Excerpt: Starbucks and the Swimming Pool – JOHN MCWHORTER

“An episode of All in the Family from 1971 strikingly demonstrates how peculiar our orthodoxy on race has become, despite how familiar—and even scripturally unassailable—it seems now to so many. Remember, 1971 felt just as modern to enlightened sorts as 2018 now feels to their equivalents. The long, hot summers, the assassinations of King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy, Jimi Hendrix, “Black Power,” afros, dashikis, and the Panthers were all very much on people’s minds. Selma was recent.”

“And yet—two black burglars break into the Bunkers’ house (played, for the record, by Cleavon Little and Demond Wilson, later of Sanford and Son). Archie inevitably says some racially ignorant things, and “woke” lefty son-in-law Mike intervenes, telling the burglars that they need to understand that Archie doesn’t understand the “underlying social causes” that are making them do what they do. In a moment that now qualifies as almost bizarre, Little responds “Oh, you must be a liberal! And an honest-to-God bigot!””

“What? Mike is reciting “root causes” liturgy and gets called a racist? In a script written by educated, racially aware people? The nut is that the black guys feel condescended to by that explanation. They go on to indulge in a mock dialogue nakedly exaggerating the deprivations they’ve suffered in almost minstrel fashion. What they mean is that Mike’s idea that they have so little ability to cope with the disadvantages they’ve suffered dehumanizes them, makes them cartoon characters, and stupid ones at that. The limitations of the sitcom form—especially 50 years ago—leave unanswered what their justification for their criminality is. However, what they certainly know—and what Norman Lear and his writers wanted us to know—is that black people are not poster children. Or at the very least, the idea was that no black person wants to be treated as one.”

“Things have changed. Today we are to recite faithfully and repetitively the kinds of things Little and Wilson’s characters found condescending, on the pain of being tarred as ignorant and insensitive.”

Starbucks and the Swimming Pool