What Is Black America?

Each year as America toggles from Black History Month to March Madness, I find myself thinking of the Nigerian student who walked into my college office some years ago at around this time. This brilliant young man and aspiring academic told me of his discomfort with Black History Month, and his annual relief when it ended. He said he felt no kinship with the ancestry memorialized in the month-long fete, and not just because his African heritage diverged from the uniquely American tradition.

The larger issue for him was tonal, almost anthropological. While the month is nominally celebratory, its “American vision of blackness,” as he put it, is replete with a canonical litany of shared suffering and despair. Each day in February, once the media get their bas-relief salutes to an inventor or scholar or civil-rights icon out of the way, the attendant punditry unfolds as a nonstop handwringing exercise, the overarching message of which is that people with brown skin require sympathy, understanding, and constant reinforcement in order to survive, let alone thrive. “We desperately need your help,” was how my former student described it.

In his view, the observance—the apotheosis of the modern American view on blackness—was an inverted kind of humblebrag; exceptional achievements intended to prove the rule are purposefully juxtaposed with the everyday bleakness of the black experience. “There’s always all that talk about how far we still have to go,” he said, lending the final phrase a parodic emphasis. He was embarrassed by the fanfare and the sudden and disproportionate surfeit of black faces paraded across TV screens, all of which he said he found patronizing, “like an extended pat on the butt for the losing team.”

“I was not raised to see myself that way,” he lamented. “I frankly don’t see why anyone should be.” And yet, each February, he felt conscripted into that ethos by his skin color, which led new acquaintances to assume he’s part of American blackness (that is, until he spoke and they heard his sonorous cadences and clipped continental diction).

I recall that young man in the context of a second student, a young American black woman. A year or two earlier, she had expressed her displeasure with my presentation of the media’s handling of systemic racism, which I framed as out of touch with demonstrable facts. She actually half-stood in her chair during class and told me I was speaking “through the lens of white privilege.” “I insist,” she announced as an awkward silence fell over the room, “that people see my blackness.” This clearly meant something to her quite beyond the color of her skin.

This rebuke occurred during my rookie season at UNLV, and I was disinclined to make waves at a sensitive moment. The grim Philando Castile video had just emerged, not two years after the viral (albeit mistaken) “hands up, don’t shoot” outrage erupted over the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. So, I just heard her out and told her I’d think about what she’d said. She came and spoke to me after class, still visibly agitated. She told me that I’d “dishonored [her] lived experience,” and concluded by instructing me to “address the blackness” of my students of color in future class discussions.

Given those two polar views, I was moved to wonder: What exactly is blackness, taxonomically speaking? What assumptions am I to make about the next person of color who walks into my class—or my wider life, for that matter?

Here are some thoughts from a third student, who attends Indiana University where I held my first teaching appointment in 1997. His message appears to be that blackness is some inchoate thing to which I, by virtue of my own skin color, am not privy. Blackness is not answerable to white scrutiny. But the essay provides some clues, touching on the familiar tropes about exclusion, police brutality, and so on. It would seem that the qualities that circumscribe blackness are neither desirable nor salutary.

Writing in Time in 2020, Eddie Glaude contemplated the present and future of his race in a way that seemed to affirm that (a) blackness is very much a proprietary understanding, and (b) disappointment and even tragedy are inescapable facts of black life. Glaude imposes this “experience” on all people who share his skin color, just as my Nigerian student felt that a particular idea of blackness was being foisted upon him.

Here’s an even more pointed take by author and professor Donald Earl Collins that evokes the same kind of celebration-amid-sorrow that my Nigerian student identified in Black History Month. Collins remarks on the irony of enjoying a black entertainment event in “a nation seemingly dedicated to Black suffering and death.” Here we have the unhappiest view yet. In this conception, the hardships endured by black Americans are not just some passive occupational hazard, if you will, but an expression of America’s very raison d’être. America seems to be dedicated to black suffering and death.

This is what so disturbed me about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s much-lauded book, Between the World and Me, an unsparing anthem to racial paranoia. The content of the book was bad enough, but worse was that Coates wrote it in the form of a letter to his teenage son, Samori. “You must always remember,” Coates counseled the boy, “that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” Setting everything else aside, as a father myself, I was astonished that Coates would want Samori to see himself that way—adrift in a hostile society that was forever devising expedient pretexts for visiting mayhem on his “black body,” a phrase that appears, like an incantation, throughout the book.

