people seeking grace. For example, one reads often of studies showing that black boys are punished and suspended in school more often than other kids. But then one reads equally often that poverty makes boys, in particular, more likely to be aggressive and have a harder time concentrating. We are taught to assume that the punishments and suspensions are due to racism, and to somehow ignore the data showing that the conditions too many black boys grow up in unfortunately makes them indeed more likely to act up in school. Might the poverty be the key problem to address? But, try this purely logical reasoning in polite company only at the risk of being treated as a moral reprobate. Our conversation is to be solely about racism, not solutions—other than looking to a vaguely defined future time when racism somehow disappears, America having “come to terms” with it: i.e. Judgment Day. As to what exactly this coming to terms would consist of, I suppose only our Pastor of White Privilege knows.

And, finally, this:

Another problem is that I am not sure that today’s educated whites quite understand how unattainable the absolution they are seeking is. There is an idleness in this cult of atonement, in that it cannot get whites what they want. I wonder if today’s atoners quite understand that “getting it” will not, for example, make Ta-Nehisi Coates like them any more than Marlon Riggs liked the graduate student and her friends despite their leftist politics. There is an Old Testament quality to the Coates preachings, for example. He is unmoved by the deaths of white firefighters during 9/11, uncomfortable seeing his son as a tot playing comfortably with white kids, and sees young white parents with their big strollers as white people taking up too much space as always. The degree of self-hatred—if sincere—is staggering in whites proclaiming how much they “love” this kind of scripture.

And all of this, ultimately, is often as condescending as nakedly dismissive views of blacks were in the bad old days. I doubt most whites truly think racism is so acridly pervasive and persistent in this country that a middle-class black man ought to fear his children playing with theirs, or look upon firefighters barbecued on 9/11 as mere racists getting their just desserts. Pretending to believe this sort of thing is insincere and insulting. It’s a pat on the head.

And where do you find this quasi-religious atonement as activism, where self-flagellation and demonization of the Right feed off of each other? It’s everywhere: Salon, HuffPo, the editorial pages of the New York Times, and, god help me, on my Facebook feed. I get to the point where I ask myself, when seeing the same kind of post from certain people for the gazillionith time, “Well what are you doing about it? Or are you just showing us how moral you are?”

I’m not exempt, either, as my actual acts to alleviate inequality are far too few. My only saving grace—is that the right phrase?—is that I don’t put up post after post about other people who have been tried on social media, found Ideologically impure, and cast into the Pit forever. Nor do I continually go after every act of Donald Trump. Once I’ve pronounced the man a narcissistic moron who’s ruining America, how many different ways can I say it? Yes, he commits act after stupid act, but need we kvetch about each one on social media? What is accomplished thereby? I’ll tell you what: people let others know that they’re on the side of justice. Far better to write letters to Congress, though of course those too have little effect.

But really, can you read McWhorter’s article and tell me that there’s no truth in it?



  1. Posted May 30, 2018 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    I saw this the other day and I agree. It is well stated.

    The only comment I will make is, once again, the entry of the blame – in this case that white people’s self-flagellation is both insincere and ineffective- is placed on whites alone. As if there is no effort in the non-white community to feed this kind of self hatred, however ineffective and insincere it may be.

    The message I have been getting for a long time now -from all, not just fellow evil white people- is that by virtue of being white I am guilty. I cannot escape it. But that message isn’t just coming from white people. It’s a kind of blood libel and it isn’t entirely self-inflicted, despite what this piece implies.

    By the way, despite a tendency to see everything through a racists eyes, Coates is very good writer.

    • josh
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      I don’t find Coates a particularly good writer. His prose is purple and overwrought, although that may be a function of his usual themes, viz. racial jeremiads. He’s also not careful with words and stretches for metaphors and slightly obscure references in an effort to punch-up his work. Or so I think.

      Not that that makes his views any more or less valid, but I think the plaudits his writing gets are sometimes spurred by white guilt.

      • Posted May 30, 2018 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        His style is not to everyone’s tastes.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted May 30, 2018 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

        Coates is the darling of the white guilt crowd. McWhorter and other African American social/cultural critics been on Coates’ case for a good while, especially since Coates positions himself as speaking for blacks en masse, when he doesn’t, not by a long shot. I’ve seen white people (here in Berkeley, of course) ostentatiously reading Coates in public places — they want everyone to know they’re reading Ta-Nehisi Coates. It looks so silly.

