It is perhaps inevitable that the kind of news that sticks with us most is the kind that makes you go, "Now it's on!" or "Wouldn't you know?" But the good news is important, too, and not just because it's sweet to look on the bright side, but because good news teaches us crucial things about reality, just as the bad news does.
Let's start with two recent announcements. First, during the last decade, black businesses grew at three times the national average rate. That's major. More drily stated, black businesses increased by 60 percent, but the figure to keep in mind is the comparative one: three times as fast, plus.
There's nothing sad hiding behind these simple facts, as long as we understand that in a period of transition, of course black businesses will not have as large a footprint as white ones. The issue is whether something is getting much better and fast. It is.
These businesses are not just a matter of service jobs. They include socially beneficial businesses: health care and social work. They include repair and maintenance businesses, which means not "people barred from the middle class" but people working with their hands. These businesses hire almost a million paid workers. And all of this grew at more than three times the national rate.
Next: During the same decade, there was something else that more than tripled: the number of black students taking Advanced Placement exams in preparation for college admission. Ten years ago when I started commenting on race and education, it was often argued that the reason universities needed to have separate admissions standards for black students was that so few black students had the opportunity to take A.P. courses.
OK — but look at what has happened since. Here, we are in a transition. Black students are still not doing as well on the exams as we would like. But no one would expect that they would hit the ground acing these tests. What's important is that they are taking them.
As for the black businesses, as the National Black Chamber of Commerce's Harry C. Alford puts it, among black people, "capitalism is catching on like wildfire." Calvin Coolidge famously had it that the chief business of the American people is business; President Obama put it less baldly in his U.S. Chamber of Commerce speech last week, stating, "We need to make America the best place on earth to do business." Black people, as Americans, have the bug and have gone with it. And it's been working.
Some preach about how America is "set against" us. Others, often of an Ivied cast, hint that the truly informed black thinker courts Marxism. Just as commonly, we hear that America has yet to "fulfill its promise" where black people are concerned.
People who think this way have the right to their views. But there is an alternate view that seems to be working out better. Namely, the system isn't perfect and it certainly isn't set up to favor black effort. But black capitalists are in there hustling, and succeeding. And not just BET and B. Smith.
And another thing people do is work with what there is. On the Advanced Placement testing issue, there are few more disempowering myths regarding black kids and education than that the problem is just a matter of black public schools needing a cash influx. Again and again it is shown that this doesn't work (a good example is here); the issue is what schools do with the money.
I have written before about how using the proper techniques to teach reading demonstrates this. Another example is that over the past 10 years, the word has gotten out among educators of all races, as well as to black parents, that getting black kids to college requires steering them to A.P. courses. We do not live in an America where funding is equal between black public schools in the city and white ones in the suburbs. But look what happened regardless.
Things like this are behind my lack of enthusiasm for fatalistic rhetoric about how black problems cannot change, short of what currently is called a governmental "black agenda." Ten years ago, the term of art was "reparations," but the meaning was essentially the same — that black people need some kind of rupture in the way America works.
There is always good music in that point, and in the intonations and gestures that typically go along with it. But year by year, the routine seems ever more otherworldly. Good things are happening here in real life, as they will always be. Attention must be paid.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He 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.