The Magazine

The Opposing Self

When social pressures stand in the way of black success.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By ALEC SOLOMITA
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Acting White
The Curious History of a Racial Slur
by Ron Christie
Thomas Dunne, 304 pp., $25.99

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

Ron Christie’s book begins with a jolt.

The lawyer, political pundit, and former aide to President George W. Bush tells a story of his younger self, an eager, starstruck—and African-American—junior legislative assistant working for a Republican congressman from Florida, Craig T. James, who served on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. At the committee’s first hearing, the 22-year-old Christie was impressed to see Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a woman whose work and status (if not politics) he admired. Waters, he soon learned, was as impressed by him—but not as favorably.

After the hearing, she summoned Christie to her office: “I want to know why you’re working for a Republican. Are you confused?”

“No ma’am, I’m not confused. I work with Congressman James because I share his values. I am a Republican.”

“You are a sellout to your race! White people work for Republicans! Not African Americans! You’re nothing but an Uncle Tom!”

Christie reports that he was stunned by the tirade. But it was not the last time he would find himself facing a liberal’s fusillade of abuse. Indeed, he seems to have made a career of refuting such small-minded, hostile accusations. He has gallantly endured the gently expressed incredulity of Janet Langhart Cohen, who interviewed Christie about his book and wondered aloud how a black man could possibly be a Republican. And he has repeatedly appeared on MSNBC’s vituperative Ed Show, attempting, civilly, to counter the self-righteous, perpetually outraged harangues of the host and like-minded guests.

What Christie is accused of, by blacks and liberal whites alike, is “acting white.” That is, abandoning his heritage, selling out. He shares this distinction with other admirable cultural warriors, individuals as various as Condoleezza Rice, Juan Williams, Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, Randall Kennedy, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams. And make no mistake, they are various: Their nuanced views cover a wide spectrum. Their only commonality is an independence of mind that incites the wrath of an enervated, bitter, and self-pitying black leadership addicted to the glory days of the civil rights movement and, some of them, to the Black Panther party and its offshoots.

Christie’s thesis has become familiar in recent decades, particularly after Bill Cosby’s keynote speech at the NAACP’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, in which Cosby advised the black community to look into its own soul: “We cannot blame white people. .  .  . We’ve got to take the neighborhood back.” Christie expands the argument. A strong and destructive internal attitude impedes black accomplishment. And this attitude is encapsulated, Christie says, in the high-school taunt “acting white,” aimed by black students at peers who pay attention in class and do their homework. When “hard work, diligent study, and eloquent communication skills” become cause for derision and abuse, the result is a powerful deterrent to success. It is a phenomenon based on a misguided notion of group loyalty. Its strength resides in a fear of ostracism.

Acting White takes a historical approach, sketching out the contours of not just the term itself but the operating concept as well, the origins of which he discerns in the antebellum South. He relies heavily on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), where the attitudes of whites toward blacks run a gamut of viciousness: from benign superiority to amusement to sadism, fear, and loathing—all serving the purpose of unthinkable exploitation. Christie points to whites’ fear of black literacy: “Blacks were legally denied the opportunity to become literate in several southern states. Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia joined .  .  . other states in enacting statutes that prescribed fines, flogging, and imprisonment for those who taught African Americans how to read and write.”

How blacks perceived literacy becomes the focus of Christie’s attention. The slave George Harris in Uncle Tom’s Cabin says, “I know more about business than [the master] does. .  .  . I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand.” But Harris’s stance was not, according to Christie, prevalent among blacks in the slaveholding South:

Apparently, the notion that blacks would apply themselves to become literate and educated .  .  . was a foreign concept to someone of Uncle Tom’s mindset. .  .  . This subservient .  .  . ideology about education—then and now—holds that African Americans seeking to emancipate their minds from the chains of illiteracy act as do whites.

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