Thursday, March 16, 2017

Malcolm Gladwell Wants to Make the World Safe for Mediocrity

On black identity in the Caribbean and the United States

COWEN: There’s a discussion that Sylvia Wynter, the Jamaican intellectual, offered in year 2000, and I’d like your opinion on this. She said there’s something special about the United States: that in Jamaica, or in many parts of the Caribbean more broadly, that being middle class can in some way counter the fact of blackness socially, and serve as a kind of offset. But she said about the United States, and here I quote, “The US itself is based on the insistent negation of black identity, the obsessive hypervaluation of being white.” Do you think that’s an accurate perspective?

GLADWELL: Well, yeah, there is something . . . well, I hesitate to say under-theorized, but there is something under-theorized about the differences between West Indian and American black culture, the psychological difference between what it means to come from those two places. I think only when you look very closely at that difference do you understand the heavy weight that particular American heritage places on African-Americans. What’s funny about West Indians is, they can always spot another West Indian. And at a certain point you wonder, “How do they always know?” It’s because after a while you get good at spotting the absence of that weight.

And it explains as well the well-known phenomenon of how disproportionately successful West Indians are when they come to the United States because they seem to be better equipped to deal with the particular pathologies attached to race in this country — my mother being a very good example. But of course there are a million examples.

I was just reading for one of my podcasts; I’ve been reading all these oral history transcripts from the civil rights movement. I was reading one today and I’m halfway through. And I had that completely unbidden thing, “Oh, this guy’s a West Indian.” He was an African-American attorney and a civil rights lawyer in Virginia in the ’60s. I got a 30-page transcript. I got to page 15, I’m like, “He’s West Indian.” And then, literally page 16, “My father came from Trinidad and Tobago with my mother and me.”

COWEN: [laughs]

GLADWELL: There is something very, very real there that’s not, I feel, fully appreciated.

COWEN: Another difference that struck me — tell me what you think of this — is that the notion of freedom for much of the Caribbean, it’s in some way more celebratory, and it’s more rooted in history, and it may be because these are mostly majority black societies. History is in a sense controlled; it’s much more commemorative. Does that make sense to you? It’s not a struggle to control the narration of history at a national level.

GLADWELL: Yes. You’re in charge of the narrative —


GLADWELL: . . . which is huge. I thought of this because I wanted to do — sorry, my podcast is on my mind — I wanted to do and I haven’t managed to figure out how to do it, but there’s a Jamaican poet called Louise Bennett. If you are Jamaican, you know exactly who this person is. She’s probably the most important colloquial poet. I think that’s the wrong word. Popular poet. And she wrote poetry in dialect. So for a generation of Jamaicans, she was an assertion of Jamaican identity and culture. My mother was a scholarship student at a predominantly white boarding school in Jamaica. She and the other black students of the school, as an act of protest, read Louise Bennett poetry at the school function when she was 12 years old.

If you read Louise Bennett’s poetry, much of it is about race. It’s about race where the Jamaican, the black Jamaican often has the upper hand. The black Jamaican is always telling some sly joke at the expense of the white minority. So it’s poetry that doesn’t make the same kind of sense in a society where you’re a relatively powerless minority. It’s the kind of thing that makes sense if you’re not in control of major institutions and such, but you are 95 percent of the population and you feel like you’re going to win pretty soon.

My mother used to read this poem to me as a child where Louise Bennett is . . . the poem is all about sitting in a beauty parlor, getting her hair straightened, sitting next to a white woman who’s getting her hair curled.


GLADWELL: And the joke is that the white woman’s paying a lot more to get her hair curled than Louise Bennett is to get her hair straightened. That’s the point. It’s all this subtle one-upmanship. But that’s very Jamaican.

On the subject of Revisionist History season two

COWEN: Now, to ask about your podcasts. I know some of them in the second season, they’ll be about the civil rights movement — in particular, the 1950s, which are a somewhat neglected time. I’ll throw out just a few possible forces that led America to start to become more integrated in the ’50s, and you tell me which you think are neglected or underrated.

One would be professional sports and Jackie Robinson starting to play baseball in the late ’40s. Another would be entertainers, a move toward having more black leads in movies and also music, say Chuck Berry or even James Brown. Harry Truman integrating the military, or the desire, for purposes of Cold War propaganda, to actually show this country is making some progress on civil rights issues. Which of those or which other factors do you feel are the ones we’re missing in understanding this history?

