There's More Than One Way to Insult Blacks

Herman Cain's "brainwashed" comment is not as insidious as charges of abandoning the race.

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My mother and father did not move out of a naive, heartless view of poor blacks. Mom was on her way to becoming a social work professor beloved by her (mostly black) students at Temple University for teaching them about the operations of systemic racism and inequity. She grew up in segregated Atlanta, participated in sit-ins, swooned over Julian Bond and even lit into me when I was 10 and said that I wanted to be a paleontologist, because it wouldn't make a contribution to "the Struggle."

Yet she lit into me in, yes, a nice duplex with a pretty lawn, in a neighborhood where no one was getting shot, the public schools were solid and the streets were wide and well-paved. She and my father worked hard to allow my sister and me to grow up there, and were happy that conditions in America were now such that we could.

We surely do not expect Shelli and John McWhorter in 1968 to have thought, "We can't leave this neighborhood because low-skill factory jobs are drying up slowly, and between that and our absence as role models, 20 years from now this neighborhood will be a war zone."

Never mind that this sociological analysis has serious flaws anyway. The main thing is that ordinary people are not sociologists, much less clairvoyant.

This isn't hard to understand, and the "disloyal middle class" notion is in many ways more gossip than analysis. That is, how many people could look a now-elderly black couple in the eye and tell them that their leaving the ghetto to raise their kids somewhere nice was an elitist, traitorous, anti-black act? It reminds me of Kanye West, happily calling George Bush a racist on TV but then squirming when Matt Lauer made him watch himself doing it, and own it, on the Today show.

It would seem that only certain types are allowed to dis the black community. If Herman Cain does it, he's our piñata for the week -- not a proper black man, and so on. But if a scholar does it from the left, then spitting in the eyes of millions of innocent black couples who moved on up a bit qualifies as wisdom incarnate.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor to The Root.

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John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The RootHe is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

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