His bestselling book is now available. Woke Racism, How a Brand 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 TimesThe 1619 Project seeks to highlight racial differences while drawing attention to actual barriers that could hinder black Americans from improving their quality of living.
McWhorter explored anti-racism in 2015 as “Our Flawed, New Religion”. The Daily Beast and continued the theme in a series of articles for Reason in 2020. McWhorter said that McWhorter believes something is distracting people from my world recently. He thinks they might be tempted to succumb to a type of selfish extremism, in order to remain good people.
Contrary to the vituperative assertions of critics, Woke Racism McWhorter says that this book isn’t a right-wing one. “I think my company has left-leaning employees who love to 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 ebbedAnd 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.
McWhorter spoke in November with It is a good reasonNick Gillespie talks about the benefits that whites get from supporting this ideology agenda and how blacks gain by being “victims” to it. What needs to be done so all Americans can create a better union?
Reason: How do you pitch your elevator pitch? Woke Racism – How a New Religion Betrayed Black America?
McWhorter: A group of people are dedicated to social justice. They are so sure of their moral purity, they will hurt others if they disagree with them. They believe they’re saving those who live under white supremacy. These people are not only mean and difficult to work with but, in the name social justice for Black people, often they don’t really care for black people or hurt them. It was me who wrote it. Woke Racism not as some boring statement from the right wing about family values and people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. This book is about black people needing help. This is what the people calling themselves “black people’s saviors” don’t get. They are more interested in virtue-signaling to each other than actually helping those who really need it.
We’re talking about woke activism—authors like Robin DiAngelo, Ibram Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is important to call this a religion.
Because of the formal similarities it has with Christianity (especially devout Christianity), I have called it a religion. These parallels are important. I also have a heuristic explanation for them. Some people expected. Woke Racism This book is an investigation of the nature of religion, wokeness, and their parallels. It would be impossible for anyone to have ever read it. You shouldn’t, it isn’t that important.
It is useful to consider this a religion, so people understand why we cannot have productive interactions with the person I am writing about. People often think that if they could just get people to see the need for a variety of ideas, we would be able to make them understand. People ask me how I can get them to stop calling me racist. You can’t. They do it because they can’t.
It’s unlikely that you will try to convince someone Jesus doesn’t love them. You also won’t try to persuade anyone to abandon their faith. This idea is more easily communicated if it’s framed as a religion rather than being called an ideology.
You critique terms such as Systemic racism. Do we have to move on from systemic racism?
It is more difficult to recognize racism in the present than in the past. It’s not the reason I dislike that word. SystemicBut because of the racism. It’s not a stretch to say that racism is an attitude, but racism can also refer to inequities in a system which are racial. You start to speak of inequities with a different nature and use the term racismThis implies there is one issue. While we can only assume that this is due to some emotion, bias, in reality the issues are caused by many things. This is a dangerously simplified way to look at society’s inequalities and complexity.
Redlining, for example. Take a look at a neighborhood with redlines in 1950. Most of its residents were white. This is something we do not talk about. The redlining process was not as racially focused as some people would like it to be. Redlining was all about class. It was about class. However, there were a lot of black people who lived in the same areas, which meant that black people had disproportionately suffered from redlining. Does this explain why there is a wealth gap today between black and white people? Yes, to a certain extent. However, when you look at the facts, you will see that the wealth gap does not reflect what the people are saying.
It was certainly a sign of racism that there were so few people who could accumulate equity in their day. But today, to look at the wealth gap and say, “This is systemic racism”—no. It was in the past. Today, there’s inequity. You have to do something about this. Are you willing to give money to blacks? Is it possible to buy houses for black people? Which price for a house is it? What amount of money is required? It’s complicated. It’s often not what most people think.
It is not the same thing, but it’s what we are talking about. It is racism? This is a strange way to use tense. Racism was responsible for creating a gap in our society today.
There was an enormous transformation in American culture between 1960 and 1970 when it came to race. Could you tell us a bit more about it?
Two-parent families are still the norm [back in 1960]Even with black poor people. Welfare is an intolerant program that requires you to knock on every door of the social worker. It’s also a very short-term, mean-spirited thing. It’s generally believed that Martin Luther King’s view of race was the best and most reasonable approach to thinking about it. He said, “Let’s eliminate segregation. View people according to their content.”
