The Price of an Unpopular Argument
with John McWhorter
If you want to see “the race debate” unfold, you have no shortage of outlets to turn to. Thousands of hours of new race-related content pop up every day on cable news, talk radio, podcasts, newsletters, and YouTube. If you’re tired of hearing partisan left-right talking head punditry, the digital democratization of the media has made pretty much any point of view on race in America—from the benign to the malignant—available to you, if you do a little digging.
On The Glenn Show, I often say things that I nevertheless categorize as “unsayable.” But I haven’t been booted off Twitter (at least not yet). I haven’t been fired or jailed for anything I’ve said. People have gotten mad and said disparaging things about me in public, but that’s their right. So why does it feel like there are certain things “one can’t say” about race?
Violating the progressive line on race can have less easily definable social and professional costs than a Twitter ban or the FBI knocking on your door. As John McWhorter points out in the following excerpt from our recent live event at the Comedy Cellar, simply stating the facts about crime and racial disparities can lead people to look askance at you or cut you off entirely, to regard you as politically untrustworthy or disreputable. To insist, as I do below, that the out-of-wedlock birthrate among black Americans is a scandal can invite the same response.
There is every reason in the world to ignore an unpopular argument. After all, if you evaluate it and find it convincing, you’re faced with a difficult choice: Adopt it and become unpopular yourself or repress it and live with the dishonesty. Unfortunately, there are far more incentives for the latter than the former. No one wants to lose a friend or alienate a relative over politics. But when the unpopular argument proves to be the correct one, the social benefits to the individual may come at the expense of those—black single mothers and their children, for example—who simply cannot afford to fall any further behind.
The irony is that if everybody agreed to evaluate these arguments on their merits rather than seeking to avoid social opprobrium, we wouldn’t have this particular problem in the first place. It wouldn’t solve every problem, but at the very least it would free some people from living in bad faith.
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JOHN MCWHORTER: The reason for this disproportion in black crime is racism. Didn't you know that? I mean, when I see a disproportion between white and black people in behavior or achievement, what I see is racism. Last time I checked, that was the wisest way for an enlightened person to think about these things that rises above all the possible biases that we might have. And so these young men are doing these things because we live in a racist society where they have no choice. Didn't you know that? Just trying to remind you of the truth.
GLENN LOURY: I don't take any pleasure in broaching this issue. I'm just trying to be faithful to the forum and to what it is that we do when we talk.
You realize I'm kidding.
No, that's complete bullshit. I mean, come on. That's bullshit. You took a pistol and fired it out the window of your car driving past the gang rival and ended up killing a little six-year-old sitting on our auntie's lap because of racism? Nobody believes that.
He didn't have a dad. He didn't have a dad.
Oh, and that's due to racism?
Don't shoot that gun out the window.
The fact his father was irresponsible and wouldn't take care of his own children is due to racism? Come on. Nobody believes that.
The war on drugs was instituted partly because of racism, and that's probably what sent his dad up the river.
Okay. I mean, I have heard that argument, but it's just complete BS, man. Come on. I don't know, you guys can tell us—we can take some questions at the end—whether or not this is crazy. I don't think anybody believes it.
And now here we hit this point, but I think it's an important point. Omar. Omar does this. It's this character that we've created. Is Omar evil for shooting that gun out the window, or has Omar grown up watching people do that and thinks it's the only way to prove his masculinity? And now I'm not kidding. In Omar's head, that's all he knows. I can't hate Omar. I just think it's a shame that Omar has grown up somewhere where that's a norm.
I don't hate him. I'm mad as hell at him, and I'm prepared to judge his behavior as contemptible. And there well may be reasons why he has behaved in that way and I'm not sure your story exhausts the list of what those reasons might be. But if we can't hold people accountable for their behavior, we have no civilization, at the end of the day. If we can't make judgments.
Omar fires his pistol, the bullet goes through the brain of that six-year-old, she's now dead. That was an evil act. That's a that's a misshapen human being who committed that act. That act has to be judged. And the fact that his dad abandoned him? Everybody's got a story. The racist guy that walked into that market in Buffalo and murdered those people has a story. I'm not gonna let that story obscure my clarity about the evilness of that act. Likewise, Omar.
There is, well, a lot of things bother me. But one thing that bothers me a lot is that—and this is a non-black thing. This is me caricaturing white people a little bit, and I'm sorry. But the idea that if you are an educated white person, you're supposed to see these obvious discrepancies, these obvious evils, and the clear, strong tendency for things like this to be black American men. Some Latinos, essentially no Asians, a trickle of whites do these sorts of things, for example, in New York every year. Any idiot can see it. The fact that the educated white person looks over your shoulder and shakes their head and thinks, “Well ...” And you know they're thinking it's racism of some kind, and everybody knows that doesn't make sense, but you can't address it. And then you move on and you start talking about Breaking Bad or something like that. You can't address it.
To be a black person in that situation, and to be the kind of black person who does not pretend to think that it's racism, is so uncomfortable. I always think to myself, especially if they don't know me and they [don’t] know my positions, do they think that I think it's racism and that therefore I can't engage with reality? But then I think to myself, this is a birthday party or something. I don't wanna talk about this. And so we move on, and we talk about Hacks and, you know, whatever else, because we're finished watching Breaking Bad.
And it really is a drag. I wish we could have more productive conversations about this. For example, why does Omar do it? I wish there were an honest level we could all talk on. But we can't. That's the nature of being at certain gatherings to me.
