If One Generation of Black Men Could Grow Up Not Experiencing Cops as the Enemy

Justice Department Concludes Racially Biased Practices Prevalent Within Ferguson Police Dept.
Michael B. Thomas—Getty Images Protestors demonstrate outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Mo. on March 4, 2015.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

Towns like Ferguson need to be fixed if we're ever to fix America

Previously in Time, I noted that the main question from the Ferguson debacle is: What is the situation that makes two young black men comfortable dismissing a police officer’s request to step aside? The Department of Justice’s report on the chilling degree of racism on the part of Ferguson’s police force answers that question. The Department of Justice report has shown us that black people in Ferguson have long experienced the police as a contemptuous occupying army. For someone of Brown’s age, a sense of the police as the enemy is ingrained as nothing less than a cultural heritage.

Sure, we can quibble with the idea that disparate outcomes always indicate discrimination. But this kind of reasoning only nibbles at the very plain indications of the Ferguson report. Anyone who reads the endless procession of stories of white cops being just plain evil to innocent black people for no real reason — and sees it as their just desserts — has no place in any reasonable conversation about race in America.

The Department of Justice report is an invaluable portrait of the black experience of the police in countless locations across the United States. Typically illustrated by scattered anecdotes, and usually making headlines only when a person gets killed, this experience with the police is susceptible to being dismissed as a distortion. Whites can say that they, too, have had less than positive encounters with cops. They can also say that as far as white cops occasionally killing black boys, black people are usually murdered by other black people, and that’s what ought to bother them. And you know what? Neither of those points are without value, nor do they make their utterer racist.

But the reason black America feels so besieged by the police goes beyond the occasional Mike Browns and Eric Garners or running into the occasional cop who is a little too happy to issue tickets. To be black in Ferguson has meant regular encounters with snarling authority figures with the power to detain, injure, and even kill if “necessary,” often for trumped up reasons, and not treating whites the same way nearly as often.

Who thinks humble, ordinary little Ferguson is for some reason unique? There isn’t Racist Juice in the water along with the fluoride there. The only question is why we would think this kind of abuse is not common in a great many other places. Anyone who claims Ferguson is an isolated case has the burden of proof here.

No, not every black person in Ferguson has been getting hurled about by the cops every week. Such things may never have happened to you at all; likely you only run up against it once. But it has also happened to your brother, your son, your cousin, that guy you know, that lady. It’s a community-wide experience. The cops, to you, mean something different than they do to somebody in Scarsdale. To read this DOJ report and still have no response but a harrumphing disapproval of Mike Brown’s distrust of authority is blinkered. Not racist, perhaps, but simplistic.

And while we’re at it, the report also helps make sense of Brown at the convenience store. Does it excuse it? No—that convenience store video is lowly indeed; there’s no hero there. But again, how shocked are we that, in a neighborhood where the main representatives of authority are so often monsters, some kids would feel less compunction about nabbing some cigars than ones in Brookline, Massachusetts would?

It is this treatment by the police that makes so many black people feel like racism is a key component of being black in America. Yes, some people exaggerate the issue. Black Americans do not live “under siege” and there is no “war on black men.” Plus, the resentment black men feel toward the cops can lead to a vicious cycle, where their disrespect conditions the same response in cops, and so on.

But I can guarantee that if just one generation of black men grew up with no reason to think of the cops as the enemy rather than as public helpers, then black America would be much better prepared to approach racism the way so many other groups have, and do — as an inconvenience rather than as an obstacle.

No self-regarding group of humans can be expected to brush off constant treatment like this as just “bad days” in an imperfect world. Towns like Ferguson need to be fixed — and, if they were, America would be fixed too.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME politics

Obama Is Right Not to Talk About ‘Islamic’ Terrorism

President Obama Addresses DNC Winter Meeting
Alex Wong—EPA President Barack Obama speaks during the General Session of the 2015 DNC Winter Meeting in Washington, DC, Feb. 20, 2015.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

No one should have trouble understanding why a war on Islamic terrorists isn’t a war on Islam? Nonsense.

The Obama slam of the moment is that he should be calling our battle against ISIS one against Islamic terrorists, instead of pretending that the battle is against something as general as “terrorists” alone. The people angry at Obama about this are forgetting how educated they are.

Here’s what I mean. The Obama administration wants to avoid people thinking our battle is against Islam in general. His critics, however, assume that it would be obvious to anybody that you can battle one strain of Islam without having it in for Muslims in general. That perspective is typical of an educated Westerner, who today is trained — to an almost religious degree — to strive to view people as individuals rather than to stereotype. Stereotyping is treated among us as, essentially, a transgression of human decency.

We’ve learned our lesson — to the point that we forget that it ever was a lesson. Surely anyone knows that battling a particular group of Islamic terrorists is to battle those individuals, not Islam as a whole, right? Wrong, actually.

Attributing group traits to individuals is a deeply seated psychological habit. When a person is unfamiliar, we are less likely to process them as an individual than we are to seek to classify them into some higher category. Implicit Association tests, most famous these days as revealing that black people are more readily associated with negative words than positive ones, are ample testament to this. Stereotyping is almost certainly programmed in our genes. Once it may have been a useful defense mechanism, but today it is disadvantageous as often as it is useful.

