A high priest of anti-antiracism preaches to the choir
One of the first things I saw on Twitter last week was an older white man I follow sharing and praising a new piece by John McWhorter, noted linguist and cultural critic. This is usually the way of it: a Black intellectual says or writes something against the perceived Black/progressive cultural orthodoxy, and the white praise pours in — much from the right of center, but also a predictable segment of moderate white liberal elites. I write not to impugn McWhorter’s motives or question his earnest belief in his writing; this phenomenon is just familiar to anyone who has spent much time thinking and writing in this space. I will take his arguments at face value and with a presumption of good faith, though the reader may be excused for questioning it.
The title and subhed of the piece at Persuasion is, quite provocatively: “The Neoracists: A new religion is preached across America. It’s nonsense posing as wisdom.” The headline is a direct reference to McWhorter’s forthcoming serially published book from which it was excerpted, entitled The Elect: Neoracists Posing as Antiracists and their Threat to a Progressive America. He doesn’t use the word “neoracist” in the February 8 post, let alone define it, so rather than focus on what he may or may not mean by that loaded term, the following will be silent on that specific issue.
Moreover, I do not know whether he came up with the “three waves” of American antiracism or if he’s using a formulation created by someone else. The full description at the beginning of the piece at Persuasion reads:
One can divide antiracism into three waves. First Wave Antiracism battled slavery and segregation. Second Wave Antiracism, in the 1970s and 1980s, battled racist attitudes and taught America that being racist was a flaw. Third Wave Antiracism, becoming mainstream in the 2010s, teaches that racism is baked into the structure of society, so 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. (bold in original)
The era designation — 350 years followed by roughly 20 (40?) years and then another 11 years — is so simplistic it’s sounds like something a desperate middle school student would make up the night before a class presentation. I don’t say this as a pointed insult to McWhorter: it is genuinely an absurdly reductive description of history. Because I don’t know where he got it — he may be using a formula of one of his targets — I will not assign it to him. There’s enough to his argument I can proceed with the critique, but that premise is embarrassingly flawed.
Elect is the New “SJW”
I initially appreciated that McWhorter explicitly rejected using the terms “social justice warrior” or “woke mob” to describe the targets of his scorn. These and other related names are clumsy epithets to describe an amorphous group of people or type of persons that critics use to condemn the excesses of political correctness. Certain libertarians and conservatives often invoke the terms on social media, often in their incessant war on “cancel culture.” But the words also have found purchase among racists and the “alt-Right” to describe minorities and their defenders. That the slurs and derision used by prominent conservative and libertarian intellectuals are virtually indistinguishable from that of professional racists should give the former far more pause than it has, but that discussion is best left for further exploration another time.
That being said, many of the flaws of McWhorter’s argument stem from the same lazy and generalized thinking of “anti-woke” screeds while providing an illusion of specificity. By dubbing the Elect, “a crisper label for problematic folk,” he still hasn’t defined — in the text that I’ve seen, at any rate — whom precisely he is referring to. He gives a very broad description:
I am arguing against a particular strain of the left that has come to exert a grievous influence over American institutions, to the point that we are beginning to accept as normal the kinds of language, policies and actions that Orwell wrote of as fiction.
OK. So it seems he’s talking about elites with institutional power — authors, writers, academics, etc. — but then he broadens the Elect considerably:
One of the key insights I hope to get across is that most of these people are not zealots. They are your neighbor, your friend, possibly even your offspring. They are friendly school principals, people who work quietly in publishing, lawyer pals. Heavy readers, good cooks, musicians. It’s just that sadly, what they become, solely on this narrow but impactful range of issues, is inquisitors.
I have questions about any self-respecting linguist who would publish the phrase “impactful range of issues,” but putting my syntactical quibbles aside, forgoing “woke mob” for “inquisitors” isn’t so much an improvement in specificity as it is adding a patina of historical sophistication onto the same ham-fisted ideological contempt. He tries to qualify it, writing that he chose the Elect because it is less “mean” than “Inquisitors,” but this only confirms his preference for pretense.
But this sloppiness is crucial because it allows his target to be whatever he wants it to be. His ten “tenets” of the Elect’s “religion” are a mishmash of assertions that supposedly define a belief system and its inherent contradictions. But he doesn’t use any examples of who espouses each of any of the contradictory positions: not a book passage, not a column excerpt, and not even some ill-thought-out tweets of some particular modern-day inquisitor. No, McWhorter just foists these tenets onto an ill-defined group of people who supposedly believe the “nonsense posing as wisdom” he assigned to them.
