Book Review: “Woke Racism” by John McWhorter

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America by John McWhorter, Portfolio (October 26, 2021), 224 Pages.

John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, says early in this work that it is important for him, as a black man, to write this book. He, along with a number of other black public intellectuals, have taken issue with the rapidly growing conviction to Critical Race Theory (CRT) within our cultural institutions.

This book, Woke Racism, is a contribution to this criticism of CRT. In this short volume, McWhorter broadly argues for three things:

1) CRT (or Electism as he calls it, and which I will hereafter call it in this post) is a religion in all but name.

2) Electism is racist against black people and only allows the true issues harming the black community to persist.

3) We as a society need to stop allowing CRT advocates (he calls them the Elect, with intentional religious connotations) to continue controlling the conversation surrounding race as this is doing harm to the black community.

Woke Racism argues that Electism is a religion. McWhorter says that what we are witnessing is Third Wave Antiracism, the First Wave being the abolition of slavery and the toppling of segregation, and the Second Wave being the realignment of social attitudes. The First Wave is very concrete, with easily discernible goals wherein the accomplishment of said goals is clear for all to see. The Second Wave, which followed the Civil Rights successes of the 1950’s and 1960’s (i.e. the victory of First Wave Antiracism), was the reconceptualizing of peoples formerly oppressed as a matter of policy. Gaining voting and housing rights did not automatically make racists abandon their racism, so attitudes had to shift. The 1970’s and 1980’s was where much of this realignment occurred. Indeed, it is astonishing how rapidly attitudes changed when one thinks about the plight of black people in the 1960’s compared to the 1990’s, and it has only improved in the intervening two decades.

Third Wave Antiracism, or Electism, has taken note of these tremendous strides toward racial justice and panicked. This has cultivated the fervor with which adherents insist on the truth of their sacred creed. With few beasts left to slay on this front, activists needed to reinvigorate the crusade by molding their own devils out of phantoms and strawmen. Yet, McWhorter wonders, what is it about this grotesque doctrine that has drawn in such a groundswell of parishioners within the past decade?

McWhorter contends that white people buy into this religion essentially for two reasons. The first and more concrete is a direct result of the success of Second Wave Antiracism: nobody wants to be accused of racism. Being racist is a terrible thing and we all know that now. This is one of the main lessons taught by Second Wave Antiracism. As a result, the tactic of screaming “racist!” at those who deviate from the Electist orthodoxy is effective at convincing people that Electism is true through a simple syllogism: racism is wrong, not buying into Electism makes one a racist, therefore not buying into Electism is wrong. The second reason is somewhat more abstract. McWhorter says that it is the Durkheimian “collective effervescence” that white people achieve by adopting the right ideals. The self-expression of these ideals (e.g. virtue signaling) comprises an epistemological justification in-itself. In a sense, it feels good to experience white guilt.

Electism, McWhorter says, requires one buy into a set of self-contradictory tenets. Some of these tenets, perhaps a sort of Ten Commandments of Electism, McWhorter calls the Catechism of Contradictions:

Table adapted from one found in Woke Racism (pages 8 & 9)

That each of these tenets is mutually contradictory is not only glossed over but is perhaps a feature of these doctrines. The double-bind that white people find themselves in when trying to abide by these dicta serves to demonstrate the inescapability of their innate racism.

Black people, McWhorter argues, buy into Electism because it fills a hole in their own self-conceptualization. “Black people settle for Electism to feel whole” reads one of his subheadings. Black people cling to victimhood, McWhorter argues, because they “lack an internally generated sense of what makes [themselves] legitimate” and therefore “a handy substitute is the idea of yourself as a survivor. If you are insecure, a handy strategy is to point out the bad thing someone else is doing…and especially if the idea is that they are doing it to you.”

I find McWhorter’s argument on this point somewhat muddled and unconvincing. He alleges that this hole, or incompleteness, felt by blacks has to do with not fully earning their equal place in society, but having it given to them from “on high” (i.e. changes of law in the government). That’s not to say that his conclusion – that there is a sense of incompleteness felt by blacks – is wrong, but I do not find his reason for this incompleteness compelling. Black people did, in fact, scrape and struggle to earn their place as equals in society. This, I think, is probably the part of Woke Racism that most had me furrowing my brow in an attempt to square McWhorter’s argument with reality. I think there is something to his conclusion that Electism offers a sense of wholeness to its black adherents, but the cause of this incompleteness, I wager, would be something else than what McWhorter alleges here.

