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Key insights from

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America

By John McWhorter

What you’ll learn

Linguist and Columbia University professor John McWhorter argues that while the antiracist movement is often viewed as a political phenomenon, it is better characterized as a religion. It scratches all the itches that religions conventionally deliver: hallowed tenets to be taken on faith, a path to atonement, doctrines of original sin, and visions of a coming judgment. McWhorter argues that this antiracist orthodoxy is also evangelical and eager to sniff out heretics in some corners of the religious fold. According to McWhorter, this is harmful to society, including the black community that the religion yearns to help.

Read on for key insights from Woke Racism.

1. Third Wave antiracists have formed a religious, enlightened “Elect,” and their vision and agenda are not to be questioned.

There are arguably three waves of antiracism that roughly mirror early feminist waves. The First Wave of antiracism took the institution of slavery to task and fought against segregation. The Second Wave (1970s and 1980s) pushed back against persistent racist views that prevented American society from seeing blacks as fully equal to whites. Third Wave antiracism has gained prominence since the 2010s, promoting the idea that society is racist to the core, that racism is in the air we breathe, and that those who fail to actively work toward eliminating institutions’ default “whiteness” are racist themselves. Those who are inadequately aware of how “existing while white” perpetuates the system are vulnerable to scorn and condescension.

This set of social and cultural conditions put most Americans (even many who are left of center) in the uncomfortable position of navigating the real world according to antiracism’s set of fierce and abstract tenets. It is hard to say anything in public without wondering which ill-chosen word or phrase will provoke the more zealous antiracists. The label “racist” now carries the same emotional weight and social stigma as “pedophile” does. It’s a one-way ticket to society’s margins.

“Social justice warriors” is too pejorative a term to use for antiracists. Resorting to labels that carry dismissive undertones only encourages divisiveness in a society already full of it. The term “the Elect” better captures the religious nature of antiracism and the sense of holy purpose and authority held by those under its sway. Moreover, a very diverse group of people make up the antiracist Elect, and most of them are good, ordinary people leading ordinary lives.

There are plenty of everyday people who ascribe to tenets of the Elect without a hunger to eviscerate those outside the fold. But these people share a holy cause with the violent and outspoken members of the Elect. The good, ordinary woke folk may wince at their counterparts’ violence and defamation, but they won’t stand in the way of it. They might consider the extreme tactics unfortunate, but fall back on the sentiment that you need to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. The messy means lead to enlightened ends. And of course, to begin objecting to these messy means is grounds for excommunication. So is objecting to racism without the requisite level of zeal, or in a way that reveals some undercurrent of complicity. 

Third Wave antiracism is so chillingly influential that it has made actors out of us, turning politics into a perfunctory performance meant to keep us from becoming pariahs. In some ways, Third Wave antiracism is much like a belated rehash for those who wish they had been alive for the 1960s Counterculture. But more than a half century removed from that era, the methods and rhetoric seem contrived.

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2. Third Wave antiracism has all the hallmarks of a religion, from clergy and apocalyptic vision, to a doctrine of original sin.

It is facile to dismiss the antiracist Elect as “crazy.” There is a structure and meaning behind their beliefs, and it is not hyperbolic to say the Elect are part of a new religious movement. This is not an attempt to dismiss the movement, but to characterize it as accurately as possible. From an anthropological perspective, religion is a perfect descriptor.

The Elect have superstition. They are willing to take things on faith in the absence of empirical evidence or logically coherent explanations. The common response to the question of why the Bible is so full of contradictions is just to have faith that it all holds together somehow. It would be impertinent to push the matter further. In the same way, it is improper for the skeptic outside the fold or the doubter within it to ask why the far more prevalent black-on-black killings are not discussed at all, but white-cop-on-black killings are rushed to the fore of public scrutiny and outcry. Press this too far, and the response is annoyance and anger. 