One might assume the ten tenets to be an intentional strawman on McWhorter’s part, but I believe him when he says it’s not. That said, it’s fair to treat them as an attempted application and spectacular failure of an ideological Turing test. McWhorter has put forth actual assertions and contradictions he has encountered and applied them to an indistinct group of people and presumed it’s the way “they” think. But rather than consider that not all people who sound similar to his ear are necessarily the same, he just lumps them all together as if the arguments hold the same value and are as widely embraced by his Elect. (This is further evidence that he’s simply re-named the “woke mob” rather than attempted to identify who comprises it.) If each contradictory assertion in every tenet is equal, then it follows that the Elect can be ignored or, to use his chosen metaphor, can remove “these people off the bottom of our shoes.”
As an aside: Having come off work shifts in college to the occasional local Klan flyer on my car complaining of “mud people” like me, I found this metaphor particularly galling. For rather obvious reasons, I’m sure McWhorter didn’t mean it that way. Still, one hopes the language expert picks his words more carefully going forward, given the natural (if unintended) bedfellows of someone taking an anti-antiracist position. I digress.
I don’t doubt that there are people who espouse the tenets closely enough to be a fair critique. Certainly, there are prominent people in the antiracist space who write patently absurd things. And of course, McWhorter is also correct that, in some circumstances, overreactions to misperceived slights can have devastating and unfair consequences to a person’s life. Recognizing these facts isn’t bad. Indeed, organizations like FIRE that fight the excesses on college campuses are great defenders of individual liberties.
But this apparent need to use terms of derision for vast swaths of people whose stated goals are to create a more just society — be it Elect, woke, SJW, or whatever — is the opposite of thoughtful or intellectual. Reducing opponents to slurs and epithets is the act of bigots, not serious thinkers. Of course, grouping people together is a shortcut that seems almost natural to human thinking. Nevertheless, the argument McWhorter advances undermines justifiable claims of injustice by reflexively ridiculing those who make them, thus precluding taking what they say at face value. Thus, McWhorter and others like him, lauded by white folks who praise them for standing up against “wokeness,” defend the status quo whether they mean to or not.
A New Religion or Just Preaching to the Choir?
I’m not a religious man. I have many religious family members, and I have several religious friends of different faiths. In my experience, some people are more thoughtful about their beliefs than others, so I try not to extrapolate too much about any particular group without understanding differences among adherents and any potential schisms that may exist. Also, I know that some people are more faithful to their stated beliefs than others, so any given person may not represent a majority of a given congregation, let alone a denomination. Simply, slighting religion to justify a poorly structured tenet metaphor is cheap and unnecessary. That said, his argument provides a structure we can examine in other contexts.
Many people don’t live up to their stated beliefs of any stripe. Having spent much of my professional career in libertarian think tanks and other free market oriented organizations, I can say with certainty that what any two individuals mean by “libertarian” can vary dramatically. A vast majority of those I worked with are very principled libertarians whose work and statements hew close to traditional libertarian economic and philosophical principles. However, I would venture none of my former Cato Institute colleagues would find much in common with Gadsden-flag carrying Trump supporters that stormed the Capitol on January 6. One man’s small government is another man’s massive border wall on property seized by eminent domain.
Likewise, one could quickly come up with many self-negating “libertarian” tenets if the definition were broad enough:
“People should not rely on the government for handouts AND keep your government hands off my Social Security/farm subsidy/mortgage interest deduction!”
“States should be able to decide their own laws AND the federal government ought to override “sanctuary” policies!”
“I believe in the Constitution of the United States, AND we need a law to mandate prayer in schools nationwide!”
You get the idea.
Thus, particularly in the public policy sphere, I don’t know many Elect elites who subscribe to many of the tenets McWhorter assigned them, let alone contradictory ones. There very well may be some individuals, but the idea that the arguments made by Color of Change or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund ought to be ignored because some ankh-wearing hotep believes interracial relationships are inherently exploitative is wholly unserious.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this excerpt. But I can’t help but feel McWhorter is operating as much on articles of faith as the people he describes. In particular, the shibboleth of victimhood that runs through much of his writing on topics of race, describing a mindset that is entirely foreign to me and probably many of the “Elect” writers I read:
The other [targeted audience] is those black people who have innocently fallen under the misimpression that for us only, cries of weakness constitute a kind of strength, and that for us only, what makes us interesting, what makes us matter, is a curated persona as eternally victimized souls, ever carrying and defined by the memories and injuries of our people across four centuries behind us, ever “unrecognized,” ever “misunderstood,” ever unpaid.
Acknowledging the sins of the past helps us move toward correcting the present for a better future. It is not a cry of weakness to understand the laws and practices that resulted in nearly every major American city has a poor Black neighborhood. It is not wallowing in victimization to recognize how policing — and by extension, the constitutional protections against police abuse — differ dramatically in those parts of the cities versus others. When economic shocks cause spikes in unemployment, Black people tend to get hit harder and take a longer time to recover, which cannot be just laid at the feet of negative “Black culture” inputs. It is not about Black souls, it’s about our public policies and private actions that perpetuate the visible, tangible legacies of racism handed down over those four centuries. McWhorter is a smart man, but his faith in this self-pitying victimization is as dogmatic as any precept he assigned to the Elect.
