How To Talk About Racism
Reason magazine|March 2022
Linguist John McWhorter on the ways social justice activists have betrayed black Americans
NICK GILLESPIE

IN HIS BESTSELLING new book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America (Portfolio), New York Times columnist and Columbia University linguist John McWhorter argues that the ideas of Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and the Times’ 1619 Project sharpen racial divides while drawing attention away from actual obstacles to improving quality of life for black Americans.

McWhorter first explored his idea of anti-racism as “Our Flawed New Religion” in a 2015 piece for The Daily Beast and continued the theme in a series of articles for Reason in 2020. “I think something is really distracting people in my world lately into supposing that they’re supposed to fall for a kind of purposeless extremism in order to be good people,” McWhorter says.

Contrary to critics’ vituperative claims, Woke Racism is in no way a right-wing book; McWhorter notes that he’s never voted Republican in his life. “I consider my company to be left-leaning people who read The New York Times and The Atlantic,” he says. “If it were 1960, everybody would think of me as a normal liberal. I would be this Adlai Stevenson– voting, pointy-headed liberal person.” Since the late ’60s, though, the idea has taken hold that “on race, radicalism is default.” Though this attitude has ebbed and flowed over time, McWhorter argues that today’s anti-racist crusaders evince a quasi-religious fanaticism that ends up hurting, not helping, the plights of black Americans.

In November, McWhorter spoke with Reason’s Nick Gillespie about what white people get out of cooperating with this ideological agenda, what black people gain by “performing” victimhood, and what needs to change so that all Americans can get on with creating a more perfect union.

Reason: What’s the elevator pitch for Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America?

McWhorter: There is a group of people who are committed to what they call social justice, certain enough of their moral purity that they are willing to hurt other people if they don’t agree with their principles. Their notion is that they are saving people who are living under the power of white hegemony. Not only are these people mean and unpleasant to deal with, but in the name of social justice for black people, they often either don’t care about black people for real, or they’re hurting black people. I wrote Woke Racism not as some boring statement from the right wing about family values and people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. This is a book saying there are black people who need help. The people who are calling themselves black people’s saviors don’t understand this. What they’re caught up in is more about virtue signaling to one another than helping people who actually need help.

We’re talking about woke activism—authors like Robin DiAngelo, Ibram Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Why is it important that you call it a religion?

I call it a religion partly because of formal similarities between it and especially devout Christianity, starting with white privilege as original sin. Not only are those parallels important, but I have a heuristic reason for it. Some people were expecting Woke Racism to be an examination of the nature of religion and wokeness and what the parallels are. Nobody would have read that book. They shouldn’t have; it’s not that important.

I consider it useful to think of this as a religion so that people can understand that we can’t have productive exchanges with the particular kind of person I’m writing about. Many people think, “Well, if we could only get them to understand that we need a plurality of ideas.” Or people ask me, “How can I get that kind of person to not call me a racist?” You can’t. That’s what they do.

You’re unlikely to try to convince somebody that Jesus does not love them; you’re unlikely to try to talk someone out of their religious faith. Framing it as a religion gets across that idea better than just calling it an ideology.

You critique terms such as systemic racism. Are we past the age of systemic racism?

Racism in the present tense is much harder to identify than racism in the past. I don’t like that term, not because of the systemic, but because of the racism. I think it’s a real stretch of our cognition to go from racism being an attitude to racism referring to inequities within a system that are racial. You end up talking about inequities that have a very different nature, and you refer to them all with the term racism, which implies that there’s this one particular issue. We can’t help thinking that it’s partly this emotion, this bias, when really the problems are often due to all sorts of things today, even if they were due to racism in the past. It’s a dangerously oversimplified way of looking at the complexities and the inequities in a society.

For example, redlining. Go back to a redlined neighborhood in 1950; most of the people in it were white. That’s something that we don’t talk about. Redlining was not as racially targeted as a lot of people seem to almost want it to have been. It was about class. Nevertheless, a vastly disproportionate number of black people were caught in these same neighborhoods, so black people suffered disproportionately from redlining. Is that the reason today that a certain wealth gap between white and black people exists? To some extent, yes. But if you actually look at the numbers, if you distinguish between medians and averages, if you distinguish between regions of the United States, if you distinguish between social class, the wealth gap is not what people say.

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