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Opinion Piece

To Be Sensible About Race is Not “Blaming the Victim”

John McWhorter February 25, 2021

This is an excerpt from the final — and not yet released — chapter of John McWhorter’s book The Elect in which he considers how to graciously co-exist with the increasingly influential cadre in our society of people operating according to the tenets of Critical Race Theory and attempting to impose them upon our intellectual, artistic and moral fabric. The Elect are, under his analysis, operating according to a religious frame of mind that leads them to suppose that the fundamentals of their value system are morality incarnate. McWhorter calls for fully understanding their perspective, acknowledging its incommensurability with true progressivism, and returning to constructive engagement with the complexities of our time.

Chapter 7: How Do We Work Around Them?

2. To Be Sensible About Race is Not “Blaming the Victim”

For all of the attention that modern English speakers’ usage of the word like as a hedging term attracts, all languages have a way of hedging in that way. The only question is what word or expression they use. In Mandarin, one hedges by saying “that, that, that …” as if grasping for what the thing or concept is called. It happens that the words for that in Mandarin are pronounced “na-ge, na-ge,” or pronounced alternately and just as much, “nay-ge,” “nay-ge.”

Here and there black Americans have purported a certain worry as to just what Chinese people are saying with “na-ge,” but this has always been a kind of joke. Yet one just knew that one of these days somebody was going to decide it wasn’t a joke anymore, and it is no accident that it finally happened in 2020.

Professor Greg Patton was teaching a class on business communication to business students at the University of Southern California, and was discussing hedging terms in different languages. He in passing mentioned that in Mandarin people say “na-ge, na-ge, na-ge.” This offended a group of black students in the class, who reported Patton to the dean of the business school claiming that “We were made to feel less than.” The students claimed “We are burdened to fight with our existence in society, in the workplace, and in America. We should not be made to fight for our sense of peace and mental well-being at Marshall.”

Patton was, of course, suspended from teaching the class for the rest of the semester. But the problem is that these students were pretending. That sounds rash, but black students taking Chinese have been hearing “na-ge” nationwide for decades without feeling discriminated against. A group of black residents in China even wrote to USC objecting that they had never experienced any injury from hearing the word. Worldwide, people observed that if these black USC students expected to be able to do business in China they certainly couldn’t expect Chinese people to censor themselves and not use the word around them. Overall, these students were extending their sense of Elect linguistic prosecution to another language, which made no blessed sense whatsoever – to such an extent that they must have known.

To pretend they did not is to insult their intelligence, which they themselves sadly accomplished repeatedly in their complaint. They claimed that in spoken Chinese “na-ge” is said with a pause between the two words, an absurdity. Do English speakers say not “you know” but “you ……..know”? Then never mind that “na-ge” is not a “synonym” of the N-word as they stated but a homonym (and even there, only somewhat). For the dean to give in to these students’ demands that Patton be dismissed from the course was an insult to black people. A black student who feels that hearing a Mandarin hedge word that happens to sound kind of like the N-word deprives him of his “peace and mental well-being” needs urgent psychiatric counseling, a state of mind unlikely of the number of students who decided to use Patton as the latest pawn in their drive to fashion their lives as passion plays of noble victimhood. These students were, in a word, acting.

This brings us to one of the knottiest points in this book, a grievously awkward fact: a lot of today’s victimhood claims on race are fake. Ibram Kendi intones that being an antiracist means that we should engage solely with how the “victim” feels rather than with the “perpetrator’s” explanations. But sometimes the explanations are valid, because the claim of victimhood is unwarranted. We are taught that a black person’s claims of victimhood can never be unwarranted, on the basis of some overarching principle that cancels out reasoning. But to accept that is racist.

It implies that black Americans, and only us, are perfect. Whites who voted in a monster like Trump were mistaken; Albanians who carried blood feuds into the modern era were mistaken – but black Americans can never be wrong “because slavery and Jim Crow?” or even “because slavery, Jim Crow and Eric Garner”? This does not elevate black Americans; it demotes them. There is nothing about experiencing racism, as hideous as it is, that makes it cancel out what we otherwise assume as common sense about human nature.

The black Elect have a plan for that, the idea that impact, not intent, matters. But look past the weight of the words impact and intent and it leaves the question intact as to just why black people can’t ever misidentify racism as the reason for a problem. Why is it impossible that a black person may misinterpret something as racist, be given an explanation, and say “Oh, okay” and walks away? “You have to respect how I feel,” we are taught to unconditionally accept, with the implication that the “feeling” could only logically arise from racist mistreatment. But – get ready, this must be said, and sadly, it’s better said by someone black:

As often as not today, what the person “feels” is based on what they have been taught to “feel” by a paradigm that teaches them to exaggerate and even fabricate the “feeling.” In other words, much too often, the person who tells you to accept and go from how they “feel” has been, as it were, coached.

