Stretching the role of `victim' awfully thin

March 08, 2001|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Amateurs once again are ruining the high art and often-ennobling stature of being a victim.

This thought crossed my mind as I was watching a tape of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaking to the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute, a prestigious and generally Republican policy organization, last month in Washington.

With resounding defiance, Mr. Thomas declared the nation to be engaged in a cultural war and used his trials and tribulations at the hands of the left as an example.

When, as a public official in 1980, Mr. Thomas first criticized programs like affirmative action and busing for school integration, he was "subjected to intimidation," he said.

"Debate was not permitted. Orthodoxy was enforced."

Right. And how was he punished? As I recall, he was named by newly elected President Ronald Reagan to become chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Despite this apparent handicap, Mr. Thomas refused to keep silent about his conservative views. So, a few years later, he was punished further with a federal judgeship. This still didn't teach him, so President George H. W. Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court. Some punishment.

Yet, there Mr. Thomas was portraying himself as the crusading victim, as he gave his pep talk to the right wing's troops. "Today, no one can honestly be surprised by the venomous attacks" unleashed on anyone who strays from the conventional wisdom, he said.

Right. Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House -- helped along, as I recall, by a fortuitous Supreme Court decision in which Mr. Thomas helped end the recount of Florida's presidential votes.

Vice President Dick Cheney and several new Cabinet members were sitting in Mr. Thomas' audience while he spun his tale of woe and delivered his defiant closing to robust applause: "Be not afraid!"

Afraid? Excuse me? Afraid of what? Too much power?

I find it sad to see Mr. Thomas portraying himself as the eternal victim once again. I am not sure of what to make of it. I have long suspected that maybe it has something to do with being raised black and poor with the name "Clarence" in an era in which most other boys have boring names like "Bill" or "George" or "Al" or "Colin." Having endured all that at the same time as Mr. Thomas, I sympathize. Any guy could be a Bill or a Bob. One had to fight relentlessly against an assault of unwanted nicknames for the name "Clarence."

Maybe that's Mr. Thomas' problem. He's so used to going his own way, fighting all the way, that he has trouble acknowledging when he actually is on the winning side.

Echoes of his speech came to mind recently as I read a book that has critics of America's civil rights leadership all abuzz this season. It is called "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America" (Free Press) by John H. McWhorter, a black associate professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

It's the best among the latest of what I call "black self-flagellation" books. Since at least 1990, when Shelby Steele's seminal "The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America" came out, it seems that no black writer has gone broke by portraying black people as our own worst enemy.

Quite the opposite, one can win instant fame, high-priced speaking engagements, warm praise from conservative talk-show hosts and perhaps even a lucrative fellowship or two.(The same is true, by the way of many so-called "post-feminist" books that describe feminism as a betrayal of women, but that's a topic for another day.)

Mr. McWhorter boils our self-sabotage down to three "cults." The first is "victimology," in which we adopt perpetual victimhood as an identity and exaggerate it instead of tackling it as a problem to be solved.

This leads to "the cult of separatism" in which we write off the mainstream as too "white" and a cult of "anti-intellectualism," in which black students undervalue academic excellence.

Mr. McWhorter overstates his case occasionally, but he hits the mark so often that I think we African-Americans can ignore him only at our peril -- especially we African-American parents.

Unfortunately, I expect Mr. McWhorter's book will be read and discussed much less by blacks, for whom I think it is a valuable work, than by whites who are looking to assuage their racial guilt.

That's human nature. People usually do not pay 20 bucks for a book that makes them feel bad about themselves. It's a lot more soothing to hear someone tell you about how much you are being victimized, even when you've begun to win.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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