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Woke Racism

John McWhorter

Portfolio, 2021

Review by Tomiwa Owolade


John McWhorter is a black American intellectual frustrated by contemporary anti-racism. It is no longer a political movement, he writes in his new book Woke Racism. It is now a religion: it is illogical, dogmatic, and attacks anyone who dissents from its doctrines. 

McWhorter himself has been a dissident black intellectual for a while now. His first book on race, Losing the Race, which came out more than twenty years ago, was a critique of anti-educational trends within parts of the black American community. McWhorter inhabits the same intellectual space as Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele and Glenn Loury (who shares a podcast show with McWhorter); these men offer erudite rebuttals to the view that all the problems facing black people in America can be explained by racism.

But, following the wave of protests that swept through America after the murder of George Floyd, McWhorter felt emboldened to offer another written intervention on this issue. Woke is a much abused term. Originally, it meant a heightened awareness of social injustice. But the Woke in McWhorter’s title refers to those who think racism, misogyny, and other forms of oppression are deeply etched into society; and the only way to remedy this is through radical change. McWhorter, by contrast, is a liberal. And in his book, he uses another term for the supporters of this new religion: the Elect. Woke Racism is not intended for them, he suggests. Instead, his book is for other liberals: those who read the New York Times and have innocently fallen for this new religion, and for the black people who’ve been seduced by the notion that ‘what makes us interesting, what makes us matter, is a curated persona as eternally victimized souls’. 

According to McWhorter, this new religion constitutes the Third Wave of Antiracism. ‘First Wave Antiracism’, he writes, ‘battled slavery and legalized segregation’, whilst the ‘Second Wave Antiracism, in the 1970s and ‘80s, battled racist attitudes and taught America that being a racist is a moral flaw’. But this new wave of Antiracism, which became mainstream in the 2010s, views racism as fundamentally baked into American society. The main apostles for it are the writers Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, and Ibram X. Kendi, best known for his book, How to Be an Antiracist.

The invocation of religion isn’t metaphorical. It is not an analogy. McWhorter is not arguing that this new form of Antiracism is similar to a religion; he is saying it is a religion. This raises two questions: is it really a religion? And if it is, then so what? Any meaningful engagement with the book needs to grapple with these questions because McWhorter rests his critique so heavily on them. 

On the point of whether ‘Third Wave Antiracism’ is a religion or not, McWhorter constantly homogenises religion to such an extent it becomes a  caricature worthy of teenage New Atheists rather than a professor at Columbia University. In one part of the book, he argues that ‘an anthropologist would see no difference in type between Pentecostalism and this new form of Antiracism’. But Pentecostalism is a particular type of religion — it is very different from Sufism or Quakerism or Bahaism. 

Throughout this book, whenever McWhorter, who is an atheist, refers to this new form of Antiracism, his frame of reference is always fundamentalist Christianity. He writes that dialogue with the Elect is futile. Out of one hundred fundamentalist Christians, he asks, ‘how many do you suppose could be convinced via arguments to become atheists?’.

This is related to the second point: the fact this new form of Antiracism is a religion means it is a bad thing. McWhorter doesn’t put it as plainly as that, but that’s the unavoidable conclusion from reading the book. The Elect is a deviation from progress: ‘A new religion in the guise of world progress is not an advance; it’s a detour’. Throughout the book, religion — again Christianity in particular — is sneered at: ‘White Fragility’, he writes,is a primer on original sin, no more baffling than the New Testament’. 

This hostility would have been more digestible if he didn’t have such a crude understanding of religion: ‘the Elect’s take on race is founded on a religious requirement to decry racism rather than on seeking and measuring the results of efforts to make black people’s lives better’. A religious requirement rather than practical activism? The suggestion is that religion is impractical, irrational, antithetical to politics. Ironically, the form of religion that comes under particular attack in this book, American evangelical Christianity, is an especially politicised form of Christianity that agitates to get what it considers good enshrined in law and what it considers evil banned. Religions can also be political movements. 

This absurd dichotomy is starkly revealed in his assertion: ‘Drifting from a commitment to changing society toward a narrower commitment to signaling antipathy to racism and leaving it there, antiracism’s progress from its First to its Third Waves has taken it from the concrete political activism of Martin Luther King to the faith-based commitments of a Martin Luther’. Any writer who thinks Martin Luther King wasn’t also animated by ‘faith-based commitments’, or Martin Luther never engaged in ‘political activism’, disqualifies himself from being taken seriously on religion. 

McWhorter is an intelligent and charismatic thinker, and I share many of his views on mainstream Antiracism. It homogenises the experiences of black people. It is unsophisticated in its analysis of racism. It is patronising. And many of its supporters demonise those who, with good intentions, point out its shortcomings. The problem is McWhorter’s book has some of these faults too. 

For someone who describes himself as a rationalist, his refusal to critically engage with this new form of Antiracism is striking: ‘A cohesive and forward-looking society’, he writes, ‘must treat this kind of thought like a virus, a regrettable though perhaps inevitable result of modern social history, which nevertheless must be ongoingly corralled’. He adds, to further ram his point home, that ‘we should hope for its eventual disappearance, but if this is impossible — and it likely is — it must be kept on the margins of our existence, just as smallpox is’.  

Elsewhere,  he writes that religions don’t need a god, but they do need a ‘devil’. McWhorter’s ‘devil’ is contemporary Antiracism. Maybe this supercilious and insular book is an expression of a new religion? We could call it McWhorterism.