Tag Archives: John Mcwhorter

A Medal Not All Are Eligible for

LL Cool J was one of eight winners this year of the Hutchins Center’s W.E.B. Dubois Medal, Harvard University’s highest honor in the field of African and African America studies. It is awarded to individuals “in recognition of their contribution to African American culture and the life of the mind.”

We notice that many expected names are missing from the list of 165 winners since the medal was first bestowed in 2000. Thomas Sowell, a clear overachiever and perhaps the best-known African American scholar, has never won. Neither have noted black scholars Shelby Steele, Walter Williams or John McWhorter. Former Attorney General Eric Holder won a DuBois medal, but not Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell, both former secretaries of state. Talking head Donna Brazile won, but not talking head Michael Steele. Oprah won, as has Harry Belafonte, but not James Earl Jones. Harvey Weinstein won in 2014, presumably for his fund-raising skill, rather than for his contributions to the life of the mind, but that award was rescinded this year.

What can explain all those omissions? Our current theory is that the medal goes only to the left and that most moderates and all conservatives just don’t qualify as contributors to black culture. LL Cool J supported President Obama, but he also backed NY Republican Governor George Pataki for a third term.  “Nobody should assume that I’m a Democrat either. I’m an Independent, you know,” he said. Clear enough, but one more rightward lurch and he may have to be rescinded.

Cognitive Dissonance and Historically Black Colleges

grads.bmpShould all-black colleges exist in 2010? No, some say. After all, it’s been almost fifty years since segregation was outlawed in America. And most Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are of also-ran status, doing their best, but hardly the bastions of excellence that so many were in the old days. Graduation rates are low and not one of them made the top half of Forbes’ ranking of more than 600 schools nationwide. Of the “black Ivies”– Morehouse, Spelman and Howard– only Spelman made US News and World Report’s top 100 list of Liberal Arts colleges in 2010. Graduates of HBCUs don’t make as much money, on average, as their equivalents who went to mainstream schools.
To many, all of this means it’s time to just shut these schools down. That argument, if based solely on the facts above, is ultimately an ill-considered reaction, unlikely, I suspect, from anyone who has ever spent time at one of the schools.
Yet it is hardly wrong to start conceiving of HBCUs as time-limited. I don’t find that easy to write as a black person – but I do find it true. I presume all agree that HBCUs were necessary in the days of legalized segregation, and that they produced legions of top-rate black thinkers and professionals. The question is what their value is today.

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What African-American Studies Could Be

While this year has become best known as the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock, it was also forty years ago that the first African-American Studies department was established, at San Francisco State University.
Forty-one fall semesters later, there are hundreds of such departments. Has what they teach evolved with the march of time? What should the mission of a truly modern African-American Studies department be?
The answer common in such departments is that the principal mission is to teach students about the eternal power of racism past and present. Certainly it should be part of a liberal arts education to learn that racism is more than face-to-face abuse, and that social inequality is endemic to American society. However, too often the curriculum of African-American Studies departments gives the impression that racism and disadvantage are the most important things to note and study about being black.

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What Black Studies Can Do

“If I couldn’t study something that’s about myself then I wouldn’t want to be here,” the black sophomore once told me, explaining how crucial to him it was to be able to major in African-American Studies.
It always stuck with me.
The African-American Studies department he was a major in was one of about 300 nationwide; this year is, in fact, the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of the first one at San Fracisco State University in 1969. I have never had a problem with such departments in themselves. After all, despite that we hear this so often it has become a cliche, the story of black people is, to a considerable extent, the story of America.
Slavery helped drive the colonial economy and sparked the Civil War. The Civil Rights revolution was a moral advance unprecedented in the history of the species. Today American popular culture is deeply stamped brown and, in that form, has taken over the world, from hiphop through the worldwide superstar status of actors like Will Smith. The swelling numbers of African immigrants are giving the African diaspora to the New World a whole new meaning. The campaign and election of Barack Obama distilled all of this so profoundly that courses could be taught on it alone – and surely will be, nationwide, starting in the fall.

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The Murder At Harvard

A few weeks ago a teenaged pot dealer was shot dead in a Harvard dormitory.
That alone was depressing enough. However, Harvard suspects a black senior, Chanequa Campbell, of an association with the pot dealer — Justin Cosby, also black — and last week was barred from her dormitory and prevented from graduating. Campbell grew up in the depressed Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, but was a star student, a product of elite prep school Packer Collegiate Institiute, and four years ago was celebrated for her achievement.
The details have yet to be released. But one of the three men who planned the murder, and a suspect in the shooting itself, Jabrai Copney, is a songwriter from New York who was dating another Harvard undergrad named Brittany Smith who also grew up in Brooklyn. Copney and Smith are black.

