John McWhorter is a professor of linguistics, American studies, and music history at Columbia University. He has also published in numerous prestigious outlets, and he is currently an op-ed columnist at the New York Times. McWhorter is the son of a college administrator father and a professor mother. He attended Friends Select School, a private, a 189-year-old college-preparatory institution. In short, McWhorter is a highly accomplished member of the American elite. He is black. A man should never be reduced to a skin color. But we live in, as the apocryphal Chinese curse is alleged to say, “interesting times,” and, so, yes, every mention of McWhorter’s new book Woke Racism may skip his many accomplishments, and focus on his color.
“I know quite well,” he writes, “that white readers will be more likely to hear out views like this when they’re written by a black person, and I consider it nothing less than my duty as a black person to write this book … A version of this book written by a white writer would be blithely dismissed as racist.” As McWhorter notes, he is accused of being “not really black.”
McWhorter responds by reminding our Woke overlords, whom he calls “The Elect,” that their very ideology insists that every black man in America is living under the oppressive boot of white supremacy. The New York Times published at least one op-ed by a black professor who insisted that being a professor is no escape from America’s pervasive racism. Chris Lebron’s June 16, 2020 op-ed was entitled, “White America Wants Me to Conform. I Won’t Do It. Even at Elite Universities, I Was Exposed to the Disease that Has Endangered Black Lives for So Long.” So, yes, as McWhorter points out, by the Elect’s own value system, he is indeed “black enough.”
McWhorter has been producing necessary prose for decades; he should be required reading for American students. His essay entitled “Explaining the Black Education Gap” in Wilson Quarterly’s summer, 2000 issue, is one of the boldest pieces about education I’ve ever read. I wish I could require every one of our Woke overlords to read McWhorter’s June 11, 2020 piece in Quillette “Racist Police Violence Reconsidered.”
McWhorter is an exquisite wordsmith and Woke Racism’s pages are replete with lapidary phrases that are destined to fill the book’s Goodreads favorite quotes page. Some samples:
Woke racism, McWhorter writes, teaches blacks “that we are the first people in the history of the species for whom it is a form of heroism to embrace the slogan ‘Yes, we can’t.’ … Black America has met nothing so disempowering – including the cops – since Jim Crow.”
“For us, for us only, cries of weakness constitute a kind of strength, and for us only, what makes us interesting, what makes us matter, is a curated persona as eternally victimized souls … White people calling themselves our saviors make black people look like the dumbest, weakest, most self-indulgent human beings in the history of our species, and teach black people to revel in that status and cherish it as making us special. I am especially dismayed at the idea of this indoctrination infecting my daughters’ sense of self.”
“You can make a shark approaching you go away by bopping it on the nose … We need to, metaphorically, start bopping Elects on the nose when they come for us.”
Woke Racism’s main thrust is that Woke is a religion, and, as such, in McWhorter’s understanding of what religion entails, the Elect are beyond the reach of reason. McWhorter provides a handy chart that outlines exactly how Woke demands are self-contradictory. Whether or not whites apologize to black people, whether whites remain silent or speak, whether whites move into or out of black neighborhoods, makes no difference. Each behavior, and others McWhorter lists, are racist. In short, there is no escape from the machinery of accusation. “The sense our society must make … is tarring whites as racist and showing that you know that they are racist … anti-racism is everything regardless of logic.“
Woke is not just a silly fad; it is destroying lives. “Being called a racist is all but equivalent to being called a pedophile.” Americans, out of “simple terror,” are “peeing themselves.” Americans fear this accusation just as “the serf cowering under the threat of a disfiguring smash from the knout.” The elect “are gruesomely close to Hitler’s racial notions in their conception of an alien, blood-deep malevolent ‘whiteness’ in their simplistic conception of what it means to be ‘black,’ in their crude us-versus-them conception of how society works, as if we were all still rival bands of australopithecines.”
McWhorter cites the dire fates of innocent people like Alison Roman, a New York Times food writer; Leslie Neal-Boylan, the dean of nursing at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell; David Shor, a data analyst at a consulting firm; and Greg Patton, a professor at USC Marshall, whose careers were damaged by trumped up, baseless Woke hysteria. These people, whose persecution made headlines, are not alone. McWhorter maintains an active YouTube presence with his fellow black conservative Glenn Loury, also an Ivy League professor. “Droves” of “students and professors” write to McWhorter and Loury, “frightened that this new ideology will ruin their careers, departments, or fields.”