        • GBJames
          Posted May 30, 2018 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

          Pertinent video conversation.

        • Posted May 30, 2018 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

          When I was still on FB, I saw a lot of Coates-related posts. While I’m not familiar enough with his writing, etc. to dismiss it, I do have an eye roll for a lot of the white people who were posting those links. Not because of anything Coates himself has written (again, I’m not really familiar), but because the social media posts invariably had that self-flagellating and self-righteous character.

      • Posted May 30, 2018 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        I haven’t read Coates, but I have read McWhorter books on language and, as might be expected, he is a very fine writer.

    • Filippo
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      “The message I have been getting for a long time now -from all, not just fellow evil white people- is that by virtue of being white I am guilty.”

      For some reason this brings to my mind the concept of “Original Sin.”

  2. bbenzon
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    I’ve not read that particular article, but I’ve been following McWhorter for years and have corresponded with him a bit. I agree with him on this.

    He does a regular podcast with economist Glenn Loury at which you can find here:

    • Posted May 30, 2018 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      Sorry. I should have read on before adding my bit. Thanks for the podcast citation.

  3. AC Harper
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Echoes of Jordan Peterson perhaps… first get yourself right with the world, understand it properly, then engage in reducing suffering (and not just moaning and handwringing about it, achieving nothing).

    • Tom Besson
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Nicely stated.

  4. John Crisp
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Surely this is tied up with identity politics? If virtue and vice are simply a matter of what group you were born into, then all you can do is atone. It is just a new form of Calvinism.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    McWhorter’s an interesting case, one I’ve been following for a while, though I’ve kinda lost track of him lately.

    He’s great on linguistics (I mean, at least as far as I, with a vague amateur interest, can tell). Politically, he started out as a conservative during the Dubya years, with a fellowship at the Manhattan Institute, something of a Shelby Steele protege as I recall. He started sliding left around the time of Obama’s first presidential campaign.

    Screwed the pooch back then, though, when he had Michael Behe on his Bloggingheads show and treated him with kid gloves.

    • Posted May 30, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      Behe….now there’s a name I’ve not heard in long time.

  6. Mark R.
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    This is a well-written and thoughtful piece. I didn’t read the whole of it, but I agree with the thesis.

    America can learn from its Northern neighbors when it comes to reparations. Native people and homosexuals have been paid large sums of money. At the same time, I don’t know if they really helped everyone and I know some Native American leaders were outraged. But here in America, we try to hide our blood soaked past. Genocide? Slavery? Who, us? Hell, we haven’t even officially apologized to our own Native American survivors. We’ve officially apologized for slavery and the internment of Japanese citizens during WWII, but other than that, not much has been done.

    I agree that just giving out money to individuals isn’t the best way to make reparations, but we can and should do immeasurably better when it comes to fighting poverty and providing top-notch education. Poverty is the root of so many of societies evils, and it’s a feedback loop. There have been some policies that try to alleviate poverty (especially when Democrats were in control), but so far, everything we’ve done hasn’t even come close to alleviating our impoverished fellow citizens.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Education is the key to getting people out of poverty, and imo the way education is funded in the US is designed to keep people in the socio-economic class they were born into.

      If education continues to be funded by property taxes, poor areas are going to continue to get poor funding for their education, and vice versa. Further everything Betsy De Vos is doing appears designed to make things worse.

      We’re not perfect, and I’m worried about the plans our new Minister of Education has. However, currently here it’s schools in the poorest areas that receive the most government funding. The wealthiest schools are still in the wealthiest areas as most public schools ask for a standard annual donation (not compulsory) to provide extras in the curriculum. In wealthy areas that donation can be several hundred dollars. However, kids in poor areas, in general, get just as good an education as those in wealthy areas. There’s no need for our teachers to buy supplies for example, and all kids are able to get the books/stationery etc they need even if their families can’t afford them.

      • Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

        I don’t agree that it is designed to do so, but that is its effect.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

          Sorry. You’re right. I thought I wrote “appears designed”, but got it wrong.

          I’ve written virtually the same thing about the system so many times that I’m starting to miss out words.

