Scholar John McWhorter Suggests a New Approach To Racial Issues

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In this JOURNAL, scholar John McWhorter weighs in on whether the U.S. is “a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing racial issues, as Attorney General Eric Holder suggested. This episode also spotlights viewer responses on America’s economic crisis, immigration and the Taliban. Plus, tributes to human rights activist Alison Des Forges and Irish writer Christopher Nolan. 

Scholar John McWhorter (Photo: Robin Holland)

Scholar John McWhorter (Photo: Robin Holland)


BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.

Since Barack Obama’s election, we’ve heard it said that America had entered a post-racial era. But in a speech at the Justice Department last week, in celebration of Black History Month, Attorney General Eric Holder said wait, just a minute, we can’t put race behind us so easily.

ERIC HOLDER: Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we average Americans simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.

BILL MOYERS: A nation of cowards. Those were fighting words to many who heard or read them. And they triggered a backlash in newspaper editorials and across the blogosphere, obscuring everything else our first African-American attorney general had to say.

Reactions ranged from gentle rebukes, that Holder had simply made a poor choice of words, to raging attacks on his alleged lack of patriotism. Others suggested that Holder had taken a deliberately provocative stance to create a much needed dialogue on racism.

With me is a man well suited to a discussion of Holder’s speech and other matters. John McWhorter is a veteran political commentator. He’s also a scholar of linguistics, schooled in the meaning and nuance of language; a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and a columnist for the NEW REPUBLIC magazine. He’s written several books, including the best seller LOSING THE RACE, and these two published last year: OUR MAGNIFICENT BASTARD TONGUE: THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF ENGLISH and ALL ABOUT THE BEAT: WHY HIP HOP CAN’T SAVE BLACK AMERICA.

John McWhorter, welcome to the JOURNAL.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Thank you very much, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: Let me say first that I want to thank you for making me comfortable splitting infinitives.


BILL MOYERS: I had two English teachers, Inez Hughes and Selma Brutsy, who would hang me by the thumbs if I did that.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Very good minded people. But that rule about split infinitives is a hoax. It’s like hanging garlic in a doorway to ward off bad spirits.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve al-

JOHN MCWHORTER: Got to get rid of it.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve also made me feel good about ending sentences in a preposition if I feel the need to.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Yes, you should, for example. There’s no such thing as speaking the language that we speak without putting prepositions at the end, which everybody knows. But in OUR MAGNIFICENT BASTARD TONGUE,” I discuss those and other rules where we’ve been taught by very well-intentioned people what, quote/unquote proper English is.

And the sad fact is that a lot of the rules that we’re taught have their basis in erroneous conceptions such as that English is supposed to be about resembling Latin. And why? Why don’t we want to resemble Arabic or Maori? It’s just completely arbitrary based on people in a different world from ours 200 and 150 years ago.

BILL MOYERS: You do make the point that the history of language is of rules constantly being broken.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Yeah. I mean, the English language has changed so significantly over the time it’s existed in that it makes you wonder why is it that for some reason about 150 years ago it became taboo for the language to change? And not just in there being new words but in terms of the grammar changing? And so we know that old English became Middle English. And Middle English became Shakespearean English. And that’s a noble procession with French horns going in the background. Then somehow you get to roughly Jane Austen. And then everything is just supposed to stop. What’s so special about us? The language will always keep changing.

BILL MOYERS: When did you get so interested in putting words together that you decided to make the study of language your life’s work?

JOHN MCWHORTER: I became interested in language really when I was four years old. And I had this little girlfriend to the extent that you can have a girlfriend when you’re four. And she was what I now know as Israeli. And we ran outside to meet our respective parents. And I was speaking English to my mother, and she was doing something else with her family and I couldn’t understand what she was saying. That drove me insane. I felt like I had lost her. And I felt inadequate because I couldn’t talk in this other way. And so we found out that they were speaking Hebrew. And I wanted to know Hebrew. For me that was the beginning of this loving the fact that there are thousands of other ways of doing what you and I are doing right now. And that you might be able to do it in two or three or four different ways. So nowadays, I can read in a whole lot of languages. I can speak a bunch of them badly. But the fact is that there is a science of language. You can actually get a Ph.D. in liking languages. And that’s why I became a linguist.