McWhorter vehemently rejects the Elect’s insistence that America is a racist country. He documents how very far America has come from its racist past. The Elect cling to the idea that America is racist “because, with progress, the Elect lose their sense of purpose.” Because of this need for a sense of purpose, McWhorter writes, no change would satisfy the Elect. If reparations were ever paid, the Elect would announce that no amount of money could ever compensate black people. McWhorter’s friend announced on social media that he agrees with BLM. For this statement, he was “roasted.” To say that one agrees with BLM implies that one might disagree, and any such implication is a racist thought crime.
McWhorter utterly rejects fictions concocted by the Elect to support the sense of purpose they receive from denigrating America. The Elect like to attribute the academic achievement gap to white racism. McWhorter writes, “Black boys do commit more violent offenses in public schools than other kids. Period.” Because teachers are punished with the “racist” slur for reporting violent incidents committed by black boys, “underreporting of serious incidents” is “rampant.” Not just teachers and fellow students are harmed. The black perpetrators are harmed themselves by the Elect’s self-serving fiction. “to insist that bigotry is the only possible reason for suspending more black boys than white boys is to espouse harming black students.”
The affirmative action practiced by college admission offices also harms black students. Selective colleges admit black students who are not prepared for their rigor. These students are more likely to drop out. Had these students been rejected in the first place, and been admitted to a less selective college, they might have persisted at a less demanding program and gotten a degree, and an easier path to a career.
Destructive condescension extends to the world beyond college. Nikole Hannah-Jones received a Pulitzer Prize for the 1619 Project, whose central claim is “quite simply false.” “Someone has received a Pulitzer Prize for a mistaken interpretation of historical documents about which legions of actual scholars are expert,” McWhorter points out.
If a black person attempts to be anything other than “not white,” that black person’s individuality is erased. A black person, to satisfy white patrons, must be a stereotype, not an individual. McWhorter asks his reader to name a black author who has written a non-fiction book on some subject other than blackness. He says that this is hard to do because the Elect want black people to focus on being pathetic victims of racism, not, say, experts on auto repair or Inca architecture.
McWhorter does not, though, reject all of Woke. He approves of statue removal, but they have to be the right statues. Remove Robert E. Lee and Woodrow Wilson; keep George Washington. McWhorter does not address the belief of many that Robert E. Lee is a mere Woke camel’s nose under the tent, or, to mix a metaphor like a Martini, a mere Woke camel’s nose on the sill of the Overton Window. The Woke chose Lee as an easy target. And then they moved on to chopping down or merely desecrating memorials to Hans Christian Heg, a Norwegian immigrant and abolitionist martyr who gave his entire life to ending slavery; Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish freedom fighter who debated slavery with Thomas Jefferson and left money for the liberation of American slaves in his will; Miguel Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, who was himself a slave; Thomas Jefferson, author of the document that made the abolitionist movement’s victory inevitable; black soldiers who fought against slavery; and a Lincoln statue funded by former slaves. McWhorter himself reveals awareness of how, when it comes to Woke, one does not get to pick and choose. “This is not a buffet; the Elect is a prix fixe affair.” McWhorter doesn’t seem to realize that that Woke principle applies to statues.
McWhorter agrees with the Woke on the existence of white privilege, insisting that white “figures of authority” are like all other white people, and that white people are “not subject to stereotypes.” Reading that, I wondered if McWhorter has ever had a real conversation with a poor or immigrant white person, and, given his biography, I feel it safe to guess that he has not. It really doesn’t even require actual contact with non-elite whites to understand that “not subject to stereotypes” would be laughable were it not so callously irresponsible. I’ve met very few poor, white, Christian Southerners, but as a consumer of American culture, from “Tobacco Road” to Bill Maher’s jokes, I know that poor, white, Christian Southerners are one of the most egregiously stereotyped and safe-to-hate populations in this country.
New York City will prioritize providing COVID treatment to non-whites over whites. Previously, governments prioritized non-whites in vaccine distribution. A black applicant to a college can have a much lower SAT score than a white one and receive admission, while the white applicant will be rejected. These facts and more call a universal and eternal “white privilege” into question.
McWhorter’s vision of whites as being all pretty much the same, interchangeable, the “default,” as he put it, is exposed when he says that the difference between Germans and Slavs is a “horizontal” difference, not a “vertical” difference of “who is hurting who” (sic). No self-aware German or Slav could read that sentence and not recognize McWhorter’s lack of awareness. Germans have been aggressing against Slavs – the famous “Drang nach Osten” or “drive to the east” – for at least a millennium. Berlin was a Slavic settlement before it was German. In the twelfth century, Germans carried out a Slavic Crusade; they effectively erased the original Prussians, a non-Germanic people; they carried out a kulturkampf against Polish Catholics. The 1938 Russian film Alexander Nevsky depicts medieval Slavs fighting for their lives against invading Germanic people. The film roused Russians who had to fight invading German Nazis. In short, no, whites are not all just alike.