This, according to Coates, is blackness? An inevitable birthright of permanent second-class citizenship and terror? Could this be what my female student would have me “address” and even “honor”? And yet, in recent years, one hears similar refrains from even our most temperate black voices.

During the opening phase of the Derek Chauvin trial, CNN’s since-deposed anchorman Chris Cuomo gave over a significant chunk of screen time to his colleague, Van Jones, who delivered a grim accounting of the plight of latter-day black America. Choking back tears, Jones touched on all the usual themes, from deprivation to mass incarceration to disparities in COVID outcomes to, of course, George Floyd, whom Jones presented as an avatar for spiritedly bigoted policing. Jones characterized this punishing vision as a kind of race memory that resides in the very soul of “people who look like me.”

Days later, chatting with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Jones reprised his account of American blackness, which he punctuated with much solemn head-shaking and descriptions of people of color as perpetual “members of the losing side.” The very imagery, in other words, that so dismayed my Nigerian student.

And so, it must be asked: Can we ascertain, in some epistemically useful sense, the unifying characteristics of black life that constitute the essential elements of American blackness? What would its entrance requirements be?

One expected condition is surely poverty. However, the most recent census reports that 81.2 percent of black Americans live above the federally defined poverty threshold. That was pre-COVID, which doubtless will have something to say about the figures for the past two years. Nevertheless, by this single criterion, over four-fifths of black America fails to qualify for blackness.

Furthermore, poverty in America does not necessarily preclude ownership of cars, TVs, video-game consoles, or even (in some cases) private homes. Before COVID-19 put the American economy on a respirator, black unemployment stood at 5.5 percent, an all-time low; 94.5 percent of black Americans who wanted to hold a job held one.

The incarceration rate for black Americans is 1.1 percent (two percent for black males). In any given year, nearly 99 percent of black Americans are not in prison, so this cannot be a key component of blackness either. (Generally, it’s the same cohort of repeat offenders who are locked up, released, rearrested for a new crime, and then locked up again.)

There is no appreciable difference between the frequency with which police shoot white suspects and black suspects. As has been amply chronicled, unarmed black suspects are have a less than a one-in-a-million chance of being killed by cops. So, the idea that men like Freddie Gray or George Floyd epitomize American blackness is as absurd as proposing that men like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates epitomize American whiteness.

None of this is meant to deny the existence of racial disparities or problems, but clearly the image of the typical black experience in America as an unending cyclical slog from jail to the welfare rolls and back is a fiction. If blackness exists as a coherent category, it now broadly comprises few if any of the most high-profile indignities ascribed to it.

But surely, one might object, blackness is a cultural reality, the constituent parts of which any of us could catalog: the music, the dance, the dress, the argot. Perhaps—but the existence of such recognizable characteristics amounts to less than meets the eye (or ear).

First, and most obviously, cultural blackness of the sort celebrated during Black History Month is a product of nurture, not nature. It has been communicated from person to person or generation to generation, much as Coates communicated his anguished view of blackness to his son. Nothing in an infant’s genetics predisposes cultural preferences, and there is no reason for the next black child to emerge from the womb craving Kendrick Lamar over Travis Tritt (even if I am tempted to argue that we should all embrace that musical preference).

There is only a mythology built around a set of conditioned habits and preferences that have nothing to do with the next black (or white, or Asian) baby. Were a black infant to be raised by an Italian American family in the 1950s Brooklyn neighborhood in which I grew up, that child would likely grow up throwing baseballs instead of buzzer beaters.

Even if we accept that everybody knows what black culture is, it is manifestly exclusionary to make that culture synonymous with blackness in a defining way. For what do we then say of non-conforming black Americans who share the skin color but not the cultural tastes and affinities? In my quarter-century of teaching college, I’ve had black students who played cello in the university orchestra and disliked (or were even embarrassed by) hip-hop. And I’ve had black writing students who worked diligently to distance their speech and writing from the vernacular of their black peers. If there is indeed such a thing as blackness, is there a place in it for them? If the answer is “no,” that simply paves the way for the loathsome “cooning” and “Tom-ing” that we see too much already in social and political settings.

Which brings me to the most insidious problem with the acknowledgment of a culture of blackness. What we conceive as black culture is hopelessly, tragically infused with the narrative of woe that my Nigerian student found so off-putting about Black History Month, and that I find so upsetting about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book. It celebrates a sensationalized, often anachronistic heartache.