BILL MOYERS: So why are we always asking “what did he really mean?” or “what do you really mean?”

JOHN MCWHORTER: Yeah, this is hard because we don’t really mean literally the connotations of the words that we use. Any word actually has a messy kind of semantic spread into areas that you might not even find in the dictionary. Language is a very complicated thing.

When, for example, Attorney General Eric Holder says that we need to have a conversation about race, he means well. But he’s not saying what those words strictly mean. The dictionary will not help there. Over about the past 20 years, saying that we need to have a conversation about race is coded. What the meaning actually is, is that, yes, there was a civil rights revolution. Yes, the signs are off the water fountain. Yes, overt expressions of bigotry are now socially proscribed. But still racism remains a very serious problem, perhaps a defining experience in a black American person’s life and that we need to have a conversation about that, that obviously it’s not something that nobody could miss such as the signs on the water fountains. But may I, as a black person, have a conversation with you white person about why I still feel beleaguered by racism?

The idea is that it would take a conversation. And so having the conversation about race, what is generally meant by most people who are saying that, means that black people have something to teach white people if white people would just sit and listen. And it is not a conversation in the strict sense. It’s not just an exchange. But in an exchange there would also be room for white people to say, “Here’s why we think you need to get over racism. Here’s why we’re not as racist as you might think. Here’s why we’re offended by this or we’re weary of this.” And what most people mean by the conversation would have much, much less room for that than for the teaching that black people are supposed to do.

BILL MOYERS: I was impressed by what you wrote on your blog, that as you’ve seen the last few years we’ve, in fact, been obsessed with race and that there has been, on many levels, a conversation going on, whether it’s Don Imus or Michael Richards or the nooses in Jena, Louisiana, or reporters during the campaign asking those working-class-

JOHN MCWHORTER: Remember that?

BILL MOYERS: -white people if they would vote for a black candidate. I mean, do you think those added up to a frank discussion about race?

JOHN MCWHORTER: Bill, that is exactly it. If someone says and this is why I’m saying that I don’t think that “let’s have a conversation” means what it’s supposed to mean. If someone says let’s have a conversation and look at all of them that we seem to have a couple times a year when something comes up. There are black people and white people and everybody else having an exchange, talking about race. There are liberals in it and conservatives in it, people in the middle. We have that conversation all the time. And yet somehow that doesn’t qualify. And the only way that I can make sense of that is that those conversations and what comes out of them, which is a kind of a centrist viewpoint that racism does exist but that it’s not a main problem anymore. And this is an important distinction. It’s not that it doesn’t exist.


JOHN MCWHORTER: But it’s not the main problem. That apparently isn’t enough. If you can look at, for example, Macaca and Don Imus and Michael Richards and the whole Obama campaign and still come out of that, take a shower, rub your eyes, and say, “You know, we never talk about race in this country,” clearly you don’t mean that we don’t talk about it. It’s that there’s a certain kind of outcome that is desired. And the reason that I have written in criticism of that is not because I wouldn’t be pleased if we could all somehow sit down and come to some sort of realization that would make someone like Eric Holder feel assuaged. I just don’t see how it could happen.

BILL MOYERS: You said a moment ago that his speech was coded.


BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by that?

JOHN MCWHORTER: We speak in code all the time. It’s part of being human. There’s a certain, I want to use the right word. There’s a coyness about it in saying we need to have a conversation rather than what’s really meant, which is racism is still very important and you need to realize it and do something about it. And we’re in an America where the president is black. We’re going to need to be coyer and coyer in talking about this conversation. But in this case, although using coded language can be beneficial, talking about the conversation I think at this point leaves an awful lot of poor people still poor. And it leaves an awful lot of people with no job skills, without any. It leaves an awful lot of people who need more childcare, without childcare. They’re such important problems.

You know, most new AIDS cases are black women. We’ve got ex-cons who don’t know how to re-integrate into society. And it seems to me that that conversation about race, no matter how it came out, wouldn’t solve those problems. And so let’s say that you could create this conversation not, for one thing, the conversation would never satisfy certain people. And in the meantime, I’m more interested in helping people who need help.