McWhorter cites real-world facts-on-the-ground to counter the idea that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, “the total elimination of white supremacy” would solve whatever is “wrong with black people.” In fact very well-meaning efforts by anti-racist whites have not produced the results desired. In 1987, Wall Street money manager George Weiss promised to pay college tuition for 112 black sixth graders. Their part of the bargain was to graduate high school, not do drugs, not have children before marriage, and not commit crimes. Weiss “also gave them tutors, workshops, and after-school programs, kept them busy in summer programs, and provided them with counselors … forty-five of the kids never made it through high school.” Nineteen of the sixty-seven boys became felons. By 1999, “The forty-five girls had sixty-three children between them, and more than half had become mothers before the age of eighteen.” These sad results were not caused by white racism, McWhorter argues, but rather because “these kids had been raised amid a different sense of what is normal than white kids in the burbs.” The problem, McWhorter diagnoses, is “culture.”
Nor is Weiss’ experience a “fluke,” McWhorter writes. In Kansas City, during the same time period, a $1.4 billion dollar effort was made to improve schools serving black students. “Dropout rates stayed the same, the achievement gap between white and black students sat frozen, and the schools ended up needing security guards to combat theft and violence.”
McWhorter’s book is more about description and analysis than prescription, but he includes a few short pages on what he thinks should be done to help black people. He offers three suggestions: end the war on drugs; teach reading using the phonics method, rather than the whole word method; and recommend trade schools rather than college. This reader did not see how McWhorter’s three suggestions get around the problem of culture he describes so fearlessly in his other works. If a billion and a half dollars spent on improving schools resulted in negligible gains, it’s not clear how phonics will move the needle.
I hope this review conveys the excellence to be found in McWhorter’s book. I was not as enthused about this book as I’d hoped to be. There are two reasons.
As I was working on this review, 200 feet behind me, an eccentrically attired black woman was standing on a sidewalk, staring at a chain link fence. I first noticed her at ten a.m.; I don’t know how long she’d been there before that. I checked on her frequently throughout the day. For seven hours, she stood staring at the chain link fence. Neighborhood children walked past the woman as if she were not there. They have learned young their skills for survival here.
I wondered if I could help the woman by talking to her. I’m white. The neighborhood is not. I might be perceived as a “Karen” and trouble, possibly violent, might ensue. Should I ignore her? I could not. Her insistent staring at the fence, hour after hour, broke my heart. Should I call the police? The police might say that she is not breaking the law and they can’t do anything. Snow was predicted to begin to fall along with the night.
After she’d been out there for eight hours, an ambulance arrived. Uniformed personnel emerged and began to talk to her and also to a male who had arrived on the sidewalk shortly before the ambulance. He was sitting on a milk crate and drinking liquor. The ambulance blocked the narrow street completely. Residents could not drive in or out for about the next hour. The two resisted their rescuers for that hour, and finally succumbed. The ambulance drove off with them.
On another recent day, a black woman was walking down the middle of the street in revealing pajamas. She had no shoes. She was muttering incoherencies. Cars swerved. I pulled her out of the street, called 911, and stayed with her till help arrived.
A mile and a half from where I worked on this review, Remy Lee, eight months pregnant, was shot to death in the street by Donqua Thomas, her baby daddy.
I watch children grow up from the innocence and promise of infancy into lives that very quickly descend into much more misery than is necessary. Why? That very culture that McWhorter dares name. We could change that culture tomorrow. A generation – twenty years – from now, there would be that many fewer women staring at chain link fences even as snow begins to fall; that many fewer taxpayer dollars devoted to their temporary and incomplete rescue.
I wish there had been less of a sense of cocktail party banter and more of a sense of urgency in McWhorter’s book. Black people are being harmed by the lie that they are helpless victims and only white people can save them, and that harm is real and pressing and could be ended tomorrow. McWhorter wants short lists of prescriptions. No big programs. Here’s half of my two-item list: consequences. Consequences for small things. Some residents in my building drop garbage randomly in the halls. That garbage includes the bones and skin of the chicken they are eating. If someone said to a young person, “You cannot just drop your garbage. You need to transport it to a trash can,” and delivered consequences when and if that statement was ignored, much would change. Impulse control and a sense of duty to the wider society, an awareness that urinating in the elevator creates a clean-up job for the Hispanic janitorial crew, who don’t deserve to be saddled with that, that impulse control, instilled young, can mature, in adulthood, to hesitation when a man feels the urge to shoot his baby momma.
