The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At war with the woke: A fresh perspective makes the same tired arguments

Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter, here as a guest on “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” in 2018, calls woke culture a religion that aims to “rule by inflicting terror.” (Photo by Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images)

John McWhorter’s new book, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America,” is a standard-issue tirade against “cancel culture,” a Bill Maher routine without the jokes or a Tucker Carlson segment without the bow tie and smirk. The alleged twist here is that it’s a Black man saying it this time. Even that has been done better and less hamhandedly by the past few years of Dave Chappelle’s career.

Nevertheless, McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, believes that he’s uncommonly well-positioned to make these familiar arguments. “A version of this book written by a white writer would be blithely dismissed as racist,” he writes. He offers no evidence to support this claim, nor does he offer any argument that his Black experience brings anything insightful or additive to arguments White authors have made that he believes are dismissed. He just seems to believe that making culturally conservative arguments while Black is inherently thoughtful, or at least provocative.

It’s not.

McWhorter’s central thesis is that being woke — by which he seems to mean acknowledging the ongoing fact of bigotry, systemic racism and the resulting forms of oppression — is a religion. Not “like” a religion — McWhorter refuses to hedge this contention with simile. No, McWhorter argues that people who advocate for anti-racism policies, racial sensitivity training and (of course) “critical race theory” are all part of a religious movement with its own clergy. (Ibram X. Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates have all been ordained, apparently.) He argues that this religion’s “Elect” has taken over the country and “rule[s] by inflicting terror” on those who dare to speak against it. Along the way, he warns that it is “coming after your kids” with a breathlessness that makes him sound less like a thoughtful academic and more like a conspiracy theorist looking for hidden critical race messages in the menus at Chuck E. Cheese.

McWhorter never engages with any of the actual cultish movements that are threatening American democracy. He likewise never engages with actual religions, the ones who get tax breaks and Supreme Court justices, who hold the power to take away human rights from pregnant people and civil rights from the LGBTQ community. McWhorter managed in the course of about 200 pages to claim that the woke are perpetrating a “reign of terror” — a phrase he uses twice — but devoted only three paragraphs (I counted) to the actual insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol and tried to overthrow the government.

When he finally gets to those attacks, McWhorter brushes them away, writing, “As scary as those protesters were, which institutions are they taking over with their views?” He quickly answers his own question with “none.” It’s easy to respond with a list of institutions that have either been fully taken over by anti-Democratic Trumpist ideology, from local school boards to the electoral machinery of Wisconsin to the Republican Party itself, or institutions that are so riddled with white supremacists that they can no longer be trusted (like various local police departments). But note the word choice from the linguistics professor. The people who attacked the Capitol were “protesters” with “views.”

McWhorter downplays White domestic terror threats in favor of regular criticism of Coates (the imagined Salieri to his Mozart, it sometimes seems) and other anti-racist thinkers, but he believes that speaking against this so-called clergy will earn people like him the ad hominem label of “race traitor” by critics. He warns readers that some will say he’s “not black enough” to write his book.

It’s an odd pre-buttal, given that his work fits neatly within the long history of African American assimilationist thought. There’s a tradition in this country of Black people arguing that other Black people shouldn’t be so “sensitive” to encounters with white racism, and that all that Black people need to overcome 400 years of slavery and oppression in the New World is hard work, good grammar and pants reliably secured at the waist. If McWhorter wasn’t so eager to play the victim (as the anti-woke establishment so often does) he might have aligned himself with people like Booker T. Washington, Colin Powell or even Barack Obama, depending on the audience for one of his speeches. There are plenty of people who are “black enough” who also preach respectability politics and take a dim view of challenging systemic racism.

Of course, most of those thinkers avoid dismissing the entire Black American experience or infantilizing those who insist on its ongoing importance. McWhorter, by contrast, says that Black people have no pride.

Framing the civil rights era as a benevolent gift from Whites, he writes: “Segregation had been outlawed from on high, with black Americans not having had to endure the long, slow clawing our way into self-sufficiency regardless of prevailing attitudes that other groups had dealt with. . . . This had an ironic by-product: It meant that black people could not have a basic pride in having come the whole way.” Basic protections under the law are, he suggests here, a gift that Black people are insufficiently grateful for yet secretly hobbled by. In coming to this conclusion, he glosses over the literal hundred years Black people struggled to force this country to recognize their human rights. This is a fundamental misreading of American history and politics — and Black people’s contribution to both. If McWhorter’s readers dismiss him out of hand, it will be because of these sort of ahistorical arguments, not because of the color of his skin. They expose him not as a race traitor but as an unserious person, one either unwilling or incapable of contributing meaningfully to the discussion of race, politics and free speech in modern America.

McWhorter will probably get what he wants, assuming that what he wants is the opportunity to chat with aggrieved podcast hosts. This book will be a pleasing bedtime story to a certain kind of White person who is always looking for a magic Black person to tell them what they want to hear. His solution for White people to “fight” woke-ism is for White people to get used to being called “racist” and walk it off. He elevates being called a racist to a badge of honor, likening it to “Galileo being told not to make sense because the Bible doesn’t like it.” For once, the analogy is almost apt, if misdirected: McWhorter’s whole book is like being lectured by an astronomer who thinks you can study the stars with a kaleidoscope.

Woke Racism

How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America

John McWhorter

Portfolio.

224 pp. $28

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