My first career was in jazz, a historically black idiom that I pursued throughout school and later as a short-lived career. I loved the music but always hated the apparently obligatory immersion in its painful genesis. Why did I have to acknowledge the pain of Muddy Waters in order to enjoy his blues riffs? Did John Coltrane’s soaring glissandos need to be marinated in some extraneous racial meaning beyond the inventive beauty of the notes?

To this day, however, that is how jazz is formally taught—from a Black Studies perspective, in the context of its sociological underpinnings. This, presumably, is why iconic jazzman Wynton Marsalis titled his landmark 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary. And why he feels he can’t talk about “the roots of jazz” without also talking about “the history of race in America.” We’re not just bolting culture onto people, we’re bolting historical misery onto them as well.

The same can be said about the output of so-called Black Hollywood. A downbeat vision of blackness has become a characteristic of black film-making, preoccupied as it is with the ordeal and the struggle. Almost without exception, black movies explore the injustices visited upon black people. You do not see many black films in which race is irrelevant or plays an incidental role. (You do not see, for instance, a black Tootsie.) In black film, even the simplest of storylines about friendship between women, such as Rebecca Hall’s 2021 film Passing, are layered with racial anxiety.

When Halle Berry accepted a lifetime achievement gong at the Critics Choice Awards, she made several references to the importance of her art in showcasing the “pain” of black life. Academics and activists demand more of the same: they want antiracism to be front-and-center in every shot; they recommend lists of movies that can serve as “jumping-off points for conversations about injustice.” Then, of course, we have the ever-expanding pantheon of black literature, which invariably looks at life through an unforgiving racial lens.

So, in black culture we again find an inescapable sense that honoring blackness means recognizing it as an oppressive burden—and for the very reasons that I rejected earlier. It becomes a circular assault on the black psyche, with black culture animated by, and then reinforcing, perversely fashionable canards about black life.

If the young black woman who admonished me in class were to confront me today, I would ask her: What is it that you want me to see when I look at you? And what do you want to see when you look at yourself? A walking legacy of heartbreak?

It is hardly controversial to acknowledge that the history of black people in America was, for centuries, fraught with grief. But there is no reason for that history to attach itself to any young black person born today or even at the millennium (like most of my students). The student born in Detroit in 2000 has no greater connection to American slavery than the student born in Lagos that same year. Or the student born in Copenhagen, for that matter.

The grim history of black Americans is not a biological inheritance, nor is it destiny. It enters the brain through the senses. When people speak to me about black America, I see 29 million individuals with diverse lives who enjoy varying degrees of success and failure. Just like everyone else. Nothing chains us to history. And nothing chains black Americans to the chains of their tragic past. To believe otherwise is profoundly disempowering.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/03/28/there-is-no-black-america/
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This is an excellent piece…

When I was in China, (a distant galaxy, long ago), a country with a cold climate and a socialist government, there was a saying which we could could san mei or “the three not’s.” Mei you, mei banfa, mei guanxi There isn’t any, there’s no solution (more literally, ‘no method’), it doesn’t matter (more literally, no ‘affair’ or no ‘concern’. Or in today’s English, “No problem.”

So much of the current argument is over grievances long ago and far away, for which there is no effective or equitable remedy today, especially if the individual complaining of it did not personally experience it, but senses it somewhere in their backstory. There ain’t nothin’ that I can do to fix that past, cuz it isn’t even your own past. “Mei banfa!” And it may be a problem for you, cuz’ you’ve made it your problem, but it ain’t my problem. “Mei guanxi!” Which in some cases is best understood as “Get Over It!” Only you can solve it for yourself. You won’t be satisfied with my solutions or help. Like I said, if you won’t accept some solution, don’t know what feasible solution you would accept, then there’s no solution, and I say, Get over it!.

But that frame of mind, in which “get over it, tough it out” was the only solution, was set in a cold galaxy far away, under ineffective socialist governance, in which any could see that crying to the authorities over past injustices would not likely lead to nice remedies. No, not smart to ask for personal remedies. Ask inappropriately and you might get indignities instead.

Here in the US we are remarkably tolerant of those who think they should ask for special remedies.

In another forum, I am writing about my experience in China, 1982-83. PM me if you are interested.

