REVIEW: Notes on Woke Racism
John McWhorter nails it, politely
NOTES ON WOKE RACISM
John McWhorter nails it, politely
Michael D. C. Bowen
John McWhorter’s new book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America is comfort food for the rational connoisseur. It’s straightforward, nourishing, and it sticks to your ribs. It’s the kind of intellectual meal one should expect of a caring, mature grown-up, served with just enough spice so that it’s not boring, and plenty enough starch so that you can’t just wolf it down like a snack. I say it should be a staple of a thoughtful American’s literary diet. If we’ve got any sense, we shall be coming home to it on a regular basis, if only on Thanksgiving.
Coming into the read, I had been given a couple of different characterizations of McWhorter. I’d been familiar with him for at least a decade and had first encountered him through his association with the folks at City Journal and the Manhattan Institute. As a black conservative writer in the early 2000s, I was impressed by his gracious bearing when we agreed on matters of race, which was most of the time. At that time, I was advised that he was not the kind of person to chill out over beers. More recently, I was told that in writing this book, he didn’t give a rat’s ass what people thought of him any longer. I understand that feeling of thinking your way out of a box that other cats refuse to leave, or to use another well-worn black metaphor, of escaping a barrel of crabs.
The Moral Core
McWhorter’s genius lies in his couching of the moral posturing and punitive campaigns of those he calls “the Elect” in the metaphor of religious devotion. His graciousness remains in evidence as he explains that they are well-educated, ordinarily reasonable people, but that under the spell of various “Elect” axioms on the subject of race they have exited the realm of logic and reason and entered the realm of faith. The fact that the Elect live and move and have their being in the realm of faith is most obvious from what McWhorter calls the “Catechism of Contradictions.” If there is one takeaway that I want readers to keep from Woke Racism it is the clarity of agreement of black and white adherents to the precepts in this catechism. Most of us will be familiar with these precepts as a result of our exasperating dealings with the Elect and their lazy defenders. The catechism includes such self-canceling pairs of precepts as these:
Silence about racism is violence. Elevate the voices of the oppressed over your own.
Show interest in multiculturalism. Do not culturally appropriate.
When whites move away from black neighborhoods, it’s white flight. When whites move into black neighborhoods, it’s gentrification.
To hold each precept of any of these pairs in one’s mind without feeling the strain of cognitive dissonance requires the willing suspension of reason.
McWhorter also very shrewdly nails the primordial animating force of the Elect phenomenon in his understanding that it is all about power, an obsession that owes to the great Karl Marx (p. 11):
Battling power relations and their discriminatory effects must be the central focus of all human endeavor, be it intellectual, moral, civic, or artistic. Those who resist this focus, or even evidence insufficient adherence to it, must be sharply condemned, deprived of influence, and ostracized.
If we are to understand something deep about what America is going through, I think some credit is due to the moral leadership of Marxist theory. Especially for those who find traditional religion to be fundamentally morally compromised, some of the ethical aspects of Marxism are what fills the gap. What goes unstated in our Red and Blue delusions is that Marx himself was a humanist.
Marx (and Kierkegaard) were near the center of a reforming sensibility in Christianity that one might call “the destruction of the theory of the Sons of Ham.” (The sons of Noah’s son Ham are, according to Genesis 9-10, founders of several African and Middle Eastern peoples. The curse laid upon their father by their grandfather was traditionally used to explain the subjection and slavery of their descendants.) The Christian idea that the poor were ordained to be poor, that the slaves were ordained to be slaves, and that the Kingdom of Heaven would be just enough reward for earthly suffering was attacked by those two thinkers. If it were said to be God’s will that slavery exists, then this is the sort of “Christian Conservatism” that Marxists would object to. Of course, Marx saw capitalism as creative of a kind of slavery for workers, who make up the oppressed class. This ethical principle slides very neatly onto any number of racial assumptions about African-descended people in America and so naturally generates the analogies we see today, most recently appropriated by Colin Kaepernick’s documentary that compares the NFL draft and tryouts to the slave auction block.
Again, this is all about power. To avoid getting into the philosophical weeds, McWhorter omits explicitly to indict the Elect of inspiration by Marx. They’re all nice Americans, remember? But the quack of Marx-inspired ducks is all about the inevitability of transferring power from the immoral minority capitalists to the moral majority proletarians. The Work of the Elect on behalf of accelerating the day when People of Color inherit the earth follows the same activist quackery. The Elect are activists who aim to disrupt power inequalities around race. Merely talking about it does not suffice. They must smoke it out and do something about it. This is the moral center of their universe. It is the religion for those who want less demanded of them than Christianity requires, despite the fact that similar social values may be found in Christian thought, such as, for example, Catholic Social Teaching:
In order for our communities to thrive and be able to uphold and protect the dignity of human life, at all stages, rights must be protected and responsibilities met. St. John XXIII enumerates these rights: “We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood” (Pacem in Terris, 11, an Encyclical of Pope John XXIII issued in 1963).
This Catholic Christian meditation on human rights encompasses all of humanity and would require quite a lot of us to secure, certainly more than babbling about “white fragility” requires.
The Elect and Elect ideas are doomed to failure because of the contradictions in their reductionist use of race. This is made crystal clear in McWhorter’s book. You can’t destroy racism so long as you sustain the fiction of race itself, and by making all failures and suffering of black Americans the fetishized effect of racism, everything becomes racist. The trouble with this doctrine is that black Americans, like all people, fail and suffer for every possible human reason.
