McWhorter is nothing if not an independent thinker. Progressives will be tempted to ignore his newest book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, not least for its intentionally provocative title and slapdash style of argument. But the attention the book is receiving in venues like
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McWhorter is nothing if not an independent thinker. Progressives will be tempted to ignore his newest book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, not least for its intentionally provocative title and slapdash style of argument. But the attention the book is receiving in venues like NPR and The New York Times (where McWhorter writes opinion pieces) suggests a growing uneasiness with the prevailing state of discourse on race and structural racism in left-leaning circles.
Specifically, heeding McWhorter’s call for an approach to those topics that moves beyond judgment and condemnation, one that makes room for grace and forgiveness, could do much to lower the temperature and allow for more productive conversations about where we go from here. Unfortunately, the book itself does little to model the kind of intellectually charitable engagement that our society urgently needs.
‘Woke Racism’ reads like an extended Twitter rant.
Woke Racism begins by identifying a group of people McWhorter calls the “Elect,” whom he identifies as people with a zealous, quasi-religious (or, in his view, simply religious) commitment to a set of beliefs about the nature of racism and the role of race in American life. McWhorter is especially critical of the Elect’s commitment to the notion that unequal outcomes for Black and Brown people are the result of unequal opportunity. But McWhorter broadly condemns the Elect for being impervious to constructive engagement and intent on ruining the lives of those with whom they disagree.
In place of “Electism,” McWhorter proposes a limited program of action to combat racial inequity that involves ending the war on drugs, teaching reading using phonics, and expanding access to vocational education rather than pushing everyone to attend a four-year college.
McWhorter says that he wrote this book for those (like him) who are liberal but disenchanted with (or scared of) the Elect. If that’s indeed the case, he badly misses the mark.
The title of his book — which uses the polarizing label “woke” and then accuses his opponents of being racist — seems designed to stop conversations, not start them. The book itself reads like a Fox News diatribe. His exegesis of his opponents is short on specifics and strangely personal (as when he calls attention to Ibram X. Kendi’s dreadlocks). Rather than striking the measured, analytic tone one would expect from an intellectual of McWhorter’s renown, Woke Racism reads like an extended Twitter rant. Virtually all of McWhorter’s critiques involve contestable empirical claims, and yet the book is extremely thin on the relevant social science. This is a recipe for selling a lot of books — not for elevating our discourse or changing minds.
For one thing, McWhorter never entertains the possibility of a diversity of opinion among the Elect. “To be Elect,” McWhorter writes, “is to insist that unequal outcomes mean unequal opportunity, which is false.” Although the descriptive part of this claim is suggestive of Kendi’s scholarship, the assertion is made without quotation or citation. Do all members of the Elect agree? The reader has to take McWhorter’s word for it, because he does not engage in a sustained way with any specific thinkers or texts. The phenomenon he calls Electism is a hollow composite, a collage of anecdotes and quotations strategically extracted from a range of sources and contexts.
McWhorter’s conclusion about the connection between inequality and opportunity (that the insisted linkage simply “is false”) is casually asserted without explanation or discussion, except to offer the admonition that “the insistence on this mantra makes us dumb.” When McWhorter does make specific arguments, these skim along just as superficially. He describes a 1987 “experiment” in which a rich donor “adopted” 112 Black children in Philadelphia, guaranteeing them a fully funded education as long as they “did not do drugs, have children before getting married, or commit crimes.” McWhorter points to the poor results for many of these children as evidence that outcomes do not equate with opportunity. If they did, he suggests, wouldn’t this infusion of resources have solved their problems? McWhorter does not mention that George Weiss, the philanthropist who “adopted” the children in Philadelphia, managed (with the help of his intervention) to double the high-school graduation rate considered normal for their demographic.
