There's More Than One Way to Insult Blacks

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Herman Cain's claim that black people who vote Democratic are "brainwashed" was hardly gracious.

It is true, one must admit, that our allegiance, so fervent, to one party is not the healthiest thing, whether it's been a matter of "brainwashing" or not. As long as Democrats don't have to work for our vote, they won't work for us — even when they're black, we've seen, especially of late. And as long as Republicans feel that they can't get much of our vote, they have no reason to work for us, either. I met Rick Santorum once; he told me that overtly.

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But still, "brainwashed" — that's counterproductive. Arrogant, even. If we all understand that — and the blog chatter about it suggests that we do — then Cain's kind of comment sheds some light on a different one often made by more educated sorts than he. The comment I refer to is generally treated as enlightened wisdom. Yet it's actually as mean, in its way, as Cain's.

I refer to the notion that middle-class black families who left ghettos for the suburbs after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were race traitors, holding their noses and fleeing from their poor brethren and abandoning them to a miserable existence deprived of role models.

The scholars who have helped to imprint this idea — such as Harvard's William Julius Wilson, Yale's Elijah Anderson and more recently Georgetown's Sheryll Cashin — intend this historical interpretation as a distraction from a tendency to think of the black poor as inherently "pathological." And it has worked to an extent. The idea that black inner cities are the way they are because doctors and lawyers no longer live next door to poor people is passed along among people of all walks.

One problem with this theory, however, is that it suggests that inner cities can improve only if doctors and lawyers come back to live in the hood as a gesture of solidarity. This will never happen to any significant degree, which leaves us where we started. With all of the vigilance about the role that racism plays in black problems, few notice how much more pernicious the idea is that black poor people cannot live together peacefully.

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However, in terms of the comparison with Cain's comment, the key offense in this interpretation of modern black history is that it entails a sometimes almost abusive portrait of humble middle-class blacks in the 1960s and '70s as elitist turncoats.

"Ostensibly they are motivated by concern about crime, drugs, poor public schools, run-down and crowded housing and social status," Anderson says of middle-class blacks moving out, "but for many, there may be a deep emotional desire to get as far as possible from poorer blacks." This kind of statement is a common refrain among writers of this sentiment. At times, this kind of work is so dismissive of middle-class blacks' housing decisions that it sounds almost as if it were written by old-time bigoted Southerners who wanted the darkies to know their "place."

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This black man bristles at Cain's implication that his Democrat black parents were mentally challenged in their party affiliation in the '60s, when in fact they voted Democratic because Democrats were behind a little something called the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.

Well, another black man — me — also bristles at the implication that his parents, moving from a crumbling Philadelphia neighborhood to treesy, integrated Mount Airy, were what used to be called "tea-sipping" or "cocktail-sip" Negroes who despised black people who weren't doing as well as they were.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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