Taking the Race Debate Seriously
with John McWhorter
In this excerpt from my latest conversation with John McWhorter, we address an important question put to me by a friend: why do we keep engaging with “red meat” racial issues? After all, we’re both experts in our respective academic fields, economics and linguistics. We know how to apply social scientific analysis to large-scale problems. So why do we spend so much time discussing the most inflammatory recent events when we could be presenting our audience with hard data and rigorous technical analysis?
One answer is pragmatic. How many people would stick around to hear John’s hard linguistic analysis before switching to a different podcast? How many people would watch me explain equations on a whiteboard before clicking “next” on YouTube? Maybe more than I would expect, but definitely fewer than I would prefer.
The other answer is more principled. So much of what is said about race today—in newspapers and books, on cable news and social media—is flat out wrong, both factually and morally. And I can’t let it stand unchallenged. If these errors are taken as truth, this country risks abandoning a lot of hard-won progress on race. I care about my country and my people, and if getting the truth out means taking off the green eyeshade and speaking to the issues of the moment, then that’s what I’ve got to do.
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GLENN LOURY: I didn't warn you, John, but I have been burdened in the last couple of weeks with a correspondence with a dear friend—whom I won't name—who is inveighing with me that I'm wasting my time talking about race. He says, “You're an economist.” You know, I had Larry Kotlikoff on last week on The Glenn Show. We talked about inflation. It was inside baseball, economist to economist. Quantity theory of money, Milton Friedman, all that kind of good stuff, inflation. And he says, “You should give your audience vegetables before you feed them dessert. Make them think hard about the real stuff before you go off into the fluff.”
And I asked him, tongue in cheek, “Well, is it okay if I talk about the Rittenhouse trial or the Ahmaud Arbery trial? Would that be okay? While I'm returning to respectability and unsullying myself with this cheap race talk, could I address myself to one of the most gripping issues that's confronting the country today?” So I was being a little bit sarcastic.
But I don't know, we've talked about this before, being confined. Now that you're at the New York Times, you have this megaphone with your twice-weekly newsletter and whatnot. And you've got range, so you're not always talking about race. But do we cheapen ourselves by constantly coming back, by self-consciously calling ourselves the Black Guys, and by feeding red meat to Bubba, because we have so many fans out there who just want to hear a couple of black guys say stuff about race the way that we say it?
JOHN MCWHORTER: I think about that sometimes. And I've been thinking about it lately, because both of us have real beats that don't have anything to do with Ahmaud Arbery.
That's what I'm saying.
I have linguistics. Even this week, I was finishing up a survey article about linguistics that had nothing to do with any of this and thoroughly enjoying it and then thinking, “Lately, I spend more time talking about what we can call by proxy ‘Ahmaud Arbery’ than I spend doing this.” And I'm sure you've had the same feeling.
And I always, day to day, say that I feel like our doing this is a duty. But we do have to ask ourselves what it's actually for, because there is a certain circularity. Never have I felt that more than with the rise of Kendi. Because Kendi's rise is just the same thing as Coates. And I'm not saying that to dismiss either one of them, despite the fact that everybody knows how I feel specifically about both of them. But the thing is, Kendi, there is nothing we have to say about Kendi that we couldn't have said about Coates six or seven years ago, and six or seven years before that you could have picked somebody else. And so it just kind of keeps going around and around. There's certain people that see things one way and certain people that see things another and certain people that are in the middle. And I think that you and I are in the middle rather than on the hard right.
But the question is, does what we do serve as a purpose? We're supposed to say, well, we're being part of the conversation, right? I feel like we're representing people in the middle who see that there's something wrong with the radical left being treated as the norm. But the question does become sometimes, what exactly is this conversation for? So I write a book like Woke Racism, and a bunch of people read it. For what? What is it for? And I don't know if you have an answer to that question, but there's some days when I think to myself, to an extent, we're alive. We're gonna converse. We're gonna express our opinions and let the historians decide what anything was for. But yeah, I do have that feeling, especially when we spend so much time at it.
