Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America by John H. McWhorter

Cultural Factors in Black America Restrain Achievement

Free Press · 2000 · 285 pages · $24.00

Reviewed by Ward Connerly

Sisters Venus and Serena Williams are two of the top women’s tennis players in the world. Understandably, they avoid entering the same tournaments. At the major tournaments, however, they can’t avoid it. At a recent tournament in Indian Wells, California, Venus and Serena were scheduled to face each other in the semifinals. Ten minutes before the match began, Venus with-drew. A doctor verified that tendonitis in her knee was acting up, but many observers suspected that their father, Richard Williams, had ordered her to withdraw. Giving voice to those suspicions, spectators at the finals booed Serena.

While getting booed is never easy, only an American black steeped in victimology would perceive racism in it. As Mr. Williams related to reporters after the match, “That was the worst act of prejudice that I have seen since they killed Martin Luther King. I don’t think things have changed. I just think they’re more camouflaged and covered up.”

It is disturbing that Mr. Williams feels so comfortable crowing about the racism he claims permeates women’s professional tennis. The sport has earned his daughters millions of dollars in prize money and endorsement deals; allowed them to leave Compton, California, and travel the world; and placed both Serena and Venus on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Despite the tremendous boon that the Williams sisters are to women’s tennis, he would have us believe that what the fans and tennis officials really want to say is, “Go home, nigger.”

As John McWhorter explains in his new book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, posturing like that has come to largely define what it means to be black in America.

McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Berkeley, traces this posturing to three cultural diseases: victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism. He demonstrates that these strains infect the entire spectrum of “black” culture. From the black student pursuing “doctorial” studies to a black-student recruiter from Berkeley worried that black students who get into Berkeley without preferences “aren’t concerned with nurturing an African-American presence,” McWhorter introduces us to characters we recognize and shows how their words and actions reveal their belief in these cultural diseases.

Victimology is a lens that refracts present conditions through the prism of past injustices. This prism allows blacks to foster a sense of victimhood where it doesn’t exist, thereby placing responsibility for solving existing problems on the perceived oppressor. It provides the fleeting emotional charge all underdogs enjoy, but prevents the underdog from actually succeeding. In chasing after the siren song of victimology, they drain the energy needed to achieve.

Victimology also conditions black people to believe that their perceived victim status exempts them from rules that govern other Americans. For example, McWhorter relates stories of black scholars unwilling to engage in the nuanced weighing of evidence that forms the heart of academic work. Despite not even attempting to marshal evidence in support of their conclusions, or to show why alternate explanations are less plausible, conference goers often laud them for “telling it like it is,” or at least for having presented “a valid point of view.”

Victimhood spawns separatism, the second disease McWhorter proffers as defining cultural blackness in modern America. Separatism feeds the third characteristic disease of contemporary social blackness, anti-intellectualism. McWhorter rehashes the well-known statistics about how poorly black students of all social backgrounds perform on various measures of educational achievement. Because this poor showing permeates all income levels, he looks for the explanation in black culture itself.

McWhorter rightly identifies cultural factors in black America as forming a core problem restraining black academic achievement. This separation of black identity from academic achievement stems not only from the historic denial by white America of equal educational opportunities, but also from the little white lie that affirmative-action preferences have perpetuated. These preferences, and their attendant swipes at merit-based academic standards, have allowed black Americans to believe they can succeed without the same effort we demand of other students. Thus what black students and white or Asian students consider their best effort often differs greatly.
By asserting that victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism define American cultural blackness, John McWhorter has entered a twilight zone. While America’s devotion to the “one drop rule” makes him black, his willingness to question the shibboleths of cultural American blackness leads many to define him as “nonblack” or even “a traitor to his race.” As he chronicles in his book, he has already felt the effects of these barbs.

Unfortunately, that testifies volumes about how accurate his portrait is.

Ward Connerly is the president of the American Civil Rights Institute in Sacramento, California.

Further Reading