      • Mark R.
        Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        Typo: society’s…in my post.


        Yes, educational funding in America is the root cause of our poorly educated population. Ideologues like De Vos are both clueless and blind. Even the founding fathers knew an uneducated population was bound to elect a Trump.

        • Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

          There is also an anti-intellectual bias that runs deep in many communities. Many children grow up in a culture where education is simply not valued, usually only wealth is.

          • Posted May 30, 2018 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

            “Basket of Deplorables”, indeed!!

          • Filippo
            Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

            Re: Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” and Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted May 30, 2018 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          It’s really sad because you guys used to be one of the best, but with every PISA report, you fall further behind.

          I think part of it is also the way teachers are treated and paid. There’s quite a chunk of society that doesn’t respect teachers, and so a lot of the people who go into it are doing it for the wrong reason. And the poor pay in many states means the best people are often not becoming teachers.

          In countries like Finland, teaching is one of the most respected professions and it’s also well paid. A PhD is either already, or soon to become, a requirement to be a teacher there.

          • mikeyc
            Posted May 30, 2018 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

            It’s not quite as bad you suggest, Heather. It’s complicated, as I’m sure you know.

            For one, although US scores in PISA (which measures performance of kids ~15 year olds) declined slightly in math scores between 2012 and 2015, it has maintained its place in international standards since PISA inception in 2000. Reading and science scores have not changed, nor has the US’s rank. The other older test, TIMMS, which measures performance of 4th and 8th graders (10 – 14 years old), has done better with the US scores improving since 1995, though our overall rank has stayed the same.

            More importantly, these ranking systems don’t take into account significance. So although the US ranks about middle of the table, it is actually significantly above the majority. For example, in science for the 2015 PISA score the US is significantly below the score of 18 countries, indistinguishable from 12 but significantly higher than 39 countries.

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted May 30, 2018 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

              Yeah, but if you look at it in comparison to other OECD countries, it’s slipping badly.

              And while it’s maintaining the average, if you read the actual report, there are some major concerns about the US because of the growing size of the lowest percentile.

            • chris moffatt
              Posted May 31, 2018 at 9:13 am | Permalink

              Forget PISA and measuring american scores against other nations. Try this to see how abysmal american education has become in the light of its own standards:


        • Max Blancke
          Posted May 30, 2018 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

          Oddly, the amount of money spent per student does not correlate with educational or career success.
          There are some kids who just refuse to cooperate in the process, and even attempt to disrupt the efforts of their peers.
          When we moved to the US, I attended a school with many such disruptive kids. It was unfathomable to me at the time, but I have had a long time to reflect on it. I don’t know exactly why those kids were so hostile to the educational process. I suspect it comes from the parents. But by the time they get into high school, they are so far behind that it would take a superhuman effort to catch up.
          I do know that it is not reasonable to expect me to feel guilty when someone else does not take advantage of the opportunities they have available to them. You should not complain if you have not at least made an effort to show up and participate.
          Of course, my experience is from attending most of my education outside of the US, and obviously anecdotal.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        You are right on point with our system and there are a few other critical areas that make it fail. We have 50 states all doing there own thing. We have this nutty idea that education has to be local. Someone from another state would not know how to educate our kids. It is a self-defeating system. The education you might get in K thru 12 in Iowa is much different than Alabama or Arizona. Underfunded and poor pay all adds up to failure.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted May 30, 2018 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

          We had something similar for a while, then kids would move around the country and parents would discover that their kids weren’t doing as well as they thought they were because of the poor standards in some areas. However, I worry that we might be about to go back to a similar system, so I don’t want to praise NZ too much right now!

      • Adam M.
        Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        As a counter example I’d point to the public schools of Washington D.C., with per-student funding which has been for decades nearly the highest in the nation, reportedly nearly $30,000 per student per year, but with abysmal results.

        Personally I’d credit(?) the anti-intellectual bias where education is not valued, that mikeyc mentioned, more than school funding for the poor performance of certain groups in the country.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted May 30, 2018 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

          Yeah – I think I said that to someone else too – the anti-intellectual bias. It’s really a big worry.

