When Victimology Goes Too Far

with John McWhorter

In this excerpt from a recent conversation with John McWhorter, we discuss the psychology and power dynamics of victimhood. As John points out, there is a body of research suggesting that individuals who think of themselves as victims—whether or not they’ve actually been victimized—are exhibiting a deeply human behavior. Claiming the mantle of victimhood can serve as a “psychological balm,” as John puts it, one that can soothe people who feel—again, justifiably or not—that they’ve been wronged.

So there is a psychology of victimhood, but there is also a politics of victimhood. The latter is most concerning to me, as you’ll see below. The false claim that all Black people in the U.S. are equally imperiled by systemic racism has become a powerful political weapon. It’s a lie, and we have to insist on saying it’s a lie or we will face dire consequences as a society.


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GLENN LOURY: I remember Losing the Race. That was your first big book. 2000, if I'm not mistaken. And I remember the argument of Losing the Race. That argument was, Black people were lagging for—you had three reasons—anti-intellectualism, separatism, and a focus on victim status. Amazingly, I think, your argument from 21 years ago remains pretty relevant. And we were going to talk about the victimization part of that.

How we get out of Losing the Race kind of thing is a pressing question, because 20 years is a long time, John. Are we still stuck in somewhat of the same cul-de-sac here in the year 2021 as you perceived us at the end of the 1990s? And what do you see—I'm asking you now as the interviewer—as some possible ways that we might break the logjam and change the conversation? Which is what we here at the Glenn Show, we wokebuster Black Guys here at the Glenn Show are trying to do. We're trying to change the conversation. And this victim thing seems to be very deeply etched in to the psyche of the African American population. I wonder what we can do about that.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Losing the Race had a nested argument. It was saying that there's this obsession with victimhood and exaggeration of victimhood. What flows from that is a sense that therefore the rules for us must be different. We must change our standards of evaluation. Where we are with that today is Ibram Kendi, that whole notion of what we need to do.

What’s nested in that sense that the rules must be different is the idea that to be an intellectual, unless it's about racism, is white. That it's something other people do. I was saying that that is nested within that sense that the rules for us need to be separate. And I referred to the cult of victimology. I had picked up the word
”victimology” from it being used one time by Orlando Patterson, and I just thought it was kind of catchy. In retrospect, I think that the word victimology, although it's kind of catchy, has an air of dismissal about it that made some people think that I was making fun.

But here we are, 21 years later, and I want to get past things. Very often we are justifiably called these two guys who just sit here complaining. And on this, I really do want to explore getting past the victim thing. Part of it is that we have to scientize it, so to speak. That's not really a word, or if it is, it shouldn't be. But I am noticing that there's a literature about a victimization mentality among human beings. And notice, I didn't say Black people, I said human beings.

There is an identified exaggeration of victimhood that some people fall into. This is what's important. They fall into this regardless of whether they have been victimized in any significant way. You might become a professional victim because something horrible happened to you. That might happen. But this literature shows that, actually, nothing might have happened to you. You just fall into it because it's a psychological balm in many ways. And this isn't all I read—I actually kind of went down the rabbit hole on this until the jargon got to the point that I couldn't understand—but Scott Barry Kaufman, who I'm actually going to have a talk with on his podcast very soon, he did a very nice summation of a lot of this sort of thing in a Scientific American article, where you get a sense of who's been working on this.

The people who are working on this are not thinking about Black people, or at least they don't show it. Kaufman actually is an exception on this in that he does discuss the Black issue somewhat. But you know, these are people in academia. They're not going to touch race issues. So even if they're thinking about it, they're not going to say it. But when you read about the symptoms of this victimization complex, you cannot help but recognize a certain strain of Black thought, which is exactly the kind that I was trying to get at back in the year 2000 that we're still talking about.

This is the question. And this is what I want to run by you. This is where our society is at this point. In 1970, society is learning that racism is more than the n-word and burning crosses. You're learning that there is systemic racism. You're learning that there are subtle racist biases that you may not have been aware of. And there's a whole industry of people who are burning to teach America that, and I'm glad that they did. We are much more sophisticated about that now, in 2021, than we were in 1970—all of us for the most part. So America learns that.

