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John McWhorter Argues That Antiracism Has Become a Religion of the Left

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By Zaid Jilani

WOKE RACISM
How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America
By John McWhorter

Growing up in the 1990s, I was raised to be optimistic about American society. That society welcomed my parents from Pakistan with open arms; it produced the Georgia man who, in the days after 9/11, approached my family and told us that if anyone harassed us in any way because of our Muslim faith, he would come to our aid.

I knew the country still had problems. I decided to become a journalist so I could shed light on society’s imperfections. But I did so in a spirit of hopefulness.

In recent years, however, a much darker vision has emerged on the political left. America isn’t a land of opportunity. It’s barely changed since the days of Jim Crow. Whites, universally privileged, maintain an iron grip on American society, while nonwhites are little more than virtuous victims cast adrift on a plank in an ocean of white supremacy.

This worldview has swiftly implanted itself into major institutions, from our universities to our corporations. Why has it captivated so many people?

The Columbia University linguist John McWhorter attempts to answer that question in “Woke Racism,” which seeks to both explain and rebut this ideology. (McWhorter and I both sit on the board of advisers of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism.)

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    McWhorter, who also writes a newsletter for The Times’s Opinion section, is a Black liberal who dissents from much of the left’s views on race issues. In 2000, he published “Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America,” where he argued that counterproductive cultural beliefs and practices, not racial prejudice, were the main forces preventing more African Americans from succeeding. Some of his targets in that book were left-wing academics, who he worried were helping transform victimhood “from a problem to be solved into an identity in itself.”

    Yet in the two decades since, those academics seem to have become more influential than ever. In his latest book, McWhorter suggests that’s because their ideology has been elevated into a religion.

    “I do not mean that these people’s ideology is ‘like’ a religion. I seek no rhetorical snap in this comparison. I mean that it actually is a religion,” he writes. “An anthropologist would see no difference in type between Pentecostalism and this new form of antiracism.”

    While praising earlier generations of civil rights work, he objects to what he calls “Third Wave Antiracism,” which preaches that “racism is baked into the structure of society, whites’ ‘complicity’ in living within it constitutes racism itself, while for Black people, grappling with the racism surrounding them is the totality of experience and must condition exquisite sensitivity toward them, including a suspension of standards of achievement and conduct.”

    Borrowing a term from the author Joseph Bottum, McWhorter refers to the prophets of the Third Wave as “the Elect.” They see themselves as “bearers of a Good News that, if all people would simply open up and see it, would create a perfect world.”

    McWhorter says that the Elect’s unshakable convictions have led them to persecute people with unfair accusations of racism. He cites cases like that of David Shor, a young white progressive analyst who was fired from his consulting firm for tweeting a study showing how violent protests can backfire. Many of these inquisitions have been led not by people from minority groups but from the white Elects themselves, who are described as carrying a sort of “self-flagellational guilt for things you did not do.”

    It’s easy, however, to mock the lengths to which white liberals will go to be seen as antiracist. McWhorter is more interesting when he discusses why some African Americans have chosen to join the ranks of the Elect. “Humans seek pride where they can get it,” he writes, noting that “to be a Black Elect is to have a sense of belonging.” It allows African Americans to “adopt an identity as a beleaguered Black person, where you are united with all Black people, regardless of social class or educational level, by the common experience of suffering discrimination.”

    As in his previous books, McWhorter views it as a mistake to forge one’s identity around victimhood. He characterizes the woke racial worldview as harmful not for normalizing antiwhite prejudices or treating the social categories of race as something concrete, but because it deprives Black people of their humanity by infantilizing them. He objects to lowering standards for minorities, as when certain members of the Elect claim that “objectivity, being on time and the written word are ‘white’ things.” (The Smithsonian Institution of all places posted a graphic promoting these ideas.)

    Where McWhorter is less effective is in his critique of some of the Third Wave’s high priests. Although he takes aim at writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi and The New York Times’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, he only briefly quotes their writing. A more compelling pushback would have involved a thorough analysis of their arguments (he has reviewed Kendi and DiAngelo elsewhere).

    Yet if you doubt the necessity of McWhorter’s intervention into the debates about race, consider the following episode: In the summer of 2020, a journalist friend of mine named Lee Fang attended a Black Lives Matter rally and, in a video clip he posted to Twitter, interviewed a young Black man named Max about his thoughts on policing issues.

    Max spoke from a place of personal pain. He’d had two cousins murdered in the East Oakland neighborhood where he grew up. He was sympathetic to the outcry over the death of George Floyd, but he was equally troubled by high rates of violence in some minority communities.

    “I always question, why does a Black life only matter when a white man takes it?” he asked Fang. “Like, if a white man takes my life tonight, it’s going to be national news, but if a Black man takes my life, it might not even be spoken of.”

    A co-worker of Fang’s reacted to the tweet by publicly decrying him as a racist. Soon, thousands of others chimed in to condemn him, including quite a few journalists from major outlets. Eventually, he released a public apology.

    Welcome to the world that the Elect are trying to create. The only story they want us to tell is one where whites are the villains and minorities are the victims. Honest discussion of why homicide is the leading cause of death for young Black men is off limits.

    Unlike McWhorter, who is a staunch atheist, I believe that religion is a force for good in the world. It was Malcolm X’s pilgrimage to Mecca, after all, that finally opened his eyes to the reality that not all whites are wicked. A firm belief that all humans carry souls bestowed by God precludes prejudging them through such corporeal categories as race.

    But I agree with McWhorter that a religion that seeks to defeat white supremacy by insisting that nonwhite people cannot be expected to uphold the same standards of conduct and ethics as white people isn’t one worth believing in.

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