          Also, people not appreciating experts. They can see things like doctors or dentists or plumbers or hairdressers have special skills. But they don’t recognize that politicians, teachers, policy analysts, administrators, clerks, diplomats, even presidents need special skills. They think anyone can do the job. And then when someone unqualified gets into the job and does it badly they still can’t recognize that because of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

          • Harrison
            Posted May 31, 2018 at 8:19 am | Permalink

            Conservative attitudes toward politicians seem engineered to get the worst people for the job. Experience is a minus because it means you are a “career politician.” Somehow nobody ever complains about having their teeth worked on by a “career dentist.”

    • Adam M.
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think poverty is the only root, though. Many East Asian and recent African immigrants come to this country dirt poor, but work hard and scrimp and put their kids through college and raise themselves up.

      It’s hard to put the majority of the blame on racism for the plight of American blacks when recent African immigrants are one of the most successful minority groups in the country (in terms of businesses started, educational and career achievement of their children, etc.), generally on par with and in some cases outperforming East Asians. They’re just as black, and often moreso. Plus they’re foreigners, so they should be extra oppressed. But they value saving money, working hard, and education, and they succeed.

      I think the cultural factors of how much a group values education and hard work has a much bigger impact on their position in this society than poverty or racism.

      • Posted May 30, 2018 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

        People from the Caribbean, primarily black, also do extraordinarily well here, better even than whites*. The culture (I mean familial, or community) one grows up in has a powerful impact on outcomes.

        *It’s true! Look it up.

        • Merilee
          Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

          Africans do not generally have a history of having been enslaved, and with Caribbean people, the slavery was not as recent as in the U.S., and Jim Crow-type attitudes were not as strong an influence.

          • Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

            Your first sentence is demonstrably wrong; slavery was endemic there as it was almost everywhere else. In fact, it exists there in places today.

            Slavery ended in the Caribbean in 1834 in British colonies, and in French colonies in 1826, but it didn’t take and had to re-done in 1848. In Cuba it was 1867, two years after it was abolished in the US. It’s certainly true that the British and the French (the two biggest colonial powers of the day) beat the US in ending slavery but it was only a generation prior. And, of course, it’s not as if once slavery was abolished life suddenly got better for black people anywhere it happened.

            No one disputes that Jim Crow and the systemic racism of the US has had a profound effect on American blacks, problems we are still suffering from. But if the problems of American blacks TODAY can be laid at the feet of white racism, you’re left with explaining the success of black people from the Caribbean and Africa today.

            Their success in the US suggests that there are forces at play beyond white people.

            • Merilee
              Posted May 31, 2018 at 10:26 am | Permalink

              Of course Africa practiced slavery, Mike, but my point is that those who had been enslaved and remained in Africa would not be so easily identifiable as slaves or former slaves. In the U.S. virtually all dark-skinned people were easily identified as those who (or their ancestors) had been dragged across the Atlantic against their will.

              • Posted June 9, 2018 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

                Yes, some US blacks seem to have trapped themselves in victim mentality.

      • Mark R.
        Posted May 30, 2018 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

        I think the cultural factors of how much a group values education and hard work has a much bigger impact on their position in this society than poverty or racism.

        Poverty and racism are the exact cultural factors that impact how much a group values education: self-defeating. Again…feedback loop.

        Comparing recent African immigrants (or any immigrants) to the entrenched African American population is a false dichotomy. Modern Africans and other immigrants fleeing horrible circumstances look to America as a beacon of hope. African-Americans by and large don’t see America in that light. Perhaps it’s this lack of hope that holds them back. Being downtrodden in the richest country in the world where every commercial and billboard advertises beauty and opportunity is different than being downtrodden in a failed state. The latter can see the ladder, the forward cannot. This is the problem imo.

        • Posted June 9, 2018 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

          To me, chronic poverty is an effect rather than a cause of not valuing education. Racism also is not a key component here. There are whole societies without major racial differences but with hostile attitude to education, esp. of women. Afghanistan and Pakistan come to mind. Turkey also has suffered a self-inflicted collapse of public schooling.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Ta-Nehisi Coates is another guy I’ve kinda kept an eye on, watching him bloom into a wonderful prose stylist back when he was writing a regular column for The Atlantic, something of a self-styled heir to James Baldwin. But since he’s gotten a dose of fame (won a National Book Award for his memoir) and become an acknowledged spokesman for the black community, he’s put on some blinders and stopped picking his spots for militancy.