The Negro Racialists
McWhorter stands near me in my own location within black culture and specifically outside of the privileges accorded to themselves of black culture’s racialists, who always manage to grab what I consider outsized and inappropriate influence. Those of us who are old enough have seen “blackness” invented and reinvented by these racialists over the decades. There has of course been real progress and change in the minds of black Americans, but there are always regressive elements. Let me describe a few. This should help anyone who has the handicap of not having paid close attention to various arcane movements within the black intelligentsia. In short, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi are just a couple of new jack icebergs in an ocean of struggle. In 1991, it was Afrocentrism, remember?
I see black American strivings overwhelmingly in the context of the sorts of middle-class and bourgeois aspirations associated with the American Dream. From my perspective this stands in a tradition that is practically as old as the republic itself. In my own family, I have traced those who lived in New Orleans from the late 1700s who were known as “free people of color.” They were never slaves. Nobody wants a travesty of justice, which slavery, the failure of Reconstruction and Jim Crow clearly were. We the people in our efforts to form a more perfect union have not consistently established justice and insured domestic tranquility. But clearly by the time of the Negro, three generations after the death of Benjamin Banneker (d. 1806), such figures as Booker T. Washington (b. 1856), W.E.B. Du Bois (b. 1868) and Carter G. Woodson (b. 1875) were at liberty to come up with contrasting ideas about the best kind of education for that Negro. (I use the term “Negro” to describe that post-enslavement African American whose existential benchmark was comparison of himself to his white contemporary.) In contrast to Washington, Du Bois, and Woodson, Marcus Garvey (b. 1887) essentially said to hell with the American Dream, let’s go back to Africa. I could not possibly do justice to any of these great men in my abstractions of their messages but it serves the purposes of this essay to boil their recommendations down. Three of them said America is the place, and one wasn’t having it. Washington’s lesson was for the Negro to take up a technical education. Du Bois would have us become philosopher kings, as he himself aimed to be. Woodson said all that’s cool so long as you chill on the Divinity schools and fluffy majors.
For those among us who cannot manage to get the stain of the fraction 3/5 out of their minds, there is a natural appeal to the revolutionary designs of Garvey. But all prescriptions aimed at “raising the race” in the USA were for the Negro. The intellectual evolution of the Negro required self-determination of the sort that the Negro was socially and legally excluded from. The requisite social change was the Civil Rights agenda and the destruction of Jim Crow. The intellectual change continues to this day, and for many it is complete. Where it has gone wayward is in the branch of Elect thinking which once again has every intention of making “BIPOC” out of us all by forcing us constantly to compare every aspect of our lives to The White Man.
For African Americans there are myriad ways out of the Negro box. The swiftest is to renounce the very concept of race and to denounce everyone who keeps reconstructing its social construction around people who are, above all else, simply Americans. Those reconstructors are quick to racialize every new thing with their Elect reactions. Every black American with a tale of woe who responds to the altar calls of the Elect puts himself right back into that old Negro box. It has all come to that.
The White Man’s Burden
On the other side of the net are the whites and their Asian doppelgängers all corralled by the Elect to bear the shame of any success not shared “equitably” with the so-called People of Color. McWhorter doesn’t characterize them fully so much as he identifies some of their innocent cosmopolitan habits, like watching Mad Men or reading the New York Times. It doesn’t quite matter because the attraction of becoming Elect for whites is equally wrong at the philosophical level. Whether you seek to raise or denigrate your racial identity, you are still treating it according to the prescriptions of the religion. You are still admitting to your undeniable possession of a racial soul which must be put right, at the risk of everything else.
Thus is born the new civilizing imperative called for by the Elect, whether it manifests in schools, at work, online, or in the arts, whether you call it CRT, DEI, or ESG, and whether you use terms like “diversity,” “equity,” or “social justice.” So long as you perceive race and weight it, you are playing into the hands of the Elect, who will inevitably grow more capable and powerful as they gain more active adherents and passive observers who are willing to go along.
Unlike Stoicism, the Elect catechism is evangelical. They take their burden seriously and cannot stand the presence of apostates. They always have a pocketful of kindling and a ready match. Their trail of destruction has been subtle, but McWhorter and many others have seen the fire in their eyes and felt the heat of their contempt for disagreement. His prescriptions are not quite the legendary Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions but they evoke them nonetheless. My favorite, a prescription for parents on how to respond to “anti-racist” lunacy invading their children’s schools:
This religion has no place in this school’s curriculum. It is indeed a religion, because I’m afraid you don’t seem able to explain your take on this issue with what I think of as logic. If White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist do it for you, you don’t seem to be able to tell me why, which suggests that those books are not as valuable as you seem to think. If you insist on exposing my children to this religion when they are supposed to be getting an education, I will gather a group of parents and we will transfer our children to another school. And we will write all about you on Twitter before, while, and after we do it.
That’s a punch in the nose and on the mark. Yet McWhorter is not the sort that goes for the jugular. As an atheist in America in the rarified world of the academy he stands among an as yet un-networked multitude of grownups, sensitive and aiming to make social progress in those realms most suited for the sort of progress higher education might deliver. In his final paragraphs he asks us to “Be Spartacus.” I think he knows the enemy of liberty and he knows the price of regaining it.
Michael D. C. Bowen is an editor of the Journal of Free Black Thought, a Stoic writer, author of the award-winning blog Cobb, and data engineer. He has been published in Newsweek, was a regular NPR contributor, host at Cafe Utne, founder of the Conservative Brotherhood, Rights Universal, and Free Black Thought. His online writing projects on political, cultural and philosophical subjects reach back over 23 years. His latest project, is Stoic Observations. Michael lives with his wife and three children in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.