If the United States manages to put down the woke revolution, it will be because a critical mass of liberals chooses to reject it. Conservatives, opposed to wokeness from the start, can make arguments and stand up for their principles individually. But they can’t stop the liberal-to-woke conversion process that turns mildly left-of-center Americans into cosplay Black Panthers overnight. The liberals themselves are the gatekeepers of their own movement and its institutions. Given that these institutions—news media, social media, entertainment, academia, and the current majority party in Washington—shape so many aspects of American life, it’s mostly up to liberals to halt and reverse the transformation of the country.
Among the dozen or so prominent liberals who have answered this call, John McWhorter has taken on an invaluable role. McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, is less consumed with particular woke-inspired outrages than with getting at the substance of wokeness itself and the threat it poses to his fellow black Americans. On those matters, his new book, Woke Racism, makes several major contributions.
First, it’s not pitched at the woke. McWhorter is done with them. “Our current conversations waste massive amounts of energy by missing the futility of ‘dialogue’ with them,” he writes. No one can be argued out of wokeness and, just as crucially, McWhorter wants to get to liberals—black and white—before they’re irretrievably lost to the impenetrable mob: “I want to reach those on the fence, guilted into attention by these ideologues’ passion and rhetoric but unable to disregard their true inner compass.”
McWhorter also argues that wokeness is insulting to and catastrophic for black Americans. By the lights of the woke, he says, “white people calling themselves our saviors make black people look like the dumbest, weakest, most self-indulgent human beings in the history of our species, and teach black people to revel in that status and cherish it as making us special.”
Despite the book’s title, McWhorter dispenses with the term woke altogether. Borrowing, with acknowledgment, from the conservative writer Joseph Bottum, he deems the woke “the Elect.” The term evokes the social-justice warrior’s smugness in his sense of having come to higher moral knowledge. The Elect also has a helpfully medieval resonance to it: “This is apt, in that the view they think of as, indeed, sacrosanct is directly equivalent to views people centuries before us were as fervently devoted to as today’s Elect are.” The Elect are, to some degree, inquisitors.
From there, McWhorter makes his most convincing argument—that Electism is not a political persuasion at all but a religion. “I do not mean that these people’s ideology is ‘like’ a religion,” he writes. “I seek no rhetorical snap in the comparison. I mean that it actually is a religion. An anthropologist would see no difference in type between Pentecostalism and this new form of antiracism.”
Understanding Electism as a real, not metaphorical, religion, requires some explication. McWhorter details the new faith’s tenets and motivations at length. Like any religion, Electism involves “certain suspensions of disbelief.” This means, for example, one is not to question the Elect’s boundless outrage over the police killing of George Floyd compared with its more muted response to thousands of black-on-black murders committed the same year. “Does that mean ‘It’s not as bad if we do it to ourselves?’” McWhorter asks. Moreover, “to suspend disbelief,” he writes, “is a kind of submission.” And the Elect evince this submission when they refuse to question a host of policies—from an extreme version of affirmative action to defunding police—that show no benefit for the black Americans the Elect want to help.
The Elect also have a very influential clergy. Figures such as Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and Ta-Nehisi Coates make up a priestly class, and their writings are scripture. This explains, for example, the ecstatic response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations.” “People loved Coates’s article not as politics,” McWhorter writes. It was taken, instead, “as a sermon.” The clergy must continue to pump out such sermons lest the “superstitious, non-empirical wing” of the movement become distracted by earthly matters.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s opened a Web browser in the past two years that the Elect’s original sin is “white privilege.” Like the Christian concept of original sin, McWhorter cleverly notes, this one comes “complete with ineradicability.” Confess, by all means. Self-flagellate, too. But you can never truly atone for whiteness.
McWhorter says that Electism is apocalyptic, in the sense that its adherents speak constantly of a day of racial reckoning for America. He could have gone a bit further here and made his point even sharper. Since the killing of George Floyd, the Elect (McWhorter makes it hard to resist the term) have spoken time and time again of tearing down the entire American political and financial system and replacing it with a social-justice paradise. He’s right when he says that Electism adheres to an Abrahamic narrative of a perfect past, a broken present, and a heavenly future. “Under the Elect, black people’s noble past is Africa,” he writes. “The glorious future is about those terms that we will come to; while the present, if the religion is to make any kind of sense, must always be a cesspool.”
It should be self-evident that Electism is an evangelical faith. If it weren’t, there would be little need for this book. It’s similarly plain to see that the Elect go after heretics.
Finally, Electism, like other successful faiths, is supplanting older religions. McWhorter offers the example of a pastor at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York City who “led vows addressing white privilege and racial justice, melding Catholicism and Electism on the level of personal testimony in a fashion much more reminiscent of White Fragility than Dorothy Day,” the Catholic activist who practically invented the idea of “social justice.” (The repurposing of an ancient religion for the same ends has been such a notable feature of Jewish worship over the past few years that one suspects McWhorter left it out of his book only because he didn’t know where to begin.)
The cords of logic that connect McWhorter’s insights throughout the book all spring from his air-tight case for Electism as a religion. Because of this, Woke Racism is an outstanding, paradigm-shifting success. What this makes clear is that when you know you’re dealing with a religious believer and not a political activist, many things fall into place. You’re unlikely to get anywhere arguing with the Elect because you can’t argue a believer out of his faith. Similarly, fence-sitting liberals are made uneasy by the claims of Electism because such claims make sense only within a specific religious paradigm. Getting a professor fired for saying “All Lives Matter” has zero practical benefit for any African American. But if you launch a successful witch hunt of that sort, you satisfy Electism’s religious requirement to keep America’s original sin, white privilege, ever prominent in your mind.
And that—ruminating on the evil of white privilege—is the goal of all Electism’s work. It’s not about policies that would correct racial injustices. We know from years of hard data that the policies the Elect propose do great harm to African Americans. Defunding police means more murdered black people. Extreme affirmative action means fewer black students making the honor roll. Easing up on conduct standards in public schools means fewer black children getting an education.
And it’s not about broadcasting an understanding of race relations that makes people of color feel safer. First off, no one is made unsafe by the thoughts in your head. Second, behaviors that make people unsafe—harassment and workplace discrimination—are already crimes. Third, by the logic of Electism, people of color can never feel safe around whites because white privilege is a permanent phenomenon. More critical still, the worldview that Electism fosters is plainly racist and directly harmful to blacks. McWhorter writes of the Elect who give the New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones a pass on her faulty history: “They are condescending to a black woman who deserves better, even if the zeitgeist she has been minted in prevents her from knowing it herself.”
But the well-being of Hannah-Jones or of African Americans in general isn’t really what matters to the Elect. What matters is fulfilling a religious obligation to expose at all turns a phantasmagoric force called white privilege. They are, as McWhorter calls them, “medievals with lattes.”
What would genuinely help those black Americans who suffer from the destructive and complicated modern-day consequences of slavery and Jim Crow? McWhorter offers a short list of policy ideas: 1) end the war on drugs; 2) teach kids from homes where little reading is done to read with phonics; and 3) boost vocational training and stop promoting college for everyone. There’s very good sense in some of this and there’s also much to quibble with. But it’s not theology posing as politics. And we will have a full airing of real-world policy arguments only when the superstitious mob loses its grip on liberal America.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.