“White supremacy” defines our society. Our nation’s founding was actually in 1619 with the coming of the first ship carrying African slaves. If you’re “white,” check your “privilege.” The sheer fact of disparate outcomes in schools is obvious proof of racism. To deny that you’re complicit in racism only proves that you are.
Such ideas are increasingly pervading classrooms and lecture halls and cultural institutions and workplaces. Fail to align with the “woke,” and you could find yourself hounded, intimidated, fired.
But what is it that the “woke” believe?
From irate parents at school board meetings, from picket signs, and from some conservative voices, you’ll hear that the “woke” seek to undermine American society, a campaign fueled by Critical Race Theory (CRT). Some politicians have moved to ban it from schools. Dismissing this backlash, some progressive voices insist that Critical Race Theory is just an obscure academic specialization with gossamer links to what’s taught in classrooms. What the “woke” seek, in fact, is a national reckoning about racism.
Into this maelstrom strides John McWhorter to offer a penetrating explanation. McWhorter, who teaches at Columbia University, is a heterodox public intellectual outspoken on race issues. Passionately and compellingly, he disagrees with the complacent notion that the “woke” phenomenon is a sensible push to combat racism. It does aim to reshape America politically, and it does relate to Critical Race Theory. But to understand its inquisitorial cruelty, its condemnatory impulse, and its powerful hold on the minds of so many, we need to see it in a different frame. In his incisive new book, Woke Racism, he argues that the “woke” phenomenon is a religion, which far from opposing racism actually reinforces it.
A New Religion
McWhorter christens followers of this new religion as the “Elect,” a term evoking not only zealotry but also a “certain smugness” for being “bearers of wisdom.” This religion, he points out, exhibits characteristics familiar in established faiths, and for the most part the points of similarities he draws are apt. There’s a supposed original sin: “white privilege.” There’s a strain of apocalyptic thinking: the present is a cesspool; progress on racial issues depends on something like a judgment day. There’s the expulsion of heretics, deemed to be not simply in error, but morally corrupt. Just as medieval Catholics defended “persecuting Jews and Muslims,” the inquisitors of our times “harbor the exact same brand of mission, just against different persons.”
The “woke” have no god figure, but McWhorter observes that not every religion needs one. Drawing attention to the mindset of followers, he observes a similarity to the Abrahamic religions: “One submits not only to a God. To suspend disbelief is a kind of submission.” Fervent adherents of the new “woke” religion hold beliefs grounded not in facts, but in defiance of them. They’re unmoved by counterevidence.
Take the claim that all instances of disparate outcomes, say, in education, are inherently evidence of racism. McWhorter shows that this is implausible, because it fails to appreciate the role of other causal factors. Among those factors is the pernicious idea that to be good at school is to betray one’s race. This idea, McWhorter plausibly suggests, likely originated at a time when black students faced racist teachers and a violent backlash from opponents of desegregation. But even as such bigotry has diminished markedly, the notion has become enmeshed in the minds of too many Americans, including black Americans.
Feelings Above Facts and Logic
The flouting of logic is a feature of the “woke” religion. McWhorter juxtaposes some of its conflicting injunctions (homilies?): “Black people cannot be held accountable for everything every black person does,” but at the same time: “All whites must acknowledge their personal complicitness in the perfidy of ‘whiteness’ throughout history.” We’re enjoined to “show interest in multiculturalism,” he notes, but at the same time: “Do not culturally appropriate. What is not your culture is not for you, and you may not try it or do it.” When blacks say you’ve insulted them, “apologize with profound sincerity and guilt,” but at the same time: “Don’t put black people in a position where you expect them to forgive you. They have dealt with too much to be expected to.”
By the adherents of this outlook, the fact that these tenets “cancel one another out is considered trivial.” But the fact that they serve “their true purpose of revealing people as bigots is paramount — sacrosanct, as it were.”
Fear and guilt are critical to understanding how the “woke” evangelize. They succeed, he believes, by moral intimidation and by terrifying people with the threat of being tagged racist: “We have become a nation of smart people attesting that they ‘get it’ while peeing themselves.”
Ironically, though, this epithet carries such a deadly sting today because of the immense progress that we’ve seen on racism, a fact that the “woke” deny. When bigotry and prejudice were far more prevalent and accepted than today, the accusation would have been nowhere near lethal socially let alone career-ending. The progress has been “so resplendent over the past fifty years that an old-school segregationist brought alive to walk through modern America even in the deepest South would find it hard not to turn to the side of the road and retch at what he saw.” For the “Elect,” “black lives matter, but seismic sociopolitical transformation in how black people are perceived does not.”