So let’s talk coded-ly about something else like, for example, prisoner re-entry. It’s one thing to say, you know, ex-cons. People don’t usually talk about it that way. You say prisoner re-entry into society programs. Let’s code it to distract people from any negative feelings they have about people who spent time in prison. There is some useful coded language. Conversation about race I think is a rather idle notion.

BILL MOYERS: To what extent do you think those realities you just mentioned can be traced to racism?

JOHN MCWHORTER: Oh, that’s a good question.

BILL MOYERS: Kids in prison. You know, disproportionate number of, by far disproportionate number of black kids in-prison-


BILL MOYERS: -disproportionate number of black people living in poverty. When we talk about those realities, do we have to talk about race anymore? Or is that behind us?

JOHN MCWHORTER: There is certainly what’s called societal racism, institutional racism. White privilege is the way sometimes it’s more provocatively put. And those things are there. But my question is whether or not we can eliminate those things within any time span that is less than geological. And so, yes, I know that there are arguments that there is institutional racism. But in terms of helping people who need help, it seems that they are very practical, hands-on strategies that we can use and that we can teach people to use that have a more interesting effect to me than crusading against the fact that society isn’t fair.

Basically, I can’t imagine the playing field ever being completely level. I don’t know how you can create that. And this is the crucial thing. I think that descendants of African slaves in the United States are the only group in human history who have insisted that we can only achieve under perfect or near-perfect conditions. Now, for me to have said that in 1950 that would have been pushing it. But in terms of the way it is now, life is never fair. And I want to stress once again, I know that there is racism in the United States. Tulia, Texas, is you know, anybody can Google that.


JOHN MCWHORTER: But the fact of the matter is that when you look at the problems that the black community has, tracing them to racism has gotten so abstract that really I don’t see and maybe I’m missing something. But I don’t see how we could convince a significant proportion of the American population that racism was the main issue anymore.

And more to the point, if you could take away the racism right now, no more racism, it’s gone. Every police officer doesn’t even see color, racism’s gone. The problems that we’re talking about would still be there. And so I think that racism is important but not as important to address in 2009 as other things that really help people who need help.

BILL MOYERS: When we have a president of color, an attorney general of color, when we have Tiger Woods and governors of color and Oprah Winfrey and cabinet officers of color, is there still a role for an organization that calls itself the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People?

JOHN MCWHORTER: You know, that’s a tough one. I you can have an NAACP that is still devoted to stamping out discrimination. They have actually recently engaged in a protest against what they view as discrimination.

BILL MOYERS: That cartoon in the-

JOHN MCWHORTER: And so the chimpanzee cartoon.


JOHN MCWHORTER: And so one might interpret the chimpanzee as Barack Obama being shot. And so the NAACP’s most high-profile effort lately has been to protest that. And, okay. Now, you, Bill, and I, John, were smiling a little bit when we were going over the list of Macaca and Michael Richards and Don Imus. I think we both have to admit that once those things have fallen out of the news cycle and you look back on them a year or two later, it seems like it was kind of trivial.

You know, Seinfeld’s Kramer, the actor, had a meltdown on stage and used a bad word and that was all the news was for three weeks? How, how important was that in the grand scheme of how society operates, how America’s going to really solve its problems? The chimp thing is going to be the same thing, you know? As we tape this today, it’s still urgent. A month from now it’s going to be, “Oh, yeah, that kerfuffle.” I wish the NAACP would devote itself to community uplift because those are the things that are more important now.

In 1909 when the organization started, I think we needed to deal with some bigotry and some racism. And that was the main issue. Black men were hanging from trees, and some women. That’s what it was like then. That’s what it was like in 1959. But this is 2009.

BILL MOYERS: The NAACP and Al Sharpton made a strong case that this was a racial slur, implying that Barack Obama is a monkey from the jungle. You know, I have to be honest and say I thought the cartoon was vulgar and violent. It was the violence in it. But I didn’t think of it referring, alluding to Barack Obama. Does that mean I’m not sensitive enough to the caricatures of black people throughout the years?

