Reflections on White Anti-Intellectualism
(Or, What'cha Want With all That Book Learnin'?)
By Tim Wise
September 14, 2008
To hear an awful lot of white folks tell it, the problem with black people is that they just don't want to work hard enough in school. They act up and refuse to study or get good grades, because they don't want to be put down for "acting white." In other words, the African American community is beset by a culture of anti-intellectualism, contrasted, one supposes with our own white culture of studiousness and academic achievement.
When making this argument, and knowing that it might sound a bit disparaging, even racist, we white folks love to refer to the high-profile black folks who agree with us. So we point to Bill Cosby, for instance, who said this same thing a few years ago and hasn't stopped saying it yet. The fact that a dozen or so studies have found that there actually is no unique peer pressure or ostracism that black kids experience for doing well in school (over and above that which all kids who are viewed as brainy often face) fails to move them. The fact that longitudinal data actually shows that black students are the most likely to believe in the importance of getting a good education, the least likely to cheat and the least likely to skip class appears to matter not.
But what I have always found interesting about the anti-intellectualism charge coming from whites and pointed at persons in the black community, is how readily it emanates from a group of people (white adults) who seem to actually revel in anti-intellectualism, as evidenced by our voting behavior and political sensibilities, made especially clear during the current political campaign.
What else but a deep contempt for education (or book learnin' as we sometimes jokingly refer to it in the South) could explain why Barack Obama's Harvard Law School education can be mocked as elitist and out of touch, while John McCain's bottom-feeder academic record and Sarah Palin's four colleges in six years and degree from the University of Idaho, makes them ready to lead, and more like "normal people?" (And please, don't tell me how it isn't his education that poses the problem, but rather his comments about rural folks clinging to God and guns when times are tight, since a week after he made that comment, Dick Cheney implied that West Virginians were all a bunch of inbreds, and rural whites didn't seem to care, since at least he isn't an uppity black guy).
What else but a deep contempt for education could render Obama's time as a law professor, teaching constitutional law at one of the nation's finest law schools, all but irrelevant in the eyes of millions? To hear a lot of people tell it, his time in the classroom doesn't count, and doesn't indicate anything about his fitness to be president (even though, ya know, being an expert on the Constitution is intuitively a good thing for the president to be, or one would think), but having been a prisoner of war, or a hunter and hockey mom, and "just like the neighbor next door," makes you fit for the nation's highest offices.
What else but a deep contempt for education could explain the free pass given to George W. Bush for bragging at a Yale commencement a few years ago that he had been a C student, but that was OK, because even with a mediocre academic record you could go on to be president? If a black person told students that, they'd be viewed as downgrading achievement, but not Bush. Is it the accent? Is that all it takes to make people think you're one of them? A bubba drawl and the spinning of downhome homilies? Or the fact that you like to shoot guns? If this is the love for learning, and the intelligence that white folks seem to think blacks inadequately value, can I suggest that perhaps such intelligence isn't all it's cracked up to be?
What else but a deep-seated anti-intellectual streak could explain why so many white voters in 2000 and 2004 regularly mentioned how they preferred Bush because he was the "kind of guy you feel you could have a beer with" (as if that had anything to do with being the leader of the so-called free world), and how they disdained the intellectual certitude of Gore and Kerry, whose command of policy details made them feel like they were being talked down to?
What else but a commitment to the long-term abdication of critical thinking could explain why millions of whites take so quickly to Rush Limbaugh: a guy whose motto for years was that he would "tell you what to think" and whose fans call themselves "ditto" heads (as in, "same as above," which is nearly the perfect metaphor for people who follow someone else like sheep).
In fact, the white love of anti-intellectualism in politics goes back quite a ways further than that. So when Ronald Reagan decided to skip out on a policy briefing during an important overseas trip, all so he could watch The Sound of Music on television, or when he regularly failed to know the names of foreign leaders, most white folks still loved him and considered him a great leader. Perhaps it was because he had a ranch, liked to wear cowboy hats, and had that folksy aw-shucks grin?
As a white person, and as one with plenty of antiracist and critical-thinking white friends, I realize that not all whites fall into this anti-intellectual trap. Perhaps most don't. But it appears that enough do to make a difference in elections. And surely, the embrace of anti-intellectualism is at least as severe in the white community as it is in the black community, where we constantly hear talk of it, coming from the very white folks who then turn around and tell us that the Earth was created only 5000 years ago, and that despite having no scientific training, they are sure that global warming is a myth, but that Obama really is a Muslim, or maybe the anti-Christ (as once-upon-a-time celebrity, Victoria Jackson claims on her website).
In short, when it comes to "acting white," if the term means paying no attention to policy details, but rather voting for the person who you'd most like to hang out with at a sports bar, then perhaps we need not only black and brown folks to forswear such lunacy, but for those of us who are white to turn on whiteness too. To not do so would be to confirm that whiteness is inversely related to mental acumen. I for one, would like to think we were capable of better. But as for evidence to support my hope? Well, I'm still waiting for that.