The Missing “Why?”

The introduction to the interview in The Nation gives some scary numbers.

The New York Times published an opinion piece that illustrated an uncomfortable fact: The vast majority of American authors published after World War II have been white. This should not be a surprise to most people who pay any attention to contemporary literature, but the voluminous data included in the piece proved shocking even to the worst of pessimists.

Between the years 1950 and 2018, the authors found, 95 percent of books published with major firms like Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster were written by white people. That gap hadn’t narrowed at all in 2018—white people wrote 89 percent of books published that year. And in 2020, only 10 percent of the New York Times best-seller list were written by people of color. The New York Times piece promptly went viral.

Something certainly seems wrong here, and as the headline makes clear, The Nation knows what it is.

The History of Publishing Is a History of Racial Inequality

That’s awful, if true. But is it? And if it is, then why? It’s unsurprising when blacks are 13% of the population that there would be more white authors than black, but why aren’t 13% of the books published written by black authors? Sure, every black writer isn’t James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates, but then, every white author isn’t Ernest Hemingway either.

What book deserves to be published isn’t the same sort of question as who gets admitted to law school. What makes a book publication-worthy is more art than science, and the race of the writer doesn’t have much to do with the content of the book. But then, when the question is more a matter of personal preference, as good or bad writing isn’t a math equation, then it’s ripe for racism, whether due to access to publishers, subject matter or writing style. But that doesn’t mean it is racism.

Fortunately, John McWhorter coincidentally provides some background that may well offer insight to the “why” question The Nation skips over.

Black kids tend not to do as well in school as white kids, statistically. But just what is the “racism” that causes this particular disparity?

It isn’t something as plain and simple as the idea that all Black kids go to underfunded schools — it’s a little 1980s to think that’s all we’re faced with. School funding is hugely oversold as a reason for schools’ underperformance, and the achievement disparity persists even among middle-class Black kids.

And middle-class Black kids are not just a mere sliver: Only about a third of Black students are poor. Yet the number of Black students admitted to top-level universities, for example, is small — so small that policies changing admissions standards are necessary for such schools to have a representative number of them on campus. This is fact, shown at countless institutions over the past 30 years such as the University of Michigan and recently Harvard. The key question is what justifies the policies.

McWhorter goes on to explain that young black people have a cultural constraint about associating education with being “white,” and even though they may be smart, come from a good family and go to a good school, they do not value education and consequently do not achieve. This, McWhorter contends, is the legacy of school segregation, and so it is a manifestation of white racism.

But if black students, despite having full opportunity, choose not to avail themselves of it, not to study, not to work hard to get into good colleges, not to achieve, is it any wonder that the number of published black authors is diminished? While the percentage of black people in the general population may be 13%, what is the percentage of black students matriculating at good colleges? How many graduate? If the number going in is “small — so small,” then the number coming out is even smaller. And of that number, the number capable of writing a publishable book must be even smaller, it taking more than education, but an exceptional amount of talent, to write a book that anyone wants to publish or read.

Is this a by-product of legacy racism? Probably. It’s a fair argument, even if its actual cause and effect is hard to prove. Then again, the effort to instill bourgeois values such as education into communities that value other things more is also the target of disdain. And then there’s a piece that is likely very unpopular these days, that the claim of black students going to underfunded and inadequate schools is belied by the two-thirds who attend well-funded and more than adequate schools but still fail to achieve. Not because they can’t, but because they choose not to. At some point, is there some responsibility to do better when all the tools are there to be used? How long can past discrimination provide an excuse when it’s no longer an excuse?

McWhorter’s explanation of what really happens in school goes to show how the Kendi slogan, “when I see racial disparities, I see racism,” is neither helpful nor true. It may well give rise to ask the critical question “why?”, but answers no question in itself. And yet, even McWhorter opens his deconstruction of this simplistic fallacy with another, “systemic racism exists.”

Even fully understanding that systemic racism exists and why it is important — persistent disparities between Black people and others in access to resources — one may have some questions. Real ones.

For me, the biggest question is not whether systemic racism exists but what to do about it.

When some kid who might have become the next James Baldwin chooses not to study lest his friends think him unhip, does that make publishers racist? It may well be that there is racism in publishing, and it may well be that the cultural pathology that devalues education limits the universe of great black writers. And it may well be many other factors are also implicated. But as long as people latch onto pointless vagaries that illuminate nothing, like “systemic racism is real” or “when I see racial disparities, I see racism,” no problem is fixed and no one is saved. As handy as excuses may be for failure, it’s still failure. If you really want to end racial disparities, why not do better?