JOHN MCWHORTER: Bill, no. Yeah, I saw it as violent, too. Like the blood, you know, I kind of felt that’s a tacky cartoon. The idea that it was supposed to be Obama, I had to be taught that.


JOHN MCWHORTER: And, you know, if you didn’t see that, my genuine question is, okay, Bill, you didn’t see it. And you’re probably representative of a lot of people. I don’t see what problem that creates in terms of us living day by day in this society in 2009. It seems to me that whatever problem it created, such as the infinitesimal chance that that cartoon might just teach some bozo to try to and not succeed in assassinating the president, in terms of degree, I think that we’ve got much larger problems.

And sometimes I think we have to learn not only from history 100 years ago but from history a few news cycles ago. The common wisdom, as you and I both know, not long ago was that Barack Obama couldn’t win, that there was still enough racism out there that these people in diners talking about how they would never vote for a black man were going to tip the election. And, you know, they didn’t. And they didn’t even come close. We have to learn from that in thinking about what’s out there, as it’s often put. And what’s most important, not what’s out there. We all know what’s out there. You can find it. Look for it and you’ll find it. It might be next door to you. Does it matter? Does it matter in 2009? And I’m suggesting that these days it’s not one of our larger problems.

BILL MOYERS: I brought a quote from the psychologist, Phillip Goff, “Psychological science has long known that words and pictures far from harmless can be the very instruments of dehumanization necessary for collective violence regardless of how innocently they are intended.” Do you agree with that?

JOHN MCWHORTER: Were we ever thinking that there was going to be an America where there was nothing that we could call racism? Because we are homo sapiens and we’re wired in certain ways. The idea that we could never have any biases, that we would never process people according to group, that there would never be some people who were more troglodytic on this thing than others. I don’t think that that corresponds to any kind of reality. We have made amazing strides. But the idea that we could ever have none? I don’t know. We’d have to be a different species. We’d have to evolve beyond. And as far as what he said about collective action, it’s just a matter once again of degree and likelihood. I think we know recently because of that horrible thing that happened in Buffalo, when you get on a plane, there’s a chance that, you know, something hideous might happen. But we don’t consider it significant enough to not fly planes. There is a chance, I suppose, that a cartoon of a chimpanzee being shot might strike a critical mass of white people to go burn down an all-black town. There’s a chance of that. I think it’s so small that really we need to be thinking about things like how much money is being poured into our public schools and how that might help more black children learn how to read. I’m more interested in that. And that’s how I view statements such as what that psychologist said.

BILL MOYERS: Is this kind of conflict the very kind of, quote, “conversation” that Eric Holder was saying is necessary?

JOHN MCWHORTER: Yeah, this is it. And look what’s coming out of this conversation. Here we are having another one of these national conversations.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, right.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Some people don’t understand. Some people are just waving away the whole thing. I don’t like that part of the conversation. Some people are taking the line of Professor Goff. That’s kind of another extreme. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. And something is going to happen in a few days and on some other front that’s going to push that out of the headlines. And it’s going to float along. And the country is going to be exactly where it was during Don Imus and Michael Richards and Macaca and Jena, Louisiana, and the noose hung on the door at Columbia University. Each one of these things that comes up results in the same centrist position. And the election of a black president, a black president, I still get a thrill writing President Obama. He’s black. He’s not some other color. He’s not white. It’s not temporary. It’s not because somebody got assassinated and he got in by accident. The black president was elected. That settles it. Many people don’t like that.

BILL MOYERS: With a lot of white votes, by the way.

JOHN MCWHORTER: With a lot of white votes. And so many people don’t like that that really settles the position in the middle. But that’s where the conversation is always going to be.

BILL MOYERS: If you and I, John, were to have a frank conversation about race in Eric Holder’s term, how would you begin it? What’s the first thing you would say or ask?

JOHN MCWHORTER: Bill, to be very honest, we just had it. We are having a frank conversation about race. This is the frank conversation about race in 2009. And so, for example, I might ask you, for example, Bill, you know, here we are. I mean, frankly, I don’t want to have that conversation. I have.

