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Issue No. 93 (July 15, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

John McWhorter's prescription for Black America:
Stop “therapeutic alienation” now!

Although the plight of black people is one of the most important issues of our time, it’s become almost impossible to discuss.

On the left, and among liberals, the Party Line is that white racism is the main reason many blacks are not succeeding. But in their heart of hearts, I don’t think even most leftists believe it anymore.

On the right, there’s a sense that the whole subject is too volatile to address in any substantive way right now.

As a result, little that’s useful or believable is being said on the subject.

Unfortunately, when dialogue is frozen or false, it’s the most vulnerable among us who are likely to pay the price. And that’s certainly true here.

While leftists rant and conservatives mumble, many black people appear to be drifting out of the economic and / or psychological mainstream of American life.

Having recently moved to inner-city Oakland CA, I experience the effects of black alienation on a regular basis.

Just this week, for example, a stylishly-dressed black teen in a downtown store stepped off an escalator and stopped dead in his tracks -- trapping me and several other passengers on the moving escalator. When I told him to move, he called me a “white [epithet].”

What is going on?

We all know that -- despite undeniable progress on the economic front (e.g., for the first time in American history, most blacks are arguably middle class now) -- all is not well in the black community.

The underclass looms large. Inner-city schools are a disaster, and it has little to do with money -- Washington DC’s public schools, among the worst in the nation, are spending over $19,000 per pupil per year now. Ellis Cose and many other observers have reported that “black rage” is the norm among middle class blacks.

White racism is actually a wonderfully convenient explanation for these phenomena. It allows us to feel self-righteous while doing nothing much besides wait for the less enlightened to die off.

However, if white racism is not the root cause of these phenomena -- and if a new generation of leaders is going to successfully address them -- then a credible new explanation is called for, hopefully one that implies concrete solutions.

Enter John McWhorter, at the radical middle

Enter John McWhorter with his new book Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America (Gotham / Penguin, 2005).

McWhorter, you may recall, is the linguist and policy analyst whose earlier book, Losing the Race (2000), created a firestorm because it popularized the notion that black kids were falling behind in school because they were afraid of “acting white.”

As a result of that book, many leftist critics tarred and feathered McWhorter in print -- partly by accusing him of being a (gasp) “conservative.”

Winning the Race is no mere sequel to Losing the Race, though -- it is far more ambitious and original.

And its politics is not recognizably conservative. McWhorter claims not to have voted for President Bush in 2000 or 2004, and claims to be seeking a “true progressivism.”

Even more telling is the way McWhorter seeks to position himself beyond “noble lefty” and “Fox News,” or beyond those who prioritize “white racism!” and those who suspect there’s “something wrong with black people.”

If McWhorter’s politics can be labeled at all, “radical middle” would seem to fit best. And that’s not only because he’s seeking a third way on the race debate.

It’s because his book is a wonderful combination of the rational-analytic and the feelingful-anecdotal. There are whole chapters brilliantly critiquing conventional social scientists on their own turf and in their own terms. But there are also passages where his love for black people (and all people) comes through in a deeply moving way, as well as one passage where his rage at polite bigots explodes into an epithet worse than the one I heard at the top of the escalator.

Plus he draws on any number of identifiably radical middle sources, including Debra Dickerson and Robert Wright (both associated with Ted Halstead’s New America Foundation) and Christopher Jencks (husband of Radical Middle Online Newsletter Advisor Jane Mansbridge).

Most important of all, his book is at once pragmatic and visionary.

“Therapeutic alienation”

At the core of the book is McWhorter’s alternate explanation for black America’s continuing problems.

Yes, there is still residual racism, he says. But it is way less than what blacks faced 40 years ago, and to speak of it as the main barrier to black achievement today is not only wrong, it’s an insult to the Old Heads who had to cope every day with the real thing.

He devotes some of his most powerful chapters to demolishing social scientists’ claims that socioeconomic explanations for black America’s problems are prime. For example, we learn that in Indianapolis many aspects of the “Grand Old Saga” did not take place -- low-skill factory jobs did not disappear, role models did not disappear, etc. -- and yet by the late 1960s that city’s underclass was as burgeoning and troubled as Chicago’s or New York’s.

Having cleared away that underbrush, McWhorter tells us that most blacks are indeed victims. (There is nothing wrong with them, they have indeed been “done to.”) But they’re victims of a “meme,” a meme called “therapeutic alienation.”

Readers of this newsletter will recognize the concept of the “meme” from our article on Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics confab. And McWhorter’s definition is similar to Beck’s: a meme is a part of the culture that’s transmitted to you without your conscious choice in the matter, much as genes are transmitted to you. “Wariness of cholesterol is a meme” -- no one teaches it to you, you just “pick it up in the air.”

Just so, “alienation” is a meme. And black people picked it up en masse in the 1960s, in part because it felt so good.

Whites offered it, blacks ran with it

Blacks had every reason to feel alienated from white America from the time they arrived on American shores. But for most of American history, most blacks resisted adopting alienation as their principal stance toward the world. With virulent racism all around them, it would have been a dangerous and self-defeating stance -- to put it mildly!

Against incredible odds, most blacks, most of the time, fought to integrate themselves into (or at least, alongside) mainstream culture and mainstream society as best they could.

For many blacks, though, that changed in the mid- to late-1960s. As racism became less omnipotent and whites became more open to listening to black complaints, black alienation soared -- among the underclass and middle class both -- and McWhorter assiduously seeks to understand why.

