Discover more from Glenn Loury
Q&A: Black Fragility
with John McWhorter
Racism still exists. It’s out there, and every black person in the country can probably recount one or even many of incidents where they were confronted with truly discriminatory behavior. The question is not whether those incidents can be truly insulting and offensive to their targets. They can. The question, rather, is what we infer from those incidents and how we choose to deal with them once they’ve happened.
In the following clip from my most recent Q&A session with John McWhorter, I recount a story I’ve told many times about some mild, racially tinged mistreatment I suffered at the hands of a greeter at an event at the National Press Club, at which I was the guest of honor. On the one hand, the incident clearly stuck with me, as I’m still talking about it several decades later. On the other hand, consider the context: I was the guest of honor. An entire room full of influential people ventured out on a sweltering summer day in order to hear me speak. One employee at the event committed a faux pas. Which is the more significant fact?
Maybe this greeter really was some kind of dyed-in-the-wool racist. I don’t know. More importantly, it doesn’t matter, at least not to me. I suppose I could have brought the entire event to a grinding halt and used my speech to denounce the racism of the National Press Club. That would not only have been inaccurate, it would have been a waste of my time, my energy, and the opportunity afforded me. There was a time in this country when racial antipathy was truly pervasive, and we African Americans simply had to learn to deal with it while working for change. Well, change has come. If we can’t get over the insulting behavior of a few individuals while we pursue our own goals, that says more about our own fragility than it does about “systemic racism.” It’s time we stop letting scattered anecdotes determine our self-worth and worldview—there’s still important work to be done.
This clip is taken from a subscriber-only Q&A session. For access to Q&As, comments, early episodes, and a host of other benefits, click below and subscribe.
Glenn Loury: All right, let's move on. JP Hollywood writes,
Hi Glenn and John,
A friend saw my copy of Woke Racism. He said he's read some of John's articles. And against my better judgment, we entered into an extensive and at times heated conversation on the topic of race and racism in America. My friend would declare himself a man of the progressive left, and I'm center-right. Whenever I spoke of the objective facts, for example, there are 10 to 20 unarmed black men killed each year by police versus his guess of over a thousand, I was told repeatedly, "You need to speak to more black people on their actual experiences." I said I'd take it under consideration, but I told him I wouldn't engage on the topic again with him until he did the work on studying the facts.
Listening to such stories could add a very human touch to a difficult topic. However, I actually don't see the point of either being lectured to or listening to discreet personal experience of racism, which I don't, nor should anyone, deny exists. While I think I'm better off not engaging again with this friend, do you think there's value in listening to people's individual encounters of racism?
JOHN MCWHORTER: No. No.
I thought that was what you were going to say. And I think that's a really good question, don't you?
It is. Yeah. And here's where I'm not holding back. This is unvarnished me. No, because, unfortunately, the nature of the culture is such that for a great many people, when you ask them that question, they're going to exaggerate. It's a very sad tendency I've seen all my life, where they're going to pick some one thing that happened to them in their 45 years with the implication that that's all of life. That tendency is too strong. It's understandable, but that means that if you're looking for an objective sense of what's really going on, you can't do that.
Now, there are plenty of black people who don't do that, of course. And I don't have any numbers, but especially once you're dealing with educated people, no, you can't. The testimony, I hate to say that it's too likely to be distorted. And so, no.
Imagine. This person you're talking to really thinks that 1,000 black men are iced by the cops every year, and they really think that that shows you how hard it is to get through to a certain kind of person and why I sometimes trim my sales. Somebody like me is talking about how that wasn't racism or racism wasn't all of it. And there's somebody actually thinking that ten one-hundreds of black men are killed by the cops every year. And it's understandable why they don't want to hear anything but racism, racism, racism.
But if you're dealing with somebody who has that figure in their head and you tell them the real figure and they simply can't listen and they think that somehow talking to a black person will give you more accurate information such as what they believe, that somehow talking to a black person will teach you that it really is a thousand rather than twenty, that person can't be reached. As I say in Woke Racism, you have to choose your battles. And I'm sure that person is a great person in many, many ways, but on race, that person is unreachable. And you and that person should talk about cooking and football and Only Murders in the Building. They're not reachable.
It’s not a worthy conversation. “Do you think there's value in listening to people's individual encounter of racism?” Your answer is no. My answer is no, too.
You say exaggeration, sure. I'm a social scientist, so the first thing that comes to mind is that anecdotes are not data. That is, idiosyncratic reportage doesn't substitute for systematic observation. It's a little bit like the climate debate, where people point to weather events and they say, see, climate is the deep structure of things. The weather event is the ephemera that's bouncing around the line. You know, sometimes it's up, sometimes it's down. You don't want to put too much weight on any given event.
There's also the performance aspect to it. You cherry-pick your own experience in order to reinforce a certain narrative. Even if you're not exaggerating the experience, it was one event out of an entire life that you're never going to let go of, and any time the question comes up, you trot that event out.