But that means: Just as for some it can be a short step from “He’s black” to “He’s a criminal,” for just as many, it’s a short step from “They are battling that group of Muslims” to “They don’t like Muslims, period.” This isn’t hard to explain: Given our natural tendency to generalize about persons, it’s easier to see someone as, for example, “Muslim,” than to see that person as simply one of billions of infinitely variant individuals.

So, it will most certainly not be obvious to many human beings that a war against “Islamic terrorists” is not a war against Islam. Recent historical events certainly encourage the misconception, but even without them, that overgeneralizing leap would have been common — because it’s natural.

The Obama Administration has neither the time nor the wherewithal to train the world, Karate Kid-style, in the mental feat of resisting the impulse to generalize about people and see them as individuals first. The hopelessness of such a feat should be more obvious to Obama’s critics than it is.

We see how we fail to make subtle distinctions every day in our own domestic politics.

On the left, it is considered acceptable to use a single awkward comment about people of a color or gender or class as evidence that one is, overall, racist, sexist, or classist and dismissible from civilized society. The case of Justine Sacco, treated as a near-psychopath for one racially insensitive tweet to friends and family, is illustrative.

On the right, imagine Obama, because he is given to mentioning mistakes America has made in the past, being tarred as, overall, someone who doesn’t love America.

That’s a mental jump, by Rudolph Giuliani, from Barack Obama the individual to a traitorous radical figurine. Both Giuliani and the people who ruined Sacco’s life on Twitter are normal humans, operating from the same deep-seated impulse to generalize, especially about things feared or hated.

For the left, isms. For the right, collegetown radicalism, ACORN, and such. For many watching America, a war on Islam.

No one should have trouble understanding why a war on Islamic terrorists isn’t a war on Islam? Nonsense. No one should have any trouble understanding why the Obama administration must mince its words when fighting Islamic terrorists. Not all people are initiated into the mental acrobatics of resisting stereotyping, and even we aren’t as good at it as we like to think.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


Let’s Get Back to Black Power in 2015

James Nachtwey—Paramount Pictures From the set of Selma.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

To cry racism immediately over Selma and other perceived slights is not Black Power, it’s Black Cower

There is a great deal of Black Power on view in Selma. There is little of it in the response to its Oscar nominations. Historians date the beginning of the Great Migration to 1915. That was some serious Black Power. Might we observe the centennial by getting re-acquainted with the proactive spirit that drove it?

It isn’t, for example, that Selma got no nominations: It was nominated for Best Picture. But because no actors in the film were nominated, nor was its director Ava DuVernay, racism is ever with us? But for the past 16 years, a person of color has always been nominated for an acting award. Plus, just last year, 12 Years a Slave, produced and directed by a black man, won Best Picture. In recent years, the Academy has granted Oscars to Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Halle Berry, Lou Gossett, Cuba Gooding, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer and Lupita Nyong’o. Try explaining to a child how that body of voters qualifies as “racist.”

If progress has been really happening with the Academy and race, then by sheer logic, the year had to come when acknowledging black achievement became so ordinary and accepted that even a black film ended up being sidelined by matters of glitz and chance. That is, one day black films would start occasionally getting ordinary – and thus imperfect – treatment: think Forrest Gump beating out Pulp Fiction. “Occasionally” had to start with a first time: this seems to have been it.

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has a screwy glamor about it for assorted reasons. Some say Selma requires “acknowledgment,” but with 12 Years a Slave so recent, perhaps there was a sense that acknowledgment was less urgent so soon afterward? One may argue, but “racism”? Then also, the Oscar voters were sent the Selma screening copies late.

In 1915, the NAACP was protesting the savagery depicted in Birth of a Nation. A hundred years later, one black film isn’t being feted sufficiently by a notoriously shallow, silly awards ceremony, while still being warmly and urgently celebrated as a signature piece of art in media organs nationwide, and Al Sharpton convenes an “emergency meeting?”

I’m sorry, but this is not what people 50 years ago meant by keeping up the Struggle. The Struggle would mean raising a fuss if we saw a new pattern over time. To cry racism immediately over Selma is not Black Power, it’s Black Tantrum.

And that tantrum is a variation on a theme. For example, the NAACP filed a Civil Rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in 2012, which continued getting news coverage through last year. New York City bases admission to its most competitive three public schools on a test. Seeing that only 33 out of 3281 of these schools’ students were black in the 2013-4 school year, the NAACP has declared the tests “racist.”

So, Civil Rights, 21st century-style: If black kids don’t do well on a test, the solution is not to see how we can teach them to do better on it, as can be done. Rather, the higher wisdom is to call for the authorities to get rid of it, make it easier, make it optional, or at least make it count for much less.

But just imagine the whites who founded the NAACP in 1909 sagely declaring that black schoolchildren shall not be expected to pass tests. They would be gleefully held up as grand old racists today. How is this new vision of black intelligence any different? Try to pass the test or try to get rid of it? Black Power or Black Cower? People are watching, and no one respects weakness.

If someone says black people don’t work hard, Black Power does not assert that to even broach the issue is morally unforgivable: one presents counterevidence. Kanye West says we fight the Confederate flag by wearing one ourselves and saying “It’s my flag. What are you gonna do about it?” He’s right for a change: Black Power. Certainly some whites will say some shady little things about our President this year with racial undertones. But what’s more important, some movie executive supposing that Obama likes Kevin Hart (heavens what a slur!), or that as Obama said in his State of the Union, he won two elections? That — Black In Power, as it were — is more important than anything any right-wing talking head can come up with.