His principal explanation is the counter-culture.

Whites “tossed out the ball,” as he colorfully puts it, by inventing the counter-culture, which encouraged everyone to express their alienation publicly and loudly.

The counter-culture itself may have been necessary and even good (“all of us are thankful”). But most whites simply walked away from the alienation it celebrated -- as distinct from its health food, etc. -- once it no longer served their purposes. For blacks, the alienation stuck. As McWhorter puts it, blacks “took the ball and ran with it.” For example:

-- In parts of the black community, the counter-culture had devastating effects on the sense of honor and shame, the sense of responsibility, and the value placed on effort and persistence.

-- The counter-culture inspired the National Welfare Rights Organization to demand access to welfare for all poor black people not as a stopgap measure but as a inalienable, open-ended “right.” (Welfare dependency followed.)

-- The counter-culture produced a generation of social thinkers, black and white, who devoted their lives to denying, making excuses for, and / or brazenly justifying black criminality and misbehavior. (McWhorter is not shy about providing names and furnishing quotes.)

Blacks were particularly vulnerable to the siren-song of the counter-culture not because they were weak or illogical or anything like that, but because they HAD, in fact, been brutalized by this society. By the late 1960s, when it was safe for blacks to adopt the alienated stance that the counter-culture made fashionable, it felt so good -- was so “therapeutic” -- that it was hard to let go.

Over time, it provided a whole new oppositional identity.

From 1966-2006, racism radically diminished. Now, for the first time in American history, blacks were being welcomed as full participants in the mainstream American community.

But memes, like genes, are often carried long after the need for them has dissipated.

And that’s what happened to the therapeutic-alienation meme.

Rather than striving to succeed as individuals in a harsh world -- a scary & unnatural proposition under the best of circumstances (according to Eric Hoffer, whom McWhorter cites enthusiastically) -- blacks could now choose to adopt / follow / wallow in a meme that FELT SO GOOD and out of which they could righteously

  • refuse to take minimum-wage, clerical, and manual-labor jobs on the basis that they’re “chump” jobs and / or that they only pay “chump change”
  • refuse to “act white” in K-12
  • refuse to try hard at work or in college because initiative and exertion are signs of weakness, of an Aunt Jemima complex (you’re in love with your white masters)
  • hassle and / or privately rage at white people because they’ve always been The Enemy and always will be
  • conceive children without worrying overmuch about the consequences
  • “check out” of society without experiencing shame
  • immerse themselves in music that celebrates irresponsibility, criminality, and violence against women (the 35-page chapter on hip-hop, “Therapeutic Alienation on a Rhythm Track,” is all by itself worth the price of the book -- and it does NOT deny the thrill of the beat. The author is 40, not 60)
  • pretend that blacks are the only people in the world whose culture has no negative traits

By no means does a majority of blacks do any of these things. But enough of them do enough of these things (and other such things) to wreak havoc in the black community and the larger society.

McWhorter proposes three main solutions.

Solution #1: Consciousness change

Change the lens through which you see the world! It’s 2006, not 1966 -- process the obstacles you face in ways that are appropriate to the new world we’re entering.

Don Beck, author of the Spiral Dynamics evolutionary-psychology system discussed HERE, might say that some African Americans got stuck moving down from the blue (obedience) to the red (anger) meme; and are now well advised to move up to the orange (achievement-oriented) or green (service-oriented) memes.

Solution #2: Rigorous education

As long as black students have to do only so well, says McWhorter, they will do only so well. Their poor performance is school today is a result of largely cultural factors: a result of the therapeutic-alienation meme. So let’s hold them to the same standards as everyone else, in K-12 and beyond.

Only exception: ALL students who grow up in POOR socioeconomic conditions should receive academic preferences. (Thus McWhorter concurs with Ted Halstead’s position in The Radical Center, 2001, and mine in Radical Middle, 2004.)

Solution #3: A new black leadership

New black leaders are desperately needed.

Hopefully they’ll emerge from the bottom up, ideally by spearheading admirable and tough-minded community projects (Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone and and Rev. Eugene Rivers of Boston’s Ten Point Coalition are given as examples).

They’ll be more concerned with the future than the past.

They won’t automatically give their allegiance to the Democratic Party.

They’ll “unabashedly” celebrate black victories and black successes, not just harp about failures.

They’ll focus on racism and discrimination as appropriate, not as The Cause of all blacks’ problems.

They’ll celebrate “cultural hybridity as evidence of progress,” not cite it as evidence that whites are ripping off blackness!

A prediction

Over the next 20 years, McWhorter will bridge left and right as successfully as any thinker or activist in America.

McWhorter’s perspective is, as I hope I’ve shown, radical middle. But he doesn’t confine himself to learning from scholars of that species. In Winning the Race he discusses -- seriously, thoroughly, and (mostly) respectfully -- dozens of diverse thinkers, from the far left to the far right. And he finds something to like about most of them!

He is currently ensconced at the Manhattan Institute, easily the freshest and most interesting of the right-of-center think tanks. But he’s also flourished on radical black intellectual (and hip-hop enthusiast) Michael Eric Dyson’s radio show.

He is a distinguished linguist, but he’s capable not only of enormously precise writing, he’s capable of some of the most emotionally powerful writing coming out of the public policy community today.

To sum up: McWhorter appears to be as multidimensional a human being as they come. And as Mark Gerzon teaches in Leading Through Conflict, reviewed HERE, it is exactly such people that can best help us bridge our differences.


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