What Fuels the Elect
Where did this religion spring from, and what fuels its adherents? McWhorter traces its “rootstock” back to Critical Race Theory. While discussing this issue briefly, he illustrates CRT’s influence in the behavior of the “Elect,” for example, in the elevation of “narratives” above facts. What animates believers of this religion? McWhorter believes that it is not chiefly “money or power, but sheer purpose, in the basic sense of feeling like you matter and that your life has a meaningful agenda.”
But the “woke” vary in their level of commitment, McWhorter acknowledges, and this account may explain many of the conformist, crowd-following adherents. What about the more zealous, who feel an ongoing need to cast out heretics, and thus reaffirm their fidelity in the eyes of fellow parishioners? And what of the intellectual leaders? An objection here is that McWhorter is overly charitable toward the motivations of the “woke,” especially those who exhibit a vested interest in denying the reality of progress, and a lack of interest in workable solutions.
Such indifference outrages McWhorter. On this point, and elsewhere, his outrage flashes across the page. He inveighs against the “Elect” notion that if blacks are ever to see progress, racism must be comprehensively and totally eradicated. While fully aware of the persistence of racism, he rejects the view that “our main focus must ever be on smoking out remnants of racist bias,” which implies that “this bias is a conclusive obstacle to black success.” That’s an argument never made for any other group, and for blacks it implies that:
We, and only we, require a vast transformation in psychosocial and distributional procedure in what is, despite its flaws, a functioning democratic experiment in which open racism is prohibited to a degree unknown to human history before five decades ago, and to a degree that would have been considered science fiction as recently as three decades ago.
This idea paints black people as mentally and spiritually deficient children. . . .
McWhorter shows that despite presenting itself as undoing racism, this outlook harms blacks and distracts from real problems. The “woke” outlook turns a blind eye “to black kids getting jumped by other ones in school”; “to the folly in the idea of black ‘identity’ as all about what whites think rather than about what black people themselves think”; “to the lapses in black intellectuals’ work, because black people lack white privilege.”
McWhorter’s damning conclusion is that the “Elect” religion is racist, not only in its conception of black identity, but also in its condescension toward blacks.
This conclusion is well defended, but there are some contentious issues that McWhorter puts aside or only touches on. Notable among these is “white privilege,” which McWhorter believes has a reality in a certain sense, but he argues that what matters is our responses to it. The idea of “systemic racism” is another term that would be worth unpacking further, given its salience. Digging into these issues more would strengthen the book’s argument.
Leaving Balkanization Behind
The “woke” phenomenon, in McWhorter’s account, is a kind of atavistic force: it takes us “back to the balkanized and artificial racial categorizations we all thought we wanted to get past.”
Yet ask why we are no longer supposed to get past them and the Elect — wait for it — suspect you of white supremacy. All of the Enlightenment’s focus on individualism, all of modernism’s permission for people to be themselves rather than live bound to preset classifications, falls to pieces before this idea that to be anything but white requires obsession with the fact that you are not white, and diminished by their possibly not seeing you in your totality.
To make real progress on race issues means resisting the “woke” ideology. McWhorter bracingly defies conventional thinking on religion. “Religion,” he writes “has no place in the classroom, in the halls of ivy, in our codes of ethics, or in decreeing how all members of society are to express themselves, and almost all of us spontaneously understand that and see any misunderstanding of the premise as backward.”
When facing the “Elect,” McWhorter advises, refuse to be morally intimidated, stand up to them, stop treating them as normal.
The “woke” demand to “get rid of racism,” McWhorter argues, is a “ten-year-old’s version” of progress. Racism, he writes, is not just prejudice but also lingering attitudes and policies: “Something this protean, layered, and timeless must be ever restrained as much as possible, but it is impossible to simply get rid of. More to the point, doing so is not necessary.” What should be done? McWhorter proposes three policy reforms that he believes are high-leverage yet modest enough to be enacted: end the “war on drugs”; properly teach all students to read; and make vocational training easy to get, while undoing the idea that everyone must go to a four-year college. He explains how these could open pathways for individuals to lead productive, fulfilling lives, and even if one disagrees with him, it’s clear these recommendations evince a genuine concern for progress.
Unflinching in its analysis, the book offers an illuminating way to conceptualize the “woke” phenomenon engulfing us.
Originally published November 3, 2021 at New Ideal, journal of the Ayn Rand Institute.