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I wonder how this article was pitched to the editorial staff at Quillette:

“Hi, my name is Steve Salerno. I am white. I want to write a lengthy article about being Black in America; at a time when cancel culture has reached a fever pitch. I also have a Twitter account. I enjoy grabbing the third-rail. Maybe getting published in your online magazine can serve to needlessly endanger my career. Did I mention the fact that I also just won the lottery and won’t need any future income? That might come in handy when my employer caves in to the online hate that I am flirting with…”

Otherwise, this is an excellent article!

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You could say much the same about the ever present reminders of Jewish anti Semitism & the Holocaust. Are these constant memorials despite successes only serving to perpetuate victim mentalities & unwarranted paranoia amongst future generations? Media negativity bias isn’t necessarily an indication of the totality of cultural influences & the resulting perceptions individuals have.

Nut picking, extremest views a la Ta- Nehesi Coates, media driven hysterias or even just regular reminders of past & present struggles aren’t necessarily an indication of a culture saturated in all consuming victim mentality. Given the author went to the effort to back up his assertions of black misconceptions with data the least he could have done is not resorted to a handful of extreme anecdotes as resounding evidence of widespread unjustified racial paranoia. If we’re going have a serious conversation about whether certain cultural representations have indeed caused false perceptions & psychological damage there needs to be evidence in the for of statistical data.

Of course a culture of self responsibility is an essential component of personal success & I can confirm as a first generation child of immigrants that kind of inculcation heavily contributed to my own flourishing. However, in both my personal & professional experience with immigrants what wasn’t instilled so much was the value of of social responsibility. And there are very good reasons for that as there were often heavy recriminations for speaking out about injustices that perpetuated the kind of environments immigrants desire to escape from. So while we may laud immigrant cultures for an attitude of self responsibility let’s not forget that the very life they sought to escape to was built off the battles & sacrifices against injustice they could not or would not make for reasons of self preservation. A culture of only self & familial interest is often the baggage that’s often passed on from immigrants to their children because of their former environments so to understand them as being models of responsibility isn’t being entirely accurate or helpful.

The offspring of the native born are often denigrated as having victim mentalities for the purposes of seeking attention that their immigrant counterparts don’t but the reality is they are the products of a culture of social responsibility continuing the legacy & duty of good works future generations will benefit from. Life is better but not perfect so let’s not misunderstand or be unappreciative of vehicles that have moved & continue to move humanity forward because some of these efforts have been misguided.

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This essay starts well, with the discomfort felt by a Nigerian American at the standard American narrative on race. But it mainly fails in emphasis and proposed solutions. It is one to mention in passing that a study has proven that there is no disparity in police shootings once underlying patterns of crime have been accounted for, but this lacks the visceral quality of stating that although such outrages as the George Floyd incident are exceptionally rare, they can and do happen to White people. Indeed, if the media had brought the case of Tony Timpa to the national attention it deserved, a white man in Texas subjected to a very similar, but thirteen minute long, incident in which he was suffocated to death, there is as strong argument that George Floyd would not have died as he did- because the practice would have been banned. And this is by no means an isolated phenomenon- for every outrage visited by police on a Black body, there is an equivalent outrage visited on a White body. Many Americans cannot even conceive of this axiomatic and well-evidenced truth.

The fact that such incidents are exceptionally rare does nothing to correct for their horrific visual impact, and does nothing to address the fact that the media are up to their old tricks- where once they perpetuated a largely false narrative against young Black men, giving Americans highly inflated notions of the risks posed by measurably rare violent offenders, their new target seems to be anyone who wears a blue uniform. Admittedly there are problems in American policing, just as there are problems with the violence produced by organised crime of any sort, but habitually Americans are handled broken availability heuristics which keep them completely misinformed about certain groups- be they young Black men who dress a certain way, or any man who happens to wear a police uniform.

It’s a problem with my own writing. I tend to get too detail focused, to ready to provide cold clinical evidence which proves a certain point, without stopping to consider what story am I trying to tell. In this case there really is a solution to Black American despair. The first is vocational training- so widespread to be transformative for any kid who doesn’t do well at school. Critics of African American communities are too quick to blame culture for the disintegration of the Black family, just as the Left are likely to blame slavery, Jim Crow, redlining and the GI Bill. But what if look at ‘culture’ more as a matter of community damage, realised by the fact that high rates of male unemployment in any community make high rates of family formation a practical impossibility.