You go to 1970 and there’s this whole new mood—the black power mood. This new concept is that “We won’t get our best because we don’t have the will to.” Accept that we will not do our best and sometimes do our worst. Gradually, the idea settles that being your worst and not trying your best are almost equal to black authenticity. You stand as an emblem of white racism. Segregation was the focus of 1960s racism. It was accepted in some circles by 1970 that racism still exists and is indestructible because of its structural nature.
The 1966 welfare revolution makes it easy for people to stay on welfare and not worry about getting job training. It becomes a multigenerational program when the number of people knocking at your door decreases in the early 1970s. This is not the fault of anyone. Black America changed between 60 and 70.
Consider that civil rights in 1966 or earlier are still valid. [black activist] Stokely Carmichael and people yelling “black power” and not knowing what it meant—that’s where it went wrong. These people are still speaking out about them.
The polling data shows remarkable changes in American race relations and American life outcomes. There was more racial animosity after the Barack Obama years. Gallup and Pew both report that blacks feel racism is a more pressing issue than ever before. Many white people also agree with them. Is that true?
Absolutely none. Obama is elected president in 2009 and the Tea Party comes after him. Everyone thinks it’s mostly due to his race. My question is: What if John Edwards was a pretty white boy with the exact same policies and views as Obama became president? The outcome would not have been the same. Because in 2009, Twitter and Facebook became the default social media platform, The Tea Party was able to happen as it did. These things changed our lives more than smartphones did.
On the American race scene two events occurred: Trayvon’s killing and Michael Brown’s shooting. These events educated America, and taught black Americans that unjustifiable deaths by white cops are possible.
What is most sad about this world? It has become clear that how these two events were presented was a complete fabrication. Both of these cases were protested by me at the time. Now, I feel deceived just as we all do by Colin Powell, bless his heart. George Zimmerman didn’t kill Trayvon Martin in a sense that was unjustifiable. While it was unfortunate, Trayvon was actually a completely different person to what people believe. It was also a lie with Mike Brown. He continued to charge at the police officer for reasons that we won’t know. It was the idea of [the officer who killed Brown] just shot this guy dead with his hands up in the air—it’s false.
Eric Holder (Breakfast of Obama) led the Justice Department’s exhaustive investigation on the Michael Brown shooting and arrived at the same conclusion as you.
But the myth won’t die.
The Brown case revealed a system that peonaged entire communities. This included poorer communities which were often more disproportionately of color. It is easy to see how Ferguson, Missouri was run by cops who would issue large amounts of speeding tickets and other types of violations just for their personal budgets.
Yes, it was true. When there’s an racial disparity, it is sometimes necessary to blow the whistle. New York City stopped-and-frisk had gone far too far. This was something I often wrote and drove a lot people crazy. Ferguson taught you a lot about the injustice of policing, and how much fines were levied. The truth is that Ferguson’s level of destruction and fury was all about Mike Brown. It was about Mike Brown. The fury and the destruction that occurred wasn’t just about getting lots of tickets or spending a night behind bars. It could have been done in a more positive way.
It’s sad to think that if we cannot get to the real thing, then telling a huge lie is all that will work.
Does blackness still fit into the same tight category? The U.S. Census allowed for the first multiracial category in late 1990s without any terrible motivations.
One group of people is utterly obsessed with the notion that blackness’ essence is being oppressed by whites. These category memberships will eventually fall apart. This is a time in which [mixed-race kids]They had to learn that being black was a fact they would have to live with. That made more sense back in 1975, when there was much less cultural freedom. This is not the case today.
People who hear me speak like that may think I am saying that I dislike blackness, or that it is something I find difficult to accept. This category doesn’t seem to make sense. My daughters are included in this. They will be 40 years old and they may identify as black women. They’re becoming American urban kids, but they are modestly wealthy.
These days, I am worried about what people will say. blacknessWhat they are referring to is not dressing up in a manner that resembles Episcopalian whites. Blackness can be interpreted as jamming. This is more than dancing. It’s about rhythm. That blackness is not being too exact—we’re seeing that in so many educational materials. The culture is clear that blackness is not being exact. It is not to assume you can get the answer. It’s about a beat; it’s all about the rhythm. The beat is what you do. You can’t be in one place. That worries me. [this sense of]You know that blackness is primitive?