Now we're at this very fragile point where, because Black people are human beings, a certain number of us are going to fall into this noble victim complex. Because it happens to all human beings. But when it happens to Black human beings, what you do is you pretend that racism is worse for you than it is. You pretend that racism is worse for your people than it is, because it gives you a feeling of significance. This is not a Black thing. This is a human thing. But the way it manifests itself among Black people is that. And what that means is for example, Wilfred Reilly's book is a whole book ...

Oh, about hoaxes. Yeah.

Get this, folks: The Hate Crime Hoax.

Yeah. I've interviewed him here. It's in the archives of the Glenn Show about that book.

Watch that one again, folks, if you haven't seen it. Because what people are thinking is, Oh yeah, there's the occasional chucklehead. But the problem is—this is hard, this is a hard thing to say—it's not occasional. It's rather endemic. There's a great deal of this kind of exaggeration, enough that could fill that book and enough that what you see … All of us are thinking it sometimes, A lot of these people are exaggerating. It's not that there's no racism. It's not that the cops are anything close to angels. Far from it. But there's a lot of exaggeration.

The question is why. And you can't just throw up your hands. Maybe you're more interested in other things. But why is the operation of this victimization complex within the parameters of this culture where white people are uniquely positioned to hear out Black people talking about their victimization, both real and unreal. This is where we are right now in this culture, and I don't know if we're up for the challenge.

I think of a person—everybody who watches this know that I have these archetypes or stereotypes in my mind. I think of this probably 50-year-old, educated white woman who lives in Ann Arbor or Park Slope or something like that. I even know this woman's name, but I'm not going to say what this woman's name is. And she is watching all of this stuff. She understands that racism is more than Archie Bunker. But she also sees that a lot of things that have been happening, especially since 2020—these manifestos from organizations where the idea is to turn everything over to this anti-racist commitment, as if the organization before was racist when it clearly wasn't in any coherent sense. She sees that and she knows that's not right. That woman's challenge—it's not only women, but I just think of a woman—that woman's challenge is to identify at what point she is comfortable saying to Black people who make these kinds of claims and white people who make it on our behalf, no.

Because some of this stuff is based on a frame of mind that human beings can fall into that is not engaging reality. All psychologists know it, and you can't pretend that Black people are exceptions because of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining. We're not exceptions. It happens to us too. And what it means is that we have to face that this is real, that this is not just the occasional person, that there's just some of that.

It's real. It's a problem. A great many Black people are exaggerating in a way that deserves to be dismissed. I'm so sorry: dismissed. And white America is at a point where it has to understand, at a certain point, you have to have the spine to say no. I'm thinking that if we think more concretely about this victimization complex, we can do that. The idea is not just to say, You people are stupid or We're not going to listen to the concerns of you people. The idea is to understand what the symptoms are of this victimization complex, as opposed to observing genuinely grievous and fixable things in a society.

Glenn, do you think that society can do that? Because I think that's what the issue is. Knowing where a certain line has to be drawn and acknowledging that Black people can be noble victims, just like people in Malaysia, Australia, or a white, upper middle class suburb. It manifests itself among Black people in something that's creating this very challenging moment, on what's being called a “racial reckoning” that is too often just a racial blackmailing, and everybody knows it, and everybody's afraid to do anything about it. Are we up to it?

No. I think we've got to persist in this mode for awhile. I think you put your finger on the central point right at the end. It's a racial blackmailing. It's a power move. This is power that we're talking about here.

I want to say a couple of preliminary things. First, Wilfred Reilly is talking about not just exaggeration. He's talking about hoaxes, lies. It wasn't just that you overstated the injury. It was that there was no injury at all. You actually put the noose outside of your own dorm room door, or whatever it might be. So I think the analysis of that has to also include credulity, the fact that you have the anticipation that the lie is going to be believed. It has to include that the press are not going to actually expose the lie. In other words, you're confident that the investigation is not going to get to the underlying truth, because the the powers that be, whether they be in the media or they be in the administration of a university or whatever, are are reluctant to dig very deeply into what's going on.

I see that in a lot of these cases where cops are supposed to have victimized unarmed or innocent people. And when you look a little bit deeper at the thing, you find out, well, they may have been unarmed but they certainly were not innocent. And it turns out that they have a long history of behaviors that are problematic. But to report that would be to go against a certain kind of narrative and people know that it's not going to be reported et cetera. So I think it's a power grab.

