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A Voice From The Other Side: Listening To Your Elder

I am massively pleased to see that Larry Elder has retitled his book from last year for the paperback. The original title was Stupid Black Men: How To Play the Race Card and Lose. Now it's called What's Race Got to Do With It? Much, much better.

Elder is a Los Angeles radio host who sometimes appears on lists of black conservatives (he's actually a libertarian). He's been around a while but never quite breaks out. The publishers of his first book, Ten Things You Can't Say in America  -- about half on race - gave it a huge push; for a while it was at the front of every bookstore right down to airports. Yet august mainstream organs like The New York Times and NPR never nibbled, and continue to ignore him today.

Part of it is things like calling a book Stupid Black Men. As I wrote in the original draft of my review last year, in a passage City Journal's editors softened as harsh but which I think is a fair statement:

To understand that the people Stupid Black Men describes are hurting inside is to also understand that the title is infelicitous, stamping the book immediately as one that will preach only to the converted. How many fair-minded twenty-somethings will engage a book whose title is a term of abuse? And if only about five will, what is it for?

But Elder gives little evidence of feeling anyone's pain the way, say Michael Eric Dyson does. Elder's tone is that of cocky, in-your-face radio. Smiling from book covers, he is the kind of black "conservative" liberals live to hate: he thinks everybody needs to just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps like him.

Okay, the reality is more complex. But that doesn't mean he has nothing of interest to say. Let's say your favorite writer on race is Cornel West or Randall Kennedy. John Stuart Mill told us:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no grounds for preferring either opinion.

Nor is it enough, that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from real persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them.

"Nor is it enough," I would add, in the case of race issues, to be open only to "conservative" views on race from people only "kind of conservative," concerned with meeting liberals in the middle, i.e. the more studiously "thoughtful" sorts who do appear on NPR.

There are things in Elder's books which one must attend to in staking one's position on race issues. Shortly before the 2006 Duke incident when a black stripper accused white lacrosse players of raping her (the charge was revealed as a hoax and the players were exonerated), four black students from black Virginia Union University, two of them football players, were accused of raping a white University of Richmond undergraduate after a party. While the case against the lacrosse players was revealed as a tissue of lies, two of the Virginia Union men were actually convicted while one pled guilty to lesser charges. Yet, there were no aggrieved statements about the culture of football and its link to the abuse of women, etc.

One imagines that Houston Baker and other professors who dutifully signed the "Group of 88" letter condemning the lacrosse players as bigots would dutifully say that what the black football players did was "regrettable." But apparently they see a black-on-white crime as less regrettable than a white-on-black one. Is it? Why? Is there a meaningful consensus on this kind of issue today either way?

There is obviously a rich discussion to be had, which could not happen with the facts ignored as they were by the national media.

Or, in his first book Elder recounted:

In 1987, a wealthy, idealistic philanthropist in Philadelphia "adopted" 112 inner-city sixth-grade kids, most of whom were products of broken homes. The philanthropist, George Weiss, guaranteed a fully-funded education up through college if only the kids would refrain from drugs, unwed motherhood or fatherhood, and crime. He even provided tutors, workshops, after-school programs, summer programs, and counselors to be available when trouble arose, whether personal or otherwise. 45 never made it through high school. Of the 67 boys, 19 have grown into adult felons. (By 1999) among the 45 girls, they had 63 children, and more than half had their babies before the age of 18.

This case is rich fodder for whether racism or culture is most important in determining the lives of children such as these, and what to do about it - and arguably more valuable than celebrated scholars like William Julius Wilson tiptoeing around the issue by terming culture as, basically, a direct and logical response to racism.

Larry Elder is not one for open-ended musings on the "complexities" and "ambiguities" of race issues, and has never presented himself as such. But there are times when people who pride themselves on just "telling it like it is" are worth a listen now and then. There are many who understand this spontaneously when it's a voice from the left like Ishmael Reed. Well, there are writers just as usefully, shall we say, punchy on the right, and Elder is Exhibit A. Now that his book has a respectable title, it's worth a look (although did he have to squeeze "stupid" into the subtitle? Punchy as always).