jimsleeper.com » John McWhorter, Frances Fox Piven, and Me

John McWhorter, Frances Fox Piven, and Me

How and How Not to Fight Racism

John McWhorter, NY Times

By Jim Sleeper

(Originated on TPM, April 5, 2010. Updated February, 2023)

In March, 2010, The New Republic published the linguist John McWhorter’s denunciation of the damage he insisted had been done to African-Americans such as himself and his relatives by the leftist-activist professors Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. Piven and Cloward had tried to bring down capitalism in the 1960s by flooding welfare rolls with angry would-be recipients. Nearly half a century later, McWhorter still hadn’t gotten over it. He cast them among the crackpots of racial protest, writing that he’d love to “erase” them from memory: “Rarely in American history have people with such a destructive agenda [as Piven and Cloward] had such power over the lives of the innocent…, helping to ruin the lives of, for example, some of my relatives.”

Such power? McWhorter was certainly on-message with conservative thunderings against Piven and Cloward by Glenn Beck and the right-radical provocateur David Horowitz — everyone’s source on the horrors supposedly perpetrated by Piven and Cloward.

For me, there’s a wrinkle here: Horowitz’s source on the follies of Piven and Cloward was me, in The Closest of Strangers, Chapter 3, “The Politics of Polarization,” where I, too, condemned what I found destructive in their strategy. McWhorter carried his unquenchable rage at Piven and Cloward into a post titled “Frances Fox Piven, Jim Sleeper, and Me.”

I had written that Piven, Cloward and many on the left were in thrall to assumptions about racism and capitalism that carried a lot of truth, but that also needed the deconstruction I provided in my Chapter 3 and on pp 159-162, drawing on my immersion in inner-city Brooklyn.

Soon after my reckoning was published in 1990, Horowitz, whom I did not know, called to tell me that he loved the book. Easing him off the phone with a polite “Thanks, but no thanks,” I began to understand the dangers in racial truth-telling in a polarized society: I was getting vilification from the Piven-oriented left and sloppy wet kisses from neo-cons and paleo-cons. At times, I felt pretty much how George Orwell felt when he tried to tell the left in London that Stalin was killing social democrats as much as fascists in the Spanish Civil War. For documenting Stalin’s brutal hypocrisy in trying to crush his detractors on the left, Orwell was canceled by leftist editors and publishers, as I recount in the essay I’ve linked in the previous sentence.

A lot of American leftist ideology cast Blacks as the cats’ paws of revolution against a regime that had long consigned them to a “reserve army of the unemployed,” exploited and brutalized. Yet Piven and Cloward’s call for resistance, via their racialized “politics of turmoil,” was no solution. It opened no path to political or economic justice, let alone integration.

That doesn’t mean, however that Piven and Cloward and their followers were the malevolent conspirators that McWhorter made them out to be. Their strategy of storming welfare offices to demand more benefits to overwhelm and discredit the system and to clear the way for revolution was counterproductive, for sure; it only compounded racist contempt for the people they intended to mobilize. My book made this pretty clear, and many on the left reacted against it by doubling down on their histrionic, moralistic, romantic, ultimately tragic tactics. But that didn’t make Piven and Cloward the malevolent monsters that McWhorter portrayed them s being.

I’d admired McWhorter’s Losing the Race, which I reviewed for The Washington Monthly in 2000. But I’d cautioned him there against becoming the conservative-movement water-carrier: In his New Republic he even dismissed the Brazilian radical educator Paolo Freire, one of my inspirations (as I once explained while quoting him in reporting on my encounters with poverty, race, and a rich congressman in Brooklyn).

The conspiracy mongering about Piven and Cloward that came from Glenn Beck and other right-wing demagogues should have given McWhorter pause. Beware the prospect of unmasking Evil Others on either end of the spectrum. Yes, they’re out there. But just as George Kennan was right to urge firm containment of Soviet Communism without proposing militarized rollback, keepers of the American civic-republican faith and flame, as McWhorter wants to be, need to develop new ways to stand firm against its subverters without lashing out so histrionically. Yet the left in those days played inexorably into the hands of the more-powerful right by lashing out.

Here is a comment on what you’ve just read, posted by “Jimmy of Staten Island” on the website of New York City’s NPR station, WNYC, after host Brian Lehrer quoted a passage from this column. “Jimmy,” writing from a neighborhood where many Archie Bunkers surely live, described himself as “Still a Democrat, still Union, but Lord Almighty, folks like Ms. Piven do little but alienate the folks in my local, and weaken their allegiance to the Democratic Party. Her ‘strategy’ to cause rifts within the voting blocs that make up Municipal Democratic Parties, to force LBJ’s hand, did nothing but bring about Nixon-Reagan, and the long-term kneecapping of the greater, national Democratic party.”

With a comment like Jimmy’s, I rest my case — against Piven & Co. for being hapless enough to have long time, but also against McWhorter, Beck, and Horowitz, because, obsessing as they do about Piven’s holding “such power over the lives of innocents,” end up mobilizing people who are racist enough to embrace scapegoating. Chastise the left for its follies, as I’ve done often enough myself. But spare us any hyped-up indignation about liberal racism that, like McWhorter’s indignation, accepts and even excuses the brutal, ubiquitous realities of racism itself.