McWhorter’s dismissal of the connection between outcomes and opportunity rests on an unnecessarily pinched definition of the latter. Writing about Weiss’s Philadelphia experiment, he concludes that, “what held those poor kids back was that they had been raised amid a different sense of what is normal than white kids in the burbs. That is, yes, another way of saying ‘culture.’… ”
But are culture and structural racism mutually exclusive causal explanations? Is some of what McWhorter describes as “culture” simply a manifestation of the challenges of living in geographic communities characterized by extreme poverty, racial segregation, and a radical lack of economic opportunity? And is it possible to call the persistence of such economically disadvantaged communities a form of “structural racism,” as the conservative columnist David French did last year? After all, such communities are shaped by policies in land use and local government finance that reinforce the consequences of historically racist practices, such as redlining, racially restrictive covenants, and exclusionary zoning.
Antiracists like Ibram X. Kendi would certainly benefit from such rigorous empirical investigation. If what makes a policy or practice “racist” is its impact on the material well-being of Black and Brown people, as Kendi argues, then a crucial ingredient in assessing policies or practices is a deep and accurate understanding of the nature and extent of those impacts. This is no small undertaking. Policies rarely have just one impact, and understanding the full panoply of a policy’s effects, over the short and long term, can be the work of an entire academic career.
Would removing onerous licensing requirements for small urban businesses improve Black lives, or make them worse? What if it improves some Black lives (Black small-business owners) while making other Black lives worse (some of their customers who might have been protected by the regulations in question)? What if the policy causes some harm in the short term, while expanding opportunity over the long run?
Precisely because we are so desperately in need of more and better knowledge about how seemingly race-neutral policies or structures operate to perpetuate racial inequity, it is essential that theorists and social scientists fearlessly pursue research into the operation of those structures — even when their findings might prove controversial or uncomfortable. For this reason, McWhorter’s critique of efforts by the Elect to stifle debate is the most important argument he makes in the book. And yet, even here, he misses the mark by relying heavily on anecdote and by focusing exclusively on opponents to his left.
McWhorter points, for example, to a 2020 faculty letter at Princeton, urging the university’s president to, among other things, “constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” Although such a committee would indeed have been a threat to academic freedom, Princeton University never in fact created such a committee. And while it is troubling that so many faculty signed onto a letter calling for the committee’s creation, the letter talked about many different things, and it is not clear how many signed it because of that request for a committee or merely despite it, as Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer, documented in an August 2020 article in The Atlantic. Anyone who thinks there is a genuine problem of progressive intolerance at Princeton (or elsewhere in higher education) probably believed that before reading McWhorter’s book, because he falls far short of persuasively defining its nature or extent.
Meanwhile, genuine threats to academic freedom from the opponents of critical race theory are more than hypothetical. According to the Brookings Institution, as of November 2021, nine states have enacted legislation banning “the discussion, training, and/or orientation that the U.S. is inherently racist, as well as any discussions about conscious or unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression” and 20 additional states are considering such legislation. And so there is some irony in McWhorter’s exclusive focus on intolerance from the left. It is not the Elect, after all, but rather its critics, who have turned to the coercive power of the state to silence debate.
This is not to deny or excuse intolerance among progressives. There are several cases where employers have responded to Twitter cascades and email campaigns by terminating someone for expressing points of view that ran afoul of progressive consensus. McWhorter rehearses these now-familiar stories (David Shor, the data analyst, and Gary Garrels, the senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others). But the fact that these instances were already well-known before his book’s publication speaks to their relatively small number. Stepping back to consider these stories in a broader context that also includes, for example, Matthew Hawn (the Tennessee high-school teacher fired for teaching a lesson about “white privilege”) suggests that threats to academic freedom and civil discourse are not the exclusive domain of the Elect but part of a broader social malady.
Since 2020, however, it has rapidly spread into popular discourse. Progressives now label a great many things “racist” that most people would not previously have connected to race, such as cash bail or single-family zoning. This is a salutary development, since it helps people understand the connections between things they hold dear (their beautiful neighborhood of single-family homes on large leafy lots) and things they deplore (the perpetuation of housing patterns rooted in explicitly racist practices).
