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Woke Racism feature image - Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash
Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash

John McWhorter’s Polemic ‘Woke Racism’ Covers Controversial Issues with Snark Gnarled by Outrage

John McWhorter’s pushback against the antiracist orthodoxy of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi lands palpable hits but is too scattered to win the match.

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America
John McWhorter
Portfolio
October 2021

In Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, Columbia linguist and generally jovial culture wars jouster John McWhorter delivers the kind of jeremiad that has become all too common. Just as some bookshelves groan under the weight of treatises on social and racial justice, others are weighed down by screeds of the “nuh-uh” variety. The former tend to argue that systemic racism permeates aspects of American society and needs to be ripped up root and branch, even if the ways of doing so are fuzzily described. The latter insist that such a sustained focus on racism is at best performative nonsense and at worst pinko authoritarian toxicity corroding the ideal of a colorblind meritocratic America.

McWhorter’s book is technically closer to the latter category. However, it would be an insult to one of America’s most vital public intellectuals to lump him in with sweaty-browed reactionaries like radio personality Mark Levin or political commentator Ben Shapiro. Though McWhorter’s book does not fulfill the promise of its premise, it is at least an actual argument, not something sketched out on a napkin in the Fox News green room and passed off to a ghostwriter with a talent for trolling the libs.

As can be divined from the superbly SEO-optimized title, Woke Racism is designed to turn the tables on an ideology he believes is not just wrongheaded in intent but damaging and ultimately racist in its impact. McWhorter identifies this ideology as “Third Wave Antiracism”. This follows the legal battles of the First Wave (fighting slavery and legal segregation) and cultural skirmishes of the Second Wave (fighting racist attitudes that remained after the victories of the Civil Rights era).

The antiracism activism and theorizing McWhorter believes that Third Wave Antiracism started in the 2010s is less a continuation of a necessary struggle for human dignity than it is a campaign of dehumanization. He argues that this brand of antiracist thinking harms both whites (whose “eternal culpability”, in the eyes of antiracist ideologues, seems equivalent to original sin) and blacks (told that “grappling with the racism surrounding them is the totality of experience”).

Woke Racism has the feel of something written in a blaze of indignation between podcasts, which is both a strength and a weakness of the text. This may explain the nuggets of anti-woke outrage, mostly stories about writers and academics targeted by antiracist Twitter mobs, dispersed somewhat randomly throughout. Many of those stories certainly pass the absurdity test—very few Twitter pile-ons or abrupt firings following a social media defenestration look defensible in the light of day. But a scattering of anecdotes does not an argument make.

Most of Woke Racism is taken up by McWhorter’s excoriation of a class of people he calls “The Elect”, a term he credits to Catholic essayist Joseph Bottum, though occasionally he lapses into podcast-pundit-speak with terms like “hyper-wokesters”. According to McWhorter, members of the Elect are not just ideologues of Third Wave antiracism but self-appointed proselytizers of a belief system engaged in an “obsessive, self-involved, totalitarian, and utterly unnecessary kind of cultural reprogramming”. For him, this mob of educators, writers, academics, and Twitter bullies is not just like a religion, but actually is a new religion. That means the Elect come with all the contradictions, lapses of logic, pantheons of angels and devils, and love of hunting down heretics shared by religious fanatics.

Unlike many conservative commentators who rail against liberal snoots and scolds, McWhorter does not target his enemies in the Elect from a cultural angle as kale-smoothie elites. In fact, he identifies as a member of that class: “I read The New Yorker, I have two children, I saw Sideways.” These “card-carrying unintentional racists [who] can be of any color” are one of two groups at which he is aiming his book. The second audience is “black people who have innocently fallen under the misimpression that for us only … what makes us matter is a curated persona as eternally victimized souls.” McWhorter’s primary complaint is that the first audience is under the sway of an ideology that purports to lift up the second but which only distorts and damages.

This is a stinging argument and one that ultimately makes Woke Racism a worthwhile read. McWhorter is at his most convincing when making the case for a very simple yet crucial demand: The right of black people to be and to be seen as individuals. It’s something he believes that the Elect’s “theology” does not allow for.