I think Dr. King would be perplexed that so often today, via a kind of ideological mission creep, black people have been taught to think of assertions of weakness as strength. He would be even more perplexed to see people who point this out labelled “conservative.” Black Power plows ahead, not backwards.

In 2015, can we please get back to it?

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


Ferguson Was the Spark — Eric Garner Is the Fire

Eric Garner Police Brutality Death
Ramsey Orta

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

Are we trying to create a world devoid of any racist bias, or are we trying to stop cops from shooting black men?

Here’s a look at the future, and probably not that far into it. People will learn two things:

1) That an officer was not indicted for murdering Eric Garner—black, 43, and detained simply for selling single cigarettes—despite the fact that the killing was recorded from start to finish for all of America to see.

2) That an officer was not indicted for killing Michael Brown after Brown had stolen from a store, refused the officer’s request to step aside and perhaps tried to grab his gun, with the officer shooting when Brown repeatedly lunged toward him for some reason, with none of this recorded and the details murkily varying from one witness to the next.

Perfectly sensible people will be wondering why so many people in late 2014 thought of the Ferguson case, in particular, as the civil rights case of the 21st century. Yes, Brown should not have died—I have heartily agreed, repeatedly. But people in the future will see the current focus on Ferguson as evidence of people losing sight of the fact that activism is supposed to be about results.

Are we trying to create a humanity devoid of any racist bias, or are we trying to stop cops from shooting black men? The two aren’t the same. A world without racism would be a world without dirt. A world where episodes like what has happened just this year to Garner, Brown, John Crawford, Akai Gurley, and Tamir Rice is much more plausible. We need special prosecutors, body cameras, and, if you ask me, an end to the war on drugs.

As such, we must be pragmatic. I know the people protesting Michael Brown’s death nationwide are sincere. But it’s easy to forget that in cases like this, sincerity is supposed to be forward-focused. It’s all too human for people to end up mistaking the heightened emotions, the threats, the media attention, the catharsis, as progress itself. But drama alone burns fast and bright. Think about how Trayvon is already—admit it—seeming more like history than the present.

Are we really committed to this thing lasting past the winter?

If so, then we have to ask ourselves—is Michael Brown more important somehow because he was killed with a gun? Is Garner somehow less worthy of iconic, implacable protest because he was older than Brown, less “glamorous” than a teenager? Is it, in other words, that Brown is more dramatic?

Because there are other kinds of drama, if we must. For example, Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s statement about Garner is outright tragedy—so disgustingly detached coming from someone’s murderer that it constitutes drama in itself.

“It is never my intention to harm anyone,” Pantaleo says—as if we were thinking now of “harm,” a formal term you can use to refer to a dent in your car. “I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner”—my God, “very bad” sounds like he broke someone’s window with a baseball, and “the death of Mr. Garner” sounds like something he watched on TV rather than did with his bare hands. “Accept my personal condolences” says this man twice brought up on misconduct charges before, as if it were his aunt by marriage who passed away after a brief illness.

This, to me, is an articulate testament to how some whites can be unable to see black people as human—and, especially if cops, be more likely to kill them. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a precious teaching moment. Pantaleo’s statement is, in its way, as useful as Reverend King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail as a look into a human mind.

Yet one hears that however iffy the Ferguson details are, we should just go with it because it has struck a chord. That our message to America is to be “Even when my son steals from a store, refuses a cop’s order and tries to take his gun, he shouldn’t get shot.” And he shouldn’t, but wow, what a delicate and hopelessly controversial point that is in such a key moment as this. It’s a tricky, subtle assertion, which has not struck a chord with the disinterested middle because the facts are too murky. We want to make history, not just headlines.

How about this, as a story we can tell the next generation without taking a deep breath and thinking about how to paper over the holes?

Ferguson was the spark, but Garner was “it.”

Here is where I am quite sure Reverend King and Bayard Rustin would be planning not just statements and gestures, but boycotts. The recording of Garner’s death has the clear, potent and inarguable authority of the Birmingham newsreels. We must use that. Yes, usewe are trying to create change, not just perform.


TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


Ferguson Is the Wrong Tragedy to Wake America Up

Jewel Samad—AFP/Getty Images Two demonstrators march with a U.S. flag in St. Louis on Nov. 23, 2014, to protest the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

For many, the main lesson of the Ferguson verdict is that Michael Brown would still be alive if he were white — that Darren Wilson’s gunshots were the spawn of the racism always just beneath the surface of the white American soul.

However, in light of what we heard last night, I feel that the Ferguson incident is instructive to America in a larger sense. The key element in the Brown-Wilson encounter was not any specific action either man took — it was the preset hostility to the cops that Brown apparently harbored. And that hostility was key because it was indeed totally justified.

The right-wing take on Brown, that he was simply a “thug,” is a know-nothing position. The question we must ask is: What is the situation that makes two young black men comfortable dismissing a police officer’s request to step aside?

