Birth of the Ghetto Blues
Ever since he published Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America in 2000, John McWhorter has been both praised and demonized for its provocative conclusion: that it is not racial or economic discrimination that causes black students to underperform in school, but what he calls a "self-destructive culture of victimhood." In his new book, Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America, McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, tackles an even bigger problem: Why are so many African-American inner-city neighborhoods "deathscapes" of poverty and violence? U.S. News spoke with McWhorter last month. Excerpts follow.
Inner-city blight is often blamed on economics and racism.
There is this idea among academics that the ghettos took such a bad turn starting in the '70s because factories moved away, middle-class role models moved out, housing projects were too tall--all of these large factors that nobody could have resisted. And the idea, therefore, is that what defines the black condition is institutional racism. I've always found this counterintuitive.
Why is that counterintuitive?
Of course there was racism and inequity. There was racism and inequity in 1920, in 1820, and in 1720. So what made the difference? I do not believe factories moving to the suburbs and doctors moving out of the neighborhood means that kids will shoot each other in the face, barely anybody knows their father, and drugs become the food and water of the neighborhood. That causal relationship makes no sense.
Where do you think this inner-city culture came from then?
There were always people in the civil rights movement who were more interested in performance than politics. After 1965--when the more concrete work had been done--there was more room for that person. It was partly because whites were interested in listening to someone like Stokely Carmichael. It was partly because the whole mood of the culture was affected by the countercultural revolution. This is when being antiestablishment went from a fringe sentiment to mainstream opinion. Suddenly, black rage was enlightenment, regardless of content. For someone to stand at the barricades and shout "black power" in 1946 would have seemed bizarre. Twenty years later, it fit into a new mood. People start thinking that acting up is activism.
And that's what destroyed inner cities?
The second problem was, amidst this mood, legislation helped deep-six the inner cities, and this was done by people who thought they were doing good by teaching poor black Americans to sign up for welfare, which had never been done before. This happened starting in 1966, and it's an untold chapter of black history. Suddenly you had communities where being on welfare was normal. Where fatherlessness was normal. In 1966, 4.6 million people were on welfare nationwide. Just four years later, 9.6 million were. In 1964, a quarter of all black children were born to single mothers. The proportion rose to 50 percent by 1976 and over 75 percent by 1995. Even the seediest black slums had not been like this before the late '60s.