What about deindustrialization, and the hugely skewed impact it had on male blue collar employment in cities- necessarily disproportionately Black? What about the baleful influence of the indiscriminate high density urban housing projects designed by the Left, acting such amplifiers for social ills? What about the disintegration of public education for African American children, having little to nothing to do with money, and everything to do with the liberal aversion to school strictness and educational academia’s blunt refusal to adopt proven theories of cognitive science as to how the brain learns, and what works in educating young minds?

In the past we knew that stricter schools were vital to kids from poorer backgrounds, because their lives lacked stability, and strictness in schools provides exactly that- a stable base of operations for learning which can empower disadvantaged children- even to the extent that we should keep the canteens and libraries open in the evenings. One wonders whether all these Leftist cries about equity, the desire to people placed proportionately by race throughout society by race, regardless of ability, might be because the Leftists have come to secretly believe the whispered talk of race realism, and come to the faulty conclusion that there is no alternative to equity if they want to construct a truly equal society.

If so, it’s defeatism of the worst kind- giving up on a entire generation, confining so many to the perpetual status of not having earned what they have through merit. They are also completely wrong, and should examine their own failures, particularly of imagination and soft bigotry. Provably so- given the evidence from London. This article from the Guardian will tell you quite correctly that the reason why Black students have pulled ahead of whites in academic performance for the first time is largely down to geography, the successes of London. It will tell you that it’s all down to public investment- and this may well be true in a one-off structural sense- education has an infrastructure just like any other public enterprise, and spending money on it is generally a good idea as a future investment.

But what the article misses is the underlying intellectual infrastructure which undergirds this success. This educational blog gives a far more detailed breakdown as to why academic results changed so measurably over a relatively short period of time. There were for main reasons; the London Challenge which focused upon a more professional workforce, especially in the areas of data literacy, accountability and an attitude of continuous improvement; Teach First, which was devoted to the development of far better classroom skills than other routes; the introduction of independent academies which are our equivalent of charters; and greater levels of local authority support- by which I presume the authorities provided interventions in social issues of the types dealt with by social workers and other support workers. There also seems to be a culture of accountable leadership at every level, which I imagine means the insistence on high quality headteachers willing to be demanding of staff, but also incredibly supportive.

But secretly, I imagine the successes of Northern Irish Catholics relative to once wealthier Protestant counterparts played a critical role. At the time the changes were being introduced Northern Irish Catholics had embarrassed their Protestant equivalents into higher performance to the extent that the Northern Irish exam results were providing considerable embarrassment to the British Educational Establishment overall. You won’t find much literature on the subject, people are hardly likely to want to advertise an abject and total failure- apart from a few vaguely worded sentences about the effects of communities more committed to the educational endeavour.

But I imagine behind the scenes the lessons were quietly incorporated, at least in the capital, where such could be done discreetly as part of a larger project. It’s probably the reason why so many of the higher performing London schools are so strict, to the extent that when the media runs an article or segment on TV about Britain’s strictest headmistress the headteachers are always from London or the surrounds. One can read the discipline codes- they are quite emphatic and apply with equally draconian measures to parents.

Generally, the teaching approach in the better London schools, as it was before in Northern Ireland, can be said to be one of knowledge-rich learning- effectively teaching children to absorb as much knowledge as possible- instead of the inane emphasis of skills over knowledge found in much of the rest of the country. Cognitive Load Theory proves that committing vast tracts of useable knowledge to long-term memory is the only way to perform anything other than the most simple cognitive tasks in Maths or Reading.

This does not mean that all of the Lefts ideas in America are wrong. Far from it. The Child Tax Credit element of the American Rescue Plan was a good idea- but it should have been more narrowly construed to target early childhood nutrition. A somewhat contentious study from Guatemala (on ethical grounds), showed that even when calorific content levels were equal, a switch from sugar to more nutritious foods results in an 8% increase in cognitive ability across the population and improved life outcomes across a number of metric.

The real problem in America, is that the pursuit of equity proved the Left has given up. In this light, the desire to abandon SATs or any other form of testing might be seen as attempt to hide the evidence of a hurtful truth. But they are wrong- and provably so. London proves that it is possible to equalise outcomes by improving the pipeline to success. Perhaps they are unwilling to face the extent to which their ideas have failed them.

