Thursday, May 7, 2009

Black Backdraft Backlash!: John McWhorter’s Playing with Confederate Money

John McWhorter is a brilliant linguist; but he can also be a piss-poor public commentator on black popular culture and race-related social policy. As evidence of the latter McWhorter’s M.O., check out his recent piece on Ricci vs. DeStefano. This Supreme Court case concerns the constitutionality of the city of New Haven’s decision not to certify the result of their city’s written firefighters’ promotion test lest black and Latino firefighters, who scored poorly on such tests, sue the city for discrimination. For white male victimologists, this case is more proof that the rights of white men are under assault from the liberal tyranny of political correctness and affirmative action.

Not surprisingly, McWhorter defends Ricci, the dyslexic white plaintiff, who is said to have aced the written firefighters’ test by studying 13 hours a day, only to have the test results thrown out because no minorities did well enough to qualify for promotion. (By emphasizing Ricci’s dyslexia and intense study regimen, McWhorter tries to contrast hard-working whites from lazy blacks).

McWhorter quotes the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters (IABPFF) as opposing written firefighter employment exams because “cognitive examinations have an adverse effect upon blacks and other minorities.” He then uses this quote as a springboard to distort the main arguments against Ricci. In McWhorter’s hands, the IABPFF’s argument that the tests have a racially discriminatory effect becomes the argument that the firefighters’ tests—indeed, written tests in general—are racially biased.

Just read the IABPFF’s Brief of Amici Curiae from which McWhorter draws the aforementioned quote. The brief does not, in fact, argue that written exams are racially biased. Here’s what it does argue:

1.) that there is a compelling state interest in a diverse firefighters force, especially so given the long documented history of severe racism discrimination toward black firefighters;

2.) that the written tests are not an accurate measure of firefighters’ qualifications, practical abilities, and future success;

and 3.) that research shows that black test-takers often underperform because of the stress of the test-taking process, which is exacerbated by their self-conscious knowledge of stereotypes and the expectations of failure.

All of these claims are debatable, and 3.) is especially problematic, but it’s clear that McWhorter has intentionally misrepresented the IABPFF’s argument. Also notice how McWhorter conveniently minimizes the loathsome, racist history that serves as the context for the IABPFF’s concern.

McWhorter continues,

The claim that such tests are biased is heard regularly--for example, one quick way to set heads black and white nodding at a forum on education is to toss off that the SAT is "racially biased."

Not only is this sleight of hand dishonest, the supporting example is bunk. Who are the people at these education discussions? Teachers? Education policymakers? Sociologists?

I’ve been party to more of these education discussions than I can count. Furthermore, part of my job is to follow national discussions concerning how to diminish the “achievement gap” between white students and minority students. At these discussions, participants talk about ways to provide practical support to black and Latino students as well as their teachers and parents. Though there is often talk about the artificiality of tests and the failure of these tests to accurately measure true understanding and higher order thinking skills, there is no black/white left consensus that the tests are racially biased. This meme isn’t part of any major education debate—not the school level, not at the district-level, not at the national level.

But it gets worse! Consider the payoff of McWhorter’s article:

we justify the rhetorical contortions that excuse black people from challenging examinations; in the end, it is based on a tacit sense that such things are antithetical to black authenticity, that it is somehow untoward to require this kind of concentrated scholarly exertion on black people. It is the grown-up version of what Barack Obama termed in his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention "the slander that says that if a black youth walks around with a book in his hand he's acting white."

By insisting that black left elites and the poor black ghetto residents routinely treat academic achievement as the province of whites, McWhorter is announcing that he has lost all touch with the reality of black life.

The funny thing about all of this is that I share McWhorter’s knee-jerk aversion to some black folks’ shameless willingness to tolerate lower standards and to the idea that black folks should not air our dirty laundry before the eyes of whites. My issue with McWhorter and his compatriots is that even when they’re right in terms of instinct, they’re insufferably wrong in terms of rationale and/or policy.

So McWhorter is playing with Confederate money, and he’s using that money to buy pitiful, flimsy straw men. When terrible thinkers erect straw men, it’s annoying; when people who are smart enough to know better erect straw men, it’s infuriating.


Johnny Mac strikes again!


Anonymous said...

you know, though i lurk often, i don't post here, so i won't go into a long diatribe. but let's just say we will have to agree to disagree on this issue.

black professionals don't need a hand-out, they need a level playing field. not only from white folks, but in their own minds.

gordon gartrelle said...


We agree, actually. I advocate neither "hand-outs" nor low standards.

Vee (Scratch) said...

For the most I'm not mad at McWhorter. I read his Winning the Race a while back. While he may be off in some cases . . . as you pointed out in his recent book, All About the Beat*, overall I'm not mad at him. I think he's a much need voice and I don't generally agree with him but I hear him all the way. (Did that make any sense?)

*Some people actually attacked him because he confused CL Smooth for Pete Rock, so therefor he does not like hip hop and can't understand it. . . . as if that minute error really killed his basic argument.