I know what I'm talking about, because I've done this myself. Again, this relates to previous questions that we've considered where I've tried to establish credibility because I'm a kind of like anti-antiracist, but I want to let the viewer or the reader know that I actually know that there's racism.
So I will say—and I've used this story over and over again—in 1998 or something like that, I was invited to give an address at the National Press Club. So I'm at the National Press Club on H Street in Washington, DC, up on the top floor of a nice building. It's a hot summer day, and I come in in my suit and I'm sweaty and I'm tired and I got to get myself ready for the event. And there's a greeter when I get off the elevator, and I'm on there with a white gentleman who is well-dressed, and she rushes over to him and ignores me and takes care of him. And I'm just standing there dripping in sweat, I don't know where the bathroom is, and I am the guest of honor.
Now, I was a victim of a microaggressive kind of racist, discriminatory behavior by the person. But hell, it's one event out of decades of experience. It's hardly characteristic, and yet I would repair to that story whenever I needed it in order to persuade somebody that I knew that racism really existed and that kind of thing. And I'm sure a lot of people are behaving in a similar way.
When I wrote Losing the Race, which was in the late-90s, right around that time, it would surprise many people to know that I was very concerned with getting it right. I was writing things that I knew were going to make a lot of people angry about how we're exaggerating the extent to which racism is responsible for certain things, but I wanted to make sure that I wasn't just only in my own head. And so I went to a lot of conferences as a fly on the wall that I would not have gone to. Just attended. I went to some black clubs, which is not my thing. Just a fly on the wall, have a drink, and watch people and listen to people's conversations. I did a lot of that in 1998 and 1999.
Researching your book.
I really wanted to know, because I was thinking I'm not crazy, but neither are they. Why do they think that being black is so difficult in 1999? I accept that they are rational. What is it? And what I found was that the main thing was the cops. That if there weren't an issue of black people and the cops, all the rest of it would be treated as the, frankly, trivia that most of it is, including that kind of microaggression, Glenn, that you describe. I could tell the same story once or twice. Yeah, that definitely happens.
And I noticed, in terms of the question that was asked, I remember the late and estimable Charles Ogletree actually had hosted an event at Stanford about the war on drugs and the cops and what happens to black people. I forget what the exact nature of it was. It had something to do with the writings of [Mark Kleiman]1. And I just sat there for the whole afternoon and listened to people talking. And one thing I noticed was that this was an issue that I needed to think about. But then I also noticed that, especially among the black men, there was almost a competition in terms of the stories that you could tell about being harassed by the cops who were looking for drugs or who are looking for someone who's black and stopping you, et cetera, et cetera. I couldn't go check up on everybody, but there's no way that that many people had all had this exact same experience.
And there was a certain joy that you almost saw in people in recounting these ideas. There was a sense that part of being a legitimate and interesting and authentic black man was to be able to tell a story like that. And I couldn't help thinking with some of this, I'm sure that if there were video of it, you'd see that there are many different interpretations, including little things that have happened to me along those lines, which had nothing to do with the cops discriminating against me because I was black. And it's not that I'm too stupid to notice it.
So yeah, I can't trust it. It's not to say that there isn't an issue with the cops and black people, as I have written many times. In this room, you would have thought that we were in Watts in 1964, and nothing had changed since then. But no, no, it has changed. There was too much joy for all of this to be really true, basically.
Now, you have used the phrase “black fragility,” if I recall correctly, in reference to some of this kind of behavior where, you know, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, a part of life. Not everybody's going to smile at you when they greet you at the door. Not everybody's going to be polite. And yes, there are people who may have implicit bias or subconscious regard and stereotypes or whatever about about black people that one becomes a victim of, but it's not a life-crushing experience. It's just part of what comes along with the territory when you live in a diverse and complicated society. And you almost want to say to people who complain about minor racial microaggressions to toughen up, to grow up, to loosen up, and that's difficult for a white person to say to a black person. But maybe that's what needs to be said.
Tyler Austin Harper actually touches on a really important point on that in his piece where he complains about white people actually treating him with the delicacy that the hard left woke crowd encourages white people to treat black people with.
On the one hand, supposedly the little things that happened to you or to me are supposed to be our entire lives. All of life, a crushing experience every time we leave our homes. That's a terrible thing. But then for a white person to get that message and actually treat you that way, it feels ridiculous and demeaning. It reveals the lie in it when white people actually take that lesson to heart.
Which means that no, racism does exist, and we're talking about the personal kind. But the idea that you're experiencing it every day and that you need therapy about it, et cetera, it's a vast exaggeration, because I think times have changed. It's that sort of thing. And that includes the cops. People can exaggerate. That's not to say here I am pulling my punch. Yes, there are horrible things that happen. But that business of the cops being the entire background of your and my lives, that's just not true. It's an exaggeration. And I hope that people will start calling it out more.
Yeah, we're in agreement about that.
John misspoke here. He was referring to the drug policy expert Mark Kleiman, not the comic and podcaster Marc Maron.