Perverse Psychology

By Amy L. Alexander,
the co-author of "Lay My Burden Down" who is working on a book on race and the press
Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Beyond the Crisis in Black America

By John McWhorter

Gotham. 432 pp. $27.50

John McWhorter is not a psychiatrist or even a psychologist, but he plays one in his new book, "Winning the Race." Much more so than in his previous look at race relations, "Losing the Race" (2000), McWhorter, a linguistics professor and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, takes a stab at a weird, amateurish brand of pop psychology to show why black folks in America need to move beyond racism and get on with their lives.

In "Losing the Race," he dubbed self-defeating black behavior "victimology" -- not exactly an original concept. (See Shelby Steele's similar treatise from 1990, "The Content of Our Character.") McWhorter at least used language that, while stale at the core, sought to update Steele's views, which were decidedly rooted in the pre-civil rights era: "Much more often in modern black America," McWhorter wrote, "victimhood . . . simply called attention to where it barely exists if at all. All too often, this is done not with a view toward forging solutions, but to foster and nurture an unfocused brand of resentment and sense of alienation from the mainstream."

Now, in "Winning the Race," McWhorter has refined this idea and spruced it up with a catchy new term: therapeutic alienation. As in, "alienation unconnected to, or vastly disproportionate to, real-life stimulus, but maintained because it reinforces one's sense of psychological legitimacy, via defining oneself against an oppressor characterized as eternally depraved." From there, he pursues a bizarre premise that is wearying to those of us who happen to believe otherwise: Starting in the 1960s, black Americans were misled by those entitled, hippy-dippy, counterculture white folks into believing that rebelling against "The Man" was the best way to assert our identity. Moreover, once we'd bought into the anti-Establishment tip, they led us, sheeplike, onto the soul-killing rolls of the Welfare State.

As McWhorter sees it, "where white radicals taught us to take a page from their new animus against The Suits and thumb our noses at The System and go on welfare because whitey wasn't devoted to us getting ahead, they sent us to hell." This theory, simplistic and vaguely insulting, is nonetheless a marginally fresh spin on an old trope. (See the writings of Booker T. Washington, along with Steele.) But it is also evidence that -- despite having been born in 1965, during the apex of the civil rights movement -- McWhorter seems to have lived a life truly charmed. In his world, black Americans have no good reason to continue to feel injured over slavery, Jim Crow, polling taxes, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, unfair lending practices, the widening minority health-care gap, "driving while black," the dragging death of James Byrd or the myriad racial slights that many blacks still experience at the hands of unenlightened whites. As McWhorter explains it, continuing to feel injured by racism is a self-defeating "tic" that black folks need to simply will away, like giving up sweets.

While I agree with his suggestion that individual will should, in the best of all possible worlds, overcome the ongoing, increasingly subtle signs of racism and discrimination that exist in America, I realize that many black Americans lack the skills, emotional and social, to surmount such signs. For millions of blacks, in suburbia and in the inner cities, this is not the best of all possible worlds. And certainly, for low-income blacks in our ever-fluctuating jobs environment, times are tough, indeed: Did "therapeutic alienation" create those images of so many black residents of New Orleans abandoned in the swamped city? An unfair observation, perhaps, since McWhorter wrote "Winning the Race" before disaster struck the Gulf Coast. At the same time, the large number of low-income black Gulf Coast residents whose threadbare lives were so vividly "exposed" to a wider, willfully ignorant America are just part of a larger population of isolated, underemployed, undereducated citizens who reside in all corners of this great land. The coal-rich hills of Appalachia and the agricultural breadbasket of central California, to cite but two examples, hold high numbers of poor whites whose perilous conditions continually stump nearly all attempts at improvement.

Curiously determined to take down several prominent black academics, McWhorter sets up a scenario, for example, in which "left-leaning" academics and journalists such as Harvard economist William Julius Wilson and Elijah Anderson of Temple University offer up excuses for black underachievement. Wilson, McWhorter says, got it wrong in his 1996 book, "When Work Disappears," because he fails to see that black people can simply move when industries pull up stakes.

McWhorter's views make sense only if one is willing to play fast and loose with the history of blacks in America and its genuine psychological impact. Black mental-health professionals who have studied black behavior and self-image, including Alvin Poussaint of Harvard, with whom I collaborated on a book, provide cold-eyed, non-ideological analyses of the numerous ways that the cold drag of history continues to play a serious mind game on many black Americans. Is there a wealth of self-defeating behavior out there? Sure. But without excusing such behavior, one must also admit that black Americans for centuries have existed outside the remedies supposedly found within the medical and mental-health-care establishment and, in many cases, have been victimized by it.

McWhorter, like Steele before him, appears much more willing to ascribe negative psychological traits to the black underclass as some kind of luxurious, comforting fallback position, without admitting that discrimination has played a big role in damaging blacks' self-image. Plus, by giving us glimpses of his own middle-class upbringing, McWhorter comes off as spoiled and out of touch. His protestations to the contrary -- "It is not that I am unaware of racism or never experience it. The issue is how I process it as I go through life" -- it is hard to imagine McWhorter surviving more than five minutes outside the sequestered world of highfalutin universities and conservative think tanks that has so eagerly embraced him.

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