And if I'm with a lot of my family, it's easier. Because a lot of them feel more like you than I do. It's when you're at that, frankly, mostly white Park Slope birthday party where it has to be a fake conversation, and everybody keeps looking over my shoulder. I'm always wondering, what's back there? It certainly isn't the truth. And so it's very uncomfortable.
Well, I was just gonna remark, there's a class dimension to this. I mean, you're in Park Slope and that cocktail party, or whatever, is what it is.
I'm almost never in Park Slope. But, yeah, that setting.
But if you're in a church basement in a hardcore inner city neighborhood where a lot of people have lost their kids to this kind of thing, I think the conversation is going to be different. I once interviewed Mr. C and his acolytes of the Rose Street Community Center in Baltimore. He's a black guy, an older guy who has devoted his life to trying to help young people deal with the situations and avoid the temptations and whatnot. “They got jobs over at Johns Hopkins. They're hiring people. You guys ought to go over there. Let's pray this morning before we set out on a day that is fraught with all kind of temptation and all kind of stuff.”
He's in every city.
Yeah, you got a guy like that in every city. And you talk to him. Now, his cohorts have lost, you know, my sister, my son, my father killed by gun violence in the city, killed by people wielding guns in the city and so on. And I asked him. I said, “Are you mad? Because I'm mad.” And they equivocated a little bit. They didn't wanna just say, straight up, they were angry. They didn't want to just point a finger. Because there but for the grace of God go I.
I mean, one guy told a story about how he wanted to go get revenge, because his sister had been murdered and he thought he knew who had done it. And he thought that the police officer who gave him a clue as to who had done it was baiting him to try to encourage him to go and commit the crime so that the police officer could then come around and arrest him for committing the crime, he thought. He hated the cops, but he also hated the guy that killed his sister, and he was on the horns of a dilemma. So I mean, there's a kind of ambiguity, a kind of mixed feelings of my anger and your sadness, a kind of resignation. This is the hand we've been dealt. But also a sense that this is not right. Because it's not right!
It's not right. And actually Ian [Rowe]'s book is about using family and education and focus on entrepreneurship. He has an acronym.
And religion, John.
I just gave you FEE, and I was leaving out the R.
The R is for “religion,” John.
I was gonna get to it at the end. I was gonna make it FEER. And so it's family, religion—you see, I read this book very quickly, but it was very good—education, and entrepreneurship. And the idea is it … It's funny. You and I apparently, if you look on the Twitter, we deny that racism exists or a certain kind of person says we underplay it. But the truth is we know it exists, and so does Ian. The idea is, what do you do despite it? It's always gonna rain. There will always be germs. We can get past it.
And there seems to be this idea that if you're black American, and it's after about 1960, there's something unique that's happened in human history. Human history starts probably somewhere in East Africa about 300,000 years ago, depending on what you call a human being. All sorts of things have happened. People have spread all over the world, and there's been the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution and television and Blu-ray and all these things.
And now here we are, and black Americans are the only people who can't overcome, who need a complete overhaul of general conditions before we can do any better than okay. That is such a depressing message. But the idea seems to be that racism's just too much. We have no agency. Ian's book is called Agency, da da, da, da. But it's called Agency. I don't remember the subtitle. But he thinks that we have agency. And yet, you can be sure as shit that there are gonna be reviews of that book where he's accused of being this patronizing black conservative who's telling us to pull ourselves up by these things called bootstraps that I actually don't know what they are. I think that is such a shame that somebody says, “Here's what you can do despite it.” And they're told, “You are just a conservative. Be gone. We're gonna sit here and cry together.” I don't get it.
Well, you're preaching to the choir on that one, man. I mean, I think it makes a mockery of the very idea of freedom. And it makes a kind of joke out of the notion of equality. Freedom to do what? Freedom to live responsibly and to take responsibility for the consequences of your choices. Equality in what sense? Equality in the sense that I have earned your respect. You don't give it to me because I'm a bellyacher. You don't give it to me because, again, my ancestors were violated. You give it to me because you respect what it is I've done with the freedom that characterizes my life.
So all of this bellyaching, excuse-making, and so forth—and this is just me—and, you know, I almost want to apologize, because I realize how out of step this kind of sentiment is in the day of racial reckoning and post-George Floyd enlightenment. But I think it's a path to a kind of permanent second-class citizenship not by law but by the consequence of the failure to actually seize the possibilities of your own freedom.
I mean, for example, seven in ten babies born to an African American woman in this country [are] born to a woman without a husband. How's that healthy? How does that lay the groundwork for a prosperous and flourishing subsequent generation? We don't need fathers? No, no, no. I can't say that, because, well, the feminists won't let me say it. You feminists won't let me say it because it lionizes fatherhood and the family, because it's 1950s? Yeah, I'm in my 70s. I was born in 1948. I actually think the nuclear family is a mainstay in the foundation of our civilization. I think some of this violence that you're seeing amongst these young men is a consequence of the collapse of the institution of the family.
I think that's something to be lamented. I think it's something that a free people, a free, self-respecting African American people, could direct our attention to. Not the government, not reparations, but we seizing the imperatives of our own freedom. That's what I think. But given that the tenor of the times is exactly the opposite of what I'm saying, I'm in despair. I don't think the future holds much prospect of an improvement in this situation.