Woke Racism spends a good deal of time drawing the parallels between Third Wave Antiracism and religion. Electism has superstitions, in the form of forbidden questions, such as why the creed concerns itself so greatly with the relatively less significant issue of police-on-black crime than with black-on-black crime. Electism has a clergy, namely people such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Robin DiAngelo, whose works (scriptures?) are accepted like a sermon, beautifully espousing uncontestable truths. Electism has original sin in the form of white privilege, for which one must eternally repent, though without hope of redemption. Electism is evangelical, elevating its beliefs above the rabble as self-evidently true and beyond reproach. Electism is apocalyptic, foretelling a coming-to-terms with racism that finally eradicates it. Interestingly, this apocalyptic vision differs from that of Saint Paul in that he was convinced that the End would occur in his life while the Electist apocalypse will forever remain at some undetermined point in the future. There will always be more “work” that must be done in Electism. Electism disallows heresy and views any dissent as evil, where the very presence of such a heretic is enough to cause physical anguish to its parishioners.

John McWhorter then goes on to make the case that Electism is injurious to the black community. By ignoring real issues faced by black people, such as fatherlessness in the inner city, and demanding that we overlook uncomfortable truths, such as the fact that black boys in school are more likely to be disruptive to their peers (McWhorter cites statistics), we are only causing more harm to black people. Electism is a form of racism that infantilizes black people, encouraging adherents to view black people as less capable and therefore demanding they get special treatment. We must be more lenient with black boys in school, because according to Electism, the disparity in disciplinary actions between white and black students is explained only by racism; we must disregard that this makes things worse for the other black students around the troublesome students. We must elevate race as an important part of the criteria for college admissions, even if it means putting black students into universities for which they may not be prepared, resulting in greater dropout rates among black students. McWhorter calls this lowering of expectations “condescension as respect.”

As a concrete way of actually accomplishing goals, McWhorter suggests a three-pronged approach. Three-pronged in order that it be simple, feasible, and pragmatic. He says that we need to end the war on drugs, we need to teach black children to read using a different approach (the phonics method rather than whole word method), and to disavow ourselves of the notion that everyone needs to go to college to live a fulfilling life. The first prong (or plank, as he calls them) is one I whole-heartedly agree with. He does not make a thorough argument for this, but that would be a task beyond the scope of this book. The second prong sounds a little strange to me. Granted, I haven’t been to elementary school since the early 1990’s, and I never attended an inner-city school, but I specifically remember being taught using the phonics method. We were always told to “sound it out” when trying to read a new word. Perhaps this other approach, the whole word method, is common elsewhere, or has gained popularity in the last three decades. I also confess my ignorance about either the scope of the problem with literacy among inner-city black youth and with which approach to learning how to read is superior, so in this instance I will take the word of a renowned linguist like John McWhorter. In the third prong, McWhorter argues that we ought not view people who went to trade school instead of college as lesser people. College isn’t for everyone, and many people would likely be much happier to learn a trade rather than earn a liberal arts degree that costs more and does less for a person. Indeed, with the internet, there are tons of free resources for self-learning the sorts of topics covered in almost all college courses, so a person who learns a trade is not relegated to a life of ignorance about the ‘higher’ disciplines (art, philosophy, science, and so on).

I don’t know whether or not John McWhorter’s proposed remedy for the issues facing black people in the United States will be effective or not. It certainly could not do any more damage than Electism is doing. But it is important to discuss and debate the merit of such proposals and determine whether more prongs ought to be added or whether existing prongs ought to be modified. What McWhorter’s proposal does that Electism fails to do is offer feasible policy recommendations aimed at accomplishing concrete goals. In that it is already infinitely superior to Electism, and therefore almost certainly to be seen by the Elect as heretical “solutionism.”

I am a casual fan of John McWhorter. I have watched more than a couple of his online discussions with Glenn Loury on the subject of race. When I see that he is being interviewed on some program or platform, I am more likely than not to watch it. I admit, though, that this is the first of his books that I’ve read (linguistics is not a particular interest of mine). It is important, then, to be upfront with my biases. I agree with most of what he is saying in this book. It would thus be easy for me to read this book, nodding along in agreement at his criticisms of the Elect, thinking to myself “yeah, they do be like that.” This is why I think it is important for me to approach his book with a critical eye.

It is important to try understanding what this book set out to accomplish. I think the book is timely, touching on the current zeitgeist. It is important to have enough voices, from people of all races and backgrounds, calling out the Elect and Electism loud, clear, and often. This book accomplishes this.

That being said, I doubt that even in the near future, people will hold this book up as being authoritative on this issue. Posterity is unlikely to point at Woke Racism as the herald of an inflection in our social, political, and cultural thinking about race and Electism. Those already in agreement with McWhorter will find their confirmation bias comfortably satisfied by reading this book and likely will not encounter anything they didn’t already know on some level. Those opposed will either dismiss it as unconvincing or as right-wring propaganda meant to lend aid and comfort to white supremacist ideas: “see, even this black guy agrees with us.”