These men were expressing a community-wide sense that the official keepers of order are morally bankrupt. What America owes communities like Ferguson — and black America in general — is a sincere grappling with that take on law enforcement that is so endemic in black communities nationwide. As Northwestern philosopher Charles Mills has put it, “Black citizens are still differentially vulnerable to police violence, thereby illustrating their second class citizenship.”

This is true. It is most of what makes so many black people of all classes sense racism as a key element of black life, and even identity. Now, some suppose that the reason for what Mills refers to is black people’s fault, that black people are just too dumb, lazy, and immoral to understand what it is to be decent citizens. Most would disagree, however, which logically implies that something has gone terribly wrong from the other end — from law enforcement itself. The President’s statement on the verdict got at this point: what we must get past is larger than the specifics of what happened between Wilson and Brown.

And in that vein, as someone who has written in ardent sympathy with the Ferguson protests, I find this hard to write, but I have decided that it would be dishonest of me to hold back. As I have written endlessly, America will never get past race without a profound change in how police forces relate to black men. However, I’m not sure that what happened to Michael Brown — and the indictment that did not happen to Officer Darren Wilson — is going to be useful as a rallying cry about police brutality and racism in America.

Based on the evidence known to us now, a common take will be that the incident proceeded thusly: Brown stole from a convenience store, Wilson tried to stop him based on his description. Brown refused to stop and physically assaulted Wilson in his car, Wilson shot Brown in self-defense. Brown ran about 150 ft. from the car. He then ran 25 ft. back toward Wilson, likely trying to indicate surrender. Wilson thought Brown was trying to reinitiate the assault and fired further, which killed Brown. This was a hideous misunderstanding. And yes, if the guy lurching back toward Wilson had been white, just maybe he wouldn’t have fired those last shots.

But can we really know that surely enough to enlighten a nation? We are told that this tragic sequence of actions shows that America “devalues black bodies,” as a common phrasing has it. But I fear the facts on this specific incident are too knotted to coax a critical mass of America into seeing a civil rights icon in Brown and an institutionally racist devil in Wilson.

I was among the many who hoped Trayvon Martin’s death would make the key difference many now hope Ferguson will, and got plenty of hate mail for being too “hasty” in judging George Zimmerman. Black bodies are indeed devalued. Race does play a role in whether or not a black man gets killed by a cop (or someone like Zimmerman pretending to be one).

However, Wilson apparently didn’t single Brown out because of his black body, but because that black body had just nabbed goods from a store and also assaulted its owner. It is also clear that Brown defied an officer’s reasonable request, and then battled with him. We may never know whether Brown reached into the car or whether Wilson grabbed Brown by the neck. But we do know that Wilson fired the lethal final shots upon Brown coming back toward him. Firing these shots was indeed impulsive; and one wishes someone who could fire in such a moment never had been trusted with a gun. But Wilson did not, as some have claimed, shoot Brown in the back as he ran away.

“But he didn’t deserve to die!” many stand at the ready to assert. And of course he didn’t. But we must consider the contrast with, say, Amadou Diallo killed in a lobby for pulling out a wallet. Or Martin killed for resisting a baseless detainment by a self-declared neighborhood patrolman. Or John Crawford killed in Ohio for examining a BB gun at a Walmart.

VOTE: Should the Ferguson protestors be TIME’s Person of the Year?

The Ferguson episode, in this company, stands out. It requires, as a rallying point, a degree of elision, adjustment. It will require turning away from Brown’s criminal act just before the incident, and his conduct toward a police officer a few moments later, based on the tricky proposition that these things must have no bearing whatsoever upon how we evaluate the succeeding sequence of events. The now iconic gesture, the hands up in “Don’t shoot” surrender, will become sacrosanct regardless of the evidence as to whether Brown actually held his hands up in that way. Icon, sacrosanct — there is an aspect of the ritual here.

But ritual dazzles more than it convinces. Beyond the converted, the less committed observer will see the facts piling up and conclude that one can be fully aware of racism’s persistence and yet still feel that the part racism played in Brown’s death is too abstract to qualify as a Selma-style — or even Trayvon-style — teaching moment. We need here Selma, Sanford — we want to make all of America put down their beers and feel this turning point. Again, of course Brown didn’t deserve to die — at all. But we have an urgent and challenging task here. And if so — and, God, it’s very much so — aren’t other deaths that have grieved us more useful in teaching a vast nation of people, with various levels of understanding and concern, that we have a serious problem here?

What happened to Diallo, Martin, Crawford, and also Oscar Grant is a clearer demonstration of what faces us than what happened in Ferguson. People don’t like being told to ignore facts; even fewer find ambiguity a spark for indignation. Crawford’s killers weren’t indicted either. We must wonder why this is considered a less urgent — and instructive — catastrophe than what happened in Ferguson. I mourn Brown as we all do, but I worry that we have chosen the wrong tragedy to wake this country up.

Read next: What History Books Should Say About Ferguson

Should Ferguson Protestors be Person of the Year? Vote below for #TIMEPOY

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

How Herman Cain and President Obama Brought Down Bill Cosby

Actor Bill Cosby in New York in 2011.
Lucas Jackson—Reuters Bill Cosby in New York in 2011.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

The allegations have been around for years. But we're only now willing to judge black icons like everybody else.

