Thursday, March 25, 2010

How Conservatives See the World; Or, Why Jonathan Kozol Is Worse for Black Schoolchildren than George Wallace

I'm always astounded by the extent to which conservative-minded folks see the world in a profoundly different way than liberals. One of Matt Yglesias' favorite topics in this vein is on the issue of race and racism in America. For most conservatives, sometime soon after the Voting Rights Act was passed racism ended in America. Suddenly, the problem of reverse-racism (against white people) became a far greater concern. I'm not sure anyone would deny that individual acts of racism against people of color don't happen anymore, but if you listened to conservatives, you'd slowly come to realize that racist acts against whites is the real issue, and that it far outstrips racism against blacks.

I see similar sorts of discussions in debates around "the problem with the modern public university." Liberals tend to want to steer the conversation toward things like the lack of state responsibility to fund it, the privatization of a once public good, the growth of business schools and profit-driven sciences and marketing within it, etc. Conservatives tend to ignore these rather broad, large-scale problems and point to what seems to liberals like me to be rather trivial issues: that some black or Latin@ professor is not teaching enough Shakespeare, and that the humanities have been overrun by relativists. It may be the case that we are not teaching enough of the white, male "classics," for example--just like it may be the case that acts of discrimination against whites do indeed happen in our society--but this seems like a pretty bizarre place to start a conversation about the problem with universities, or the problem with racism.

I was reminded of this liberal vs. conservative divide when I read John McWhorter's recent piece for the New Republic on the ten people black folks could most do without. For the sake of brevity, I'll focus on one person on the list, #9, Jonathan Kozol. Keeping with the Huffy Crew's recent theme of school funding...Kozol has been a famous proponent of changing the way we fund schools so as to equalize funding between city and suburban districts. McWhorter counters that Kozol is wrong, and that equalized funding doesn't really matter when it comes to black children's academic performance. Fine. Fair enough. I'm even willing for the sake of argument to concede that McWhorther might be right on this particular point. But taking a step back for a moment, I'm left wondering who has been worse for black children's academic performance? Is Jonathan Kozel in the top ten? Let me go through some possible scenarios:

- Jonathan Kozol vs. Louise Day Hicks and the dude who soiled Old Glory in the Boston busing crisis
- Jonathan Kozol vs. George Wallace, a governor who refused to desegregate Alabama's schools and universities, and spread his rhetoric of aggrieved white men throughout the country in the two presidential campaigns.
Jonathan Kozol vs. Lester Maddox, the segregationist Atlantan who rose to governor of Georgia.
Jonathan Kozol vs. Bryant Bowles, founder of his local National Association for the Advancement of White People after the Brown v. Board decision. A great demagogue who arose fierce opposition to desegregation in many communities that otherwise would have been compliant
Jonathan Kozol vs. Charles Murray, advocate of the theory that black children aren't as smart as white children.
Jonathan Kozol vs. The Framers and Voters Who Supported California Proposition 13 and Colorado's Tax Payer Bill of Rights. Less tax money to spend on schools can't be very helpful for anyone, but it disproportionately affects the poor.
Jonathan Kozol vs. William Levitt, one of many postwar suburban planners who's idea of community (and suburban schools) intentionally excluded African Americans.
Jonathan Kozol vs. Richard Nixon, the great advocate for suburban whites and great opponent of busing.

And I'm sure we could add many others. I realize that McWhorter is being purposefully provocative and idiosyncratic with his choices here, but I think the tendency here fits in well with the conservative mindset I've outlined: racists and framers of policies that have disproportionately hurt black people are somehow less harmful than a guy who thinks that giving more money to poor schools would help poor black kids in those poor schools.


Blogger scantron said...

First of all, let me just say -- "Latin@" Never saw this one before. Pretty clever!

Yeah, I would say there's almost nothing in the McWhorter piece to take seriously. It's funny that the Root piece listed all black people, but when McWhorter makes the jump to include white people he doesn't go for the obvious targets (i.e. actual white bigots, slave-drivers, et al), as you point out.

This is all part of a wider penance genre among 'respectable' blacks and liberals where they're made to don the hairshirt for their irresponsible forebears' indiscretions. Todd Gitlin practically made this an art form in his various apologies for the New Left, Tom Hayden, and others, as though they (and, to return to topic, some of the civil rights figures McWhorter lists) weren't reacting to mass killing in SE Asia and systemic racism, lynching, hosing, etc. It's the same mentality that makes some liberals embarrassed about anti-war protesters when the government frags children in AfPak every month. Thus, Price Cobbs (wtf?!) had a more negative 'decisive impact on black lives and thought in general' than, say, Orval Faubus. Cf. the recent shameful abandonment and subsequent bankrupting of ACORN.

Republicans, as far as I can tell, rarely engage in this sort of 'soul-searching', except in the case of a David Frum, who subsequently gets fired from AEI. When one of their ranks gets in trouble for endorsing *actual racism* (which they now claim to have always hated), like Trent Lott, it is of course the PC police who are the real threats to civil discourse.

In any case, it's funny to see a black guy named John McWhorter embarrassed over the "ridiculousness" of Swahili names.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

How could I forget the Acorn episode! Perfect example. Note that no conservative is saying what liberal blacks say about Acorn: that for an organization that really needs to be on top of things in order to help its impoverished constituency it really needed to get its shit together better. Rather, it's: out of all the problems facing poor inner-city blacks (if not America in general) the existence of Acorn tops the list.

Funny thing is that I normally kind of like McWhorter. For a "black conservative" he actually cares a great deal about issues of poverty, criminal justice and drug reform, etc. Nonetheless, it's not the first time he's made a fool of himself. I remember his first bloggingheads with Glenn Loury a while back (one of my favorite episodes of all time) in which they're debating the origins of the postwar inner city black crisis. After McWhorter is talking about how welfare ruined everything, Loury goes through all the obvious structural reasons for decaying cities (issues related to housing, deindustrialization, bad schools, etc...), to which McWhorter responded with something like, "You know Glenn, that's exactly my point. After all these obstacles to overcome, the last thing these people needed was to be forever dependent on government handouts." Just another case of a conservative looking at the world in a pretty bizarre way.

7:39 PM  
Blogger scantron said...

Did conservatives ever even make a pretense of concern trolling about ACORN? I thought they just recognized it for what it was, an organization that might turn out the black vote in greater numbers, to their detriment. Certainly among the more cretinous right wing there was never any concern that ACORN was failing in their greater mission to help the poor, but rather that ACORN was the vanguard of an army of lazy blacks who had pledged their fealty to Candidate Malik Shabazz X Hussein in hopes of more welfare handouts. These same people are assumed to be the authors and beneficiaries of Obamacare.

8:27 PM  
Blogger 敬忠 said...

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5:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

may the blessing be always with you!! ........................................

12:45 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

I think that 妍妮妍妮 is making a decent point here, but I'm not sure if we should consider ourselves so perpetually saddled by the religious traditions of American education. Robot, I'm sure you've got more information about the religious revivalism of the early 20th century and its relationship with progressive era moves towards universal education, but I'm not completely convinced that the blessings will always be with us.

8:27 PM  

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