John McWhorter is back for our first conversation of 2022. Let’s get into it!
We begin by discussing the death of the groundbreaking black actor Sidney Poitier. Portier was best known for his roles in films like The Defiant Ones, Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. John puts forward the fascinating theory that Poitier’s Caribbean origins and mannerisms made him acceptable to white American audiences who were unaccustomed to seeing black men in dramatic leading roles. We also recently lost the legal scholar Lani Guinier, who was involved in a political controversy in the ‘90s when Bill Clinton nominated her for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and then pulled the nomination after receiving political pressure from the right. Though Lani and I were on different ends of the political spectrum, she was an important legal thinker, and I think what happened to her was terribly unfair. Of course, while her views were controversial then, John and I note that they’re widely accepted now. We then go on to discuss a question it hadn’t previously occurred to me to ask: Why don’t we see more women in the ranks of heterodox black public intellectuals? (If you know of some I’m forgetting, let me know in the comments!) We then turn to the anniversary of the January 6 riot. John and I agree that it didn’t rise to the level of an “attempted coup” or an “insurrection,” but it doesn’t bode well for the stability of our elections or the country itself. Are we going to see more violence of this kind in future elections? And finally, John we do a quick review of some of John’s prodigious recent output for the New York Times and his podcast, Lexicon Valley.
It’s great to be back with John after a month-long hiatus. Let us know what you think of the conversation!
This post is free and available to the public. To receive early access to TGS episodes, an ad-free podcast feed, Q&As, and other exclusive content and benefits, click below.
0:00 The significance of Sidney Poitier’s Caribbean origins
9:27 Revisiting the Lani Guinier controversy
24:09 How Guinier’s views eventually triumphed
29:50 Where are the “heterodox” black women?
38:36 Glenn: I’m worried about the stability of our electoral process
49:12 Are we on the precipice of violent political conflict?
1:01:04 An update on John’s prodigious output
Links and Readings
Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier, “The Future of Affirmative Action: Reclaiming the Innovative Ideal”
Abigail Thernstrom, Whose Votes Count?: Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights
Carol Swain, Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress
David Brooks’s NYT column, “Why Democrats Are So Bad at Defending Democracy”
John’s NYT newsletter post, “I Can’t Brook the Idea of Banning ‘Negro’”
John’s NYT newsletter post, “Stephen Sondheim Wrote My Life’s Soundtrack”
John’s NYT newsletter post, “Yes, the Classics Make Us Better People”
The new home of John’s language podcast, Lexicon Valley