And if it feels good to be a victim, it feels good to be a victim who's lionized. George Floyd: a victim. A victim for sure. I'm not confused about whether or not he was victimized. But he was buried in a state funeral. That was a state funeral. There was a gold casket. The eulogies preached over him were emblematic of national statements about the sort of quickening consciousness and commitment to redress, deep American ...

Now, I don't know that the incident that befell him—regrettable. He was a murderer, he's been convicted. I'm talking about Derek Chauvin, the man who killed George Floyd. He's been convicted, rightly, for his crime. So it was a horrible thing that happened to him. But the aura of victimology fits with a certain kind of narrative about the reality of race in America that was so overwhelmingly powerful that the narrative of the event becomes blinkered, very narrow, not looking left to right, not looking deeply, not thinking critically. I mean, we haven't gone and interviewed anybody who knew George Floyd when he was 18 years old, except for them to say he was a choir boy. So there's a kind of phoniness to it. And I don't know that the forces at play in American political, cultural life are anywhere close to coming to grips with this.

I'll give just one example and I'll turn it back over to you. In the interview that Michelle Obama gave to Gayle King that was aired on CBS [This Morning], she was asked whether she worried, as many Black families do, about the wellbeing of their children, the possibility that they'll be victimized by racist police officers, and things of this kind. Her daughters, Sasha and Malia, are of an age now where they're approaching adulthood. They have a driver's license, they go out on their own, this, that, and the other. And Michelle Obama allowed as how she did have some concerns, as any Black parent would have, about a police officer seeing the back of their heads and mistaking them for somebody else because of some kind of an implicit bias or some kind of stereotype or something like that.

Now that fits the victimhood narrative perfectly. I mean, what is that saying? That's saying that, I don't care what happens to you in life if you're Black. I don't care if you become a billionaire, if you're Oprah Winfrey or LeBron James or Michelle Obama. I don't care if you become president of the United States. I'm not going to care if you become one of the most lionized and celebrated personalities in your cohort of human beings on the planet. You're Black in America, and the cops still might drag your child out by the hair and beat the shit out of them for no good reason, just because they're Black.

Now first of all, that is false, in in my considered opinion, as a description of the risk being borne by Sasha and Malia Obama in white America. It's simply false. It's not true. They're not at any significant risk ..

You are correct

… of being having the shit beaten out of them by cops because they look like a criminal.

The word being “significant”.

Yeah, not at any significant risk. It's not something that a mother needs to stay up at night [worrying about]. So I think it's simply a false statement. I could almost call it a lie. Secondly, I don't believe the Michelle Obama even believes it. I don't believe that she actually worries about the wellbeing of her children from their estate on Martha's Vineyard, when the kids venture into Edgartown for a meal or whatever, that a Martha's Vineyard cop is gonna fuck 'em up. Excuse me.

I don't believe she even believes it. I believe it's a performance. I believe that she's saying what fits a certain kind of political, psychological narrative that is a part of the power play being undertaken in American politics by people like herself and the democratic party and the race mongers like Al Sharpton and Benjamin Crump and the others who are getting paid. Not only paid in the currency of money, but paid in the currency of celebrity and political influence.

This is deeply etched into the American political psyche right now. Those people are not going to let go of the power levers that they have their hands on voluntarily. Why am I the only one who's criticizing her? Charles Blow, in the New York Times, wrote in response to Michelle's statement that, Ah, finally. The Obama's are unbound and they can talk truthfully about race relations. This is Charles Blow, the columnist at the New York Times, the African American Charles Blowhard—as my wife, lovely LaJuan, refers to Charles Blow—pontificating at the New York Times.

Not only the contrary, which is that it's untrue about Michelle Obama's children, that they're at risk from the cops and Michelle Obama knows it and said it knowing that it was untrue. Not only does he reject what I just said, he goes on to say, Ah, at last. The Obamas are unbound because they're no longer in the White House. They are no longer accountable to the political process. They don't have to hold their punches anymore, and they can tell the truth. The whole thing is full of crap. A lot of people know it's full of crap. I cannot be the only person who knows that that's a b.s. power move that Michelle Obama played. But nobody's willing to say it.

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