It’s not American teachers fault- they have been subject to a bureaucracy which falls into the category of ideological apparatchik- intent upon punishing any teacher who happens to disproportionately discipline Black kids (which is warranted given the social factors). They have also been taught to hide the evidence, giving passing marks wherever possible, being incredibly lax in terms of assignment, all in pursuit of claiming educational results at an institutional level which are inflated beyond belief. It must be somewhat akin to working in East Germany, subject to the predations of the Stasi, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And ironically, strictness is the solution to the school to prison pipeline, not its cause- because incidents which require expulsions are inevitably the result of laxer standard with lower levels of punishment, like detentions- as well as strictness which is only enforced on a class by class basis, rather than being a school-wide consistent culture upon which all teachers can rely.

The West Brampton Manor Academy now places more students in Oxford and Cambridge than Eton (the schools which has produced more British Prime Ministers than any other), and they did it on merit alone. Wow, 89 places only six days ago, and all despite the heavier impact Covid has had on kids from poorer backgrounds!

America could do the same. The problem is that white guilt and the desire for white atonement makes the soft bigotry of low expectations an institutional factor in education. Does the Left really want to give up on Black America forever, by pursuing equity, which is at best a jury rig to adjust for failures further back in the K-12 pipeline, and at worst a deeply flawed concession to the false reality of race realism? London should provide the example of what they should really do, if they really want to achieve a lasting victory for Black America.

As usual my essays are to be found on Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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I had a very similar conversation with a young black man recently, seated next to me on a flight. He was from Congo, going to school in Boston. Every time he saved up a few dollars, he was taking flights around the US, just exploring. (he’d just spent a weekend in Kansas City)

He thought America was the greatest country on earth! Talked about how friendly people were, everywhere he went. Black Americans confused him greatly, with fellow college students talking about nothing but oppression and racism.

Another recent experience. The company I work for now has a D&I vice-president, with monthly D&I virtual town halls. A black employee gave his testimonial to all the hardship and oppression he’s been forced to suffer, even cried on the call. This is a 40-something year old regional vice-president, graduated from ivy league schools, in charge of 5 large production facilities with responsibilities for hundreds of millions of dollars… How, exactly should we have made his journey easier? Does him making 20X my salary stop me from oppressing him?

If he’s being held up as a symbol of white oppression, instead of black success, I truly don’t know what would fix this.

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We do it better in Canada, where the Indians are a codified identity, legally entitled to all sorts of exemptions and privileges all overlain with Victimhood of course. And Big Business is exactly what it is. Grand Chiefs, bureaucrats, lawyers and various NGOs all want to keep things broken because the brokener they are, the more money flows – all of it thru their hands. It is quite comparable to the way that a spoilt child learns that the more they cry the more they get what they want. It’s about that simple.

Here’s an anecdote for you, the CBC. Dunno if ABC has gone the same way, I’d not be surprised, but the CBC used to be intelligent radio for intelligent people, now it is entirely woke – Victims! Victims all day, every day. Race is everything and everything is race. There’s a national crisis: it seems Indian kids are not immortal and some of them died while in residential schools (TB = murder) and were buried without headstones. One might point out that poor white kids who died in orphanages were also buried without headstones – but that would be racist. Racism might one day become Canada’s #1 industry.

Firstly I would suggest defunding the Despair Industry – stop making it profitable to keep blacks on the Plantation.

Yabut all the things you go on to mention feed back into culture. No one supposes that black culture is some sort of island unto itself, it is probably objectively true that the worst parts of black culture have been reinforced by whitey and your list of vectors is no doubt accurate. In a delicious sort of way it is all whitey’s fault, but not for Oppressing, but for coddling. As always you are eloquent in how coddling has ruined black education.

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“Cognitive Load Theory proves that committing vast tracts of useable knowledge to long-term memory is the only way to perform anything other than the most simple cognitive tasks in Maths or Reading.” The idea that you don’t need to actually know anything, because you can always look it up online, has done great harm.

I have used an analogy involving a popular song, by Jakob Dylan, which includes the following lines:

Cupid, don’t draw back your bow
Sam Cooke didn’t know what I know

Think of how much you need to know in order to understand these two simple lines:

1)You need to know that, in mythology, Cupid symbolizes love
2)And that Cupid’s chosen instrument is the bow and arrow
3)Also that there was a singer/songwriter named Sam Cooke
4)And that he had a song called which included the lines “Cupid, draw back your bow.”

If it’s not possible to understand a couple of lines from a popular song without knowing by heart the references to which it alludes–without memorizing them–what chance is there for understanding medieval history, or modern physics, without having a ready grasp of the topics which these disciplines reference?