With the curtain falling on Bill Cosby’s career in the wake of multiple accusations of his raping women throughout his career, many have asked why it took so long for America to condemn the man. This seam in his past has been aired quite often over the past 10 years, and yet his iconic status as America’s favorite (black) Dad has continued, with NBC having even been readying to build yet another sitcom around him until this Wednesday. What is it about now that is making us — white, black and other — see Cosby plain?

Partly, Barack Obama and Herman Cain.

Of course, two other factors, more apparent, have played a role — but alone, they would not have popped the lock.

For one, Cosby has alienated many black people with his criticisms of black behavior, crystallized in the now famous “Pound Cake speech” of 2004 commemorating Brown v. the Board of Education. When black comedian Hannibal Buress charged that Cosby is a racist, sparking the latest events when the clip went viral, Buress was explicit that it rankles him that Cosby has called for black people to “Pull your pants up,” etc. when Cosby himself had, shall we say, not done so.

Yet, the dirt on Cosby had been aired far and wide soon after the Pound Cake speech, with black author and pundit Michael Eric Dyson even covering the territory in his 2005 book, a broadside against Cosby’s cultural opinions. Newsweek, The Today Show, People, and other sources chimed in around the same time. No one remotely interested in Cosby could have missed the charges, and while today Twitter and Facebook get things around especially quickly, by 2005 and 2006 broadband and blogs were already influencing opinion at a dizzying rate. Irritation over Cosby’s views alone, then, did not threaten his iconic status — especially given that more black people than often acknowledged actually concur with Cosby’s cultural opinions.

The second factor in why Cosby has been outed now — one that is key, but not decisive — is that sexual violation of women has been so widely discussed in America over the past few years. The “legitimate rape” conceptions of congressman Todd Akin and today’s calls for universities to address the frequency of rape on their campuses have made it much less likely that Cosby’s behavior could be given a pass.

But even this doesn’t fully answer the “Why now?” question. Enlightened American sensibilities about rape have not taken a quantum leap since, say, 2005. The major dividing line for that would be in the early ’90s, when sexual harassment and date rape entered mainstream discussion and forever banished the old-time Mad Men idea that such things were a mere matter of some men being “all hands.” Who by 2005, upon hearing about what Cosby did, was thinking “Oh well, boys will be boys!”?

We get closer to truth in Rebecca Traister’s point that America has been afraid to condemn Cosby out of a sense that it would be almost sacrilegious to pull down such an iconic representation of blackness. More specifically, whites have given him a pass out of a sense that it would be racist not to, while blacks have been reluctant to assist in the defrocking of such a beloved figure, chary of aiding and abetting whites in racist dismissal of black achievement and authority.

What has made the difference is that certain happenings of late have let America make a particular kind of post-Civil Rights adjustment: getting past the polite fiction that all criticisms of a black person are racist, and if not overtly then “on a certain level.”

Namely here is where Cain and Obama come in. The implosion of Herman Cain’s quest for the Republican nomination in 2011 in the wake of charges (from white women) of sexual harassment and infidelity was a handy transition. Cain’s Republican politics and jolly dismissal of traditional Civil Rights positions meant that few blacks were primed to dismiss the accusations against him as racist, as a “lynching,” and so on. Instead, we simply saw Cain as a man brought down for proper reasons, his color beside the point.

It probably had to be a black Republican that this happened to. But since then, a consensus has settled in on the question as to how much of a part racism plays in the animus of those who dislike President Obama. And the verdict is: racism does play some part. But still, only ideologues think racism is the only reason, or even close to the only reason, someone might not be crazy about Obama’s performance in the Oval Office.

At best, Obama is likely to go down as having been an OK President, and in grappling with that, Blue America has gotten a quiet lesson in evaluating black people according to the content of their character — despite having thought they already did that by voting for him in the first place.

Hence a moment when it is newly easy to see Cosby not as a Black Gentleman With Some Issues but as a man, period, with some serious moral flaws, deserving no more “understanding” about it than Senator Bob Packwood did about his related tendencies. Meanwhile, black America, having seen that in our times the public can turn on, or trenchantly criticize, a black public figure without igniting a general backlash against black achievement, is less likely to circle the wagons around someone like Cosby than it formerly would have been.

What stings about Cosby is that someone with his warm humor and furious commitment to uplift could at the same time have such a pitilessly abusive take on women and sex. It’s like finding this out about your Dad, or certainly for me. Cosby and my own father were both working-class black men of a certain Philadelphia generation, and there was even a commonality of demeanor; my father was funny in the exact same way as Cosby, and danced just like Cosby did in the credits of the Cosby Show.

But Dad didn’t rape women. The lesson is that that kind of evil can lurk in the hearts of any kind of man, and we need to watch for it and call it out when it turns up to dissuade its survival in our civilization. And this time we’re learning it not from A Black Man, but from someone we, in a way, honor by treating as just a man. Weirdly, this is a kind of progress.

Read next: Bill Cosby, Camille Cosby and the Oppressive Power of Silence

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Race

Charles Barkley
Paul Drinkwater—NBC/Getty Images

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

He's not right, but neither is the other side—the truth about 'blackness' is somewhere in the middle

Charles Barkley is on the griddle for suggesting too many black people think it’s white to be successful. Barkley said that such people think “it’s best to knock a successful black person down ’cause they’re intelligent, they speak well, they do well in school, and they’re successful. It’s crabs in a barrel … We’re the only ethnic group that says, ‘Hey, if you go to jail, it gives you street cred.’”

Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman had posed, based on his own locker-room interviews, that part of the reason Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s teammates don’t like him is that “some of the black players think Wilson isn’t black enough”—Wilson is “well spoken.” Barkley agreed with Freeman; controversy was officially sparked. But too many people who agree either with Barkley or Wilson’s teammates are off-base; the truth is somewhere in the middle, and it forces us to look squarely at some things many find awkward.

A standard response for people inclined to agree with Barkley would be something like, “Yeah, that’s right. What’s ‘black,’ anyway? There’s no ‘black’ way to talk. There’s no way for somebody to ‘blacker’ than somebody else.” But there is. I don’t know how many black people think it’s “black” to go to jail, but that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as black—or blacker.

We are trained to think it’s stereotyping to say that. And indeed, all black people do not exhibit black cultural traits to the same extent. But the traits exist. Example: linguists have documented that one can indeed sound black. Both white and black Americans can almost always immediately tell whether someone is black on the phone even when the subject matter is race-neutral and there is no “slang” involved. And black speech is not the same as white Southern—who really thinks Jeff Foxworthy talks the same way as Tracy Morgan?

And then, wouldn’t it be strange if black culture somehow consisted only of speech? Like any culture, black culture also includes favorite foods, modes of dance, senses of humor (Black Twitter, anyone?), religious traditions, dress fashions and aspects of carriage and demeanor. This is what black culture is. To pretend the entire conception is a stereotype because people exhibit it to varying degrees is to dismiss generations of scholarship and art lovingly documenting exactly this culture. Blackness is beyond skin color.

The elegant way of putting it: some people are more rooted in black culture than others. The simpler way of putting it: some people are blacker than others.

If their reported sentiments are true, then Wilson’s teammates are not wrong in sensing that Wilson is less black in how he talks. Where they are wrong is in having a problem with it. Too many black people hear someone like Wilson talking and make a quick assumption that because he’s less rooted in cultural blackness than they are, he must not like them. Or that he has somehow denied a part of his real self. This belief is dead wrong, both as fact and because of where it leads.

The fact part: legions of black people wearing the culture more lightly than Wilson’s teammates love black people of all kinds quite deeply, thank you very much. And very few of them are under the impression that they are white, a tough notion to maintain in front of a mirror.

From there it’s a short step to thinking that things not associated with black talk—like school—are white and therefore disloyal. That helps drag black kids’ grades down (and studies have not disproven that, despite a certain hype). Also, if you think straying from black culture means you’re antiblack or not “real,” then there follows the idea that true blackness means holding back from reaching out beyond the black world for much of, well, anything. Some years ago in a truly unpleasant reality show, Black. White., a black family posed as white while a white family posed as black; the black guy told the white guy—proudly!—that real black people don’t stand up straight and aren’t curious.

So telling people like Wilson’s teammates that there’s no such thing as someone being less black than someone else is just not true. What’s sloppy, dangerous and backward is calling someone not black enough.


McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the author of What Language Is (and What It Isn’t and What It Could Be), The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, Authentically Black and Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America, among other books.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


We Can Affirm That Race Matters—But Much Less Than It Used To

Sonia Sotomayor
Patrick Semansky—AP This Sept. 19, 2013 file photo shows Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaking at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del. The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld Michigan's ban on using race as a factor in college admissions. In dissent, Sotomayor said the decision tramples on the rights of minorities, even though the amendment was adopted democratically. “But without checks, democratically approved legislation can oppress minority groups,” said Sotomayor, who read her dissent aloud in the courtroom Tuesday.

In 1970, it made sense to treat being black as a disadvantage in itself. But today, the Affirmative Action should be about socioeconomics.

Now that the Supreme Court has decided that citizens, as well as judiciaries, have the right to decide against Affirmative Action policies — the import of the decision in favor of Proposition 2 in Michigan — we are hearing the usual cries that benighted people are rolling back good people’s quest to “take race into account.” This time, as usual, it’s Affirmative Action in college admissions that is at stake, and specifically the kind based on race and gender.

But in the grand scheme of things what we are seeing is a preservation of what Affirmative Action was originally supposed to be about — acknowledging disadvantage. In 1970, it made a certain sense to treat being black as a disadvantage in itself. But today, the proper Affirmative Action should be about socioeconomics.

Most Americans would understand this if the way we discuss Affirmative Action weren’t so coded. A leading misimpression is that college admissions policies are always a mere thumb on the scale — that among candidates with equivalent grades and test scores, race is “taken into account” only to ensure diversity. And that kind of Affirmative Action is great. I, for one, would dread teaching a class where everybody was a privileged white kid from the suburbs. Or, where everybody was anything.

But that’s not the kind of Affirmative Action decisions like Tuesday’s by the Supremes addresses. Too often, colleges have had a two-tier admissions system, in which black and brown students are, as a matter of policy, admitted with lower grades and scores than other students’ in a quest to fill a quota. This has been identified over the years at the University of California, Rutgers, the University of Michigan, and countless others.

That kind of taking race into account made perfect sense when most black people were poor and had no access to decent education. But what about now, when it is not rare to be middle class and black? We must avoid pretending that such people are mere hothouse rarities — i.e. last time I checked, it was racist to declare that being black means being poor.