In some instances, this latter criticism will unfortunately be accurate. It would be unfair to accuse John McWhorter of being motivated by this unhappy misinterpretation of his work, and this criticism certainly is not compelling enough to categorically reject what he has to say. Indeed, I would argue that much of the literature retched up by the Elect has done more to alienate people and push them further toward rightwing sympathies than McWhorter’s book ever will. Much can be said about white people reacting to Electism by adopting ridiculous rightwing views, and the guilty parties certainly have much to answer for in fighting the untruth of Electism with yet another pernicious falsehood. But John McWhorter can hardly be held responsible for how his message may potentially (though by no means inevitably) be twisted and distorted by the warped tangle of nightmare logic employed by extremists of another ilk.

McWhorter’s book is quite short. As such, it is as much of a polemic as it is an argument. Many lines of the text are devoted to labeling Electists as religious fundamentalists who can largely be dismissed as unreachable. With the vocabulary and wordsmithing of a linguist, McWhorter does a phenomenal job of painting the Elect as an insular religious sect who ought to be treated as such.

There are certainly some compelling arguments made in the book, though I think many of them could have been more well-developed. There are precious few actual references in his bibliography. In several places the reader is prompted to “look this up” on their own. Other places use rhetorical devices such as “ask just about any black person…” without supplying statistics or references about what most black people actually think on the issue at hand.

Being a definitive death stroke against the tenets of Electism was likely not the purpose of this book, as McWhorter himself says in many places that trying to convince the Elect is a fools errand. This book wasn’t meant to convince the Elect of the errors and contradictions in their belief system. It is a book meant for an audience of fence-sitters, as he calls them. It’s a book for white people who know they aren’t racist, but are confused by the creed espoused by the Elect to the point of possibly doubting their commitment to equality and inclusion (in the broad, commonsense version of ‘inclusion,’ not the bizarre doctrinal Elect version). It’s a book for black people who don’t know much about Electism, or know about it but see its flaws and contradictions, but are being told they must accept their status as permanent victims. In short, it is not for those already totally on board with disavowing Electism, nor those who are ensconced in the religion. As a jumping off point for further study on the subject, Woke Racism functions adequately.

It is somewhat serendipitous that McWhorter’s book has come out while comedian Dave Chappelle is embroiled in controversy for transgressions against a different offshoot of Electism. Namely, critical gender theory, or queer theory. McWhorter’s book does not touch on gender ideology, but many of the same analyses apply – critical gender theory is a religion, rife with performative rituals and sacred totems, and it does more to damage than to support those for whom it claims to advocate. Chappelle’s special – which if one watches the whole thing through will discover that it is remarkably pro-transgender for something so obstinately charged as being transphobic – was met with opprobrium by the radical gender wing of the Elect. Instead of watching the entire special, seeing a few places where they take issue, and writing calm, level-headed think pieces or inviting a dialogue with Chappelle or some surrogate of his in order to add clarity and nuance, they quickly resort to vindictive demands for Chappelle’s immediate cancellation. This display of vitriol by the Elect can only serve to drive fence-sitters and other potential allies into the arms of the opposition. At best, from the Elect point of view, it will terrorize some people into bottling up their heretical thoughts, leaving them no less ignorant on the issue and likely harboring greater resentment.

I bring this up because, although not being waged by the race-obsessed Elect that McWhorter censures in his book, the treatment of Chappelle is still emblematic of the sort of religious fanaticism among the Elect. A fanaticism where not only are logic and reason jettisoned to make room for enthusiastic declarations of piety, but so is any attempt at formulating and adhering to an effective strategy in the furtherance of their project. That is, if their true aim was ever to convince the population of their rightness as opposed of terrorizing and browbeating the infidels into pliable acquiescence.

As McWhorter notes several times in the book, Electism is not concerned with accomplishing anything concrete. It is about vociferously testifying and virtue signaling, where the apotheosis of this deranged religion is in passionate submission to the totality of the creed as your one true lord and savior. Actually attempting to rectify anything in the real world is a sign that you harbor a sinister desire to usher in the annihilation of this sacred evangel through obsolescence. Doing actual work in protecting civil rights, addressing areas of ignorance and misunderstanding, and taking concrete action to solve problems is counterproductive to the true goal of actualizing oneself through the purity of one’s conviction. It reminds me of the Sartre quote: “the poor don’t know that their function in life is to exercise our generosity.” The people of color, the LGBT people, the “neurodivergent” people, and all other intersectional people do not know that their function in life is to anoint and elevate the Elect in their eternal search for personal fulfilment.

See also: my review of Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay.