The Curious History of a Racial Slur
by Ron Christie
Thomas Dunne, 304 pp., $25.99
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.
Although Acting White suffers occasionally from awkward prose and unnecessary repetition, Christie proves a competent guide through some complicated history. He shows, for example, that despite Booker T. Washington’s promotion of “hard work and economic self-reliance for blacks,” he blinked when it came to true equality, supporting industrial over academic education for blacks and assuring whites that they need not fear social assimilation. Interestingly, Washington and his rival W. E. B. Du Bois traded similar charges of kowtowing to white attitudes. “Acting White” seems to be an equal opportunity slur.
Discord in the early 20th century between Du Bois and the leader of the nascent Back to Africa movement, Marcus Garvey, makes earlier disagreements sound mild. Distrustful of education and opposed to assimilation, Garvey attacked the Harvard-educated Du Bois at first vigorously, and then viciously: Du Bois, Garvey wrote in 1923, “likes to dance with white people, and dine with them, and sometimes sleep with them, because from his way of seeing things all black is ugly, and all that is white is beautiful.” Garvey’s accusations would seem quaint, perhaps, if they were not as current as today’s headlines. Christie quotes a 2007 item from CNN.com: “The Rev. Jesse Jackson criticized Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama . . . accusing the Illinois senator of ‘acting like he’s white’ according to a South Carolina newspaper.” And about a year later, Ralph Nader chimed in, saying that Obama tries to “talk white.”
This comprehensive history of the dangerous and self-defeating notion that pursuing an education, speaking well, dressing well, and working in a profession equals “selling out” is both sobering and encouraging. And the failure of many black leaders to relinquish the comforting myth that all of their community’s woes can be laid at the feet of “institutional racism” is causing young African Americans enormous harm.
Alec Solomita is a writer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.