Columbia University professor John McWhorter looks at how some ideas about race have taken on the qualities of religion and have been weaponized against those who disagree.
Today race has become the center of almost every political conversation. Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, author, journalist, linguist, and Columbia University professor John McWhorter, has a contrarian point of view. He argues that what he defines as “neo-racism,” disguised as wokeism, is destroying America’s social fabric.
The author of the recently released Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, McWhorter views wokeism, particularly as it relates to our contemporary debate about race, as a kind of cult or religion — one that invokes the original sin of “white privilege,” weaponizes it as “cancel culture,” and unleashes the evangelical fervor of the “woke mob.”
McWhorter— who is Black — stands at the ramparts of opposition to the brand of anti-racism put forth by such authors as Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Nikole Hannah-Jones. He contends that much of “critical race theory” ignores the considerable progress America has made against racism, and instead prioritizes “performance art“ over actual change.
This conversation is part of an on-going dialogue in which WhoWhatWhy will share diverse perspectives on the issues McWhorter raises.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. While reality i.e., statistics and facts, tell us that racial issues in America have gotten better over the past 50 years, you would not necessarily know that from today’s rhetoric. The idea that some kind of white supremacy is at the heart of every problem in America seems to be the coin of the realm. We hear over and over again the idea that every public and private institution has to hire a vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
We hear the idea that corporate and educational standards need to be lowered to achieve equity. That hiring based on merit has been replaced by hiring based on having the right corporate palette. That people live in fear of saying the wrong thing, and fear of being canceled. How did we get to this place where being woke is sometimes more important than other values? Where wokeness is a kind of cult from which heretics can be burned at the Twitter stake? I’m hoping that our guest, John McWhorter, who teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia could help us better understand this.
McWhorter, a bestselling author argues that an illiberal neo-racism disguised as anti-racism is hurting Black communities and weakening America’s social fabric. While at the same time he offers a roadmap to justice that he actually believes will help his fellow Black Americans. McWhorter who recently began a regular newsletter for The New York Times is the author of the new book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. John McWhorter, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
John McWhorter: Thanks for having me, Jeff.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. Talk a little bit about how you see woke-ism today as a kind of religion, as a kind of cult almost.
John: Well, you described it very well. The issue is not whether there’s value in understanding that the nation has never fully lived up to its ideals, this woke idea. It’s the idea that that should be central to everything. That the degree of your wokeness — and really whether or not you were extremely woke — is your measure as a human being, and that if you are not woke to a certain specified degree then you should be fired. That you’re not worthy of the company of civilized people. That you’re a moral pervert, of a kind.
That ideology, the idea that battling power differentials should be the center of everything and that nothing is really worth engaging sincerely until that happens, that’s an extreme and peculiar way of looking at things for this thing called a human being. And we’re at a point where that way of looking at things has a power that I think is dangerous for any kind of mature society.
Jeff: In order to better understand it, how did we get here? Was there a tipping point that really led us to where we are today? Can we find a sort of singularity that really got us moving in this direction from which there hasn’t been any turning back?
John: Yeah, it’s not that this way of thinking hasn’t been part of the left. For a long time it used to be an extremist — but I always thought interesting — way of looking at things and it was worth listening to, but something happened in roughly May of 2020. You could feel the earth moving under your feet. It was a combination of two things. One, was the particularly gruesome death, murder, I say, of George Floyd, and of course, police murders of Black men always touch a cord. This was an especially unpleasant one captured on video.
So there was that, but that alone wouldn’t have done it. It was also that this was discovered a couple of months after all of America had been living under a lockdown and spring had come. And I think people wanted a sense of togetherness, wanted a sense of purpose, wanted something outside of themselves. And so there was a kind of a powder keg that time was right for a large protest to emerge where the idea wasn’t only George Floyd, but in general, racial reckoning. And I don’t mean that people were cynical or people were small, but it was an excuse to go outside. It was an excuse to spend time with people, and then even if you didn’t go outside, it was an excuse to have a collective sense of purpose.
And so those two things, George Floyd and the pandemic, meant that by the summer of 2020 we were living in this new world where people became afraid that if you don’t adhere to the wokeness paradigm you’re going to be called a racist on Twitter and most people would rather lie a little bit than be called a racist on Twitter. That’s where we got to where we are today.
Jeff: There also seems to be a sense that these ideas, even before George Floyd, these ideas were percolating around in the culture, that the Kendi and Robin DiAngelo and even “1619” were all playing a role in this.
