McWhorter defends himself against charges of being a “sellout”

September 1, 2021 • 1:15 pm

John McWhorter’s latest New York Times newsletter, which one usually has to subscribe to (free with a NYT subscription), has appeared in the pages of the NYT, and if you subscribe to the paper you can read it without signing up for the newsletter. Click on screenshot below. It’s a spirited defense of his own views—and those of other blacks who don’t conform to “accepted” black ideology—against the charges that they’re sellouts and don’t really believe what they say.

If you’ve read McWhorter, you’ll know that he’s sincere in his beliefs and writings; there is not a scintilla of evidence otherwise. But the charge is that he, and other blacks, including conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas, give contrarian talks and write contrarian books to make money.

McWhorter notes that genuine black “sellouts” have existed, like those who were FBI informants and infiltrated the civil rights movement, but he says that he knows many of the African-American “contrarians” criticized for being sellouts, and has found them all sincere. And I have no reason to contradict that. Whatever you say about Clarence Thomas, I don’t think you can say he issues his conservative opinions to make money! (He could speak up from the bench, though.

More important, to criticize people like Mcwhorter because their views go against the “acceptable” views for blacks is racism itself: it’s implicitly a denigration of black people for not being able to think for themselves.  One quote, and I’ll pass on.

And yet the stereotype — as if Black people don’t labor under enough of them already — lives on. For example, Robin DiAngelo, author of the book “Black Fragility” — oh, I meant “White Fragility” — thinks Black thinkers who don’t like her book are sellouts, for example. “Why can’t Black people think for themselves?” many think, watching the sellout charge lobbed like this. But this misses the nature of the beef here. No one is so obtuse as to think Black people aren’t allowed to think for themselves — per se, at least. Rather, the assumption is that when they think for themselves, all Black people will come to the same conclusions out of the exigencies of sheer reality.

Why? Because racism. The idea is that racism is so oppressive that a Black person who “decenters” the decrying of it could have only ulterior motives. That’s not crazy — but it’s also wrong.

For one, this take on conservative Black thought — i.e. that no sane Black thinker could be conservative — is naïve. Many Black thinkers are quite aware of racism and how it works and yet question the efficacy of focusing racial uplift efforts on changing white minds. Many know of Booker T. Washington, but there are many others — one must address Thomas Sowell, for one. Or George Schuyler, for two. I’ll stop there for now.

Second, one can know about racism and its effects but disagree with the orthodoxy on what one does in response to it. For example, the current consensus prescription for social racism is to ask a nation of people to look inward and examine themselves for even subtle kinds of racist bias. But this is a revolutionary approach to social change as human history goes. And it is true that a form of it worked once, after the 1960s when America learned to revile racism in a basic sense in a way that would have looked like science fiction just 20 years before. But today we are asking America to look much, much deeper — and some of us question how realistic or even necessary that is.

Now the column isn’t near as absorbing as his barnburner “University of Wisconsin’s racist rock” piece, but one can’t expect such passion every week.  And a defense of contrarian black thought needs to be mounted. The question is whether McWhorter was the one to do it, as it smacks a wee bit of defensiveness. On the other hand, he manages to turn a piece that could easily have reeked of victimization into a general critique of those African-Americans (and whites) who think that there’s only one acceptable set of ideas for black people.

11 thoughts on “McWhorter defends himself against charges of being a “sellout”

  1. Here’s what in essence he is defending himself against…….the notion that each “oppressed” group has to hold one correct opinion….4 minutes long:

  2. I think this is related in a way. Paul Alivisatos became president of the University of Chicago today. He sent a letter to Alumni and Friends. I assume that substantially the same letter was sent to the entire UofC community. Unfortunately, he refers to uchicago. Old farts like me want UofC. I think that battle is lost.

    He lists ten priorities.Unfortunately, I cannot link to the letter. Here are the first two:

    1. Foundational Discovery and Research, and Education
    What steps can the University take to ensure that the broad base of foundational discovery, inquiry, research, and education continues to thrive across all disciplines, divisions, and professional schools?

    2. Free Expression
    How can the University build on its leadership role as an advocate for and home of free expression?

    The first priority would be the same for any incoming president of any university. Happy to see what he lists as his second.

  3. A pretty good piece from McWhorter. ‘Key to the idea of the sellout is insincerity: He knows that what he is saying is untrue, but ranks making bucks higher than honesty or fairness’ – sounds like a pretty good description of the ‘author of the book “Black Fragility” — oh, I meant “White Fragility” ‘ to me. (Side question: why would anyone listen to Robin DiAngelo on race over the head of McWhorter?)

    1. I think it is far easier for her to believe that he is corrupted than face the possibility that her carefully constructed worldview might be flawed.

  4. If you are a “racial advocate” (and I think based on comments McWhorter has made that he considers himself such a person), then you advocate positions intended to advance the interests of your race, sometimes irrespective of their soundness. This whole framework assumes that there is something out there, ascertainable, called your group’s racial interest. Maybe someone says that is impossible, but it does seem like there are various and assorted “racial advocates” of differing stripe and color, and they do seem to be able to reach some kind of consensus on what is good for their people in each case.

    If you buy into this type of framework (and McWhorter has indicated he does), then I don’t see why you should be offended when someone accuses you of advocating positions which undermine the interests of your race, especially when those positions fall outside of the mainstream of other “race advocates”. This may be a problem in general with the concept of race advocacy, and I am personally suspicious of “racial advocacy” as a project, but it has a long pedigree and its hard to be prominent and Black and eschew the line about advancing your people.

    It is certainly a bit cute to hold yourself as a race advocate, take positions adverse to the mainstream of your advocates, and then cry discrimination. You can certainly be a Black man and hold any position you want, but I am not sure you can be a Black racial advocate on behalf of Black people and not come in for critique by more mainstream people in Black politics. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  5. If I may dissent about one point-
    This post is just as absorbing as the one about “racist rock”, if not more so. I can attest to that personally.
    As a Middle Eastern atheist, I can’t tell you how many times my very existence has been denied-so many never believes I am who I say I am-because I hold “heretical” views about Islam. I don’t see this a fundamentally different from what McWhorter is describing: minorities are allowed to exist within a narrow frame of mind, and if we stray, the response ranges from sellout to Uncle Tim (21st century Uncle Tom) to nonexistent.
    And no one ever thinks there is anything racist about that-surely the woke left don’t.

  6. This is the difficulty of treating the intellectual world as an outgrowth of identity, rather than seeing beliefs as something separate from the believer.

    The most charitable interpretation I have is that by living as X, certain experiences that would be part of X would form and inform how we see the world around us. This is of course true to an extent, but I think it’s overplayed as it negates the role of how wider communal beliefs fit into that. That is, the experiences we have fit the narratives that we have learnt from our society rather than the experiences forming entirely new narratives.

    I think for the most part, people just don’t want to deal with the cognitive dissonance for that they see as intimately linked concepts. Seeing doctors and medical researchers promoting vaccines causes anti-vaxxers to make the accusation that their opinions have been bought by Big Pharma because they are doctors as being promoters of health and vaccines being the opposite of that. Hence it’s easier to say that the doctors are getting paid off than revising the belief that vaccines are not good medicine. Similarly, I think the accusation of sellout against contrarian intellectuals comes because people have made a close association between identity X and a set of positions that should entail.

    It’s a lot easier than admitting people are complex and beliefs even more so – a notion that should leave us more open to listen and reflect when those moments of dissonance arise. It says way more about our own beliefs then it does about the person we are directing our ire at…

  7. Back in 2016, transgendered author Caitlin R. Kiernan was being attacked for declaring their support for Hilary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.

    One of the things they complained about at the time was that people kept telling her “But you’re transgenered, how can you support…” or “You must believe X, you’re transgendered, all transgendered people believe X.” and so on and so forth.

    This whole movement seems to want to ‘lock in’ stereotypes.

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