Woke Racism black book cover and John McWhorter headshot

Woke Racism: notes from John McWhorter’s controversial 2021 book

Early Christians didn’t think of themselves as a religion but as bearers of truth. So too do a class of progressive activists that put race at the center of everything, and are unwilling to hear any complicating narrative.

That’s the theme of the 2021 book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America written by John McWhorter, a linguist and prolific writer on language, whom I have long read (he’s also a native Philadelphian). No surprise given the topic and his stature the book has garnered widespread coverage. Some more thoughtful than others.

I respect McWhorter, and am a genuine fan of his linguistics books, so I’ve gone with him on this ride he’s taken into our political and partisan muck. He was one of the hundreds of academics to sign that Harper’s letter that called for greater civility, which received ample generational criticism.

I don’t suggest his politics align with my perfectly but I do take him to be a good-faith arguer. So I appreciate his book’s overall argument that a class of activists are more interested in virtue signaling among their peers than actually progressing forward. The best way to understand this movement is that they’re adherents to a kind of religion, he argues. They’re no more likely to accept other points of views than a Christian is to accept perspective on Christ from Islam.

Instead, his broad perspective on race in America is that culture outlasts original stimuli (ie true racism). It’s thorny. I share my notes from the book below for my future reference.

My notes:

  • “Third wave anti racism” is a religion full of conflicting rules
  • The first wave was the battle against slavery; the second wave taught that racism was a moral failure and this third wave teaches it is all around us
  • “To the modern American, being called a racist is all but equivalent to being called a pedophile. A lot of very important people thought to make it that way, and a few of us would wish they had not. But the problem is that the third wave antiracist now piggyback on it.”
  • He calls them The Elect, not social justice warriors
  • Author sees them as a religion, not rhetorical or metaphorical but literally. “To see them this way is not to wallow in derision, but to genuinely grasp what they are.”
  • Early Christians didn’t think of themselves as a religion either but as bearers of truth. So too the elect
  • As he puts it: The original sin of whiteness and the clergy of Robin Diangelo and Ibrahim Kendi and Ta Nehisi Coates; America Coming to terms with racism is today’s second coming
  • “Catastrophizing the current moment is a hallmark of ideology “
  • In 1951, Eric Hoffer argued in The True Believer that fascism, communism and 19th century segregationists, “all attracted and retained their followers by appealing to an idealized past, fantastical future, and in indelibly polluted present”
  • Problematic = blasphemous
  • The concept of violence from words come from Foccault and then intelligent radical feminists
  • Before the Enlightenment European intellectuals thought they weren’t religious but just “normal” like Elect today. (But today we certainly consider Enlightenment-era Europeans as very religious)
  • Author is highly critical of In Defense of Looting Book, a 2019 book by Vicky Osterweil
  • Author criticizes Regina Austin in passing (65)
  • Richard Rorty: achieving our country: left went from reformist to cultural left
  • Pascal Bruckner
  • Manichean is an early religion that also now means dualism between good and evil
  • Author argues Electism as a religion hurts blacks people (infantalizes them)
  • Duke university Joseph Holtz et al research on university mismatch
  • Author asks What’s better: push black kids into elite schools they aren’t prepared for, or let them find the right college to thrive?
  • Author writes of mismatch theory but it’s challenged here
  • (Reminder Malcolm Gladwell called this “elite institution cognitive disorder)
  • There isn’t a shortage of black physicists because of racism but because inadequate access to science education (What comes to mind to me is how naturally activists seek what is most able to be changed, and the hiring practices of a single company is far simpler than educational disinvestment)
  • “Can the black poet sing a song to the morning ?” Zora Neale Hurston wrote in 1938: no, “ the one subject for a Negro is the race and its sufferings, and so the song of the morning must be choked back. I will write of a lynching instead.”
  • Author argues it’s a mistake that we don’t allow more Black authors to move past our nation’s sins
  • Thomas Chatterton Williams: move past simple racial identifications if we say race is a construct. White passing people can identify how they want
  • Author: expecting black authors to write on race is not progressive: “it sits as a gloomy, illogical and pointless burden upon the soils of people whose spiritual energy ought to be directed elsewhere.” (120)
  • Ibram Kendi: Either you believe black people are deficient or it’s all racism. Author argues for space in there
  • Ta Nehisi Coates: “There’s nothing wrong with Black people that the complete and total elimination of white supremacy would not fix”
  • Author: “the implication is that If you don’t think racism was the culprit, then you are a racist”
  • In 1987, a Philadelphia donor “adopted” 112 black sixth graders, promising to fund their education if they followed selected norms: 45 never made it through high school; of 67 boys 19 became felons. Within 12 years, 45 girls had 63 children and half had become mothers before 18
  • Author says in the 1960s there was a campaign of leftists to get Black mothers to sign up for welfare, which began the welfare queen narrative of the 1980s (National Welfare Rights Organization)
  • Stuart Buck on Acting White: right after slavery blacks were hungry for education, it wasn’t seen as. “white” then; that was a cultural change, McWhorter argues
  • John Ogbu’s Black American Students in An Affluent Suburb A Study of Academic Disengagement published in 2003
  • Author’s theme of these stories is that racism started school being a white thing but Blacks now need to overcome that cultural obstacle. Culture outlasts original stimuli (ie racism)
  • The elect “insist that unequal outcomes mean unequal opportunity, which is false”
  • His proposal: stop the war on drugs; return to phonics reading (direct instruction), rather than the whole world method mode more common in well-read families and replace college with vocational training
  • Richard Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight
  • Fitting that White Fragility criticizes “solutionism” because “The Elect” don’t actually want any solutions, author argues
  • J6: “vanishingly unlikely to ever happen again”
  • USC Greg Patton said “nay-guh” in mandarin
  • Wilfred Reilly Hate Crime Hoax
  • Sometimes Black people have been coached into pulling the race card, author says
  • Silence is violence and other phrases are religious lines; ideas worth exploring but no more certain than an abortion stance or temperance on alcohol
  • Separate this church from the state

Leave a Reply