Review by Brian Tanguay
In the Human Stain, the late Philip Roth’s award-winning novel published in 2000, an academic named Coleman Silk has his life, career and reputation derailed for asking this question about two students who hadn’t attended class for five weeks: “Do they exist or are they spooks?” The use of the word “spooks,” by which Professor Silk meant “ghosts” or “apparitions” not black persons, ignites what Roth describes as America’s oldest communal passion, “the ecstasy of sanctimony.” Never having laid eyes on the two students, Professor Silk had no way of knowing they were black, but that logical explanation wasn’t accepted; Silk had to be sanctioned for his transgression. The irony is that for most of his adult life the light-skinned Silk had passed himself off as Jewish rather than black.
I was reminded of the Human Stain as I read Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, the latest work by John McWhorter. The book is a compact polemic that runs headfirst into the prevailing winds. The killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis in 2020 galvanized thousands of people. But beyond the marches and symbolism, much of the conversation has been heated and hyperbolic. One side demonizes Black Lives Matter activists as domestic terrorists and ridicules the organization’s calls to defund police departments. The other side sees the former president and his followers as unabashed white supremacists who will not accept a multi-ethnic society in which they’re not permanently seated at the top of the hierarchy. Critical Race Theory, a largely unknown and misunderstood academic discipline, has become a catch-all, hot-button political rallying cry from one end of the nation to the other, though the people objecting to it the loudest can’t begin to explain it.
McWhorter, a public intellectual who teaches at Columbia University and has written more than twenty books, is a gifted polemicist. He’s also black, which automatically renders some of his views and opinions controversial. Woke Racism is a riposte to the work of writers and thinkers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and Robin DiAngelo, who argue, in one form or another, that ridding America of racism is the nation’s primary task. McWhorter disagrees with this idea, writing: ”Something this protean, layered, and timeless must be ever restrained as much as possible, but it is impossible to simply get rid of. More to the point, doing so is not necessary.”
Not necessary? In the current climate, and in light of America’s long, bitter history, the idea seems blasphemous, particularly coming from a black man. How can McWhorter possibly claim that eliminating racism isn’t necessary if this country is to live up to the ideals propounded in its foundational documents? Can’t he see the legacy of injustice, the disparities of wealth and position, the unequal rates of incarceration, and the disparate treatment of black people by police? Has he forgotten that before George Floyd there was Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and Tamir Rice and Oscar Grant and Eric Garner and Michael Brown, just to name a few?
McWhorter is too astute to have forgotten. His focus is on the sanctimoniousness of what he calls the anti-racist “elect,” and the harm done when race is placed at the center of every social issue and black people are treated as simpletons. McWhorter doesn’t argue that racism is a relic of the past (though he seems more sanguine than others about the progress that has been made since the mid-twentieth century) but does take to task the high priests and priestess of antiracism, namely Coates, Kendi, DiAngelo, and their acolytes, many of whom are white. McWhorter is particularly dismissive of DiAngelo and her book, White Fragility, and the cottage industry built upon it. He’s intolerant of dogmatism, irrational thinking, and performative posturing. When whites congratulate themselves for “doing the work,” McWhorter demands they explain what they think the work is accomplishing. He’s appalled when careers and reputations are ruined for a single remark made a decade ago that doesn’t conform to the mores of our day. “It is very hard to see,” McWhorter writes,” beyond what is normal in your time.” This is the reason he doesn’t support the removal of statues of Washington and Jefferson because they owned slaves, or of Lincoln because he supported repatriating the formerly enslaved back to Africa or the Caribbean. The spirit of our times is different.
“People in positions of influence are regularly,” writes McWhorter, “being chased from their posts because of claims and petitions that they are insufficiently anti-racist.” What’s different now from only a decade ago, McWhorter believes, is that many people are no longer satisfied with quiet, personal enlightenment when it comes to race, but feel it their duty to “excoriate and shun” those who don’t share their degree of offense. McWhorter finds it bizarre that some white people are woker than most black people.
One of McWhorter’s chief objections with anti-racist ideology is that it doesn’t improve the lives of people, white or black. Aside from feelings of righteousness, what actual benefit does it confer? At the end of the book he offers a simple three-point platform that he believes has a greater chance of being embraced and implemented than a long list of demands and initiatives. The first plank is to end the war on drugs. The second plank is to make sure that kids who need it are taught to read with phonics. And the third plank is to provide vocational training for poor people and resist the idea that everyone needs to go to college. Instead of a Great Society redux, which has little chance of becoming reality in our politically polarized nation, McWhorter offers ideas that he thinks could lead to real gains. Ending the war on drugs, for instance, might reduce interactions between police and black citizens, and result in fewer black people being shot or incarcerated.
Disagreement, doubt, and dissent are vital to robust, honest public debate. Standing against the tide of one’s time is never easy or comfortable. Whether you agree with its conclusions or not, Woke Racism is a provocative and brave book, and a meaningful contribution to that debate.