Welcome back to HxA’s What We’re Reading series, where we chat with authors about their thought-provoking work on issues around viewpoint diversity, constructive disagreement, and open inquiry.
Today’s exchange is with American linguist John McWhorter, associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University, opinion writer at the New York Times and the Atlantic, and author of the New York Times bestseller, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. Woke Racism examines how anti-racism has become illogical, unreasonable, and unintentionally “neoracist.”
Q. John, can you give us your elevator pitch of the book and its central argument?
A. There is a fashionable brand of anti-racism that is more focused on displaying one’s awareness of the existence of racism than on helping real people. Its philosophy, centered on an idea that whites are oppressors and black people are thus definitionally victims, underestimates and condescends to black people in the guise of helping them. As a black man who is unlikely to compellingly be called a racist himself by people uncomfortable seeing the argument, I wanted to identify this brand of anti-racism and demonstrate its harms.
Q. Why do you think modern forms of anti-racism are so appealing to so many people?
A. To generalize, white people enjoy seeming to be ahead of the curve about something of moral consequence and seek to work out the guilt they have about their complicity in the black condition. Black people who embrace this perspective adopt a Victimization Mindset that derives a sense of significance and succor from an exaggerated portrait of oppression.
Q. What is at stake here?
A. This current fashion distracts focus on things that actually help black people by fostering a simplistic vision of the battle being against something titled “structural racism,” as if bigotry of some kind were what we need to work against, when societal problems are much more complex than this. Also, the things that motivate both whites and black people to adopt this mindset result in a great deal of double-talk and mendacity.
Q. For those who haven’t yet read your book, what makes “wokeism” a religion? Why is it important to you that readers recognize it as such?
A. It is a religion in that it entails suspension of logic in favor of overriding tenets: not faith in Jesus but awareness that racism exists regardless of whether one’s solutions actually help people. It is also a religion in its red-hot intolerance of dissenters’ very presence. It is important to understand this because we are faced with a religion threatening to take over our state, as it were.
Q. What do you hope professors and educators who want to discuss and teach about race in a more constructive fashion take away from your book?
A. I want them to keep their eyes always on the difference between making a difference for people who need help and striking postures that show that you know people need help, and to avoid any tacit idea that the postures acquire significance when discussed by people with doctorates using Latinate words.
Q. What advice would you give to students who value pursuing social justice goals but do not endorse modern forms of anti-racism?
A. To dedicate themselves to on-the-ground activism for real people and seek to avoid modern “anti-racist” posturing as much as possible.
Q. Can you briefly lay out your vision of what a more productive anti-racism would look like?
A. End the War on Drugs, foster the reality that the life choice to pursue vocational education is as fully legitimate as going to college, and teach reading to poor kids via the phonics method. Crucially, all of these things (especially the first two) would vastly minimize black people’s contact with what many think of as black America’s main problem: the police.
Q. What would you say to those who argue that your book is more polarizing than it is helpful?
A. That they would never say that about a book written by one of the “Usual Suspects,” including that books by such people are often used as lessons by the hard right in how “crazy” the left is.