This is just what the black Elect cringe to see a black writer say, and it will be hard for many readers to accept. The black person airing grievance is just acting? You are to listen to me saying that, when you have spent your life being drilled in the very opposite idea, that the black person’s anger, no matter how disconsonant with an imperfect but seemingly negotiable reality, is rooted in a clear and present oppression rarely overt but ever droningly present “out there” in ways “hard to explain” but tragically real and insurmountable? Calling Dr. DiAngelo – haven’t I transgressed here?

But come now. I have transgressed nothing but an arbitrary, punitive and purposeless etiquette. Sure, sometimes the roots of grievance about racism are quite clear. No one will tell Eric Garner’s family that they are being performative in their grief and indignation. But what about, well, so very often otherwise? A book the mainstream media pretends does not exist is Wilfred Reilly’s Hate Crime Hoax, which calmly presents one case after another where black people in our era have been conclusively revealed to have fabricated scenarios where they were supposedly discriminated against or attacked for being black. One cannot come away from Reilly’s book thinking this is a mere matter of the very occasional outlier chucklehead, and it flies in the face of smug calls to think only of impact rather than intent. And I must mention that Reilly is black.

For example, do you really believe that universities are racist institutions? In 2020 Princeton’s Elects have tarred it as such, and Trump’s Civil Rights division has threatened to investigate it for racism, forcing its leaders to actually outline how they have gone against what Civil Rights law specifies. Princeton got caught short by a noble but transparent lie, a massive signalling of virtue with no significant correspondence to fact. And remember, the Princeton Elects in question were not a bunch of kids acting up – this included a great many faculty and administrators with mortgages and grey hairs.

When cases like this come up, a part of you may want to just accept it on some level. Logic peeps its head up; you quietly press it back down, scoop some dirt over it and pat the ground smooth, thinking of this as the modern person’s version of intelligence and morality. But it never feels quite right, because it isn’t. To allow claims from black people that no one would accept from their own children is racist. The idea that for black people it passes as authenticity to not make sense is racist.

The politesse of pretending that race issues don’t have to make sense, that they are uniquely “deep,” must go because it constitutes racist discrimination. If the designation of someone or something as racist seems incoherent, chances are it is just that, not “complex.” Do not condescend to black people by pretending that for us, nonsense is deep. If you truly see us as equals, you can – if only internally – call us on our bullshit. It’s what you afford everyone else.

When a black person pretends they are hurt when a white professor says Chinese people say “na-ge” for “like,” is speaking up for truth like telling someone being slapped that it doesn’t hurt? No. Go with your reason and admit it. It means calling even your favorite go-to sources on what qualifies as utter nonsense. The New York Times published an editorial where an unfortunate black philosophy professor wrote:

I almost never attend casual faculty functions. I don’t go out for drinks. I don’t entertain for dinner parties and I don’t seek to ingratiate myself into the lives of my white colleagues. … It’s already hard enough to breathe in America. Every day you feel like you’re living with a knee on your neck.

This is performance art and nothing else. I myself live as a black man in very similar circumstances to this man’s, and I recognize nothing whatsoever in this apocalyptic portrait of what my life supposedly is, and I am neither stupid nor in denial. What happened to George Floyd was revolting, and racism does exist. But if this university professor truly feels afraid for his physical being in socializing with his white faculty colleagues in the year 2020 and feels like he lives with a knee on his neck daily, he is unwell. He should go on leave immediately and undergo years of psychoanalysis several days a week.

He is baldly exaggerating out of sense that it serves a larger purpose, and it does – he is performing his religious commitment. He is an Elect black person who sees his value in the world not as forging new views about Kant and Foucault and Fanon, as other philosophers do, but as displaying himself as a victim of racism, and in doing so, supposedly helping “dismantle structures.” The Times’ David Brooks quoted this piece in allegiance with the new mood, later announcing that he, as a conservative of sorts, had moved left on race. But in pretending that this person was writing about reality, Brooks was giving black thought a pass. This is not progressive thinking; it is unintended racism. It is a racist stain on the legacy of the Times that they printed the editorial at all.

To classify any pushback against transparently ridiculous claims of injury as blaming the victim is to assume the victimhood as beyond question. This involves a senseless leap of logic that one only subscribes to in dread of being called out as something awful. Black Elect who exaggerate their victimhood are not doing so out of some kind of cynical quest for attention or power. They do it in a quest for a sense of significance that they miss from real life for various reasons, as I discussed in Chapter Four. However, we infantilize them by pretending they are beyond question because “impact trumps intent.”

The phrase “blaming the victim” must no longer be taken as a mic-drop no one can follow. The phrase has come to be used not as a teaching tool but as a battering ram.

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