To be a “heterodox” Black thinker on race is to be often accused of claiming that racism is extinct or doesn’t matter. For example, when he reviewed my book “Woke Racism” for The Washington Post, The Nation’s Elie Mystal described it as “a pleasing bedtime story to a certain kind of white person who is always looking for a magic Black person to tell them what they want to hear.”
But I’ve never said racism is defunct. I don’t think so now, and I didn’t think so back when I was a graduate student in the late ’80s and early ’90s. One semester, I decided to try my hand at a campus College Bowl-style competition. It was a quiz contest, questioning people on facts, lore — trivia.
Potential teammates gathered in a room, mostly unknown to one another until that day. We all crowded in, and I couldn’t help noticing that within about 60 seconds, the natural mixing process led to all the guys (there weren’t any women in that particular cluster) huddling over to one side to start forming teams — and excluding me and only me.
Yes, they were all white, and I was the only Black guy there.
But I’m not especially inept socially. It was pretty clear to me that the reason I was so baldly excluded was that they had quietly assumed that a Black guy wouldn’t know enough obscure information. That a Black guy wouldn’t be a nerd.
So I went, all hurt, to the campus diversity coordinator? I left, feeling “unwelcome”? I’m afraid not.
The reason I showed up at that event is because I knew I had something to offer when it came to knowing useless facts, thank you very much. And I figured that if those guys concluded otherwise because I’m Black, then as a bonus I could make a small contribution to our civic fabric, laying down one brick in a big wall of a case by showing them that in fact, you can both be Black and know some obscure things for no particular reason. Plenty of Black people do, after all.
Almost as if scripted, the question I was first given when called upon was about old-time musical theater. As readers of this newsletter know, that’s one of my favorite subjects, and I gave the correct answer. Those white guys saw something different from what they would have expected, and you could almost see it from their reaction. Mission accomplished; life went on.
My point isn’t that this trivial episode was somehow on a par with integrating a lunch counter in the segregated South, believe me. But it’s what comes to mind, from my own experience, when I worry that our era teaches us that racism is more interesting than achievement, that calling people out is more useful than proving them wrong. Last week, I explored the idea that the supposedly progressive approach to a standardized test with a disparate pass rate is to eliminate it. Related are ideas such as that antiracism means not requiring classics majors to learn Latin or Greek, or that the very idea of remedial education or the term “remediation” might be racist.
I will never embrace that perspective. Underestimation must be countered with demonstration, not indignation. If anyone stereotypes me, what I want to do is show them just how wrong they are, not protest that they engaged in stereotyping. An analogy: No one would be swayed by someone who accused of, for example, infidelity, sobs “You’re mean!” and has no further answer.
Now, there are times when history has made it challenging for us to show what we are made of, unlike when I happened to know the answer to that little quiz question. But the ordinary, vital, self-loving response to such a problem is to step up and learn how to show ourselves at our best. Yep, it’s a kind of Black Tax — having to demonstrate your worth before someone considers you their equal. But in response to a slight or a remark, just saying “You shouldn’t have said that” instead? It just leaves us looking weak.
Freeman Hrabowski is a Black mathematician who helped found, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. The program has been fostering and guiding students of color through the challenges of STEM fields and preparing them for academic research since the late 1980s. Many Black and Latino students face obstacles to high achievement in STEM subjects — and the Meyerhoff program is geared toward solving that problem. Students are closely mentored, live in the same dormitory during their first year, are shunted to summer internships and are strongly encouraged to work in groups. There are over a thousand alumni of the program, most of whom are Black or Latino. According to the Meyerhoff website, program alumni hold 385 Ph.D.s, including 71 joint M.D./Ph.D.s, and 155 M.D.s or D.O.s. I recommend reading “Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males” and “Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women,” both by Hrabowski and several co-authors.
Hrabowski is, to adopt a fashionable expression, doing the work. Others, however, strike me as more interested in the obstacles than in getting past them. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an accomplished Black physicist at the University of New Hampshire who has argued that the exclusion of Black women in her field is linked to her notion of “white empiricism.” Namely, “white empiricism is the phenomenon through which only white people (particularly white men) are read has having a fundamental capacity for objectivity and Black people (particularly Black women) are produced as an ontological other.” Prescod-Weinstein wants us to consider that “white epistemic claims about science — which are not rooted in empirical evidence — receive more credence and attention than Black women’s epistemic claims about their own lives.”
Her argument is rather involved, and sincere from what I can see. However, at the end of the day, I doubt we gain more from its approach than Hrabowski’s.
There’s room for questioning standards, of course. Not every undergraduate needs to master ancient Greek. It was good that years ago, the College Board was prompted to remove SAT questions with verbal analogies that assumed middle-class life as default.
But the general theme should be that Black people can meet standards that other groups are meeting. The question shouldn’t be whether the standards themselves are appropriate. There will be skepticism, from some quarters, about our capabilities. But I see no Black pride in finding that skepticism — and the prejudice it entails — more interesting than countering it with actual achievement. What we are is what we have done, not what we have said.
Shelby Steele, whose classic, “The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America,” won a 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award, captured the essence of the matter in a 1989 essay. The increased opportunity of the post-civil rights era presented “a brutal proposition” to Black Americans: “If you’re not inferior, prove it.”
Black pride means, at the end of the day, proving it.
Have feedback? Send me a note at McWhorterfirstname.lastname@example.org.
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”