So, do we “take into account” the race of the child of a lawyer and a systems analyst by exempting them from the standards we apply to white kids? Many say that the issue is simply whether race “matters” in life. But is that the smackdown point we are often told? In contesting this decision, Justice Sotomayor has it that “Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed ‘No, where are you really from?’, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country.”

Those things are real — but even black people can question whether they make it morally corrupt to expose middle class black kids to serious scholastic competition. Sure, polls often show that people of all races “approve of” Affirmative Action. But the topic is too complex for that question to have any useful meaning. It’s like asking people whether they approve of feeding children warm muffins, without considering how many, how often, and what’s in the muffins in question.

Too seldom do we hear things such as that in a book that got too little attention because it came out in the wake of 9/11, Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza polled 715 black people on whether they approved of policies regularly admitting black students with lower scores than other students and found that 90% disapproved. “Taking race into account”? Sure. But in which ways?

Here’s something. Despite my comfortable middle-class upbringing, race most certainly “mattered” in my life, thank you very much. A kid liked calling me “blackey” in camp. I was once denied a summer job because of my race. A couple of times I caught an expression of alarm on a shopkeeper’s face when I walked in. In schoolyard interactions with white boys, there were occasions when it was clear that I was to “know my place” on a certain unstated level. The dating age as a black kid in mostly white schools in the 70s and 80s was no picnic — most of the women around you could only see you as a brother. Your rating was gratifyingly less abysmal in all black settings, but your day-to-day existence was in a world where you were, in a sense, not considered a whole man.

Yes, race mattered. But my mother would have — well, I can’t even imagine — if I had said that those things qualified me for lower standards of evaluation in college admissions than a white kid. Race “mattered” for me to the same extent as any number of things for other kids, regarding health, family issues, appearance, disabilities, and much else.

It’s socioeconomics that create the kind of obstacles to scholastic success that truly justify altered standards. Your school is lousy. Your school doesn’t offer Advanced Placement courses. You had to help raise your siblings. Few people in your family value higher education. You barely knew anybody who went to college.

A society that insisted that people with burdens of that kind come up with grades and scores equal to those of more privileged people would be backwards and unsophisticated. Therefore, we do need Affirmative Action.

However, what needs to be affirmed in today’s America, as opposed to Lyndon Johnson’s, is disadvantage suffered by all people. This is quite different, in 2014, from the more particular fact that race matters.

Decisions like Tuesday’s are, therefore, progress. We should celebrate it.


On Obama and Race, It’s Not Black and White

Is race the key to understanding how Republicans view the president? Only if you ignore how they treated Bill Clinton.

In the wake of speeches such as President Obama’s this week on the occasion of the sesquicentennial of the Civil Rights Act, it is customary to say that on race “We’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go.” And the true intent of the statement is less to celebrate than to sigh. We are to keep ever in mind that we haven’t come as far as we might think.

However, the very way in which race is discussed so often these days indicates happier news than many perceive. I refer to, of all things, the role that racism has played in Republicans’ reception of our president.

“Oh, you just know what really bothers them about him is his race,” is the expected response here — during the delivery of which one could surely detect a distinct spike in endorphins. To the non-Republican in 2014, to identify this racism is a badge of one’s awareness of racism’s existence and power. One must know this, feel it, and say it. One has done one’s job.

And here is how we know how far we have come — in the sheer vehemence, even fury, with which this opinion is typically vented. A sterling example is the response to Jonathan Chait’s piece this week suggesting some moderation in how the racism charge is leveled at the right.

Though Chait is no right-wing partisan and thoroughly outlines the extent to which race does play a part in the right’s rhetoric, he has been brutally slammed by people left of center — and I refer in particular to non-black writers, for whom racism isn’t even a personal experience. The bilious tone of Chait’s critics signals something beyond opinion: This is argument from something more like personhood, of the kind we associate with religion. And as ordinary as this response to a piece like Chait’s seems today, the prospect of it ever happening would have seemed like science fiction to someone watching the Civil Rights Act being signed 50 years ago.

We have gone from a society in which it was ordinary for whites to have a deep-seated, near-religious opposition to black people to one in which it is ordinary for many whites to have a deep-seated, near-religious commitment to showing awareness that remnants of that racism still exist. That is as much a defining feature of what America is today as the racism itself.

On racism and Obama, we know that this feature has become as much creed as opinion in that it elides, as all creeds do, certain empirical facts. When people say racism plays “a part” in how the right sees Obama, they consider it by far the most interesting part — in fact, it would seem fair to say, the main part. “It’s all about race,” one hears said, with confidence and a distinct sense that the discussion is closed.

But this neglects what hatred of Bill Clinton was like in the ’90s, as Chait has noted. The searing contempt so many very white people had for the man — some of the same who now hate Obama — was as near-recreational as today’s against Obama can be, including goofy speculation that the Clintons got people killed. And the reason was their hatred of a charismatic Democrat trying to change how the nation works.

