While most of the American commentariat has been obsessing over the composition of Barack Obama’s cabinet, some black intellectuals have been continuing a debate I explored in my article “Post-racial kitsch?” in the December issue of Prospect.
Many of the African-American academics and writers I spoke to shortly before and after the election were sceptical of the “post-racial” talk that had dominated discussions of Obama’s victory—we shouldn’t be too quick, they argued, to think that with a black man in the White House identity politics will come to an abrupt end, or that the grievances of black Americans will miraculously evaporate.
There was one exception, however, to what felt very much like a consensus: the linguist and political commentator John McWhorter. It wasn’t that McWhorter thought the election of a man with a “bi-racial and international heritage” will somehow instantaneously “bring the country together.” Far from it: “This is a myth when it comes to people adult now,” he said. But, he went on, “to children who grow up watching him in the White House it will be not a myth at all. Tell someone who watched a black man run the world for eight years that America is ‘all about racism,’ or that being black is always and forever a problem even for the successful ones, and it just won’t register—which it shouldn’t, because it simply hasn’t been true for decades now.” For McWhorter, Obama presents young blacks with a new “script” for African-American identity, an alternative to what he regards as the self-mutilating cult of black “victimology”.
McWhorter pursued this line in a piece he wrote a few days later for New York Magazine. He recalled something Obama said in his famous, career-making speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004:
“Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things.”
Obama’s victory, McWhorter wrote, was, among other things, the “revenge of the black nerd”: a chance, finally, for academically ambitious black children and adolescents not to have feel…