The Elect have clergy. When journalist Ta-Nehesi Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations” came out, people were spellbound—even though the essay added nothing novel to the argument for reparations. The aesthetic quality of the piece had critics and the public alike in tears. The beauty and an ineffable stirring quality of the essay moved people more than the argument did. “The Case for Reparations” functioned and was embraced like a sermon from a fiery preacher or prophet. The intelligentsia tend to embrace thinkers like Coates for their ability to wordsmith and pluck heartstrings. They are de facto priests and pastors, here less to inform than to comfort and exhort.

The Elect have a doctrine of original sin. The simplest way to sum up their doctrine is “white privilege.” It is true that being white in the United States does carry with it many privileges. You are not as vulnerable to stereotypes as other groups. People in places of authority look like you. You are the kind of person that people from other parts of the world think of when they think “American.” The doctrine of original sin, according to the Elect, cannot just be a passing observation or belief. It requires white people to confess their white privilege, to live in constant awareness of it, and to acknowledge there is no chance for absolution. Constant awareness of one’s social sinfulness is the best one can do.

The faith of the Elect is evangelical. Not content to practice their religion and tolerate differences, the Elect insist on convincing others to convert to it. The Elect view themselves as commissioned to spread the Good News of Antiracism, and that this is the only path to the perfect world. That perfect world is impossible without persuading those “out there.” 

The Elect’s faith is also apocalyptic. The Elect believe a moment of reckoning awaits the society unwilling to repent of its whiteness. White America is supposed to “come to terms” with its corruption and abuse on judgment day.

The Elect also punish heretics. Christians use the language of “blasphemous;” the Elect simply refer to infractions as “problematic.'' Antiracists have an orthodoxy to carefully observe, and there are consequences for those who fail to toe the line. What the media began calling “cancel culture” in 2019 exemplifies the impulse of the Elect to excommunicate. We are back to burning witches, even if it’s the cyber equivalent that ends careers and social lives, rather than snuffing out life entirely.

The Elect are part of a religious faith. Eric Hoffer astutely observed that a religion doesn’t need a God—just a devil. For the antiracist Elect, “whiteness” and “racism” constitute the Satanic presence that haunts and corrupts society. Like any religion, antiracism does not tolerate Satan, but fights him.

3. The religion of antiracism is not helping black people.

Someone could see how the antiracist Elect fit the anthropological profile of religious people and still say, “So what? They are fighting something pernicious, namely racism. Shouldn’t we all be involved in that?”

The question then becomes “What fruit is this new religion bearing for the very demographic the Elect say they want to help? What have been the outcomes for real black people on the ground?” Let’s see what the efforts to “dismantle racist structures” have led to.

There are numerous superstitions that Elect believers have to look away from in order to hold on to their faith and avoid lapses into doubt:

The Elect have to ignore black students getting beaten up by other black students in schools. A 2014 letter from the US Department of Education corroborated the conclusion that black boys are disciplined to a much greater extent than boys of other races, and this is due to racism. Other high-ranking groups have reported similar findings. But the uncomfortable truth is that black boys simply tend to commit more violent acts than other students. Because many people attribute the higher numbers of black students in public schools being disciplined to prejudice, more and more, school violence is going unreported. Teachers don’t want to be accused of being bigots. And since it’s disproportionately black students fighting other black students, black students are being disproportionately harmed.

Another grievance that the Elect have to overlook is the way black university students disproportionately flunk when they are catapulted via affirmative action and other inflated metrics into top schools. These are institutions where professors assume a level of familiarity with abstract ideas (or at least the skill of faking it) and move through their courses at a fast pace and with great rigor. Imagine growing up in a home without any books, and a much more practical body of knowledge to navigate the day-to-day, then jumping into college courses like these. Students unaccustomed to the rigors of a top tier school end up leaving majors and their dreams of becoming lawyers and scientists. Majorities of such students are black and Latino. As a result of their struggles and academic failures, they feel demoralized. They might have flourished if they had attended a good-not-great school, and graduated with some optimism. Instead, some don’t graduate at all. Studies that point out the “mismatch” in these students’ pre-college lives are pilloried as racist, but the basic and tragic observations still stand.