The second item on my two-item list is love. Black parents must choose to love their black babies enough to graduate high school, to move into their own homes and support themselves with their own jobs, and commit to marriage with their co-parent, before producing those babies. To do less is abusive of black babies. Someone should be saying this to black parents. If that message were delivered and hit home, twenty years from now, one would have reason to hope that ghettoes would be on the verge of extinction.
My second problem with Woke Racism is its Christophobia. McWhorter’s main argument is that Woke is a religion “eerily akin to devout Christianity.” Woke Racism is like a palimpsest. One layer is an urbane take down of Woke written so charmingly it could almost be an anthology of Cole Porter lyrics. Underneath that layer McWhorter rants against Christianity and Christians. He says that Woke is like a “virus,” a “fungus,” a “little worm,” and “smallpox.” By extension, Christianity is all those things.
McWhorter flings the standard arsenal of accusations against Catholicism: witch burners! Inquisitors! Medieval throwbacks living in the Dark Ages! Resisters of science! Bigoted murderers of Muslims! Stupid blind followers of irrational ideas!
In response to McWhorter’s belief that Catholics are all about witch trials, please see here and here. For the Inquisition, please see here, here, and here. For the use of “medieval” and “Dark Ages” as a slur implying that the Catholic Church imposed a reign of stupidity on Europe, see here, here, and here. For Catholicism as the enemy of science, see here and here. Regarding the charge that Catholics are “lesser humans,” are irrational, hate-inflamed murderers of Muslims, see here, here, here, here, here and here. Christians, McWhorter states, believe a Bible that “makes no sense” and that cannot be questioned. I invite him to read every introduction and every footnote here. Then read this and every other book in the series. Christians can’t ask questions? Start reading here. Need something shorter? Here. Finally, regarding Christianity as foundational to Western Civilization, McWhorter should read Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.
McWhorter has no love for Protestants, either. His idea of a representational Protestant is Saturday Night Live’s “Church Lady,” ugly, hypocritical, and vicious. McWhorter mentions Cotton Mather, a Puritan clergyman implicated in the Salem Witch Trials, but not Robert Calef or William Milbourne, contemporaneous Christians who criticized Mather’s role. McWhorter says that race hustler Robin DiAngelo is the Woke incarnation of Aimee Semple McPherson. In fact McPherson was a trailblazing Pentecostal preacher. She was a self-directed religious force before women could even vote, and many felt that women should not preach. A teenage bride, she traveled to China, where her missionary husband died of dysentery and malaria. She returned to the US and began a career as an iterant preacher. She and her two children were so poor that they slept in leaky tents and ate meals of canned corn. She set up soup kitchens, school lunch programs, and free clinics. She “alleviated suffering on an epic scale.” Daniel Mark Epstein, McPherson’s biographer, said he found no evidence of fraud in McPherson’s unprecedented number of faith healings. In short, McPherson deserves respect for the hardships she undertook and for the good she did; her biography is not comparable to Robin DiAngelo’s career.
McWhorter praises Jane Addams and Martin Luther King, two Nobel Peace Prize winners whose work was informed by Christianity. Christophobes can have their cake and eat it, too. McWhorter, like everyone, has his own belief system: human progress. He dedicates his book to “each who find it within themselves to take a stand against [Woke’s] detour in humanity’s intellectual, cultural, and moral development.” The idea that humans can make moral progress – as opposed to the Christian idea that man has a flawed nature that must constantly struggle to abide by a higher, divine law – also has its deadly expressions. The New Soviet Man was to be arrived at after killing off all the old style men through actions like the mass murder of priests and nuns, and the starving of millions of Ukrainians who refused to “progress.” And McWhorter praises the Enlightenment as a model, but then equates all he hates about Woke with a “reign of terror.” The actual Reign of Terror was very much an Enlightenment phenomenon.
McWhorter gets in a couple of gratuitous shots at the, in his words, “openly bigoted” Donald Trump and his supporters. These marginal statements on such an inflammatory and divisive topic as Trump will alienate some readers unnecessarily.
This is not the first time McWhorter, a man I admire, has made derogatory comments about people like me. In a December 30, 2008, Forbes article, McWhorter refers to threatening, racist whites as “bohunks” (sic). “Bohunk” refers to Americans of Christian, peasant, Eastern European descent: Polish-, Czech-, and Ukrainian-Americans, for example. McWhorter’s comment is part of a trend, dating back at least to the 1960s, of elites attributing racism to poor white ethnics, as I describe in this blog post and this book.
McWhorter’s snobbery directed at working class whites, Trump supporters, and Christians will present few obstacles to many readers of his book. His intended audience, he says, consists of New York Times readers and people who listen to NPR. Many of those readers will be attracted to, rather than put off by, McWhorter’s argument that Woke is bad because Woke is like Christianity.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.