BILL MOYERS: You don’t?

JOHN MCWHORTER: No. I have various things to do. I mean, I think I have it all the time, participating in these debates. That is the conversation.

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever get offended because you’re always asked to come on television to talk about race and rarely asked to come on and talk about linguistics?

JOHN MCWHORTER: No, because this is a mission of mine. I firmly believe, I don’t believe it. I know that there’s nothing strange about the way I’m thinking about these things. There are many, many, many black people who think exactly the way I do. My job is to represent that in public so that I can scooch the conversation towards the center to the extent that I can. So, yeah, I understand why people are more interested in hearing me talk about this than about language. But I get to do that in various places, too. But in terms of having the kind of conversation that Holder wants, I supposed there’s some questions that idly I might ask you. But I’m not sure where that would go.

BILL MOYERS: So how would you begin a conversation of a frank conversation about race with Eric Holder?



JOHN MCWHORTER: If he was sitting in front of me right now I would say, Mr. Holder, Eric, whatever it would be, are you afraid of the prospect of black America having to move on without calling on whites to acknowledge their racism? Are you afraid of the fact that despite the nastiness of our history, despite the injustice of slave ships, the Jim Crow, and everything else, that we’re at a point where even though we’re still in a position behind telling white people that they’re racist is no longer going to do the job. It’s not that I find it unfashionable or distasteful. You’re not going to help anyone doing that. Are you afraid of us really having to take responsibility for ourselves? And what’s important is I would say, Mr. Holder, you know that our taking responsibility for ourselves will involve calling on the government to do things to allow us to do that. So this is not some bootstraps argument. But still are you afraid of no longer talking about racism? Why is it that when you made a speech you wanted to take that line after Barack Obama’s been elected president? Isn’t it time to knock this off? That is what I would say to him. And, and I want to specify. It’s time to knock this off because it is not helping anyone anymore. That is what I would say to him.

BILL MOYERS: John McWhorter, I’ve enjoyed this conversation. And I thank you for being with me on the JOURNAL.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Thank you, Bill. This was fun.

BILL MOYERS: We’ll be back shortly with economist Robert Johnson for some fresh talk about America’s banking crisis and the global financial meltdown.

But first, this is when we remind you that we need your support to keep your favorite public television programs on the air. Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: We always encourage you to share your thoughts with us online and you oblige. Spirited discussions fill our email box and blog pages. So we would like to take this opportunity to share with you some of the comments that recently caught our eye.

Progressives David Sirota and Thomas Frank described how they hoped Barack Obama’s White House would handle the economic crisis.

DAVID SIROTA: I’d like to see him pass a much bigger, much more robust economic stimulus package that was focused almost exclusively on spending, on the kinds of public spending, expanding healthcare, infrastructure spending, and back off the idea of corporate tax cuts.

THOMAS FRANK: I would add to that – it’s judgment day for Wall Street. We need really strong oversight. Regulation is back.

BILL MOYERS: Here is what some of you had to say.

ERNIE MACMANUS: Enough is enough! Hold the second bailout package. I cannot continue to subsidize anyone doing better than me. It is immoral and unjust for the future of my children, who deserve better.

CS: The issues the Obama Administration is going to have to deal with are the same issues that the last administration dealt with. So far, the change has been symbolic; it will continue to be symbolic because the president has to deal with reality.

VARDA BURNS: Unless we can change, Obama will not succeed. The corporate dictatorship that has a firm grip on our spending priorities is still very much in place.

BILL MOYERS: Historian Simon Schama sparked a vigorous debate over immigration when we aired this excerpt from his documentary series “The American Future”.

SIMON SCHAMA: These volunteers gather every week to protect the kind of America they want to live in.

Their targets are the Mexican migrant workers who stand at the roadside waiting to be offered a day’s work.

The notion is: There’s always the next wave. They’re not going to be ready or right or, in some peculiar biological way, compatible with democracy.

SHEILA MIANO: In your interview Simon Schama, you conflated immigration with illegal immigration. Not everyone who wants our borders controlled is a nativist. There are real reasons to want to control our borders.

