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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

My Master's House

Culture Race

The spelling of Jayson Blair's first name suggests that he is black. Seeing the name when I read an article about the first indications that he had been fabricating stories for the New York Times, a chill went up my spine. What worried me was not that a black person had been screwing up. We can expect that black people, as human beings, will have their bad days like anyone else. But I imagined one direction the fracas might go: that Jayson just might "spin" the story into a tale of discrimination.

And once his misdeeds were confirmed and he was dismissed, he dutifully pulled out the race card for the New York Observer, intoning that in his trajectory at the Times, while racial preferences had played some role, "racism had much more of an impact." Apparently there are "hundreds" of white junior managers at the Times who are opposed to black advancement. And wouldn't you know, last week it was announced that Mr. Blair copped a cushy advance for a book about his career.

The title? "Burning Down My Master's House."

But Mr. Blair is a college dropout who nevertheless was hired by the top general-interest newspaper in the country at 23, steadily promoted despite repeated flubs and professional misconduct, and just two years later was sitting pretty as a full reporter. This is decidedly not the sort of thing that was going on in the master's house back in the day. Yet Mr. Blair wants to depict himself as the aggrieved slave "acting out" against the deathless bugbear of racism.

But just what sort of anti-black bias did Mr. Blair encounter? "I don't want to go into the specifics of alleging X, Y or Z," he has said. But when James Meredith could take his place at the University of Mississippi only under armed guard, he was hardly faced with ambiguous "specifics" to "allege." And Mr. Meredith would have been flabbergasted to hear in 1962 that 40 years later, the New York Times would be rewarding a black man for incompetence.

The truth is that Mr. Blair is demonstrating a strain of modern American race ideology more pernicious than many realize. For blacks before the mid-1960s, decrying racism stemmed from sincere grievance. But for far too many blacks today, it has drifted into a recreational crutch, assuaging the insecurity at the heart of the human soul. A sad keystone of human nature is the balm of feeling superior. Gossip is a relatively innocuous manifestation; fashioning oneself as eternally battling a white America mired in "racism" is a more noisome one.

Grievance devolving into gesture is, sadly, par for the course in social history. During the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964, undergraduates heroically resisted the muzzling of their political opinions, rallied by Mario Savio's considered orations. Just a year later a new contingent channeled the rebellious spirit without the substance as a "Filthy Speech Movement," entailing signs emblazoned with profanity. Mr. Blair's book title recalls an equivalent development among black college students, who often learn that they are racist victims from campus protest culture. In David O. Sacks and Peter A. Thiel's "The Diversity Myth," black Stanford undergrads in the late 1980s asked to recount incidents of racism they had encountered could not "allege" any "specifics," but could only venture that what they had experienced was "hard to explain."

Mr. Blair is even younger than these students. "The Cosby Show" had ended its run before he even got to college, and he has known nothing but an America where middle-class black families like his were a norm rather than a rarity. We must not deny that residual racism remains a reality--but the idea that this impedes a group's success is a fiction. Black Americans who insist that we cannot achieve meaningfully until the ruling class adores us present an ideology foreign to any other minority group in history.

Mr. Blair takes his place in a routine of crying wolf in the name of speaking truth to power. This year alone, the president of Florida's NAACP has told us that "racism finds itself no matter where we are in this country and holds its head high," while one state up, the head of the Southeast division of Georgia's NAACP has announced that "if it were up to the majority of people in the state of Georgia, slavery would still be legal and lynching would still be the law of the land." In this same state, Ray Brent Marsh, the black crematorium operator discovered to have stashed away 339 corpses, told the press that racism drove his indictment.

People like this see themselves as collaring an America deaf to the urgency of a "new Civil Rights revolution." But every self-indulgent performance of this kind is an insult to our black forebears, who endured a racism no one needed to be taught to "understand," as well as to living blacks running up against tragic remnants, such as the 46 blacks in Tulia, Texas, rounded up and condemned to lengthy jail sentences on false grounds in 1999 by a blatantly racist detective. Whatever "alleged" events Mr. Blair encountered around the water-coolers at the Times, could he really look at a woman hammered to the ground by a fire-hose current in Birmingham in 1963 and extend his hand to her as a partner in "oppression"?

It's no surprise that a publisher has taken up Mr. Blair's book--money rules. But when Mr. Blair teaches those blacks in his book-tour audiences who are too young to remember a world without VCRs that being black and successful remains a tragedy in 2004, he will take his place as a true sellout. He will distort his story of advantage marred by personal failings into a tired parable, teaching that black failure happens because we still don't have all the chips. And if that is "progressive," then history is repeating itself as tragedy and farce at the same time.

This piece originally appeared in

This piece originally appeared in