Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Carol Swain’s Ascent Against the Odds

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July 29, 2002

c.2002 Newhouse News Service

ROANOKE, Va. _ Carol Swain stands alone in the tumbledown ruins of the tin-roofed shanty where she grew up, the second of 12 children, amid the country woods of southwestern Virginia. One moment she appears the acclaimed academic surveying the humble beginnings that burnish her remarkable biography. The next, she looks a little girl lost in remembering, haunted by the humiliation, still abashed by the odds against her.

No running water. No outhouse. Just the woods. “I remember putting detergent under my arms for deodorant; my arms would be raw.” An A student, she failed two years for missing so much school. She dropped out early in the ninth grade.

In her imagination, she was not a poor black girl in a troubled family. She created an alter ego _ a rich white boy named David. “What am I doing here?” she would ask herself. “Who are these people?” She went to court demanding foster care. She was placed, unhappily, with her grandmother, living in a trailer. Barely 16, she married an older neighbor and in quick succession had three children.

At 21, Carol Swain was divorcing, depressed, on welfare.

But by 40, with a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, she was tenured at Princeton University. Her inaugural book _ “Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress” _ kicked predictable thinking in the shins and ran off with the big prizes in her field, politics. (In the book, Swain expresses optimism about the possibilities of whites voting for black candidates and white representatives working in the interests of black constituents.)

Swain’s was an ascent without obvious peer in the annals of the modern American academy, where she remains sui generis, one of a kind.

“She has such an unusual saga, and such an impressive one; she would make a wonderful novel,” says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar and friend and mentor at Princeton.

“If it were a movie, you would say it goes beyond the bounds of credulity _ it’s too much,” says Alan Wheat, the former black congressman from Missouri whose representation of a mostly white district was a case study in Swain’s book.

Now 48 and a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Swain has written another book, “The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration.”

Her thesis is that a smarter, more sophisticated white nationalist movement has emerged, one that skillfully plays off the rise of multiculturalism and identity politics to foment a parallel white consciousness and racial solidarity. Her fear is that, given America’s declining white majority, white resentment of perceived racial double standards, and the taboos strangling open debate, these nationalists could gain broader appeal.

From her first book to this one, Swain says, “I have gone from Pollyanna to Cassandra.”

Swain’s target audience is liberals. She believes they back policies, wrong on the merits, that alienate some mainstream whites, making them ripe for white nationalist recruitment.

Her new 526-page tome concludes with a call for ending racial preferences and reducing immigration. She advises black leaders to shut up about reparations (the likely subject of her next book), to stop wasting time on symbols like the Confederate flag and to start worrying about what matters _ reducing black crime, illegitimacy and AIDS rates.

“This is a strange book,” says Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist whose own volume on white nationalism comes out next year. “When you read it, it almost sounds as if she’s one of them.”

Jared Taylor, editor of “American Renaissance” _ which Swain calls “the leading intellectual journal of contemporary white nationalism” _ harbors no such illusions. But he was stunned by what he considers the fairness of her work.

“I think it’s a very important turning point in terms of the way academics treat the racial nationalist movement,” Taylor says. “I hope she gets a lot of attention. I hope she has a hard enough shell to take the kind of beating she’s likely to get.”

“She’s courageous,” says John Skrentny, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of “The Ironies of Affirmative Action.” “She is bizarrely immune from the constraining pressure of social expectations that limit so many of us.”

“She’s an original thinker,” says David Hillman, who directs the library at Virginia Western Community College, where Swain worked her way through school. Hillman did the index for the new book, which he says has something to infuriate almost everybody.

“Part of Carol’s character is to swim upstream,” says C. William Hill Jr., who taught her politics at Roanoke College, where Swain got her bachelor’s degree, orchestrated a minority scholarship fund while still a student, and today serves as a trustee.

“I’ve always looked at things differently,” Swain says, driving the 20 miles from where she was born, in the Bedford County hamlet of Chamblissburg, to the Franklin County birthplace of Booker T. Washington. “One of the things I remember about being in grade school is an essay I wrote about Prometheus _ you know, the guy who stole the sacred fire and his punishment was that he was tied to a rock and every evening a giant eagle would come and tear out his liver. I took the position he got off easy.”

After seeing Swain’s birthplace, Washington’s slave cabin doesn’t seem so stark.

“I understand where he was coming from,” Swain says. “He was the leader of my people, of my part of the black population, where (W.E.B.) Dubois was the leader of the black bourgeoisie of his day.”

To Greenstein, Swain is proof of the possibilities of America. But that she is so rare among people of her background and upbringing says as much about the grim probabilities.

The concluding chapter of “The New White Nationalism in America” is studded with family anecdotes.

“Whenever I wish to know how the welfare system is treating people, I ask my older sister Maxine (Miller), whose IQ scores placed her in the genius category and made her the talk of the predominately black school that we attended for the first five years of grade school,” Swain writes, detailing her sister’s travails across two decades on and off of welfare.