John: Yeah, they were definitely around and one thought about them, but it was in the summer of 2020, for example, that Robin DiAngelo’s book really took off. It was in the summer of 2020 that Ibram Kendi became a superstar. And it was in the summer of 2020 — frankly, I mean, many people might not believe this — I barely knew who Nikole Hannah-Jones was until then. I had not followed her work, but it was starting in the middle of 2020 that her work took on a particularly iconic status. And that was because of the new mood, and the new extremity, the new guilt, and how social media can distort that kind of thing into something that would not have happened before roughly about 2009.
Jeff: The degree to which this became accepted and became part of corporate culture. Talk about that, because in some ways it was not a surprise within academia, for example, but the way it permeated into the rest of the culture and how quickly it did was surprising.
John: Yeah, anti-racism sells or a corporation is aware that in our current climate being branded a racist does not sell, but it hurts sales. And that in itself is an indication of progress. Coca-Cola or any corporation wouldn’t have cared about such a thing in such a major way in say, to take a random year, 1985. That just wasn’t the case. It’s gotten to the point that even if you’re being cold-eyed and pragmatic, being branded as a bigot in public isn’t good for your brand, isn’t good for your image, isn’t good therefore for your bottom line.
And so that meant that now a way of looking at things that if you’re an academic, you were already familiar with, becomes something that faceless corporations cowtow to because of the nature of publicity, and once again, not to be monotonous, but social media.
Jeff: Talk about the kind of fervor that parallels religion. The idea of an original sin and the way it has exploded in that sense.
John: Yeah, it really is interesting that I call this a religion, not like a religion, but a religion. Partly because of the way you have such close parallels to the way, for example, Abrahamic religions operate. White privilege is real. That is a concept that I think any educated person should be exposed to. But the idea that white privilege is something that you should walk around feeling actively guilty about, that you should consider yourself complicit, that word that we use so much lately, in the operations of a society set up for you, and that you should feel bad about it. And that you should think of white privilege as this stain that you wear even if you’re a poor White person and no matter what you do as a white person until you die, all of that, no matter how you defend it is eerily parallel to the notion of original sin and frankly corresponds just as poorly to what most people would think of as justness. It’s a really punitive vision and I’m not sure what it’s for is my issue. I don’t know why white people need to feel that guilty in order to get on board with things that will help Black people, which are important, as I say in the book. It’s not that Black people don’t need help. The question is from who and how and with what intentions.
Jeff: How much does victimhood and a sense in the culture of victimhood play a role in this?
John: Well, unfortunately, there are two ways of dealing with victimhood. One is to think of how you’re going to get past it, and sometimes to even have a little bit of healthy denial of the aspects of it that you can work your way around and have a good day. That’s how most people deal with obstacles, is that you minimize them a little bit. Even, you know, beyond what logic might suggest and you try to do your best. All of us think of that as what you teach, say, a child to do.
But then another way of dealing with victimization, and this is a pan-human trait, is that you exaggerate it and you build your whole identity around the concept of you as somebody who is suffering from and grappling with victimhood because that person in a way is a hero. It’s a way of feeling good about yourself to frame yourself as a victim, especially if in your daily life you’re not really suffering that much. Because if you were, you couldn’t afford to exaggerate, but if you’re really more or less okay, then you can take on that mindset. We all know what a tattletale is. We all know what a martyr is.
In Black America, often on the race question, we’re encouraged to be that kind of person who harbors a victimization mindset. And that’s why looking from the outside it can seem, “Okay, racism exists, okay, things aren’t perfect but aren’t they exaggerating a little bit?” And the very sad truth is, and I hate saying this, but frankly, as often as not yes. There is that exaggeration and it’s because Black people are encouraged to adopt this victimization mindset and it’s not healthy.
Jeff: You’ve talked about the way in which all of this has been kind of weaponized by social media. Talk about the way our politics today has weaponized it as well.
John: Well, it’s at the point these days, where on both sides of the aisle there is this illiberal view that people are to be defined by groups. That there are some good people, and then there are some bad people. And that our job is to shore up a certain narrative and not let facts get in the way of feeling like you’re a warrior on the barricades, battling against this narrative. That is a right-wing problem right now, that is a left-wing problem right now. On both sides, we see people who are living inside fantasy bubbles.