Since he believes the Elect are a religion, McWhorter takes aim at their scripture, primarily Ron DiAngelo’s White Fragility (2018) and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist (2019). His critiques of the work of these “prophet-priests” are well-argued. He denounces DiAngelo’s circular logic that says all white people are racists and any denials just prove the point as “the logic of the sandbox”. Kendi’s book is dismissed as an insufferably simplistic pile of didactic this-is-racist-this-is-antiracist nonsense that argues past the problem rather than engaging with it.

Unfortunately, McWhorter makes both too little and too much of DiAngelo and Kendi. Given the crucial position he gives them, the lack of a more sustained examination of their flaws undermines his thesis. His speedy pace often whips the reader past points that could have used elucidation. Having set up the Elect as his all-purpose strawman, he will often describe the movement’s (to him) asinine beliefs in extremely general terms that could have benefited from sharpening.

At one point, McWhorter states without attribution beyond “one hears” that the Elect wave away any negative side effects to their program since revolutions are always “messy”. His response to that imaginary person is impeccable:

It is neither progress nor messy for black people to be taught that our main value is not as individuals, but in how articulately we play victim in order to help whites feel good about themselves in feeling guilty about it.

But like any argument, that line would have been strengthened by having a real person or persons on the receiving end. McWhorter’s framing of the Elect is so broad it feels like a convenient vessel into which he can toss all his critiques of the current racial justice debate. That kind of blunderbuss approach is inevitable in a polemic, which this book definitely is. But when an enemy like McWhorter’s Elect is described as so sinister, so devoid of logic, so all-encompassing, it skirts dangerously close to demonization. Lines like “they are coming for your children” verge on fearmongering, especially when “they” is defined so loosely.

McWhorter’s formulation insists on acceptance of the idea that DiAngelo and Kendi are accepted as holy writ. But the truth is more complicated. Neither lacks for antagonists, even among people McWhorter would include in the Elect. Numerous progressive writers have critiqued DiAngelo in particular as engaging in some of the same behavior she purports to fight. Jonathan Chait’s New York article, “Is the Anti-Racism Training Industry Just Peddling White Supremacy?” was published in July 2020, right around the time McWhorter was starting this book.

Kelefa Sanneh’s probing New Yorker examination, “The Fight to Redefine Racism” (August 2019), lacerated DiAngelo’s insultingly simplistic characterizations (“white people seem like flawed, complicated characters; by comparison, people of color seem good, wise, and perhaps rather simple”) and cast a slightly more generous but still critical look at Kendi. To be certain, a few articles does not negate the presence of DiAngelo and Kendi. The length of their books’ tenure on bestseller lists and curricula speaks to how widely their ideas have been disseminated. Still, if this is a religion, it clearly has its apostates.

A fast-paced read, Woke Racism covers these controversial issues with a dashing sense of snark occasionally gnarled by outrage. As he showed in Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter—a fantastically funny and etymologically enlightening book on dirty language that preceded this book by only a few months—McWhorter writes with a consistently graceful and light touch.

That lightness and speed, though, may also be why some parts of Woke Racism feel dashed-off. In his haste to push back on a specific set of post-2020 liberal pieties, McWhorter makes overblown statements. Eager to tear down Ta-Nehisi Coates, he argues unconvincingly that his essay published in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations” (June 2014), did not deserve its acclaim by the Elect simply because another book, Randall Robinson’s The Debt (2001) had examined the same subject 13 years before.

Preemptively dismissing an argument he believes the Elect will make—that his complaints about antiracist fanaticism, even if true, pale in comparison to problems like violent right-wing authoritarianism—he blithely claims the 6 January 2020 assault on the US Capitol was a trivial one-time issue. McWhorter might believe this. But the Republicans currently fighting to take over state election processes and the militias planning for civil war would disagree quite vehemently. Wishing away an inconvenient problem to win a debate with an imagined critic in the way McWhorter does here is arguing in the same bad-faith manner that he (correctly) criticizes when done by those who believe no racial progress has occurred in America since the end of Jim Crow.

Nevertheless, despite his hurried argumentation and exaggerations, McWhorter’s book is above all else a resounding affirmation of humanity. Readers will tangle with aspects of his thesis or characterize it as overblown. But it is hard to imagine reading McWhorter’s impassioned insistence on individuality over balkanization, the right for a person to have an identity not exclusively limited to race, and not nodding along with vigor.

Woke Racism stumbles quite often in its scramble and anger. But when it shines, it does so brilliantly.

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