    I read a new piece of his about Kanye in The Atlantic a week or so ago. It was interesting, but a bit of muddle, I thought. Hell, even his belletristic prose seemed to be getting in the way of the story he had to tell.

    • Merilee
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      Agree with all your points about Ta-Nehisi.

      • Merilee
        Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

        And can’t understand why he insists on being called Ta-NehAsi, when the name’s spelled Ta-Nehisi…

    • Filippo
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      It appears that Kanye sure knows how to strike a divo pose. (Cyber Big Brother thinks there’s something wrong with “divo,” but not with “diva.”)

  8. Toni Jordon
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Although I agree with much he says, John McWhorter made his bones as a “black apologist.” He has a history of attacking, and misrepresenting Coates’ theses.

    • Filippo
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      Does Mr. Coates ever misrepresent anything?

  9. Merilee
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 2:55 pm | Permalink


  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Roseanne Barr and her racism … (and yes, I see nothing wrong with her having been fired) …

    Sometimes, when things like the Roseanne Barr foofaraw and the NFL’s ban on players taking a knee during the National Anthem arise in tandem, I think that, like worthy Samurai warriors, the Right and Left should pause, exchange swords, and bow respectfully before recommencing battle. 🙂

    • Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      Not a chance. Both sides would try to fake it and stab the other when they weren’t looking.

    • Filippo
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      Or perhaps commencing seppuku.

  11. E C Siegel
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Coates’ article on reparations is still on The Atlantic’s website and should be read for its exposition of how African Americans were kept from the housing market, the main source of middle class wealth in this country.

  12. Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    There is some truth to what McWhorter is saying but many white people, me included, want to help stamp out racism but are unwilling to devote a large part of our lives to the effort. After all, we only get one life to live. Most of the problem is due to racists like Trump and many of his followers rather than people like me. The fact that they are white does bother me, of course, but not so much that I feel responsible for their actions. It is certainly not practical for me to confront them individually and accuse them as racists.

    I vote in favor of politicians and their measures that are trying to fix racism but I am not going to run for office in order to combat racism. I feel for the plight of black people but it’s going to be a long hard slog.

    If McWhorter really thinks that little progress has been made since the 1950s, it causes me to want to disregard pretty much everything else he has to say on the subject. I consider that a sin far greater than that of non-racist white people seeking atonement.

    • bbenzon
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      “If McWhorter really thinks that little progress has been made since the 1950s…”

      McWhorter doesn’t believe that, but he argues that Coates writes as though he (Coates) does.

  13. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I can only say that race and prejudice has been with us in America since the beginning, even before it was discovered when Columbus was pretending to find a way to the far east. Our actions since have been very uneven with positive and negative steps alone the way. I have no idea if we will ever solve the problems we have with it anymore than we will solve poverty or the homeless. We are currently in a period of setback and it is hard to feel good about any of it.

    I have never considered myself privilege by being white but I also do not pretend to know how each black person in America thinks or feels they are being treated. We tried to create better educations by busing kids all over the place but that did not solve problems concerning poor education for the poor communities. Today we have worse conditions for poor people including many of the blacks and other minorities than before. As long as we continue to fail in this area we will never get out of this problem. Unless we educate all of our citizens equally we will be spitting in the wind. To get anything close to an equal chance in life in the modern world you must have a system of good and equal education. I would also add that part of that education should be to get racism out of the minds of those you are educating.

    • Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      It existed here before Columbus came. He just brought that special European sauce.

    • Filippo
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      “Unless we educate all of our citizens equally we will be spitting in the wind.”

      It would help if all of our citizens want to be educated.

    • Posted June 9, 2018 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      Do majority-minority communities with black mayor, superinterdant, school principals and teachers have good schools? If not, then the key problem is not racism.

      • GBJames
        Posted June 9, 2018 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

        That’s a logically flawed argument. Communities like this are subject to much broader forces, in particular state-level policies that fund schools (poorly) and establish education policies that mayors, superintendents, principals, and teachers all must comply with.

  14. Ryan
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read that the Left judges intentions, the Right judges outcomes.

    I don’t think it was always this way, in fact twenty years ago the reverse might have been true.