And to bring it back to where I started, he knows who a significant portion of his audience is. While he writes that he won’t go on FoxNews to promote this book or its arguments, influential white people who want to dismiss claims of ongoing racial unfairness eat this stuff up. Again, this does not imply that McWhorter doesn’t believe what he’s writing; he clearly does. The resentment he feels toward his Elect is real, and he doesn’t hide it. But recognizing how the book and its message will be used helps clarify how McWhorter et al. fit into the broader culture war.
The last time I read a book like this was in 2016. A colleague asked me to read and review Not Tragically Colored by Ismael Hernandez. There was some interest in perhaps doing an event for the book, so I was to determine whether it was appropriate for our audience.
The book was published by the Acton Institute, a right of center religious liberty organization. The author is an Afro-Puerto Rican man raised in a communist Puerto Rican nationalist home who had discovered the liberating power of free markets as a young man.
The book’s narrative suffers from a similar problem McWhorter’s essay does, though far more glaringly, in that it lumps most of his Black ideological opponents in the same camp, despite their rather considerable differences between them. Targets include Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, Louis Farrakhan, and Eldridge Cleaver. Indeed, all of these people have earned criticism for their work and deeds over the years, but it’s ludicrous to put them in a narrow box of belief simply because they recognize Black identity to varying degrees. Hernandez’s argument is much sloppier and even more strident than McWhorter’s, using terms like “Democrat plantation” and other provocative anti-Left buzzwords. Still, there are similarities when both authors mark themselves as implicitly brave contrarians to the alleged Black cultural hegemon. (Is this the “victim mentality” I keep reading about?)
The content and quality of Hernandez’s argument are almost beside the point, though. One of the most remarkable comments comes in the first two paragraphs of the foreword, written by the late Michael Novak:
This is a brilliant, profound, and well-substantiated book. It is one of the best and most thorough books about race ever written….
You will learn much from this book. For me, the learning began on the very first page: the passage from Zora Neale Hurston, whom I had not heard of until Ismael introduced her with the citation from “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.”
Anyone with passing familiarity with Black writing in the 20th century knows Zora Neale Hurston, who originally penned the phrase “not tragically colored.” Not knowing who Hurston was doesn’t make a person an ignoramus, but it does seriously call into question the person’s professional capacity to reasonably identify “one of the best and most thorough books about race ever written.” I note this not to ridicule a dead man but to show how certain people in positions of cultural and political influence are likely to take a book by a more well-known and respected person.
For all its many flaws, I’m sure McWhorter’s book will be superior to Hernandez’s effort, which was just a mess on just about every conceivable level. But the praise and the praisers will draw from the same choir. This is not to say all will be conservative: the reluctance to deal with racism in modern U.S. society is not the exclusive provenance of the political right, though it is certainly more problematic there. Instead, McWhorter’s book is another strained argument from a known and respected Black person saying something — snarkily — that confirms the priors of white people skeptical of ongoing racial inequities; and it will be lauded for this precise purpose.
Let the congregation say, AMEN.
Elected officials and other talking heads are going on television in the middle of a pandemic to demonize “cancel culture,” SJWs, and other “un-American” ideas to take away attention from the literal attack on American democracy. Works like McWhorter’s new book give undeserved credence to these often unhinged and almost always insincere culture war narratives. I don’t think that’s his aim, but that’s what it’s going to do.
Admittedly, antiracist people get carried away sometimes. Whether it is reacting to something said or done on a college campus, high-profile workplace disagreements, or authors trying to sell cultural self-help books, a lot of well-meaning (and many less well-meaning) people are going to make some ridiculous claims and demands. These claims are not just true of racial topics but any contentious socio-political and economic issue.
But precisely because there are legitimate problems in our society and culture, each argument and demand should be handled on its merits or lack thereof, not blanket generalizations of what an amorphous “they” believe, whether or not you slap a new fancy name on who “they” are. There is nothing bold or innovative about name-calling.
Understanding a demand and how it might fit in broader cultural contexts can be helpful, but taking a specific claim and generalizing it rather than examining it elucidates nothing. Labeling all of these beliefs as equally bogus makes the claims easier to dismiss and thus leaves genuine problems unaddressed.
There’s nothing more religious about left antiracism than anti-antiracism, but each side certainly has its high priests spouting dogma. McWhorter is smarter and better than most of the people who take that altar on either side, but that doesn’t make his shibboleths any more palatable or accurate.