What History Actually Teaches Us About Race


I just finished reading a new race book that came over the transom. It was the kind in which someone is worried about how younger blacks don't know the history of the civil rights movement. To be sure, the number of blacks who can give a capsule summary of the history of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or tell you why Shirley Sherrod's husband was important dwindles away. But the book got me to thinking about how black America thinks about even more recent history.

For all we hear about how we should Know Our History, we fall into a certain ahistoricity regarding the here and now. We often act as if there is only a present, rather than considering how what we are saying now will look — and what purpose it will serve — in the future. We end up performing instead of planning. What do I mean? We could all benefit from a brush-up on the life and work of Bayard Rustin or Ida B. Wells. But more recent history teaches us some other things:

Black Conservative Thought Does Not Harm the Black Community

People like Tom Sowell, Shelby Steele, Walter Williams and, yes, yours truly (even though I am a moderate) have been told forever that our writing is a threat to black well-being. Supposedly we distract whites from the fact that they are "on the hook" and we encourage bigotry. That is a reasonable proposition in itself, but history now allows us to test it. It fails. Over the past four decades, during which right-of-center black writers have been regularly tarred as "race traitors" or, more politely, as suspiciously "controversial," the following and more has happened:

The government has devoted itself to bringing black students' school performance on a par with whites. There are nonprofit organizations funded by white philanthropy nationwide that are helping poor blacks make the transition from welfare or prison to regular employment. Black America's GDP is equivalent to being the 13th-largest nation on earth. American Express, Merrill Lynch and AOL Time Warner have all been run by black men. The United States is now run by a black man.


The little things are especially telling in showing what the very fabric of the nation now is. To take a year at random, 2002 was interesting. When white supremacists marched in York, Pa., 400 people staged an interracial countermarch. White Washington State Representative Hans Dunshee called for the renaming of a highway named after Jefferson Davis. Railroad buffs were appalled when plans for a Railroad Freedom Center diluted unpleasant facts about the Underground Railroad — and most of those buffs were white.

It looks as if whites are as aware of the proverbial hook as they were 40 years ago, bigotry remains highly incorrect socially and black successes continue apace. Moreover, to the extent that poor blacks are somewhat poorer now than they were a few years ago, no one could pin this on anything that a black conservative wrote somewhere. And overall, black childhood poverty has diminished considerably, even while people like Steele and Sowell have been holding forth.

History has shown us, then, that we need not read right-of-center black thought with alarm. The visceral disgust that many have at such writing is unnecessary. Recent history teaches us that black people, like all others, need not fear true diversity of thought — and that the sport of calling people like Williams and Larry Elder "Judases" has no justification in reality.

Teachable Moments Teach America Nothing

While bigotry is today considered socially unrespectable, this hardly means that people do not occasionally go in for some disrespectability. Especially over the past five years or so, there has been an idea that raising a ruckus over something rude that somebody deigns to say serves a purpose because it teaches the American public something. That is a reasonable proposition in itself. It's time to admit that nevertheless, upon testing, we have seen it fail.


Again, just one year is useful. As we went into 2007, we were still shaking our heads over Michael Richards' n-word eruption during a stand-up routine. Remember the apologies, the talk-show discussions, the op-eds, Al Sharpton and so on? Well, that's now history — literally. And what does it teach us?

Richards, in Curb Your Enthusiasm's Seinfeld-cast reunion episode, was joking about the incident, which was celebrated as delightfully witty by the show's enlightened Blue America viewers — i.e., just those who were supposed to have been "teached" by the brouhaha in 2007. And of course, more recently Dr. Laura would appear to have missed the teaching as well.


Also in 2007 was Don Imus' "nappy-headed ho' " comment, now also history. Its lesson? Imus is back on the air, and roughly once a month an envelope-pushing radio "shock jock" still says something that offends people of color (refer again to Dr. Laura).

Then, too, 2007 was the year of the Jena, La., protest. I was appalled, as many were, at the excessively punitive sentencing of the young black men involved. But as to the idea at the time that we were doing the right thing to shout it to the heavens that pranksters had hung a noose from a tree? I wrote at the time that a more constructive response would have been to ignore it rather than give the perpetrators what they wanted. And right on time, in 2008 a black Columbia University Teachers College professor found a noose hanging on her door, one of many such cases in the wake of Jena (and there have been rumors that the professor hung the noose herself!).


Again, history has taught us something here: Theatrical umbrage in the wake of these things doesn't change anything. Opinions will differ on where we go from there, but surely we will attend to what the erstwhile present has told us as it has slid backward in time and become exactly the History We Need to Know. There are similar cases. Affirmative action fans liked Sandra Day O'Connor's comment that we should retain racial preferences for 25 years. OK, but that statement is now history — seven years ago. How do we feel about the eclipse of affirmative action in just 18 years — i.e., the generation of college applicants after the current one knowing no racial set-aside policies?

Know Your History indeed. But Selma is just the beginning. To know our history in a useful way, we should take time out now and then to think about just 10 years ago, or even five. The lessons from recent history are just as important as the ones from the newsreels.


John McWhorter is a frequent 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. 

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