John McWhorter

When Does Speaking a Foreign Language Get a Candidate in Trouble?
January 23, 2012

Every four years, it seems, one of the major issues in the U.S. presidential campaign is how many languages the candidates speak, the implication being: the fewer, the better. This year, we’ve seen Newt Gingrich knock Mitt Romney for speaking French, as well as general mockery of Jon Huntsman for his displays of speaking Mandarin Chinese. In 2004, it was John Kerry who was derided by George W.

A New York Times Op-Ed That Would Have Appalled Martin Luther King
January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King Day is supposed to get us thinking about how black people have come a long way but still have a long way to go. Okay, but what MLK Day has me as a black person thinking about is Lee Siegel.  Specifically, what’s on my mind is Siegel’s idea, broadcast in the paper of record on Sunday, that Mitt Romney’s appeal is based on his being the “whitest” Presidential candidate in a long time. It’s a hit-generating proposition, to be sure. But it’s also a sign of how very far we've come on race.

Why Eric Holder’s Effort to Help Minority Voters Could Backfire
December 16, 2011

Attorney General Eric Holder is correct to crack down on the Republican operatives in various states around the country working to discourage voter turnout. But it’s a sad kind of correctness. Holder’s intervention will protect black America in the short term, but the philosophy of this intervention will likely work to our detriment in the long term. The problem is the disparate impact doctrine: The federal government ought to be treating interventions based on it like chemotherapy, as a desperate measure for a temporary period.

Hey Newt! Poor Kids Already Are Familiar With the Virtues of Work—And It’s Because Of You
December 09, 2011

When Newt Gingrich proposed that poor children should be put to work—for a “three- or four-hour-a-day job,” he clarified this week—he was rightly accused of threatening national child-labor laws. But he was also displaying a curious lack of familiarity with his own political accomplishments. Gingrich suggests that his proposal is meant to resolve an acute crisis: That kids from the projects don’t see anyone around them working for a living. “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works,” Gingrich said.

Words, Mere Words: Newt Gingrich Speaks Well. But Is He Smart?
November 15, 2011

If Newt Gingrich's career in public service proves anything, it is that he will never be caught saying “Oops.” Gingrich is currently rising to frontrunner status in the Republican presidential primary largely because he's willing to talk about any subject at any time, is ready to do so with some measure of linguistic facility, and has sufficient self-regard to exploit every opportunity to demonstrate his rhetorical command.

The Singer, Not the Song
November 14, 2011

Harry Belafonte's autobiography is important, even if not exactly spellbinding. With the awareness that Belafonte was a Race Man, one might expect his

Herman Cain Played the Race Card, But Liberals Are the Ones Who Dealt It
November 11, 2011

Let us imagine for a moment that a woman came forth claiming that Barack Obama had sexually harassed her fifteen years ago. What would the reaction be from liberal partisans, and assorted other supporters? We can easily imagine that there would be urgent questions about the motivations of the woman who came forward, and the media outlets that broke the news. There would likely be a furious attendance to the possibly “racist” aspects of the coverage.

Stop Accusing Herman Cain of Minstrelsy
October 25, 2011

In the early part of the 20th century, when Jewish entertainers like Al Jolson would toss Yiddish references to gedaempfte Rinderbrust (beef brisket) and the like into their routines, it was widely seen as an expression not of anti-Semitic baiting, but as a cocky sort of pride. Yes, the performers were intentionally making a point of their ethnicity, but it was in the form of a shout-out to the Jews in their audience, not as a wink to their would-be persecutors.

Why No One Is Right in California’s Affirmative Action Debate
October 07, 2011

The protests against the Berkeley College Republicans’ mock “Diversity bake sale” last week, in which minorities were charged lower prices than whites, are illustrating that history is all about taking a step backwards for every two steps forward. Back in the day, when I started speaking out about affirmative action in 2000, to even question racial preference policies was to be tarred as a moral degenerate. The conversation has moved on since then.

When Politicians Misspeak, Should We Care?
October 01, 2011

The past two weeks have seen two notorious examples of what we might call the swivel-tongue syndrome—starkly graceless verbal incoherence—and from public figures no less. First was Rick Perry’s cringe-worthy attempt to demonstrate basic knowledge of South Asian geopolitics during the most recent GOP candidate debate; and, more recently, we have apparently caught President Obama mixing up Jews and janitors at a speech before the Congressional Black Caucus. We do, these days, exert an unrealistically high standard on public figures’ oratorical abilities.