Another one: We are to assume that the Tea Party would not exist if Obama weren’t black. But who can say that John Edwards, if he hadn’t been waylaid by scandal and had won, wouldn’t have inspired a similar animus? Encouraging class conflict, not exactly clubby in his public persona, married to an accomplished and public-spirited woman who wasn’t going to be “home making cookies” any more than Hillary Clinton was — would Republicans in today’s climate have liked him any more than they do Obama? Wouldn’t they have come up with names to call him other than racial ones? Recall that from the right, he was at one point termed with a word beginning with F that has six letters.

All of which is to say that the idea that racism is anything like the reason why Republicans don’t like Obama is one that reasonable people will differ on. I’m the last person to deny that race plays a part in how the right processes the president. It may be 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, but it isn’t 100 years after it. Even over 50 years, people only change so much.

But is race the main issue here? That is, in the history books, will the verdict be that Obama got so little done beyond health care reform because of how people like Mitch McConnell and Rep. Joe “You lie!” Wilson feel or don’t feel about black people? Doubtful — and yet, one is not even to “go there” in certain circles today.

And that, as ticklish and even acrid as it can be here in the present tense, is a sign of true progress in this country. Imagine telling Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King that there would be a time when a numerous and influential component of white people would be irate at the proposition that racism was not the defining trait of one political party?

We’ve come a long way.


The Tin Ear of the #CancelColbert Brigades

A key part of humans getting past, getting over, conquering, leaving behind, is minimization. And a key way to minimize something is to ridicule it.

So now Stephen Colbert is a racist for making fun of a racist, and it’s supposed to be a sign of higher reasoning to understand that.

Just what moral catastrophe are we holding off in pretending that making fun of racists is as racist as racism itself?His sin was in the course of ridiculing Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who has refused to change the regrettable name of the team. Colbert hearkened back to a skit where his “character” didn’t understand why his caricatured depiction of a Chinese person named “Ching Chong Ding Dong” was racist, and followed it up with a mock tweet “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

And quickly a certain Suey Park began a hashtag campaign to have Colbert pulled off of the air for “racism” — even though Colbert was mocking racism as backwards, not exhibiting it.

Some have said that the sin was the tweet’s placement outside of the context of the old skit, but that’s bending over backwards. The tweet alone is clearly meant as humorous — and it was. Except to a certain contingent who have decided that when it comes to racism, even ridiculing it is — wait for it — racist.

This perspective is offered up as a kind of higher wisdom. But too often it seems more like willful backwardness.

It’s a debate that pops up regularly. Remember the New Yorker cover in 2008 depicting the Obamas in Black Panther garb doing a fist bump, mocking the conservative pundits who had seen the Obamas do such a bump as a passing gesture of celebration and read it as evidence that Obama was a secret terrorist?

Good-thinking readers nationwide assailed that cover as, itself, “racist.” The idea would seem to be that bigotry can’t be deemed ridiculous. As such, layered humor — such as an extended in-joke where we assume we all consider the racism being depicted as ridiculous — is off-limits.

That may seem to make a certain sense. We don’t want to seem like we are trivializing something so hurtful. But this can only hold gracefully for so long. A key part of humans getting past, getting over, conquering, leaving behind, is minimization. And a key way to minimize something is to ridicule it. This is why this kind of joke about racism has become so common over the past few decades. It is a symptom of a society slowly but surely getting past the ways of the old days.

Few misunderstand this when we see it in the past, such as in cartoons depicting Hitler as a shrieking moron. Few misunderstand this when aimed at single figures considered menaces (think of South Park’s depiction of Saddam Hussein as a hopping, squeaky-voiced miniature). Few misunderstand this when aimed at white people in general. Note the complaint “That’s so white!” now regularly leveled by whites themselves, or do a quick web search to see the popularity among a certain writerly set of the wryly dismissive term “unfettered whiteness.”

But somehow, when it comes to the specific figure of the racist, we are supposed to suspend this natural tendency to ridicule that which we despise. Instead we are to shake our heads and surmise that the prevalence of jokes like these is just “racism” itself “in a new guise.”

But maintaining this view requires a mental gymnastics that will never be mastered by as many people as we might prefer. The jokes will keep coming, because people will continue being smart persons denigrating that which they look down upon, and racism will be included. We are asking Americans to pretend instead that in the particular case of making fun of racists, layered humor — i.e. wit — isn’t funny.

And that’s where we end up replacing backwardness with backwardness. We’re asking thinking Americans to dumb themselves down. When artists started painting with perspective, it took viewers some effort to comprehend it at first. People in Beethoven’s day heard much of his later work as noise. And a medieval person presented with that New Yorker cover would readily have supposed that the intended statement actually was “Michelle and Barack Obama are terrorists.”

But we’re supposed to be moderns. It’s time to ask: Just what moral catastrophe are we holding off in pretending that making fun of racists is as racist as racism itself? Anyone who read Colbert’s tweet as racist in any serious way either 1) has a strangely tin ear to how humor works, 2) would be better off spelling out just what society will gain from the willful humorlessness they are espousing, or 3) is exhibiting something one might title Progressive Puritanism.

At a bar’s stand-up open mike night in 1984, I recall a white college student getting up on stage and telling a joke to a room she assumed was all white (I was in the corner in the shadows): “What do you call 100,000 black people at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.”

Now, that was racist. So, we must ask whether any of us really think that word “racist” really applies to Stephen Colbert’s depicting a character tweeting “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Progress happens. Preaching deafness to nuance is no way to keep it going.

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