  15. ladyatheist
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    My views on race have come mainly from actually knowing people of different races and having various types of training at work (e.g., legal, managerial, basic diversity issues). I was probably primed for some sympathy & empathy from the nightly news in the 1960s & 1970s and the TV comedy shows of those times that showed black people & white people in stories with essentially the same plot lines.

    The “action” for everyday people can really just be about the “microaggressions,” even if you don’t believe in the concept.

    While working in a black neighborhood, I made it a rule to smile and wave at everyone. I still smile and wave to every black person I see, but not white people here in the Midwest. I assume, rightly or wrongly, that the black person has a kind of “friend or foe” hesitation when encountering a white person where everyone else is white. My wave & smile are almost always (like 99%) returned. There are neurological benefits to smiling, both on the part of the smiler & smilee (?) so even if the other person isn’t suspicious of me, I’ve done a good thing for both of us. If they are feeling a bit unwelcome, I have just made them feel a bit more welcome. You don’t have to join the Peace Corps and give up a good career to smile at people!

    If there are two open checkers at my local grocery and one is black, I choose the black one because I know that some of my neighbors are racist and there’s probably a bit of a bias going on in my local store due to my neighbors (trust me on this one).

    Also, I try to keep in mind that black culture in the North is essentially Southern culture, so I make a point of acting more “Southern” in being considerate, opening doors, helping old ladies with shopping carts (not without asking first, of course) or whatever.

    If you never see anyone of a different race, religion, nationality, size, sex, or physical ability in the course of the day, sharing on Facebook may be all you can do. Your counterpart who leads an equally bland life my see it.

    … and I have to admit, not all my friends are like-minded on every issue. So when I forward something that might raise conservative/racist/FoxNews-viewing hackles, oh well….

    • Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      Friendliness goes a long way.

    • Tom Besson
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Having traveled a bit, I can say ‘hello’ in many languages. When I meet someone where I live that I can identify as being from a specific language group, I greet them in their language to let them know that I want them to feel as comfortable in my country as I would want to feel when I’m in their country.

      • ladyatheist
        Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        “Hello” is the only word I know in Korean!

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      Your comment reminds me of a story that’s become family lore. My aunt (one of my Dad’s sisters) was a wonderful, warm person, and, like the rest of the family, a bleeding-heart on civil rights. But very naive. In the Sixties she got a job downtown and would take a city bus to the office every day. One of the bus drivers was a black guy, and she decided she would let him know she wasn’t prejudiced by taking a seat in the front row and striking up a friendly conversation.

      Right before she got off at her stop, he propositioned her.

      My old man would tell that story at family gatherings every once in a while, just to tease her and watch her blush. 🙂

  16. GBJames
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to see McWhorter in conversation with Coates. They are both interesting and worth paying attention to, IMO.

    • bbenzon
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      From 2008:

      • GBJames
        Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. That was rather interesting to listen to.

        I would like to see the follow-up now that Obama’s presidency is in the past and the horror show we are now experiencing has come to pass. (Quick Googling shows McWhorter discussing Coates with Glen Loury and such.)

    Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    I agree that education is a key but the change has to start with preschool and free daycare for poor kids. Quoting studies at
    In 2013, 72 percent of all births to black women, 66 percent to American Indian or Alaskan native women, and 53 percent to Hispanic women occurred outside of marriage, compared with 29 percent for white women, and 17 percent for Asian or Pacific Islander women.
    Children in these situations start out so far behind they have little chance of competing with well of children. Without changing this situation thru government support we are all in for a bad future.

    • Adam M.
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      I suspect it’s not marriage per se, but having committed parents (preferably both of them) who care about the education and civilization of their children. Children raised by single mothers may be a more predictive measure, but I’m sure that in practice it correlates well with childbirth out of marriage.

      • Filippo
        Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

        Yes, the father needs to show up, stick around, be meaningfully supportive.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

      That was the whole point of the Head Start program begun back in the ’60s under LBJ.

  18. Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I know McWhorter just from his writings on linguistics, which I admire and enjoy very much.

  19. Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Many humans have an exceedingly difficult time overcoming their innate tribalism. It seems some think they’re fighting it when in fact they’re succumbing to and perpetuating it.

