Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “Words on the Move.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
John McWhorter: Don't expect Trump to be sensitive on race issues, but that does not mean he can't do a lot of good for black people
Like LBJ and JFK, Trump can have an impact, if he takes two concrete steps, McWhorter says
Donald Trump, seemingly oblivious to so much of what used to be considered presidential decorum, has already learned at least some of America’s race drill. This week he met with presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, mentioned Black History Month at the top of his speech to Congress, had assorted black people sitting next to his wife during the latter, and so on.
But the goal of any of these Trump gestures is obscure, to a point that leaves it questionable that we should care about or react to them in any real way. To a dismaying extent, outlined brilliantly by Shelby Steele as early as 1990 and even truer today, the relationship between black people and educated America is after all a ritualized dance of ready reaction that pretends it is political activism: White people show their guilt; thoughtful black people excoriate those that don’t as moral reprobates; white fellow travelers earnestly support them in this, hoping that they won’t be next in the line of fire.
And the black poor stay poor.
But there are things that Trump could do that would be more substantive and meaningful than his recent signals at outreach (and more on this in a moment).
I have complained about his calling black people “the African Americans” as if we were a zoo exhibit. Others will recall his appearing to think that Frederick Douglass is a living community activist of some kind, or the icky nationalist associations of his aide Steve Bannon.
Recently we encountered, within 48 hours, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ memo that linked HBCUs to her school voucher agenda, painting them as as “pioneers” of “school choice” rather than a response to remorseless segregation, and the photo of Kellyanne Conway kneeling on the Oval Office sofa looking into her smartphone like a seventh grader, her feet pushed into the upholstery, as the august HBCU presidents stood around the President’s desk.
People are correct to see these occurrences as indicating a president and his aides with a tin ear on race, but incorrect to believe that screaming to the heavens about them accomplishes anything beyond making smart people feel good.
Trump or someone connected with him is going to indicate – in both awkwardly-revealing word and in damaging deed – that they don’t truly care about black people roughly once a week until the year 2020 and possibly beyond. There comes a time to stop treating it as news.
In other words, OK, Trumpians don’t feel black pain. But the energy many will spend on outlining why multiple gaffes render these people “racists” is more an act of ritual than doing good.
A sign of our times is a mission creep from civil rights activism to worshipping at the altar of Blue America’s true religion, anti-racism. Yes, there is a difference.
Civil rights is about working to improve the lives of the oppressed. Anti-racism is about showing that one is a good person in anticipation of a vague and implausible Great Day when all of America finally “gets it” about race. The analogy is to showing one’s good faith as a Christian.
Indeed, endlessly announcing yet another way that Trumpians aren’t collegetown-sensitive about race is like blogging about how selfish toddlers are. It isn’t news, and here’s the thing: Even people who don’t “Get the Race Thing” can do an awful lot of good for black people.
Neither Franklin D. Roosevelt nor Lyndon Johnson would have passed anti-racism purity tests, and yet they improved black lives immeasurably. If we are sincere in thinking history can teach us, then when it comes to the deeply ordinary people in the White House today, we must acknowledge that activism on race is about action, not feelings.
Here is a modest proposal:
Let’s assign Trump a simple and truly proactive to-do list on race. There’s no point pretending that an incurious septuagenarian narcissist will be learning any lessons about black history, black tears, or black anything, and so the list cannot involve issues of sensitivity or wokeness. We should be as realistic as possible while seeking the greatest impact.
I suggest two things.
First: Too many black people in poor neighborhoods are shot dead – by cops as well as one another. I wish Black Lives Matter well, but the Trumpians are closed to that movement’s agenda, and so if we are dedicated to reality we must assume that progress in the BLM vein will be local rather than egged on from the top.
The simple truth is that people in poor black neighborhoods are at much greater risk of being killed by someone black from that area than by a white cop. Many revile anyone flatly stating that as “not with the program.” But we must question that program. For people who lose family members to neighborhood violence, it matters little that anti-racist liturgy requires us to pretend that Black Lives Matter more when white people take them.
So, how about if Trump curates the best practices from cities that have made a real difference in gang violence, and helps forge a nationwide movement that gets fewer poor black people iced by bullets fired amidst gang turf wars? Many will howl that the very characterization of poor black neighborhoods as uniquely violent is “racist,” usually also edgily dismissing the very use of terms like black-on-black-crime and inner city. But a time comes when we must take a deep breath and classify these debates over anti-racist niceties as a sideshow distraction, in view of a greater good.
Second: Few understand how much it would benefit poor black people if all poor children were taught to read via a method stressing sounding words out, instead of “holistic” methods that teach kids to recognize words as whole chunks.
That sounds like an arcane pedagogical debate. Many will dismiss it as “reading wars” of the past. But that debate moved on to a feckless ambiguity, under which legions of teachers are still instructed that it is wrong to teach children to read by showing how to sound out words, despite that decade after decade, science has firmly shown that it works best, especially for kids from homes with few books.
This reality is something Trump should take up as one to deride as “Sad!!!” in his tweets. People who aren’t taught to read properly tend to struggle in school, with predictable results. I highly suspect Betsy DeVos, whatever her command of black educational history, could get behind a big push on this. She should be urged to.
We are taught that all of America must learn to care about black people and black pain as a precondition to black poor people’s lives ever improving. But no civil rights activist in, say, 1960, had any illusion that change required that the Kennedys or Lyndon Johnson “felt” anything beyond a certain formulaic point. Things are no different now.
Trump wants to improve life in poor black America because he wants “law and order” and he supports the cops. “But what about our responsibility to call out racism wherever we …”Yes, I know. But how about this? On Trump, that job is done.
Now, let’s focus on the possibility that this man’s stated views and actions to come might be applicable to helping poor black people, whatever the state of his mind and heart. Racial progressivism, if genuinely about helping people rather than P.R. for ourselves, is not only idealistic but pragmatic.