If you’re on the right, you see the wokesters as the main problem. I’ve noticed in the wake of my book coming out that if you’re one of these people on the left, then you see people on the right as the real problem. And if anything on the left doesn’t make perfect sense, well they’re excesses in all social movements. Really, both of them are problems. And it’s a kind of politics that was stoked especially by Twitter and Facebook. We tend to forget this because history happens in small steps, but Twitter and Facebook became default in 2009. It wasn’t, say, four or five years ago. It was in 2009.
And if you think about it, it’s since then that we have looked upon politics today in America and seen an intransigence that reminds a lot of us of the way things were in the Gilded Age. That’s because of social media creating tribes in that way.
Jeff: And part of that tribalness is this idea of absolute faith in the ideas, even in the face of facts and reality.
John: Yeah, that’s a frame of mind that is always dangerous. On the right, it is the idea that the election was stolen. That simply isn’t true. It’s painfully obvious. And yet, to be part of certain circles, you have to pretend that that’s true. And then, on the other side of the aisle, there is the idea that, for example, to be Black is to walk around bedeviled by white oppression, which is responsible for any problem that Black people have, and that we need to decenter whiteness because whiteness has been an evil throughout the history of the human species.
None of that is true. It doesn’t make any sense beyond a certain point. But if you don’t believe that line, then you are considered an unenlightened, unwoke, and therefore unwelcome person. And minds shut down very quickly. It’s on both sides. And it’s more extreme now than it used to be.
Jeff: Talk about this idea of equity, which is a word that gets bandied around in this debate so much.
John: Equity is a thorny point. The idea is that if there’s an imbalance between white and black, it must be because of racism on some level. And that therefore that inequity needs to just be undone. You identify that it has something to do with racism. You might not even have to specify how, but because it’s because of racism, the solution is to just undo it. And therefore, it means that you have a rather draconian effort to bring Black people into positions in a certain number because it must be racism that kept them out of whatever that thing is before. And so certainly, what we need to do now is simply put Black and brown people into positions that they’re not in now. Maybe make things about 50-50, as often seems to be the general idea.
And the problem with that is that one, it might not be racism that is keeping people out of a particular, say, profession these days. It may be that racist things in the past have implications now, but it’s not racism now. And sometimes, it isn’t racism now, and it wasn’t racism in the past. Sometimes, it’s just that some cultures have preferences over other cultures in terms of things that you do. Then, the next problem is that even if it was racism in the past, and maybe even if you could say that it’s racism now, it may be that those racisms have it that there simply aren’t enough brown or Black people qualified to do the thing in question.
And to the extent that anybody acknowledges that the idea is that we must change what we think of as qualifications because the imbalance is due to racism and what’s important is just to fix the numbers. Everything else we can talk about later. Needless to say, all of that just creates a big, hot mess. And yet, our tacit agreement on the left is to say that none of that matters, and we’re not going to talk about it because the main thing is to show that you know that racism has existed and that you’re committed to not equality, but equity, fixing the numbers. And you’re supposed to pretend that all of this is a settled question rather than something over which intelligent people might differ.
Jeff: And the degree to which all of this impacts meritocracy, the degree to which standards of achievement are lowered. What do you see as the long-term consequence of that?
John: The long-term consequence of this is that we’re going to erode our sense of what excellence actually is. We’re being taught that excellence is representing something in the proper numbers, but that’s not individual. That’s all about groups. What about excellence in terms of what it takes to be at the top of a discipline or some kind of endeavor? What about working hard to acquire the skills to make it so that you don’t have to be dragged in, that you get in based on your own merit? That sort of thing. There’s room for nibbling around the edges. I’m okay with changing standards to an extent if changing standards is not going to have any appreciable impact on job performance. And you can create some degree of equity and acknowledge that role models matter somewhat. That’s fine, but it’s extreme what people are doing nowadays. And the idea seems to be that to expect serious effort, to expect serious training, to expect people to be really tippy top, is too exacting, that there’s something wrong with that focus on precision, that that’s a kind of whiteness that needs to be decentered. But what needs to be put at the center instead, other than color of skin and history, is unclear under this paradigm.
Jeff: But it’s also creating a tremendous amount of resentment that is building up and that I would argue hasn’t even found an outlet yet. It’s just free-floating anger that’s out there.
John: It’s there. And of course, the person who is the hyper-wokester would say that that’s just people angry that other people are finally being given a chance, but that’s not true. What we’re seeing is people who have worked hard to qualify themselves for certain things finding that they are edged out, that they actually are at a disadvantage, because the idea is to bring in people who, as often as not, don’t have their qualifications, but have a certain skin color. A person could be very concerned with the racial future of this country, very enlightened about how racism is systemic as well as individual, and still resent that.
