A sharp pin with which to pop the bloviating balloon of self-important cultural mandarins.



Bracing, though occasionally loosely argued, charge that the much-lauded political promise of hip-hop is at best a sham, and at worst a dangerous placebo that distracts people from enacting constructive change.

From his ivory tower high atop the Manhattan Institute, McWhorter (Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America, 2005, etc.) has long been tossing Molotov cocktails into the country’s perennially fraught dialogue on race, mostly in the form of conservative challenges to what he sees as the stifling effect of conventional liberalism. Here, warding off the impression that he’s just another black scold trotted out by the right-wing white establishment, McWhorter makes it clear that, while no obsessed fan, he does actually listen to hip-hop, which gives his words the sting of an informed critic. The genre’s devotees offer him a wealth of easy targets, from academics convulsing in delight when an African-American musician so much as name-drops W.E.B. Du Bois (a form of condescension the author particularly scorns) to writers hurling bucketfuls of praise over Public Enemy and The Roots for their supposed political awareness. Although McWhorter is usually respectful even of pop-academic blowhards like Michael Eric Dyson, he occasionally lets loose on the ludicrous idea that any music, not just hip-hop, could create a new civil-rights movement by itself: “We are infected with an idea that snapping our necks to black men chanting cynical potshots about the Powers That Be in surly voices over a beat is a form of political engagement.” The contention that rappers are complaining about the wrong things enters into trickier territory, mostly because McWhorter doesn’t give as much attention to this end of the argument as he does to his main thesis. It’s easy to prove that socially conscious lyrics on a hip-hop album won’t do much for the problems of black people; it’s a bit more difficult to elucidate what will solve those problems.

A sharp pin with which to pop the bloviating balloon of self-important cultural mandarins.

Pub Date: June 19, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-592-40374-5

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Gotham Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2008

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.


“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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