Ron Christie's new book on black poindexters getting called out for "acting white" is welcome in many ways. What a year, for one, when we get two books putting paid to the myth that people calling attention to the "acting white" charge are just fantasizing. Not to mention that it's always good to see smart writing from black people of the right. It's one more strike against the idea that conservative blacks are brittle, co-opted quislings rather than people with minds of their own.
But on that topic, Christie, a political commentator who was once a special assistant to George W. Bush, did disappoint me in one way, of a sort commonly encountered in books from people of his mind. Christie, like Clarence Thomas, Ward Connerly, Armstrong Williams and lesser-known conservative black writers, describes black objectors as refusing to allow him to have his own opinions.
As someone who is commonly grouped with those above, I am quite familiar with the kind of flak that Christie and the others have taken. And in that light, I respectfully suggest that the idea that black people are strangely opposed to ideological diversity is incorrect. It is not why people like Christie and me get called Uncle Toms and so on.
I find myself with advice I would give to the increasing numbers of young blacks disputing the old orthodoxies on race who will be writing ever more books and columns and blogs in the future.
Here goes: Thinking that black people just "won't let you have your own opinion" leaves the debate at a stalemate, because it is a misunderstanding of what is behind all the name-calling. It is safe to say that not a single black person, asked whether he or she thinks that all black people should think alike, would say yes.
The problem black people have is with a certain realm of black thought, and their problem with it is, on its face, sensible. Their objection is not as easily dismissed as a mere dumbbell notion that all black people are supposed to think alike.
The people calling you names operate on a basic proposition: that racism remains black people's main problem, even though today it is generally more institutional than overt. They feel that, short of the elimination of this racism, poor black people will be incapable of improving their lives. To them, the main job of black people of influence is to continually remind America of this, and those who do not do this risk distracting white America into leaving poor blacks in the mire.
Note: This position is neither silly nor the ravings of a "victicrat."
And whatever the responses to this — a common one will be to point to low-skill jobs moving overseas — why are we taught that the descendants of African slaves in the United States are the only humans in world history who can excel only under near-perfect sociological conditions? Isn't triumph over oppression the story of almost every race of person on earth?
That argument isn't silly, either. Nor is it the ravings of a "sellout."
All human beings hold convictions in their heads that cancel one another out. We often want lower taxes and more services. Or a thoroughly sensible person might accuse Tyler Perry and rappers of being "modern-day minstrels" but, if asked whether he thinks black people should be America's only people uniquely forbidden to act silly in performances, will answer no.
Or, in the same way, people can treat racism as black America's most urgent topic while swelling with pride to hear of blacks who founded thriving, all-black business districts and who invented things like the modern View-Master (yes!) while Jim Crow was legal.
The black conservative is responsible for making people question an idea that racism must be extinct before black people can overcome. Understanding that our goal is to thrive despite racism rather than fetishizing it is, in fact, the central ideological plank of people deemed "black conservatives." This is a coherent position, but that can be hard to perceive, given the way that race has been discussed in our land over the past 40 years or so.
There are two places to go. Some black conservatives believe that black uplift can happen in the logical sense only with a revolution in black family mores, and that short of this, nothing can or will change. I find that view unduly pessimistic, and yet sound. It is most cogently made, as it happens, by a white law professor, Amy Wax, with step-by-step ratiocination, the basic coherence of which few of any stripe could deny. Her whiteness in no way disqualifies her from logic, and if you choose her "bootstraps"-style argument, you should treat Wax's book as a bible. And watch her in action here.
I prefer arguing that there are societal interventions short of a new civil rights revolution that must be drummed up by blacks and fellow travelers because they have been shown to make a difference in poor black people's lives. These organizations are supported by conservatives and yet have better track records than, say, Head Start.
Most black people will be happy to let you have your conservative opinion if you just show that yours, like theirs, is intended to help people. This is true even of the Wax argument, although you'll have to be prepared to push a little harder to elucidate how charging people with responsibility is a form of helping them. (Having to do so is something that would have shocked black community leaders in 1950, but I digress.)
Oh, yeah: Be prepared for the objection, "I don't think there has to be no racism, but there still has to be less before poor black people can get anywhere." The proper answer here is, "How much less racism does there need to be? And why, exactly?" Almost always, the discussion gets more useful at this point; few have had occasion to think about such a question.
But make no mistake — you will never reach some. There's the type who are as irritated by a black writer straying from holding racism front and center as by a stray eyelash in their eye. But they are a minority. My impression is that their numbers decrease by the year. What matters is the majority capable of listening.
Black "controversialists" are fond of writing about how their black detractors are professional victims. Yet we fall into the same trap when whimpering about an oversimplification, like people "not letting us have our own opinions." If blacks on the left are responsible for serious listening to truly different opinions, so are blacks on the right.
If you're a young black person feeling rightish and itching to jump in, keep all of this in mind.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.
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.