I've got three answers to that question. I'm trying to stay in touch with reality, I'm trying to save the soul of my country, and I'm trying to save the dignity of my people. In touch with reality—there's just a lot of bullshit craziness and lying that goes on. So the idea that it's open season on black people and the cops are hunting black people down is a lie. It's untrue. It's false. There's a lot of lying. The summer of 2020—I'm not going to rant here, I'm going to stop the rant in midstream—the summer of 2020 was an absolute disaster in terms of “mostly peaceful protests” that actually were looting, riotous, violent, anti-police demonstrations that raise fundamental questions. And we'll talk about the Rittenhouse trial and so forth and so on.
Anyway, the country's future is at stake with how we parse the race question. Did you see the fires? Did you see North Michigan Avenue? Did you see what happened on Rodeo Drive? Did you see what happened in New York City? This is not nothing. This is important. So I'm fighting for the soul of my country.
And finally, I'm fighting for the dignity of my people. I actually want racial equality, not a client patronage regime. Incompetent and mediocre black people get passed over and patted on the head instead of developed to their full human potential. Where criminals are looked askance at as they murder their own people in the scores, in the hundreds, on the streets of the cities of this country, and everybody pats them on the head and says, “No, no, no. You didn't do anything wrong. You're poor. You're marginal. And it's all about the police.”
So I'm fighting for the dignity of my people, because I don't think Americans, on the whole, are fools. I think they actually know what violent, criminal, savage behavior on the streets of America looks like. They know to fear it, and they know that the people who do it are beneath contempt. The fact that editorial writers at major newspapers are prepared to give them a pass doesn't mean that America is giving them a pass. The equality that I want is an equality of black people standing on our own two feet.
So the reason I talk about race is because I'm not a fool. I'm trying to stay in touch with reality. You wrote the column yourself just a few weeks ago, about all of these liberal falsehoods that people feed us left and right. A physics professor at [San Diego State University] or whatever. I was going to allude to the physics job announcement, which required a person who was going to teach going through some diversity and inclusion. I mean, so I'm just trying to stay in touch, because that's bizarre. To ask a physics professor how their instruction is going to advance the agenda of diversity and inclusion is surreal. It's beyond Orwellian. So I'm trying to stay in touch with reality.
I'm fighting for the soul of my country, because if we let these people have their way, they'll ruin us and we'll be at each other's throat. And I'm vying for the dignity of my people, because there's only one kind of equality worth having, and that's the equality where you can pull your own weight, not where people feel as sorry for you because your great-grandfather was a slave.
Mmhmm. You know, I'm beginning to think that a really major plank of my feeling about all this is that the purpose that we might be serving is teaching people, black and white, but I must admit it's mostly white—that's delicate for a lot of people—teaching them to have the balls to stand up and say no to the excesses. And I wonder if we're expecting something too subtle, in that I think our idea is not that these people need to think that there's no such thing as racism, that there are not racial inequities that need to be addressed. We're not saying ignore those things. We're not saying there's no such thing as racism. That's what our detractors like to think we're saying because it's fun to imagine somebody saying that we're not saying that.
But we're saying when you have something like a school deciding whether one physicist or another would be a better faculty member on the basis of whether or not they've read the proper antiracist literature and have gone out into the community and acted upon it, that we say, “Stand up. Say no. Say that that's taking it too far, it doesn't make any sense, and it doesn't help anybody, and it's not out to make physics blacker in the first place.” And I think if we could play some part in creating in the culture a bit more of a backbone about standing up to where antiracism becomes religious nonsense—not that all religion is nonsense, but a nonsense kind of religion—then maybe we're serving our purpose there.
And of course there's a certain type who hears that and thinks that we are interested in getting white people's money for saying things they want to hear. But I'm not sure a lot of white people want to hear what I just said. That you have to not only spray yourself for racism—which one should—but you have to stand up to that intimidating person who stands up at the meeting and says that if you don't agree with their silliness, you're a white supremacist. You have to have the balls, especially if you have tenure. And of course, I'm thinking about that setting because it's the one that I know best. But any setting, and just say, “No, I'm sorry,” and have the basis for saying no. Be able to defend yourself. Understand what these people stand for and what their assumptions are and be able to call them on it. And walk off proud, and even take some dings, especially on social media.
I think that's a worthy purpose, because that means that we're having a more mature culture. And I think the connection between that and political activism may seem somewhat abstract, but I would say that it's more concrete than the connection between people sitting around in circles talking about their white privilege and actually changing the life of somebody on the ground.