Tuesday, June 29, 2010
At the New Republic, linguist and conservative commentator John McWhorter reviews Stuart Buck's Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation. In his review, McWhorter focuses on the origins of the slur "acting white," which is often directed by adolescent blacks against their academically successful peers, and considers why it arose during desegregation of public schools during the 1960s.
It was the demise of segregation, of all things, that helped pave the way for the "acting white" charge. With the closing of black schools after desegregation orders, black students began going to school with white students in larger numbers than ever before. White students were often openly hostile, and white teachers only somewhat less so. Black teachers and administrators from the old black schools often lost their jobs. Unsurprisingly, black students started modeling themselves against white ones as a form of self-protection. This dovetailed nicely with the new open-ended wariness of whites that was the bedrock of "Black Power" identity.Here we see a sad situation: Because skin color made it so easy for white racists to persecute black children (i.e., sacrifice them to an imaginary white racist collective), many ended up running straight into the arms of those who called for black group identity (i.e., the sacrifice of their identity as individuals to an equally imaginary black racial collective). While one can certainly understand the appeal to the apparent "safety of numbers" being offered to young, uneducated, and inexperienced minds, human beings, in fact, exist as individuals.
As Buck rightly notes, humans seek group identity, and black teens passed on a sense that black identity did not include "white" scholarly achievement even as the old-fashioned bigotry receded. Hence the "acting white" charge now flung in plush schools like those in Shaker Heights, where racist hostility from whites is an affair of the past. Subtle interracial tensions surely exist--but students of other races cope with them without developing a sense that they are rejecting their heritage by making A's.
Arbitrary metaphysics, such as the idea that one "belongs to" his race, lead to mistaken ethical guidance, and on top of this, minds unarmed against the arbitrary will be unprepared to evaluate and reject such bad advice. Case in point: Many children accept rejection of education as some outward sign of fealty to their race at the expense of having their own minds even further stunted. Sadly, it appears to me that Buck and McWhorter both correctly see that desegregation (under the circumstances of the time) caused this unfortunate cultural phenomenon, but do not fully grasp why it did, in philosophical terms, as I attempt to indicate above.
Furthermore, if the implicit selfishness that has been a hallmark of America over its history appears to be in peril today, its political expression in capitalism is in even worse shape. This fact is reflected not only in the limits of the above analysis (as presented in this review), but also in how the problem of teaching black children to value education can be addressed. McWhorter indicated that Buck offers:
... two possible solutions for closing the black-white scholastic gap. The first is the elimination of grades in favor of having whole schools compete against one another, but this will take us only so far. Besides the unlikelihood of its adoption nationally, it would leave the possibility that black kids in integrated schools would continue to fashion themselves as a subgroup apart.The first of these is more collectivism, and the second of these focuses on integration, which is a non-essential, as the existence of integrated schools that do successfully teach black students ought to indicate. Indeed, in the integrated elementary school I attended, one teacher used skin color constructively to teach an important aspect of individualism on Day One of her classes each year. She would state, "There are good white people and bad white people, and there are good black people and bad black people." She also always made it clear that she would not tolerate children of one group picking on anyone for membership in the other group.
... And this leads to Buck’s second suggestion, which runs up against the deeply entrenched impulse to decry "segregation" -- namely, the establishment of all-black schools.
Setting aside the vital importance of children being prepared for adulthood by learning the responsibilities they have to themselves as individuals, the whole question of whether "schools" should or should not be desegregated points to a whole other problem in this important cultural debate by means of the implicit premise -- that the government ought to be dictating where most people send their children for educations in the first place.
Unlike any other social institution, the government is the only one that can legally wield force. As such, it must be delimited to its proper purpose of protecting individual rights. As "educator," the government destroys the educational marketplace by stealing money from parents and subsidizing a "free" competitor (for starters). Furthermore, when it dictates whether schools are segregated or not, it both limits parental choice and places limits on free association of individuals that differ in particular, but are actually the same in kind as Jim Crow laws. (e.g., Having all-black private schools forces segregation on no one. All-black government schools do, even if only to the extent that people who disagree with the premise are forced to support them. Conversely, (proper) government institutions, such as the military, ought always to be integrated.)
When, earlier, I called the focus on segregation "non-essential," I was not saying that it is wholly without merit. Were most of the whites in a given area racist, black parents would be completely justified in wanting their children to attend all-black schools, and should be free to do so. Likewise, black parents wanting their children to become comfortable in a pluralistic society ought to be free to send their children to integrated schools. Setting aside the many other reasons education should become private, complete privatization is the only way to ensure that parents can become fully able to have their children educated in whatever environment they think gives their children the best chance of success.