The challenge arises when this broader conception of racism is accompanied by the same degree of moral opprobrium directed at individuals who defend, participate in, or are otherwise implicated by those practices or systems, even when they do not exhibit personal racial animus.
McWhorter’s arguments about intolerance on the left hinge on the intuitive incongruence of applying the same degree of moral condemnation we associate with intentional racism to those broader conversations about structural racism. He makes a great deal of the efforts of the Elect to “ban the heretic.” He compares them with Pharisees, interested above all else in the “prosecution of sinners.”
The willingness of some progressives to judge and to silence those with whom they disagree on the details of this broader conception of systemic racism raises the stakes of McWhorter’s critique. If “heretics” on these sorts of broad policy questions were not to be banned or silenced, but rather engaged and debated, then the soundness or unsoundness of the other ideas McWhorter attributes to the Elect would be far less fraught.
There would be more room for the kinds of productive conversations about contested and important empirical questions that we need to get right in order to effectively identify and combat instances of systemic racism. Without the threat of cancellation, or whatever one wants to call it, much of McWhorter’s argument would devolve into a simple disagreement about the underlying social science.
Although McWhorter intends the “religion” label to be a badge of shame — how can you debate religious fanatics? — the resemblance of certain aspects of progressive politics to ideas drawn from religion is not accidental. Deep historical ties connect the progressive agenda with the Christian tradition.
The very concept of “social justice,” for example, was first coined in by an Italian Catholic theologian in the 19th century and then further elaborated and refined by over a century of Roman Catholic social teaching and by Protestant theologians of the “social gospel.” In the 20th-century United States, it was further developed and advanced by the many civil-rights leaders who emerged from the Black church. For many people of faith, calling a belief system “religious” is not to place it beyond rational discussion. Indeed, the reconciliation of faith and reason lies at the heart of the mission of Jesuit universities, including the one I lead.
There are many conceptual connections between progressive aspiration to eliminate racial inequity and progressive religious commitments to equal human dignity, an equal dignity that follows from belief in our shared status as children of God but that — as Pope Francis has repeatedly affirmed — is also fully visible to unaided human reason. Discussions within liberation theology of “structural sin” — with its focus on both racial and economic inequity — bear more than a passing resemblance to contemporary descriptions of systemic racism.
But what is largely absent from secular progressive conversations about racial equity are the equally central Christian concepts of forgiveness and grace. The first week of the Jesuits’ Spiritual Exercises focuses on human beings’ sinfulness, but also on the fact of God’s enduring love and unqualified offer of redemption. Discussing the one without the other is a recipe for despair — for the “self-flagellational guilt” that McWhorter accuses the Elect of both embracing for themselves and mercilessly meting out to others.
Beginning discussions of social exclusion with a recognition of human sinfulness resembles aspects of what McWhorter calls “Electism,” but it differs in ways that would blunt his critique. Taking seriously the notion that we are — all of us — sinners in need of grace means approaching those conversations with a strong degree of humility. None of us, regardless of our identity or status, has a monopoly on insight. All of us have a great deal to learn from one another. All of us (particularly those of us within higher education) are privileged in some respect vis-à-vis others. And more of us have suffered from forms of social exclusion than is immediately apparent.
We should be patient with one another, slow to judge, and as eager to listen and learn as to instruct. We should approach academic, cultural, or spiritual conversations about race with an open-heartedness and a commitment to charity and generosity.
Woke Racism is ultimately a disappointing book, unworthy of an intellectual of McWhorter’s caliber. It fails to advance the troubled state of our national discourse around racial equity. And yet it manages to identify a genuine problem with our moment: the mismatch between new, expansive definitions of racism and the moral judgments we have traditionally employed to respond to narrower instances of racial animus. While McWhorter intends his description of Electism as a religion to be the basis for discrediting it entirely, a better response would be to embrace its insights while leavening fraught cultural debates with the additional “religious” ingredients of humility, grace, and forgiveness.