I bring this up because it is as a statement of black conservatism that I understand John McWhorter’s new essay, “The Case for Moving on.” McWhorter is a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and a long-time commenter on black culture; one of his books is subtitled Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America. McWhorter has been arguing with Theodore Johnson III, who wrote that there is something disturbingly racist about ice cream trucks using “Turkey in the Straw” in their jingles, since the same tune was used for numerous racist songs like the minstrel show favorite “Zip Coon.” Many other American pop songs of that era had racist versions or verses, from “Oh, Susanna” to “Camptown Races.”
But the question is how much we need to “consider,” eternally, the history of things like ice cream jingles. We should reflect often on slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining, yes. But ice cream? It’s that purse-lipped, “eat your vegetables” brand of reflection that is Johnson’s larger project. We are not simply to live in the present; lord forbid we look ahead with anything but wary caution and, most importantly, an endless consideration of the past. . . .Like Bill Cosby, McWhorter has had enough of waiting for white people to somehow free black Americans from their burdens. No conversation or conversion is going to “heal” black America; there will be no magical moment of catharsis. There is only life, and getting on with it. It is a position, I think, with much to recommend it. As a historian I am quite certain that everything about our world has roots in the past, and I spend much of my own time reflecting on how we got where we are. But in a political and psychological sense I believe that too much reflecting on the past can be destructive. All the studies about attitudes and success show that optimism about the future, especially irrational optimism, can help people get ahead. That is how our brains work, for whatever twisted evolutionary reason. So far as I know, no study has ever shown that meditating on how bad our ancestors used to have it has ever helped anyone achieve anything. Nurturing grievances, I am certain, is psychologically and spiritually destructive. Like McWhorter, I am cynical about the potential of a national “conversation on race,” which I think would only lead to ever uglier finger pointing; are you really eager to engage in a dialogue about race with Rush Limbaugh and Ted Cruz?
Johnson’s position is akin to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s in his Atlantic piece, “The Case for Reparations,” which was greeted with something approaching religious rapture in certain corners. Just as Johnson suggests that we lick the popsicle amid reflection, Coates wants us to enlighten the person “scarfing their hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage.” He wants an America where our racist history is not just something taught in school and commemorated in museums and Oscar-winning films and hit plays, as it currently is. To Coates, none of that is enough; America remains a country that “turns away” from acknowledging racism. In line with that perspective, Johnson classifies critics of his first article as the sorts who “don’t get it,” who “don’t want to talk about race.” Coates seems to want America’s racist past to constitute an eternal, gnawing background awareness for all citizens, analogous to Serbs’ communal memory of Kosovo Polje. Well-meaning Americans will savor neither ice cream nor hot dogs without a daily reflection on these weightier matters.
The typical statement in this vein is, “America needs to have a conversation about race,” now a keystone of educated black discourse. Is the proposal about reality? Who seriously thinks any amount of argument about “collective responsibility” could ever convince today’s diverse American populace that it owes black people for slavery and Jim Crow? Some even insist that this new American understanding would be necessary before any real change can happen, but the logic is unclear. Once all Americans could recite basic information about race riots and redlining, then somehow, wealthy and influential people would open the financial floodgates and heal black America? In most other contexts, one is to dismiss cynically the possibility of this ever happening, since whites, as the thinking goes, are determined to hold on to their privilege. How would a national history lesson or conversation change that? And if we all know it wouldn’t change anything, then what is the goal of having the conversation?
I believe that our government could be doing a lot more to help poor people of all races, but the plain fact is that as long as anti-poverty measures are presented as something to help oppressed minorities they will never command majority support. Compare American attitudes toward Social Security and Medicare, for which every American qualifies, with attitudes toward food stamps. If what you want from politics is concrete actions that help people, you have to think like a Leninist: what is the objective outcome? The objective outcome of talking about America's racist past is to sour white people on the whole project of helping the poor, and to reinforce their belief that poor people (and criminals and welfare recipients and so on) are them, not us, and therefore not people we should care about. Of course achieving concrete results is not the only purpose of politics, and historical grievances can do a lot to create community solidarity and reconcile people to bad situations. But there comes a time when you have to ask, is it more important to understand our situation or to change it?
Poverty, racism, and injustice are not engineering problems with clear solutions. They are evils against which we are called to struggle. Even if all Americans suddenly agreed that our racist past was a terrible burden on African Americans, it is not obvious what we ought to do about it, and Americans would certainly disagree violently. I have written here before about the widespread belief that if only other people knew what I know, they would agree with what I want to do: this is a fantasy. It is perfectly possible to be very well informed about American history and the situation in poor black neighborhoods and still completely oppose government action to help; consider the career of free-market activist Jack Kemp, to take just one example. (Or Bill Cosby.) To the extent that reflecting on past injustices makes us more compassionate, by all means, let us reflect. But really we have no right to tell other people what to think or how to think about it, and it is simply foolish to imagine that America will have some magical moment of agreement and come together to heal our history. There is a real case for moving on.