    Wouldn’t it be grand if we could all be judged as individuals? I won’t hold my breath.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      That generally requires getting to know someone well if you’re not in a homogeneous environment.

      • Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

        ^This. I swear, this is how much of these seemingly intractable problems can be addressed. Not government programs, not the acid of the ever present social scolds and definitely NOT religion. The more we get to know each other, the less we hate each other.

        • ladyatheist
          Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

          Yep, we have a natural affinity for people who resemble our family, friends, schoolmates, etc. Even if you are dealing with a total stranger, if they remind you of people you know equally to the mugshots of bad guys, you’re less likely to grab your purse or cross the street.

          • Gareth
            Posted May 31, 2018 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

            I actually think its more complex conditioning. I’m a TCK and grew up attending international schools where I had a diverse range of likewise friends. When I moved back to the UK I didn’t feel any magical affinity to my ‘tribe’, rather the opposite, I felt quite alienated. I still find a get along easier with people with as similar background as mine, I think I open up and trust them more.

        • Historian
          Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

          “The more we get to know each other, the less we hate each other.”

          Unfortunately, this is not always true. In the pre-Civil War South, blacks and whites encountered each other on a daily basis. The Jews in pre-Hitler Germany thought they were well integrated into society. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland have hated each other for centuries. It takes more than two groups or individuals knowing each other to prevent hatred and heinous deeds. The issue is complex. You could say that these groups really did not know each other although they lived near each other and worked together. If so, then the task of getting people of different groups to stop hating each other is a mighty task and not always successful. Tribalism, which is shorthand for cultural affinity, does not easily give way to universalism. Individuals from different groups may like and respect each other, but this only does a little to diminish group hatred.

          • Posted May 30, 2018 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

            Yeah, you’re right. It was true as well in Yugoslavia or Rwanda in the 90s and the Horn of Africa today. Still, it seems to me to be the only effective way through. The only way that has actually worked, those horrific examples notwithstanding.

          • Posted June 9, 2018 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

            + 1. I have just written something similar because I didn’t see your comment.

        • Posted June 9, 2018 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

          I am afraid this will work only if the interactions with the “other” people are positive.

      • Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        The unwritten correlate is that if you don’t know someone well enough to judge them as an individual, then withhold judgment.

        • ladyatheist
          Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

          Here’s the tricky thing, though. Subconsciously, we size up strangers as potential friend or foe whether we mean to or not.

          • Posted May 30, 2018 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

            That’s true, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to adopt a conscious-mind-level policy of granting the benefit of the doubt and being kind to strangers. We override our lower-level impulses all the time. I try to do this, and I think I’ve been fairly successful at it. All it takes is reminding yourself that you don’t actually know anything about that stranger. Some visual cues can give you reliable information, but most don’t. Why not wait until you know a person better before drawing conclusions about them or finding them guilty by association? Accusing all white (or cis or whatever) people of guilt is the same phenomenon as the Old Testament’s vengeful god visiting the sins of the father on subsequent generations.

            The reasons I think people tend to have a hard time adopting what should be such an easy, simple attitude shift are many and complex.

            • ladyatheist
              Posted May 30, 2018 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

              “All it takes is reminding yourself that you don’t actually know anything about that stranger.”

              Not quite. It also takes a willingness to see oneself as being just as prone to implicit biases as everybody else, and to want to be as nice as you think you are. Practical self-awareness is too rare in the world, but becoming more common.

  20. Posted May 30, 2018 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    McWhorter is on target. We need an activism that brings white and black people together, not one that divides them, to solve problems of racial and economic inequality. Either we pull together regardless of race, without fear or shame, or we are locked in perpetual tribalism. If we must divide people, the litmus test should be values/ideology/ideals, not an identity-based litmus test. There’s nothing the residual racists would like better than to divide progressives along racial lines. Today’s “liberals” are doing much of the legwork for them.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      Do a google image search for Charlottesville protest. I think this is happening.

      • ladyatheist
        Posted May 30, 2018 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

        … I mean… white liberals joining black liberals against racists.

  21. Posted May 30, 2018 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    I don’t agree that there should be reparations to modern-day U.S. blacks for the sins committed against their ancestors by “white people” hundreds of years ago. I don’t think there is an equitable way of doing this. Not all “white people” had slaves. Many were for abolition. Many were homesteaders and farmers who didn’t have slaves. Many were almost slaves themselves. Many were “wage slaves”.