Christopher Lasch, a writer, has written a piece about the origins of the term. survivor slipped out of postwar narratives of people who survived death camps and gulags. Betty Friedan, a suburban housewife from the 1960s, was talking about the effects of being a victim of concentration camps. Survivorship had moved beyond being limited to the Holocaust and became more widespread. We’re in an age now where being a survivor—and making people around you aware of your trauma—seems to be how we talk about everything.
Psychologists began to do sessions with black and white people. White people had to accept the notion that their actions were creating trauma in black communities. This continues to be a problem. [diversity, equity, and inclusion] initiatives. This was originally intended to be a practical way of drawing attention to the reality that people are suffering. This analogy is used. Someone who was teased at school isn’t going through the same traumas as someone in the Holocaust. However, you can still say they are both survivors. Once that settles in and people stop processing it as extreme, you do have this usage of the term—kind of like the way we use the term racism—that stops being terribly useful, and sometimes can be almost manipulative and destructive of a person.
Your book discusses ways that black Americans can have better lives. Three things you suggest: Stop the drug war; teach proper reading skills and let go of the notion that everybody should attend college.
There is no street drug market that sells hard drugs. You cannot drop out of school to do this. You can’t avoid some type of legal job. It’s hard to find work in a community that is underserved. A problem is if your family hasn’t provided for you with the best education and doesn’t teach you how to solve any problems. Because the drug war destroys black communities, and creates a black market that lures them to crime, you need to stop it. They should be arrested in a system which values and treasures vocational education. This is so that the man can learn how to fix heaters and air conditioners for a living and a middle-class lifestyle.
This is the idea of what a person should do after graduating high school. [is to] go spend four years “expanding their mind” in ways that frankly don’t much expand the mind—college is something that should be a choice for some people the way it was before 1945 and the G.I. Bill. Most people prefer to go into a job training. It is possible to attend college in the future, however, it should not become the standard rite of passage. It makes me cringe when I see people talking about the need to make college more accessible to poor students. Vocational school should be made more accessible!
Teach reading properly—how did you come up with that?
This sounds so bizarre. That sounds as if I have some kind of special dedication to pedagogy. But it’s not like that. It’s not that. In 1997, there was a lot of controversy about whether Ebonics should have been used in Oakland’s schools. You were part of the controversy and learned about reading problems that could lead anyone to believe that it was black dialect. This wasn’t the issue.
A whole book was written by you demonstrating that black dialect can be a very effective way to communicate.
In another book, I said that it was not because of black dialect that children with low English proficiency have difficulty learning to read standard English. They weren’t taught how to read correctly. A good program in phonics will ensure that your child does not turn away from school at age 8.
It’s not clear how many. [readers of the book]Have had the privilege of being close to someone 25-years old who grew up hard. I’ve known black people like this; there are white people like it too—somebody where you’re at the restaurant and they’re moving their lips when they read the menu because, you know, menus are tough to read. Nearly always it is someone who was raised in a school that just handed out books to kids and let them learn by osmosis. It’s not how people learn to read. This is a problem that I find alarming, especially since black children are more likely to suffer.
This is what I believe: Let children learn how to read to make them less likely to drop out. If they do leave school there will be no black market in the area. While I can understand the desire to choose this, it should not be an option. Is that what you want? should be available is good, solid vocational training so that they can go out into the world and lead the kinds of productive lives that their grandfathers did. These are the black communities I am referring to in major cities around 1949. It was not paradise, but many black men had legal jobs.
Which are your discursive and rhetorical strategies to address the “elect,” which is your term for social-justice advocates?
Some people believe that fighting power differentials should be the core of everything they do. These people believe that power differentials are real and exist. Until they do, all else will be a fiddling while Rome burns. This kind of person calls you white supremacist if they disagree.
Two things are necessary: First, we must accept the name “Stay on” and continue to walk forward instead of thinking about it. [being]Being called racist via social media stain us as Hester Pynne. This person must be told that “No!”
I believe that there are many of us. Especially since June 2020. [the killing of]George Floyd had the thought that, when someone approaches you and talks about social justice and interconnectedness, and says that they are going to alter all of their procedures and that you can disagree with them, then we will call you names and fire you.
People who are calling for this need to hear no. You don’t have to abuse them, just say “No.” Your contention that we should focus on reducing power differentials is not supported by us. This will only be one of a dozen activities we undertake. It will be a sideline. You can leave if it isn’t what you want. It doesn’t matter what you call it, I care.
The interview was edited and condensed for clarity and style. View the complete video version here.