And also consider: in the Dylan case, it’s not just what you need to know to appreciate the song. It’s what Dylan needed to know to create it in the first place. Had he not already had the reference points–Cupid, the bow and arrow, the Sam Cooke song–in his head, there’s no way he would have been able to create his own lines. The idea that he could have just “looked them up,” which educators often suggest is the way to deal with factual knowledge, would be ludicrous in this context. And it would also be ludicrous in the context of creating new ideas about history or physics. To use a computer analogy, the things you know aren’t just data --they’re part of the program.

I’ve seen no evidence that there exists a known body of “thinking skills” so powerful that they bypass the need for detailed, substantative knowledge within specific disciplines. And if such meta-level thinking skills were to be developed, I suspect that the last place to find them would be in university Education departments.

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There’s some old saying about how if you kill a man, his family will hate you for the rest of your life, but if you steal a man’s land, his family will hate you forever. It appears we may need to add a corollary to that saying: enslave a man’s family, and his descendants will carry the shame and indignation for–checks watch–150 years and counting. Hence the hilarious accusations about how the US is “dedicated to Black suffering and death.” I’ll bet that the guy really is suffering, but the source of his pain is stuff that happened 200 years ago or more, not anything anybody did to him last week or three months ago, but he fails to make this distinction.

How to move past this self-defeating mentality? Well, it is important to note that for certain people, black and white, it would be better that we do not. To take one example mentioned above: Ta Nehisi Coates is a deranged nitwit, but he is highly compensated for his efforts, telling the world how much he despises white Americans, which allows for his supposedly erudite white audience to feel superior to their co-ethnics, because they understand and feel his pain or something like that. As Geary noted above, the media certainly profits handsomely from stoking racial antagonism and paranoia, and I would add that certain politicians on the left have not failed to uncover how historical grievances can be used to drive voter turnout amongst particular demographics, also.

I agree with the author that migration from the Caribbean and from Sub-Saharan Africa may in fact be the biggest hope here, as these folks definitely seem not to have the same hang-ups as our native black population, and just have a more positive and healthy outlook on life in general. At least based on my experience, these people seem generally to be successful and socially well-adjusted enough that a narrative that they’re part of some sort of victim class would be internally difficult to maintain without some serious cognitive dissonance.

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Great comment. It’s like the Left wants to throw away the users manual for the easiest way to obtain income in the history of the world. There is certainly some truth to the idea that most history is propaganda, meant to fit the prevailing narrative of the time- often reinvented to suit new times and political ethea- one only has to look at some of the portraits of Elizabeth R to see the propagandists at work with the symbology of the paintings. But generally, however flawed knowledge may be, it tends to possess an inherent value and power.

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I’ve heard similar accounts from Eastern Europeans- to them a British supermarket is a shrine to modernity and Western capitalism. Although personally, I do find that in countries like Greece for example, limited stock is more than made up for by the quality of ingredients. The pitta bread, feta, cucumber and olives are all of superior quality to those found in the UK, in all but very specialist outlets.

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Now we’re getting somewhere. This stuff sells. And de-values the real suffering that does take place. That’s an incredibly cynical take. And I wish it weren’t true. But when people started making their living off this type of discourse, there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. Just have to wait until (if?) it goes out of style. But it is going be fashionable for the foreseeable future, although world events do seem to be rapidly pushing this part of political life to the backburner a bit.

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Coates is in no way, shape or form some sort of fringe nut. He (and Between The World and Me in particular) is a bestseller with a wide mainstream audience. I think this book was at the top of NYT list for multiple weeks. While he doesn’t speak for all black people, using it as a shorthand proxy for one fairly dominant strand of thought on race relations and the plight of black people in America is not totally unwarranted, even if some of his ideas ultimately lack merit.

As an aside, I don’t get all of the academic furor over what Coates does get wrong. His is an emotional appeal. A narrative by a gifted but biased storyteller. And there are some very intelligent counterbalances to his narrative out there. Work from people like John McWhorter, Coleman Hughes or Glenn Loury. Hell, Justice Thomas (someone who truly suffered under the kind of de jure segregation that a guy like Coates has likely only read about in books) has scoffed at the kind of racial fatalism that Coates resorts to in a couple of his judicial opinions.

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Yes his work is popular for many reasons, but is the particularly pessimistic point of view or “racial fatalism” as you say that the author describes indicative of a broader view point?