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Stanford ’89, A Happier Takeover

By John McWhorter
Debra Dickerson said of the Cornell students who took over Willard Straight Hall at Cornell in 1969, “What they actually wanted was beyond the white man’s power to bestow.” Even after they were granted a Black Studies department as they demanded, a core of black students remained infuriated at Cornell as still “fundamentally” racist.
As we mark the fortieth anniversary of that day, I am reminded of one twenty springs later in May, 1989, when 60 Stanford students took over the university president’s building and were arrested. Because 1989 was such a different America racially from that of 1969, such that Stanford had a healthy body of black students of middle-class provenance and above, what went down in the annals as “Takeover 89” was fundamentally a happy event. It was symbolic of a general detour in race ideology in America, and the memory has never left me.
The idea was that in not acceding to certain demands regarding minority issues, the administration had revealed itself to be racist. Interesting, though, what the “demands” were. This time there was already a Black Studies program, plus a student association, and a theme house. So instead, the main demands were four: a Native American Studies department, an Asian-American Studies department (despite there being an Asian-themed dormitory and university-funded Asian students’ association), an assistant dean for Chicano affairs (despite a Chicano student center), and a vague demand for “more” black professors. After all, if black professors are not 13% of the faculty when black people are 13% of the American population, then you know what that’s all about.

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Probing The Black-White Achievement Gap

The Kellogg Foundation is funding a survey of four college campuses by Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and the Educational Testing Service to examine how students of color’s experiences on college campuses impact the notorious black-white achievement gap.

Namely, it will examine how the students feel “welcome and unwelcome, respected and disrespected, supported and unsupported, and encouraged and discouraged.”

However, will the researchers be interested in evidence that the black-white achievement gap is connected to aspects of parenting and peer identification that begin long before college? That is, will there be room in their assessment for, as it is put these days, culture over structure?

In his detailed survey of Shaker Heights, Ohio, Black Students in an Affluent Suburb, the late Berkeley Anthropology Professor John Ogbu found that black parents often aren’t aware of how closely they need to attend to their children’s homework and are less likely to confer with their children’s teachers, and that black teens have a tendency to disidentify from school as “white.” Subsequent studies have shown that black students are likely to spend less time on homework than white or Asian students and are less likely to be popular if they achieve in school.

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A Look At Real Diversity

I have been teaching a class at Columbia on Western Civilization since September.
The class is highly diverse. By that, I mean that among the 21 students there is an Orthodox Jew, a child of Russian immigrants, and a couple of Korean-Americans. Plus a Chinese-American. And one of them grew up in France; just why she has no accent I have never been quite sure, but culturally she is more French than American. One student is even seven feet tall. And Catholic.
Yes, I have had four black students, and a few Latino ones. They’re “diverse” too.
This has been a lesson for me in the benefits of diversity in education. Back in my days as a Berkeley linguistics prof, I was teaching linguistics, a scientific field in which there was little coherent concept of a “diverse” contribution: subordinate clauses have no ethnicity.
But here is a class on the intellectual heritage of our civilization. This is the kind of class that fans of racial preferences in university admissions tell us will be enriched by diversity.
And I heartily agree that discussion in my class would have been much less interesting and rewarding if all of the students were upper-middle-class white kids from the suburbs. If Columbia has created this vibrant mixture by attending to more than grades and test scores in composing their student body, then I applaud them mightily. I was in love with my students after a week and a half and will miss them immensely.
However, my year’s experience has given no demonstration whatsoever of the benefit of diversity as we are supposed to tacitly understand it: i.e. the presence of black and Latino students alone.

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Diversity In Linguistics

Since the Supreme Court last week decided against Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky’s policies of assuring a certain degree of racial diversity in public schools, we have heard much about the undoing of Brown v. Board.

However, I have a hard time mourning the decision, though the brute notion that we must ignore race to get beyond it is, surely, simplistic.
Preliminarily, I think of the plethora of schools nationwide where all the students are brown and yet excellence is a norm. I think of the fact that to the extent that black teens tar excelling in school as “acting white,” it tends to be when they go to school with white people, as scholarly studies have shown.

Yet I openly admit that my discomfort with racial (as opposed to socioeconomic) preferences in education is also based in part on gut impressions – based on my own experiences in academia over, now, almost 20 years. Too often, commitment to “diversity” has nothing to do with recognizing the humanity and individuality of the persons in question, and much to do with reaffirming other people’s sense of moral legitimacy.

As it happens, it was ten years ago this week that I had one such experience.

Every two summers, linguists have a kind of summer camp, the Linguistic Society of America Institute, where linguists from around the world give mini-courses for students on a college campus. I was invited to teach at the one in 1997.

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