Opinion | Let’s Talk About ‘Sellouts’

When I published my first book about race, in 2000, one of the oddest things I encountered was that many people thought — and I mean, actually supposed — that the reason I was airing my “contrarian” views about race was to make money.

I actually asked one newscaster directly just what she meant by that. Apparently the idea was that I was writing in order to attract cushy speaking fees from conservative whites. In other words, I was a sellout, or in older parlance, an Uncle Tom. The sellout makes money, or attains status, by catering to white sensibilities — in this case, teaching whites that there is something wrong with Black people rather than teaching them about racism. This allegation is leveled with the strong implication that the sellout should be silent or ignored.

That description falls so far from anything I have ever been that I have to work to remember that some people think it applies to me, and I’m not alone. There is a list of Black thinkers regularly dismissed as sellouts. All of us, evidently, are cynical operators peddling pitiless nonsense to make a buck.

The problem is that this sellout figure is a cartoon.

This sellout persona recalls, of course, Judas, and an august Black historian once even called the types of people on the aforementioned list Judases. But note how implausible the sellout figure seems beyond the pages of the Bible.

Key to the idea of the sellout is insincerity: He knows that what he is saying is untrue, but ranks making bucks higher than honesty or fairness. After all, presumably we wouldn’t expect the sincere conservative Black thinker to just shut up in view of some unquestionable larger truth. So many Black people are given to reviling the idea that all Black people think alike, after all.

I will never forget meeting a young Black filmmaker 25 years ago planning a movie about the archetypal sellout: A Black man puts on a suit and makes conservative speeches for Republicans and then goes home and puts on his hoodie and big sneakers, turning out to be a “down with it” homie who makes savory speeches about how power is all about white people and “I’m gonna get mine!” This filmmaker was serious and educated. He even wore sweater vests! (As far as I know, the film never got made.)

Now, we can’t say that no Black sellout has ever existed. Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor, has chronicled some grisly examples of Black men who took white people’s side out of convenience. At the turn of the century, a Black Union veteran, William Hannibal Thomas, wrote a whole book arguing that Black people were “an intrinsically inferior type of humanity,” and various Black men informed on the civil rights movement (and the Black Panthers) for the F.B.I. However, even these men could be seen as straining the traditional idea of the sellout, in that while they were certainly harming their fellow Black people, there is no reason to think they thought of themselves as doing something wrong but thought getting paid was more important.

However, when it comes to the thinkers of our times commonly called sellouts — such as Shelby Steele, Clarence Thomas and Thomas Sowell — there is nothing in what they say, write or do that suggests the outright traitorousness of these bygone figures. I have met perhaps all of them but one, many of them more than once, and I can confidently say that not one of them remotely fits the sellout description, nor have I elsewhere ever met such a person. If any of these people don’t truly believe in what they propound about race and are more interested in raking in speaking fees and book advances than in what will benefit Black America, they are all truly gifted actors.

Now, to be sure, some of these people might find themselves challenged if required to submit their views to sustained and informed debate from the left. But for reasons that could, and may, fill another article, they are not subject to that kind of interrogation. And just because they largely air their views en famille doesn’t mean they don’t believe them — the line from this to them being Judases rubbing their hands together is a zigzag.

Truly, to think this kind of sellout is as common as many seem to think strains realistic conceptions of what real people are like. Just as subscribing to Trutherism regarding Sept. 11 requires that an entire presidential administration was in on a huge conspiracy and successfully concealed it, we must remember that these sellout people must exist in some social context: They are often married, they have children and friends. But what kind of spouses are people like this finding? Who would be friends with them? What would their children think of them as they got older? Are all of these people in on the con? Isn’t it more likely that sincere belief unites them?

And remember, the idea is that there are lots of people like this, not just the occasional solitary quisling like William Hannibal Thomas. And these days we’re talking about a community of supposed sellouts, being on panels and TV shows together, attending the same conferences, even hanging out — all united in devoting careers to writing and saying things they don’t really mean. Really? I suppose there just may be a realm of happy couples and their friends clinking glasses, with the prominent Black writer among them raising a glass to toast “getting mine” as all look on warmly. But actually, no — I don’t suppose this, and neither, I suspect, do most people.