While I don’t doubt there’s “a strand of thought” that identifies with this particular view, let’s not confuse the popularity of a body of works with the acceptance of all its viewpoints.

Say what you want about his ideas, Coates is an highly influential cultural figure. Again, I acknowledged that he doesn’t speak for everyone of his race. But when you write a monthly column for a publication like the Atlantic, your ideas clearly have some measure of popular acceptance among the upper reaches of society. Even if they are “wrong” per se.

On your second point, actually, Coates seems to be revered as some sort of quasi-prophetic figure by many of his acolytes. Ironically, much like his arch-nemesis, our old friend, Jordan Peterson hilariously enough.

People are looking for truth; right now they are starving for it. They might not always find it, but sometimes they grab on to the next best thing and make do with that. Some of that is happening with both Coates and Peterson.

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Coates’ main gig is structural racism which is at the forefront of grievances today so his prominence & popularity is to be expected. But as I said I don’t think that necessarily equates with a consensus on all his views. TS Elliot’s iconic poem of hopelessness & pessimism The Wasteland can hardly be said to be indicative of the beliefs of those who have popularised it but I think it works in the same way as Between The World & Me to draw attention to an issue by virtue of how it damages people into making them irrevocably negative. The world we create often can have consequences on healthy perspectives so we can hardly not expect unreasonable reactions.

Good point, they are similar figures . Both with something to offer some of the time but not so much at others. The good, bad & the ugly that exists in us all reflecting back perhaps?

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I usually don’t waste my time responding to “Ella-B”, but the comparison of blacks to Jews warrants a response, if only to show how off-base she is.

The Jews have been kicked around for centuries. They’ve been mistreated, often had their property confiscated, booted out of many countries, and subject to violent attacks. Oh, and there was this guy named Hitler who made a systematic attempt to wipe them out, built a whole apparatus of railroads and death camps and crematoria to achieve that end. And yet, as a group, the Jews have always survived, and in many cases flourished. You know why? Because while they never forget their past miseries, what really matters to them is living in the present and looking forward to the future. Who wants to be miserable all the time? But the Jews know from experience that no one is going to take care of them, so they take care of themselves. And they teach their kids that if they work smart, they can have a better future. It’s no coincidence that the phrase used when Jews make a toast is “l’chaim” - “to life”.

The American blacks who talk about “blackness” just want to wallow in things that happened before they were born ago and blame everyone but themselves for their current situation. They act as if they themselves have no agency. In so doing, they demean themselves - and by extension, all blacks - because they argue implicitly that they are lesser people than other ethnic groups. Whereas Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Nigerians, and all the other groups of people who came to the USA with nothing (which includes all of my forebears if I go back several generations), worked and achieved something, blacks, evidently are incapable of doing so, at least according to the “blackness” advocates.

A corollary of their position is that somehow everyone else owes black people something simply because they have dark skin. Amazingly, we hear this canard even from some blacks who have achieved fantastic economic and/or political success (Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama come to mind).

There’s a recent piece in Tablet about how the assault on “white landlords” in New York is really meant as an attack on Jewish landlords, but in fact is affecting other immigrant groups of small landlords - including black landlords. The DSA Comes for Immigrant Landlords of Color - Tablet Magazine Apparently for proponents of “blackness”, no one anywhere should be allowed to succeed at anything.

My advice to all the “blackness” folks: quit complaining about how you’ve been discriminated against (you haven’t been), appreciate what you have (most of the complainers seem to have cellular and/or internet access, something that was science fiction 50 years ago), and take a cue from the Jews, and the Koreans, and the Nigerians, and countless others who’ve made it in the USA. Don’t have children when you can’t afford to, work hard that when you do have kids so that they’ll have a better life, keep your families intact. It’s not rocket science, but if you follow it your kids might be rocket scientists.

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And you know this to be the broad consensus how?

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Tho I was raised as a Christian, my dad was very proud of his Jewish heritage and passed on to me that survivor’s attitude, which is why I hold institutional Victimhood in such contempt. I remember living in houses built by my dad that, as he joked, he was forbidden to sell to himself – there being restrictive covenants in place against selling to blacks, Jews, Chinese, etc. But there were no covenants against Jews building the houses, nor living in them prior to sale. Dad thought this entirely funny and laughing about it was more to his taste that wailing about his Oppression. He also said that the way the goyim oppressed the Jews was quit appropriate since the natural superiority of the latter required handicapping to give the former any chance.

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