16 thoughts on “The Missing “Why?”

  1. SamS

    I suggest that the reason whites make up a disproportionate share of authors, doctors, lawyers, business executives is the same reason that blacks make up 75 % of the players in the NBA and NFL. I don’t know what the reason is but I don’t think it is racism. Perhaps it has to do with each persons innate interests and talents.

    1. Tom H

      There are a few people with a natural talent for writing that can just sit down and crank out books, like Stephen King for instance. I disagree with McWhorter that a college degree is a requirement to get published. I wish after posting his educational numbers he had followed up and looked at publishing houses diversity statistics. There might be something there causing fewer black authors to be published.

      1. SHG Post author

        A college degree isn’t “needed” in the sense that it’s a prerequisite, but it’s kind of hard to write a book if one can’t write.

      2. Rigelsen

        McWhorter is not talking about the prerequisites of publishing or publishing at all. His focus is the black cultural disinterest in education, or alternatively how to get individual black students to take education seriously and succeed without requiring the abolishing of universal standards or creating special/separate standards for blacks.

        Indeed, the whole essay could be summed up as: “[T]he idea that school is ‘for white people’ should be traced, faced and erased, reified and rendered as uncool as drunken driving and smoking have been.”

        Also, the connection of this to “system racism” is only in so far as Segregation may have had something to do with the development of this cultural disinterest.

        The publishing matter is from the Nation article, and, as our host points out, the “why” is mostly left unexplored, though education may be a reason. Bofok writing may also be considered a thing “for white people”.

    2. SHG Post author

      It’s hard to know what innate interests and talents one has if they never have the opportunity to find out. The question is whether anyone is preventing them from finding out or they are choosing not to find out.

  2. DaveL

    Professor McWhorter correctly notes that the school funding hypothesis no longer holds water – not only because most black families do not live in poverty, but because changes to school funding in recent decades have been largely successful in evening out gross inequities in school funding.

    But if we must dismiss that hypothesis because it started fading in the 80s, why does segregation, illegal since the 60s, get a pass? How much time has to pass before what started as a systemic problem created by whites becomes a cultural problem that blacks need to own?

  3. Robert Parry

    I spent 10 years as a Big Brother to a kid in South Los Angeles. His mom was college-educated (finished her degree when my Little was in middle school) while his dad was in prison (don’t forge checks to the District Attorney to cover your child support arrears).

    He got into a charter high school but fought to get out of it to be with his friends at Crenshaw High. He was convinced he was destined for the NBA, but never made the high school JV team. He was going to be a rap star, but worked at it by smoking dope in a park after school.

    No amount of reality checking from me or his mom could get him to focus on anything but an end state of media glory. Yet, he was oblivious to (even offended by) the requisite work.

    It was that innundation of media glorification of rappers and athletes (with an undertone that the Coates and McWhorters were sell-outs) that I remain convinced drew him away from reality and opportunity.

    Today he’s in his late 20s, working as a security guard in Vegas. He’s estranged from his mom, his dad is dead (victim of a gang double-murder).

    And he just had a baby girl.

    1. SHG Post author

      So you sucked as Big Brother? Is it the media’s fault for glorifying rappers and athletes as role models for black kids or are they just a lot cooler and sexier than the McWhorters? What will it take to make smart black people cooler than rappers and athletes?

  4. Elpey P.

    “When some kid who might have become the next James Baldwin chooses not to study lest his friends think him unhip, does that make publishers racist?”

    McWhorter would likely aim his charge of “systemic racism” at the forces that made the kid think this way, not at the publishers. This would include a lot of people with incoherent activism who use the phrase “systemic racism” as a cheap battle cry and a shortcut for thinking. If their “solutions” make the problems worse and perpetuate essentialist racial paradigms (good luck eradicating racism with those), there’s no good reason their intent is magic and they should get to exempt their own efforts and participation.

  5. B. McLeod

    This is why they shouldn’t put the author’s picture on the dust jacket. Since we now recognize that the key to the acceptance of art, movies and literature is whether they are created by people “who look like” we do.

    1. cthulhu

      Easy-peasy – put a mirror on the dust jacket where the author’s picture goes, then the author is guaranteed to look like you.

      My work here is done…

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