And yet the stereotype — as if Black people don’t labor under enough of them already — lives on. For example, Robin DiAngelo, author of the book “Black Fragility” — oh, I meant “White Fragility” — thinks Black thinkers who don’t like her book are sellouts, for example. “Why can’t Black people think for themselves?” many think, watching the sellout charge lobbed like this. But this misses the nature of the beef here. No one is so obtuse as to think Black people aren’t allowed to think for themselves — per se, at least. Rather, the assumption is that when they think for themselves, all Black people will come to the same conclusions out of the exigencies of sheer reality.

Why? Because racism. The idea is that racism is so oppressive that a Black person who “decenters” the decrying of it could have only ulterior motives. That’s not crazy — but it’s also wrong.

For one, this take on conservative Black thought — i.e. that no sane Black thinker could be conservative — is naïve. Many Black thinkers are quite aware of racism and how it works and yet question the efficacy of focusing racial uplift efforts on changing white minds. Many know of Booker T. Washington, but there are many others — one must address Thomas Sowell, for one. Or George Schuyler, for two. I’ll stop there for now.

Second, one can know about racism and its effects but disagree with the orthodoxy on what one does in response to it. For example, the current consensus prescription for social racism is to ask a nation of people to look inward and examine themselves for even subtle kinds of racist bias. But this is a revolutionary approach to social change as human history goes. And it is true that a form of it worked once, after the 1960s when America learned to revile racism in a basic sense in a way that would have looked like science fiction just 20 years before. But today we are asking America to look much, much deeper — and some of us question how realistic or even necessary that is.

Note that the left more asserts than explains its insistence that America must indeed do this. We “contrarians” seek a real debate about it, in the vein of John Stuart Mill seeking for assumptions to be often relitigated in the public arena to assure of their solid groundings, especially with the passage of time. On the left, the philosopher Richard Rorty noted that society changes not just with laws but with changes in general sentiment, or “vocabulary,” as he called it. Maybe we should seek white America to even further change its vocabulary? Maybe not? And on racism, when systemic, again, reasonable opinions will differ on how one undoes these kinds of discrepancies — just “Get rid of the systemic racism” is like saying “Make love less potentially painful.” These things are complicated. Let’s talk about them.

Or just dismiss those with this request as sellouts — and succumb to weak reasoning. It’s symptomatic of a general meme that teaches us that while physics, economics, electronics, art, Russian and social history are complicated, race issues are elementary. You know: notions such as that there is antiracism or racism and nothing in between? There is a short step from that type of reasoning to the idea that to disagree with the leftist consensus on race is simply to be a melodrama’s villain, delighting in the checks whites cut him for saying “there’s no racism” — when no heterodox Black writer has claimed this — and Black people are no good.

It’s especially weird to see people making this charge who make their living by reasoning closely (I’ve seen it lobbed not only by that eminent historian but also an esteemed sociologist who I shall also keep nameless). However, we humans are social, tribal. We seek the warmth of crowds, we want to belong. Cordoning off certain people as sellouts is a kind of circling of the wagons. I can take a deep breath and understand how it could feel right, or at least good.

But feeling remains all that it is. It is not thinking, despite the fact that the sellout charge is often leveled under an impression of having artfully smoked out a hidden truth. The actual Black sellout is a rare, peculiar, compromised individual, usually encountered in the past alongside people “passing” as white, in an America where racism was so implacable that it led some Black people to nasty choices hard for us to make peace with today. The idea that legions of earnest pundits and thinkers on race in 2021 are a coven of sellouts is a cartoon, distracting us from grappling with complex matters of societal procedure and responsibility.

To dismiss Black thinkers who don’t toe a certain party line as sellouts is to grant yourself a vacation from thinking terribly hard. It’s a bad look.

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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism,” forthcoming in October.

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