And we’re beyond the old conversation about the white kid who doesn’t get into every elite school that they apply to while the Black kids get into all the elite schools, feeling like they’re being discriminated against. There is an answer to that, which is that those white kids who were getting into at least some great schools, their life trajectory was not affected. But here, we’re talking about people who really are finding they cannot get hired in what they’ve chosen because they happen to be male and white. Of course, that’s going to create resentment. And that doesn’t mean that they’re bigots. This is the real world.
Jeff: And that’s a key point that you make repeatedly in the book, the idea that there are not necessarily bad people on the other side, but that this has become systemic in its own way, that that creates the problem.
John: Yeah. It really is not that there are good people and bad people. There’s a lesson that we’re often taught — this comes from the right, it also comes from the left — which is that if these people don’t agree with you, they’re bad. They’re remnants of an immoral and benighted past that we need to get beyond. And the truth is that evil is rare and craziness is rare. I find it very lazy when people say, “Well, those people are just crazy.” No, crazy is something very specific and very sad and it’s not something that overruns a whole population of people who are trying their best.
Really, it’s that ordinary and good human beings can perceive the world in very different ways. And it’s our job to understand that and to realize that there’s an extent to which you cannot make everybody think alike, and there will always be ideological biases that structure the way people look at the world. But the idea that the hard radical left has come up with what is ineluctability and eternally correct is mistaken. They haven’t come up with that any more than anybody on the right has. And we still need to keep working towards an elusive consensus. That’s how a real social history happens.
And we’ve lost sight of that lately out of a sense that the hard left has come up with the ultimate solution to all of our sociological problems. When really, they have not shown us anything remotely that convincing or spectacular. We need to talk. They won’t let us talk.
Jeff: What does history provide us in terms of examples of similar kinds of things, and how we have gotten out of them in the past?
John: Well, what we need to get out of is the idea that we are being enlightened to pretend to agree with something out of fear. I mean, what we see, there certainly isn’t the physical violence that we’ve seen, but what you see is Marxism. You see Bolshevism. You see the cultural revolution. You see what happens when a movement assumes that it has found the final solution to everything and scares everybody into pretending to agree.
And that’s why many people in the United States who have immigrated here, especially from Eastern Europe, see a parallel between the way, for example, academics feel that they have to behave now, pretending to agree with a certain orthodoxy to protect your job and your reputation, and how you had to be, say, a Soviet in 1950, 1970, 1980. People talk about that parallel all the time and it’s because it’s very real.
And so what my book says is that it’s time for people who are in the middle, i.e., left of center but not hard radical left, to stand up to these people who are imposing their idea as the ultimate truth. Because nothing will stop this other than those people being told, I hear what you’re saying. I understand a lot of it, but that’s not how I’m going to do it. That’s not how our organization is going to do it. That’s not how our school is going to be run. If you don’t like it, you can call me a racist on Twitter all you want. People need to get used to the fact that some people are going to call you dirty names on the Twitter, and I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.
For some people, depending on whether you’ve got the muscle or not, say, I’m going to call you names on Twitter too. And that’s it and don’t blink. That is the only way that these people have going to step down from the way they have learned they can behave since roughly May of 2020. We need some bravery here or we’re going to be taken over by an ideology that most of us, including those of us who are left of center, including me, don’t believe in. How far are we going to go with a society based on mendacity? I find it chilling.
Jeff: Is there some kind of an endpoint to this, or is it simply going to burn itself out in a fadish kind of way?
John: I suspect that it will. And my book is designed to help that happen as quickly as possible. I think you can’t fool all the people all the time. And as we see the volume of these sorts of things, people being fired, people being shamed, whole discussions about things that really shouldn’t matter when other things are really threatening the planet. I think there’s going to be a pushback against the extremes of the wokeness, but there needs to be because people need to realize that these people will get everything they want if we are afraid of being called racists on Twitter and therefore just mumble certain mantras whenever this kind of person starts shouting.
We need to work on that. But, yeah, six months ago, I wasn’t sure, but I do feel a pushback against the extremes. It’s the only way for example, that we’re going to save our basic academic, and artistic, and moral culture.
Jeff: John McWhorter, his new book is Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. John, it’s always a pleasure. I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
John: Thank you for having me, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.