A. FISHER: Those who live near the border with Mexico are NOT opposed to immigration or to Mexicans or others of foreign origin. They are, however, tired of paying for people who drain our communities by breaking the laws of our land to illegally come here and take advantage of our services.

TOSIA NEIGER MCCORMICK: I am an immigrant and a Jew who came here from Germany over 40 years ago. Those of us who came from somewhere else can love this country and see its blemishes and possibilities from the perspective of “somewhere else.”

BILL MOYERS: Sarah Chayes, a journalist and entrepreneur with a grass-roots business in Afghanistan told us what she thinks must be done to beat back the resurgence of the Taliban.

SARAH CHAYES: We do need more troops. And let me just remind you that the number of troops on the ground per population is pretty much the lowest of any U.S. post-conflict involvement since World War II. And at this point the Taliban kind of military campaign plan is effective enough that, you know, you do need troops to prevent them from making military encroachments.

CAROL DAVIDEK-WALLER: I strongly disagree with your guest Sarah Chayes that a military solution is what is needed in Afghanistan. The dangers of getting bogged down in another useless war are very real and more soldiers are likely to create more problems than they solve.

KLARK MOUVINON: I don’t think Sarah Chayes sees a war, but competing occupations. The Afghan people and their strategic land are a valuable commodity for which outsiders are competing. Even the government the U.S. installed has become an occupying parasite.

BILL MOYERS: Thanks for the comments. We listen and read them all and are ever grateful that you are watching and listening too. So please keep them coming to our website at


BILL MOYERS: Like so many other people I know, I read the obituary page almost every day. At this stage of life it’s often the catalyst for gratitude, at still being around. But the obits can also be a place to read about strangers you wish you had known, people whose lives left a light in the window for others.

In THE ECONOMIST magazine this week, I came upon this full-page obituary for Alison Des Forges, one of the fifty people who died two weeks ago in that plane crash near Buffalo. Regrettably, I didn’t know about Alison Des Forges until her death, although I do know and admire the organization with which she worked, Human Rights Watch.

Des Forges was one of the first from the outside to alert the world to the genocide in Rwanda that began in 1994. Her calls for international intervention went largely unheeded – the Pentagon would not even jam the signals of Rwandan radio stations directing the murderers to their victims. When the massacre was over half a million people had died, and still, much of the world turned away. But Alison Des Forges went to Rwanda, investigated the genocide and produced an 800-page definitive account that put many of the guilty behind bars. Here she is in a video produced by Human Rights Watch in 2004.

ALISON DES FORGES: Justice is not going to erase the memory of the crimes, but it will provide people with some level of closure. At least they’ll know it has been dealt with, talked about, someone’s been held responsible…So this is very important, it is very important that the truth be known, that the people who were killed be remembered, and that their killers be acknowledged.

BILL MOYERS: “That the truth be known” – an epitaph to be remembered.

Then there was this obituary in THE NEW YORK TIMES this week of another remarkable life. Christopher Nolan was born in Ireland both mute and quadriplegic. With the incredible devotion of his family – and a stick strapped to his forehead – Nolan was able to peck out on a typewriter, one letter at a time, poetry, a novel and a prize-winning autobiography called UNDER THE EYE OF THE CLOCK.

He once told an interviewer, “My mind is like a spin-dryer at full speed, my thoughts fly around my skull while millions of beautiful words cascade down in my lap. Images gunfire across my consciousness and while trying to discipline them I jump in awe at the soul-filled bounty of my mind’s expanse.”

Christopher Nolan’s creativity soared high above his severe physical adversity. He even managed to attend school, where his classmates included members of the band U2. They wrote a song about him – with lyrics by Bono – called “Miracle Drug.”

U2: I want a trip inside your head
Spend the day there…
To hear the things you haven’t said
And see what you might see
A miracle drug…

BILL MOYERS: That “miracle drug” was courage, and it kept Christopher Nolan going right up to his death, at age 43.

That’s it for the JOURNAL. I’m Bill Moyers. I’ll see you next time.

This transcript was entered on June 7 2015.

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