Columnist and Columbia professor John McWhorter has earned a national audience with his his writing on race, but his opinions make him hard to categorize. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On One" report with the famed linguist.
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John McWhorter is a Columbia University professor, a writer and occasionally a television commentator, but he is perplexed why people want to interview him. In his words, he is a “magnificently dull person.”
"I've never been divorced, don't have kids yet, have not spent a year in a third-world country. I have never overcome an unusual disease," says McWhorter. “My autobiography would be about this person who sits in a chair with a book."
Yet McWhorter’s books are a big part of what is intriguing about this story. He has written several works on his specialty, linguistics, but it is his thoughtful and provocative writing on race that has drawn national attention.
McWhorter says he calls it as he sees it, questioning the need for racial preferences in education, and saying he likes hip hop but dismisses its capacity to effect political change.
"To be black, under 60 and have a Ph.D and say anything about hip hop other than ‘Hurray’ is considered to be really bizarre," he says.
Those views, his self-described "starchy demeanor" and the fact that McWhorter is a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute led some to think that he was not a supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. While McWhorter was an Obama supporter, he says he upset both whites and blacks with the opinion that Obama would not be president if he were not black.
“Black people imply that I was dissing Obama's capabilities, or calling him an affirmative action candidate, whereas I think almost anybody knows that on some level his color had a lot to do with his appeal,” says McWhorter. “You're just not supposed to talk about. I'm sorry, I'm going to say it, because that's what I've seen."
In his book “Losing the Race,” McWhorter calls one of his main themes “victimology.” On racism, he says, most black people in private say life is not perfect, history is unpleasant and one has to make the best of it. But he claims in public that blacks speak a different language about racism.
"To be black is to be sad, to have an aggrievement, to be angry, [think] the idea is that something still hasn't happened. White people still haven't realized something, that they need to understand about the nature of institutional racism, structural racism, societal racism,” says McWhorter. “This sense that we are supposed to act for white people ends up leaving people with real problems without leadership and so that worries me."
McWhorter's columns have led to appearances everywhere from CNN to Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” But his brutally honest writing on race is no laughing matter to some. One headline in the Sunday Times of London asked if McWhorter were "the most unpopular black man in America,” and that article was actually written by an admirer.
McWhorter says many who criticize him have not actually read his books, but assign to him sinister motives, as if he were a cartoon character.
"I'm leading my life, and my wife and I are shopping in a store, and I have plenty of friends, and I am thinking whoever that character is, it's not me. So I can't really feel hurt," says McWhorter. “Certainly not the ‘carving my niche as a controversialist,’ as it's often put. I'm too busy doing other stuff to be carving anything."
When he’s not submerged in books, McWhorter turns to music. He plays a mean piano, likes some rap and a lot of show tunes, with his collection ranging from Nas to the “Seesaw” cast recording. He sees himself as a nerd, a hobbyist and a homebody who attends conferences and writes books on linguistics read by a dedicated few.
So how did his journey lead to writing about race?
McWhorter grew up in an integrated suburb of Philadelphia, which he calls "middle middle-class" and "boring middle class." His love of languages began at the age of four, when he heard his friend Shirley speaking Hebrew.
"For many people, it would just be, ‘Yeah, can't understand her, let's move on.’ But for me, the fact that I couldn't understand that conversation was frustrating. I wanted to be able to do that,” remembers McWhorter. “And I started crying in the car because I felt like I'd lost little Shirley and felt like I was impotent. Like, she can speak two languages.”
“To this day, it's nearly 40 years later, I'm a little frustrated thinking about that,” continues McWhorter. “I remember how I felt. She can speak two and I can only speak one."
He says he was a headstrong kid. For instance, he told his teachers that ink was spelled “i-n-c,” since he'd seen the abbreviated meaning “Incorporated” on signs.
"I remember telling the teachers, no you're wrong, it's ‘i-n-c.’ And this is what's important - this is not me telling black teachers within a community, where everybody thought it was cute. I was a black kid in 1970 telling my white teachers I was smarter than them and thinking nothing of it,” says McWhorter. “That was the kind of kid I was, I irritated a lot of them. And so I suppose my one problem is if something doesn't cohere to me, it irritates me."
At 15, McWhorter enrolled at Simon's Rock, an early college program in Massachusetts for exceptional students. He graduated from Rutgers in 1985, got a master’s degree at New York University and a Ph.D at Stanford. In 1995, he started teaching at Berkeley.
A year later, CNN asked him to comment about the proposal made by the school board of Oakland, Calif. to use federal funding to use Ebonics to teach standard English.
"Black children, my cousins, are not bilingual. They are bi-dialectal, and that does not merit funding as bilingual people. It would be an insult," said McWhorter at the time.
McWhorter noticed that on several subjects – Rodney King, the O.J. Simpson verdict – he did not agree with the public pronouncement of many black leaders and public officials.
After California banned affirmative action in public education, he did a lot of soul searching and eventually came out against racial preferences in admissions. He also argued that at Berkeley the achievement gap between white and Asian students and black students was not a matter of economics.
"What I was seeing was a performance difference that was based partly on a disconnect from the scholarly that is too common among black students and especially was then,” he says. “I think it's based on all sorts of cultural factors including racism but it was there."
McWhorter wrote about what he saw as an anti-intellectualism in the black community.
Now he says the notion that African-American students who excel are "acting white" will soon be history because of one man.
"In 10 years, it will be found that that is much less of a problem than it used to be, black nerds being told that they are acting white for liking school,” says McWhorter. “And it's going to be because one, you can point to Barack Obama. And two, there's just going to be Barack Obama. The sense that there is something irregular of being black and brainy is going to be evaporated among white people as well as black people."
For the last 10 years, McWhorter's balanced his work on race with his first love of linguistics.
"There are these rusty gears that shift in my head, to go over into race if I've been talking about language,” he says. “If I'm doing a race talk and somebody asks about verbs, again it takes a major shift because the two things are different. I like a bunch of stuff, those are two stuffs."
But of all his interests, his work on race has elicited both public criticism and intensely personal support.
"Now, there is the black undergrad who is 19 who comes up to me with the well-thumbed copy of ‘Losing the Race.’ Sometimes they are even crying. I've had people tell me even on the subway, ‘This book changed my life,’” says McWhorter. "And so when that happens, I know that I am doing this for a reason.
"And then when someone will write that I fill my columns full of lies or that I'm a darling of the right wing, or that I don't like black people, it has so little to do with what that undergraduate got from ‘Losing the Race’ that I'd rather think about her," continues McWhorter.