She writes about buying a car for her niece, who was paying $12 in taxi fares to get to her $6-an-hour job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. She writes about a brother with seven illegitimate children who, after paying child support, is left with $25 in weekly take-home pay.

Swain does what she can. She bought the house where her next-youngest sister, Sharon Payne, lives. She paid to bury a sister and brother, both lost to alcohol.

She returns to Roanoke this time for the high school graduation of Sharon’s daughter, Tonya, who is living in a Baptist mission home. She has taken Tonya on vacation, taken her shopping. She takes her to dinner at the elegant Hotel Roanoke, where they serve lemon sherbet between courses to cleanse the palate.

Her own two sons have left Roanoke. Benjamin, 31, lives with her in Nashville and works as a custodian at Vanderbilt. Reginald, 28, who lives in Princeton, is the CEO of an Internet advertising firm in New York City. (Swain’s childless second marriage ended in divorce.)

Swain’s father, who died a few years ago, was gone from the home before she can remember. She got to know him later.

And Swain is still puzzling out her relationship with her mother, Dorothy Henderson, called Mama Dot.

To her embarrassment, Swain is unsure where her mother and Maxine, who have just moved, are living. But no sooner does she arrive in town than she runs into a brother who leads her to them.

Bathed in afternoon light, Mama Dot sits on her bed and draws. Swain tries her own hand. “That’s good,” her mother says. “I like that.” She is a slight woman, pretty, with a sardonic glint in her eye.

The sisters trade conflicting memories of who did what to whom growing up. They warm to thoughts of the little patch of peace out in the woods where water bubbled over the rocks. They called it “the paradise.”

“It’s probably just a mud hole,” Swain says.

The family, or these bits of it _ Carol, Maxine, Mama Dot and Tonya _ pose for photos on the front porch. Maxine starts to laugh. “I feel like I’m in `The Color Purple,’ I really do.”

In 1975, Swain, then 21 with two young sons, lost her baby daughter, Tracy, a crib death. “She was a child that cried almost constantly, but one morning she didn’t cry. That was the morning that when I found her, rigor mortis had already set in.”

That year Swain overdosed on pills. Her doctor sat her down. “He told me that I was attractive and intelligent and I needed to reorganize my life and get a divorce,” Swain says.

She did, got her GED, got a job. Working at a nursing home, an orderly told her she was smarter than a lot of people in college. She began her climb.

When Swain arrived at the University of North Carolina there were a handful of black graduate students. They warned her away from certain white male professors. She signed up for their courses, made mentors of them and broke the ice for other black students.

One of her fellow black graduate students, Paula Hall, admires her ambition and pluck, her instincts and intellect. Hall, who works on issues of educational equity in North Carolina, thinks black people need to hear what Swain has to say. She just sometimes wishes white folks weren’t also listening in.

Swain’s dissertation, which led to her first book, challenged the prevailing wisdom in the black political world that their community’s interests were best served by creating as many black-majority electoral districts as possible.

“The book was panned by literally every black political scientist,” recalls San Francisco State political scientist Robert Smith, who wrote a scathing review for the journal of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. “Nevertheless, it got the accolades of the establishment.”

“I don’t envy her,” Smith says. “It’s psychologically problematic for any member of any ethnic group to put himself outside the mainstream thinking of his community.”

When the new book came out, Swain was the only black professor of politics at Princeton. She achieved her goal, tenure by 40.

And then she lost confidence. Accused by black peers of being a sellout, Swain _ always a Democrat _ was getting fan mail from white conservatives.

“It occurred to me that maybe I was wrong, and if I was wrong I was doing real damage to African-Americans,” she says. “When I looked at where I came from and what I had accomplished, I decided that I didn’t accomplish that. I felt like no one from my background could have done those things and I didn’t do it either, that it was all affirmative action.”

By 1997 she was in and out of the hospital, for surgeries, for depression. “In the hospital, my life played in front of me. I always heard that when your life played in front of you, you were dying.”

She took a leave from Princeton to do research at the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford University _ and almost immediately began to regain her health, her voice and her ambition. She spent a year at Yale University Law School getting a master’s degree in law.

There, more than gaining another degree, Swain found herself spiritually. Born into the Methodist church, she had been a Jehovah’s Witness in her young adulthood, then deeply New Age in her rise through academia. But in New Haven, Conn., she was drawn to a tiny Pentecostal church operating in a poor black neighborhood, even though she had always thought Pentecostals too noisy in their worship. On Feb. 28, 2000, she was baptized there, and on March 7, her birthday, she was born again in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues.

Her newfound religious fervor is evident in her book and infuses her life. She is convinced that it is “the belief in a common creator and common brotherhood of man descended from Adam that sets America apart.” She believes a renewal of that faith is the best hope to spare America the woe she fears it faces.

She knows that talking like this will only give some detractors another reason to write her off. But, she says, “I feel like I’m on a mission,”

“The world needs to hear from me again,” Swain says, driving away from the ruins of her childhood. “I have something to say.”


Written by jonathantilove

June 24, 2012 at 9:06 pm

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