GLADWELL: If I had to rank those, army one. And I would say that the entertainment and sports . . . I would say that it was either neutral or worse than neutral.

COWEN: Why worse than neutral?

GLADWELL: Because I actually think if we were to take the long view, and we would look at this from a hundred years from now, we would say that . . . it is not unusual for minorities to first make their mark in sports and entertainment. You see it with Jews, you see it with Italians, you see it with Irish. But the thing that’s striking to me about those movements is they move in and out of those worlds pretty quickly. So the Jewish moment in sports is really quite short.

COWEN: Sure.


GLADWELL: Which is in retrospect not that surprising.

COWEN: Boxing especially.

GLADWELL: It’s like that long. The African-American moment in those transitional fields is really long; it continues to this day. And it’s almost to the point where you feel that what happens is, they move into those worlds and get stalled there. And their presence in that world accentuates and aggravates existing prejudice about their community as opposed to serving as a way station to a better place.

So, if your problem is that you’re facing a series of stereotypes about how you are intellectually inferior, how you have a broken culture, how you have . . . I could go on and on and on with all of the stereotypes that exist. Then how does playing brutally violent sports help you? How is an association, almost an overrepresentation in these various kinds of public entertainments advance your cause? I’m for those things when they’re transitional, and I’m against them when they seem like dead ends.

COWEN: How important a factor was the research of Mamie and Kenneth Clark? That’s some work that, had there been a Malcolm Gladwell at the time, would have been written up even more — the notion that when there’s segregation, people may value themselves or their race less. It seems that had a big impact on the Warren Court, on other thinking. What’s your take on their influence?

GLADWELL: Well, the great book on this is Daryl Scott’s Contempt and Pity. He’s a very good black historian at Howard [University], I believe. Yes, he’s the chair of history at Howard. And he has much to say, so I got quite taken when I was doing this season of my podcast with the black critique of Brown v. Board of Education]. And the black critique of Brown starts with some of that psychological research because the psychological research is profoundly problematic on many levels.

So what Clark was showing, and what so moved the court in the Warren decision, was this research where you would take the black and the white doll, and you show that to the black kid. And you would say, “Which is the good doll?” And the black kid points to the white doll. “And which doll do you associate with yourself?” And they don’t want to answer the question. And the court said, “This is the damage done by segregation.”

Scott points out that if you actually look at the research that Clark did, the black children who were most likely to have these deeply problematic responses in the doll test were those from the North, who were in integrated schools. The southern kids in segregated schools did not regard the black doll as problematic. They were like, “That’s me. Fine.”

That result, that it was black kids, minority kids from integrated schools, who had the most adverse reactions to their own representation in a doll, is consistent with all of the previous literature on self-hatred, which starts with Jews. That literature begins with, where does Jewish self-hatred come from? Jewish self-hatred does not come from Eastern Europe and the ghettos. It comes from when Jewish immigrants confront and come into close conflict and contact with majority white culture. That’s when self-hatred starts, when you start measuring yourself at close quarters against the other, and the other seems so much more free and glamorous and what have you.

So, in other words, the Warren Court picks the wrong research. There are all kinds of problems caused by segregation. This happens to be not one of them. So why does the Warren Court do that? Because they are trafficking — this is Scott’s argument — they are trafficking in an uncomfortable and unfortunate trope about black Americans, which is that black American culture is psychologically damaged. That the problem with black people is not that they’re denied power, or that doors are closed to them, or that . . . no, it’s because that something at their core, their family life and their psyches, have, in some way, been crushed or distorted or harmed by their history.

It personalizes the struggle. By personalizing the struggle, what the Warren Court is trying to do is to manufacture an argument against segregation that will be acceptable to white people, particularly Southern white people. And so, what they’re saying is, “Look, it’s not you that’s the problem. It’s black people. They’re harmed in their hearts, and we have to usher them into the mainstream.”

They’re not making the correct argument, which was, “You guys have been messing with these people for 200 years! Stop!” They can’t make that argument because Warren desperately wants a majority. He wants a nine-nothing majority on the court. So, instead, they construct this, in retrospect, deeply offensive argument, about how it’s all about black people carrying this . . . and using social science in a way that’s actually quite deeply problematic. It’s not what the social science said.

by Tyler Cowen and Malcolm Gladwell, Medium |  Read more:
Image: Caren Louise Photographs