Talking About Woke Racism
Updated: Sep 20
I recently read "Woke Racism", an excellent new book by John McWhorter, Columbia University professor and New York Times opinion columnist. McWhorter recounts that he first encountered "a certain worldview" early in his academic career, and that view has since spread beyond academia and come to exert a "grievous amount of influence over American institutions". A brief synopsis follows.
McWhorter writes "First Wave Antiracism battled slavery and legalized segregation; Second Wave Antiracism, in the 1970s and 1980s, battled racist attitudes and taught America that being racist is a moral flaw; Third Wave Antiracism, becoming mainstream in the 2010s, teaches that because 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...That if you are white you are to despise yourself as tainted permanently by 'white privilege' in everything you do...Whatever color you are, in the name of acknowledging 'power', you are to divide people into racial classes, in exactly the way that First and Second Wave antiracism taught you not to...". McWhorter says "Third Wave Antiracism exploits modern Americans' fear of being thought racist to promulgate not just antiracism, but an obsessive, self-involved, totalitarian ... kind of cultural reprogramming." McWhorter uses the term "The Elect" to describe the people who advocate this "religion", saying "...they teach us that any sense we have that progress is happening is just another form of racism and 'fragility', and are professionally resistant to allowing that any real progress has happened...To these people, actual progress on race is not something to celebrate but to talk around. This is because, with progress, The Elect lose their sense of purpose." McWhorter walks through numerous examples of professors and writers and others who have lost their professional positions in the wake of attacks orchestrated by The Elect, and tells the anecdote of a professorial colleague tweeting that "he [McWhorter] is opposed to black people's quest for equality". McWhorter writes "The Elect consider it imperative to not only critique those who disagree with their creed, but to seek their punishment and elimination...There is an overriding sense that unbelievers must be not just spoken out against, but called out, isolated, and banned." Sadly, the examples cited include the Catholic chaplain at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other religious leaders.
McWhorter asks the question "Why do so many black people settle for [Electism]?" He answers "It can be counterintuitive that a major reason is insecurity...A people seek a substitute sense of pride and positive identity in circumstances like this...An available 'hack'...was the status of noble victim. To all but the very most smitten fellow travelers with black people, it has always been quietly clear that much of our discourse on race entails a certain exaggeration of just how bigoted most whites are, of just how set against black achievement society has been since about 1970. Racism, in all of its facets, is real, but since the late 1960s a contingent of black thinkers has tended to insist that things were as bad as they were in 1940, leaving even many black people who actually experienced Jim Crow a tad perplexed...There is a reason for this exaggeration. If you lack an internally generated sense of what makes you legitimate, what makes you special, then 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." McWhorter writes an extensive critique of the harms caused in the black community by this "religion", especially in the sphere of education, and hones-in on "...an idea among black teens that to embrace school is 'acting white'...a cultural meme casting school as 'white'...has become self-perpetuating...To be Elect is to insist that unequal outcomes means unequal opportunity, which is false."
McWhorter concludes by recommending three real-world efforts to help black America, combining political feasibility with effectiveness:
"End the war on drugs. If there were no black market for drugs, many of the men involved would get legal jobs, gang violence in black communities would be reduced, police interventions in black communities would be reduced, spells in prison would be reduced, and fewer children would grow up fatherless...";
"Teach reading properly. Since the 1960s, phonics has been demonstrated to be more effective at teaching poor kids to read...School districts that switch to phonics raise the scores of black kids vastly...[this] is essential to getting past race in America..."; and
"Get past the idea that everybody must go to college. We must...return to truly valuing working-class jobs...People with vocational training make a solid living as electricians, plumbers, hospital technicians, cable television installers, body shop mechanics, and many other jobs...We must instill a sense that vocational school is a valued option for people who want to get beyond what they grew up in."
I applaud McWhorter's cogent analysis and recommendations. My personal experiences with The Elect at Cornell University confirm his observations. In the 1960s, black students who were The Elect of that era said I "wasn't really black" and their verbal harassment twice led to fistfights. (This is an example of the "liking school is white" culture McWhorter describes). My sin apparently was that I studied hard, was popular on campus and a student government leader, and enjoyed being part of the Cornell community. Fast-forward to the 1990s and I was a successful business executive elected to Cornell's board of trustees. Some black students, The Elect of their era, staged a demonstration and chanted "Uncle Tom Jones" at a campus event I was attending. (This is an example of what McWhorter describes as "calling out and isolating an unbeliever"). My sin apparently was that the event was to present an annual prize I had created and endowed, the James A. Perkins Prize for Interracial and Intercultural Peace and Harmony, to honor the former Cornell president who resigned in the face of trustee and faculty wrath following the 1969 Willard Straight Hall Takeover in which I played a prominent role. Perkins was the person who initiated efforts to dramatically increase black student enrollment at Cornell beginning in 1965, and who had previously served as Chairman of the United Negro College Fund devoted to raising money for black students to afford higher education. Fast-forward to 2019 and The Elect in Cornell's Dean of Students Office did not invite me to speak at campus events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Willard Straight Takeover, even though I had played a prominent role in the Takeover and written a book discussing it ("From Willard Straight to Wall Street: A Memoir", Cornell University Press 2019). (This is an example of what McWhorter calls "banning an unbeliever", and "reluctance to acknowledge racial progress"). My sin apparently was career success, and praise for America's racial progress since the 1960s. But my success wasn't just about me, it also includes drawers full of "thank you" letters from people of color whose lives I impacted through the senior executive positions I achieved; and appreciation awards for the Courage to Succeed program I created to support a Harlem school with computers, technology mentors, and scholarships. What matters most to The Elect is not what one achieves, but whether one embraces their ideology and spouts their rhetoric. If not, you face disrespect -- which is the troubling common thread in these incidents.
People of goodwill, who see the good in America as well as its wrongs, must participate in the public discourse on race in America. Don't be intimidated or discouraged by name-calling and disrespect. Don't believe that we should practice "woke racism" in order to cure racism. The best way to end racism is to stop being racist.
What do you think?