I was commissioned to review this (a slightly shorter version) for the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies…
I’m a big fan of John McWhorter. He’s a minority (ideologically) within a minority (racially)– a relatively-conservative, African-American academic– along with others such as Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Walter Williams. (He cites Steele’s excellent book, The Content of our Character, and notes that “it’s getting old now, but only in the way that wine does.” ) He’s more of a rabble-rouser than the other academics; in this, he’s more like younger social thinkers such as Candace Owens, Coleman Hughes, and Thomas Chatterton Williams. McWhorter writes and speaks on current events (especially from a welcome racial angle), but is also prolific as an academic in the field of linguistics. I had read an essay from McWhirter on this topic, but was glad to see him extend the argument into a book.
In Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, McWhorter describes “woke-ism” as a new religion. (His focus is on woke-ism in racial terms– its original and still-dominant field. Since he wrote the book, woke-ism has been increasingly extended into other areas– most notably, gender ideology.) For McWhorter, “religion” is also a pejorative, since he is not (explicitly) religious. (In fact, he takes a few pokes at Christianity in the book.) But he makes the case that woke-ism has authoritative texts, clergy, dogma, rituals, beliefs beyond the reach of empirical evidence, standards of good and evil, and stories about Creation, Fall, and Eschatology. It sees the Devil everywhere it looks. (McWhorter compares this to Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady”.) The religion lacks any emphasis on redemption and grace. Without these, it bends toward legalism, judgmentalism, and Phariseeism. It seeks to convert or punish, calling out blasphemers, heretics, sell-outs, and compromisers, persecuting others through witch hunts, star chambers, and Cancel Culture.
Woke-ism is run by “the Elect” (borrowing the phrase coined by Joseph Bottum)– the chosen who are evangelistic in terms of zeal, smug and superior in their sacrosanct views as bearers of truth– what he derisively calls “medievals with lattes.” (59) It is a religion of the sophisticate rather than the rube, the highly educated over the ignorant, the apparently-irreligious not the obviously-religious– but a religion nonetheless. “They think of it all as logic incarnate. But so, as he lustily led the Spanish Inquisition, did Torquemada…[This is] why the Elect are so comfortable sounding so much like Louis Farrakhan.” (60, 77) He quotes Michael Lind who sees woke-ism as a “preliberal, premodern, religious approach” (79).
McWhorter notes the irony that we have much less racism today, but have a greater focus on it. Colleges are apparently part of the problem; 9% of high school students view whites as oppressors while 18% of college students do (90). In K-12, since woke-ism is a religion, it should have no say in curricula. (This is yet another argument for “school choice”.) The Woke ignore Barack Obama’s election by a majority, while also implying that he was an ineffective president.
Wokeism is about emotional appeals, not logic. McWhorter provides a list of ten pairs of “tenets” (perhaps as a riff on the Ten Commandments) that are powerfully asserted but contradictory (8-9, 177-178). For example, black students should be admitted to college through lower standards to promote opportunity and diversity, but it’s racist to assume that a black student was admitted because of lower standards or to expect them to represent diverse views in the classroom (9). Or sometimes, it’s illogic. For example, blacks disproportionately kill other blacks because of white racism and privilege. Or sometimes, it’s ignoring history and the academic process– as with “the 1619 Project”. The religion focuses on their “experiences”– subjective perceptions or claims which are given the weight of gospel. And it’s ideologically or politically convenient: crushing some historical figures for past views while giving others a pass (e.g., Darwin, Obama).
This is not a particularly logical, organized book. The book is peppered with anecdotes. It is, itself, a somewhat emotional appeal, communicating on the ground of his opponents. He asserts that a black (unfortunately) has to be the one to write a book like this. (More broadly, he notes that most black non-fiction authors only write on race . He challenges readers to think of counter-examples and provides two others.)
McWhorter practices empathy in all of this, albeit with a tinge or dollop of condescension. The practitioners are not crazy; they’re just “parishioners”. He asserts that wokeism is a form of “performance art” for some– “an eccentric performance from people wishing they hadn’t missed the late 1960s.” (12-13) Woke-ism allows entry into certain circles through virtue signaling; it’s an attractive option for those employed in the field; and it’s provided a lucrative path for its leaders (Kendi, DiAngelo, and Coates). From a Christian perspective, this lines up with “false teachers” who proclaim their gospel for money, etc.
McWhorter cites examples where political leaders have placated believers rather than being true believers. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio allowed racial protests during Covid while breaking up Jewish weddings for fears about contagion (53-54). And Princeton’s self-styling as a racist institution was called out by President Trump’s Civil Rights Division, calling the bluff of the university’s virtue signaling (165). McWhorter doesn’t develop this idea, but as with other religions, we’re not surprised to see casual, cafeteria, and cultural variants that water-down the true religion. That said, a dominant religion in cultural terms– or at least, a noisy sect– can exert disproportionate influence over society.
McWhorter does not want his readers to imagine they will change the minds of the true believers. He sees this as futile since they are fundamentalists and zealots who are not open to other ideas or liberal in terms of conduct. Instead of “how do we get through to them”, he encourages us to ask “how can we live graciously among them”? (xiii)
His audience is those who know better but lack the knowledge and/or courage to stand up in the face of dogmatism and coercion. He believes the vast majority of people are going along, not wanting to think too hard about the topic and wanting to avoid condemnation or cancellation. So, he’s trying to bolster their understanding, their courage, and their tact in navigating the lies. He calls for “civil valor” (borrowed from Solzhenitsyn) in the face of name-calling and far worse. In fact, he dedicates the book “to each who find it within themselves to take a stand against this detour in humanity’s intellectual, cultural, and moral development.” This is a key theme for McWhorter– and his hope for optimism as a way forward.
Finally, McWhorter also offers three policy reforms: end the War on Drugs; provide solid vocational training; and teach reading with phonics. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the reference to phonics from a linguist, but he makes a strong case that educated two-parent households can get around the deficiencies of “whole word” reading methods, in a way that often is not the case for less-educated and/or single-parent households (141-143).
A really nice article in Harpers by Ian Buruma extends the argument to Protestantism in particular– a “secularized inheritance of the Protestant Social Gospel”. Buruma also notes the public nature of Protestant confession, in contrast to the private and ceremonial efforts in Catholicism and the quiet approach of Judaism.
Here’s an NPR interview with McWhorter on the book.
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