The Republican candidates have offered no end of fodder for those dedicated to stamping out tacky statements on race. We seem to get almost one a week.
There was Newt Gingrich hoping that poor brown kids will work after school while white ones in the suburbs lounge around. Absurd, I agree. Similarly dismissible are Ron Paul's apparent fears of a coming race war, Herman Cain's notion that black voters' commitment to Democrats stems from "brainwashing" and Rick Santorum's idea that poverty in America is a black thing (or "blah" thing, as he wanted us to think he said).
But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and Santorum's latest insight on race, in Monday night's debate, was a proper one. It was, in its way, right on time for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
All the man said was that there are three life lessons that would make a major dent in black poverty: "Work, graduate from high school and get married before you have children." Already Santorum is being pilloried by the likes of Salon's Joan Walsh as ignorant of how racism makes it impossible for black people to do the right things.
Interesting. Work, graduate, marry before having kids: What black church audience, what Tavis Smiley forum panel, what ordinary black person anywhere in the United States, would not applaud that advice coming from the right mouths? Who would tell Maya Angelou or the Rev. Joseph Lowery that they were sellouts for preaching that advice?
Work, graduate, marry — that is, earn your keep, get a basic education and raise your kids with someone else at your side. Where does anyone come off telling us that institutional racism makes this too much to ask? Any white person who does is calling us fools, and any black person who chimes in hates him- or herself.
The truth is that Santorum's factoid (he said that only 2 percent of people who follow this formula end up in poverty) is a bit off. It has always gotten a tad distorted, in the style of the old "operator" game, on the vine. It traces to empirical findings by William Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, who demonstrated a while back that if you 1) finish high school, 2) marry before having a child and 3) don't have a child until you're 20, then you almost certainly will not be poor. The statistics Galston found were stunning: Only 8 percent of people who do all three are poor. Of those who don't, a full 79 percent are.
Still, this is race-neutral, party-neutral, needlepoint wisdom. (Important facts on the issues are here.) For our first thought upon hearing it to be "But that's not fair to expect when racism exists" is unhealthy. First, it disrespects the true fighting spirit of Dr. King. Since when was it the point that we can achieve only when things are set up just so?
Second, focusing on racism on these three points doesn't hold up. Example: If the way to keep more black youths in school is to make institutional racism go away, then why is it that even when you pump black school districts full of new cash, they stay the way they are? Of late, Kansas City, Mo., has been neatly demonstrating this, but it happens nationwide all the time. Racism may have played a role in how these districts got that way, but we can't go back and change that. Taking racism away now won't keep these kids in school — the solutions are elsewhere.
Let's keep going. Is institutional racism why poor people can't get married when they have a child together? I, for one, have little interest in stressing the formality of marriage, but what about simple cohabitation? The standard argument is that black men without college degrees can't get jobs because the old-time manufacturing economy has eroded. But there are solutions here that aren't about combating racism: community colleges and vocational training.
These two things are not stressed enough in a race debate that focuses unduly on four-year college degrees, when there are actually plenty of solid-paying jobs available for people without them. Even in a bad economy, we will always need ultrasound technicians, heating and air conditioning installers, and … just think how long that list goes on. So the solution is about education, not taking away racism.
Finally, I'd be interested in hearing how what white people feel about black people, concretely or abstractly, has to do with having kids before the age of 20. Suddenly there's no more racism — and then everybody starts waiting longer before reproducing? Come on — whatever the conversation about this is, it's not about racism.
Note: I'm not saying that following the three life tenets is a slam dunk. We need to talk about making schools better, making vocational training affordable and useful, and even about kids making kids and why it's not the best thing. But Santorum knows this. As quiet as it's kept, he has supported block grants, Healthy Start and community health centers, all of them institutions dear to the heart of anyone concerned with poor black people in America.
What's nonsense is the idea that Santorum's comment was racially insensitive, or an example of race-baiting, or racist. What he's suggesting that black people do is good advice, and it doesn't become bad advice just because he's white, Republican and not precisely polite.
For him, or anyone, to pretend that "institutional racism" makes it unrealistic to suggest three such simple pieces of advice for black America is, in itself, racist. It implies that black people are subhuman beings devoid of resilience or sense.
I refuse to believe that this is the content of our character, and I salute Santorum — this time — for having the guts to know that it's not and to say so.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor 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.