Behavior in school and academic struggles are just a few examples of situations in which the Elect have to look the other way, refrain from questioning the efficacy of woke attempts to dismantle racist structures, and indignantly decry those with the temerity to question the efforts. There are many other examples of such scenarios, like not questioning the practice of renouncing historical figures whose actions were “normal” in their time; insistence on placing “non-whiteness” at the heart of the black identity; the conviction that unequal outcomes necessarily indicate unequal opportunity; and the  unwavering belief that America “hushes up slavery.”

These are all tenets of the Elect’s faith that go unquestioned, even if they are demonstrably destructive and unhelpful to blacks.

4. There are three practical, achievable adjustments that antiracists should back if they really want to see black communities thrive.

The antiracist Elect are not a political group, but better categorized as a religious group. Although fighting racism is noble, their efforts have been shown to make life harder for blacks—not easier. What will actually help black people move forward, if the Elect’s religion will not?

Racism is an incredibly complex social phenomenon. It’s been around a long time and is tied to culture, history, and ideas that did not pop into our social political milieu ex nihilo. Thus, it is naïve to set ending racism as our goal. That goal is like the political process a fifth grader details in an essay about a perfect world—a lovely idea that misses the complexity of social and political institutions. A better, grounded alternative that is actually attainable and would bring the most benefit for the black community is a three-pronged effort:

1. Stop the war on drugs. It has failed to quash the supply of or demand for the wicked substances. The war is not helping blacks, and far from shutting down the illicit market, the war on drugs is allowing it to flourish. It is very understandable that underprivileged young black men would get involved in drug trafficking after dropping or flunking out of failing schools that did not prepare them for the future. Getting into the business world with strange customs and with white people who are even stranger and unfamiliar is a daunting prospect. Falling back on what is more familiar can seem a much safer bet—even if familiar happens to be dangerous and illegal. Legalizing and regulating drugs would allow black men who might default to drug dealing would be compelled to seek employment in the formal economy. Incarceration rates would drop, too, and these men would have a better shot at progressing in life.

2. Teach kids to read and write properly. There are two theories of reading pedagogy: focusing on phonics or what is called the “whole word method.” Phonics teaches kids to read by introducing them to different sounds, whereas the whole word method breaks words into chunks and has children guess based on context and first letter. The axiom underpinning the whole word method is that English is just too vast an etymological hodgepodge for children to learn to read and write based on phonics. This method and assumption, however, contradicts the research-based conclusion that has been clarion since the 1960s: Phonics is the far more effective way to teach poor children to read. When schools switch back to phonics, black student test scores rise. Generations of black children have been deprived of quality education in reading in part because of innovative but ineffective methods. Antiracists should be advocating for phonics in their local school districts.

3. Make quality vocational training just as accessible as university education. We have to decouple four-year college and success because they do not necessarily go together, and they are not the only winning combination. As it is, university degrees are not only challenging but increasingly cost-prohibitive. Instead of saddling young people with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in school debt and providing fewer opportunities for post-graduate employment, quality vocational training programs would be a helpful, less costly alternative. Additionally, vocational training enables graduates to earn a stable living, far beyond what the generation before them would have made. There is a growing return to working class means of employment—not just for the poor, but even for those among the middle-class and the wealthy. We have been too quick to dismiss as undignified the work of plumbers, electricians, and mechanics, but if you ever ask these technicians, they do not see their work or themselves that way.

For antiracists looking to bring about demonstrable good for blacks, these are efforts worth getting behind. They are practical, achievable, and will empower blacks more than a grand, abstract vision so all-consuming that we can’t make strides at all. As with so many other areas of life, less is more.


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