    Non-whites were heavily involved in the slave trade also. So, should Arabs and African blacks also pay reparations? In other parts of the world, “white people”, such as Vikings, were enslaving people of whatever color and selling them all over the known world. Should reparations be required of their families as well? What about the indigenous North, Central and South Americans who also enslaved native peoples not of their own tribes?

    What kind of scale should be used? Different amounts of reparation based on “simple” enslavement (loss of freedom) vs. rape, whippings, separation of families, murder or lynchings?

    What about reparations for the poor Irish, Italian, Hispanic, Chinese and other immigrants who were mistreated, lived in ghettos and had to become wage slaves in the meanest jobs? (We’re still doing this with poorly educated immigrants.)

    I also don’t think the answer is for privileged “white people” to give their homes, cars, or money to “black people” as was suggested by one “black person” recently in Portland, OR. Anyone who has more than is needed and wants to share it with any other human being or group for any reason can be charitable. There are so many causes and not enough money.

    And, if you’re Jewish or Christian, your Holy Book, the Torah or Bible instructs believers in how to treat slaves, as the God-given book assumed there would be such.

    I think the Golden Rule is still applicable and should be used more with all humans. I tried to raise my children not to be racist. I believe my adult children who will not tolerate racist words or jokes, and don’t use skin color to select and keep friends are not racists. One of of my daughters has two handsome, smart bi-racial sons. One of whom, recently graduated with an Engineering degree from U.C. Davis. They, and their mother,face discrimination at times from both whites and blacks.

    Racism of any sort, white vs. white, black, yellow or brown, and vice versa must be addressed in education in the home before formal schooling begins, and should be lived by the parents/family in order to be emulated. Then, formal education and laws also should be brought to bear.

    I don’t think history can be changed or rectified. I don’t think we can “make it right” by excising parts, toppling statues, or rewriting elements periodically. We must learn from the mistakes of our ancestors (and ourselves), and work to ensure that these inequities cease.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

      “I also don’t think the answer is for privileged “white people” to give their homes, cars, or money to “black people” as was suggested by one “black person” recently in Portland, OR.”

      Why does this one nutter deserve anybody’s attention?

      • Posted May 31, 2018 at 3:15 am | Permalink

        Because this “nutter” is not alone or unique in suggesting reparations, as more individuals and groups are addressing issues of historic and current racial injustices by insisting on reparation. Others simply steal, injure, commit violent acts such as trashing autos, homes, stores, etc. The angrier people get, the more likely it becomes for violence to occur and escalate.

        I lived in Southern California during the Watts riots when national guardsmen were stationed along the main thoroughfare into LAX, Molotov cocktails were being thrown into residential areas off the freeways, and Watts was trashed. Police reports on public radio and TV tried to control fear by minimizing the danger, while police channels were still reporting yet more incidents. Although the fear was widespread, the Watts community sustained the greatest damage.

  22. David
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    John Mc Whorter is an insightful commentator on race and racism having authored several books on these subjects.

    Mc Whorter is also a brilliant linguist and has written at least three books on the science of linguistics and language usage. Steven Pinker wrote a blurb in praise of McWhorter’s Power of Babel.

  23. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 30, 2018 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    References to the Roseanne Barr foofaraw rarely mention that Ms. Barr is (was?) a hot-dog heroine of the pop-Left. In 2012, she competed with Jill Stein for the presidential nomination of the Green Party. [Stein won, presumably because of her experience in running for one office or another every year or two.) Nothing daunted, Roseanne Barr became the presidential nominee instead of the California Peace and Freedom Party. In an interview during the 2016 election, she exclaimed that it would be wonderful if Trump won because “it wouldn’t be Hilary”.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted May 30, 2018 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

      Couldn’t Stein have won because Putin liked her? She was at that infamous RT banquet. Why was she there?

  24. Posted May 31, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I agree that socioeconomic class is often the elephant in the room on these things.

    In fact, before his recent fall from grace, that was one of the complains about Bill Cosby, for example, especially about _The Cosby Show_.

  25. Diane G
    Posted June 1, 2018 at 11:57 pm | Permalink


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