Has the Antiracist Movement Become a Counterproductive Religion?

John McWhorter takes aim at the fundamentalists on the far left—who are scaring away allies Democrats desperately need.

During America’s racial reckoning in the summer of 2020, I was torn, like millions of left-leaning Americans. On the one hand, I was appalled by the murder of George Floyd, and supported reforms to police departments and a criminal justice system that is unfairly skewed against people of color. On the other hand, I was deeply concerned by what I saw as irrational and mob-driven behavior happening in the name of “antiracism.”

Woke Racism

Woke Racism
How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America
By John McWhorter
Penguin Random House, 224 pp.

Self-proclaimed antiracists were telling us that both words and silence equaled violence. Professors, writers, and even data analysts were fired in droves after Twitter mobs took offense at relatively innocuous statements. Civis Analytics, for example, fired David Shor after angry Twitter users accused Shor of “anti-blackness.” Shor’s crime? He tweeted out a summary of study by a Black professor, Omar Wasow, showing that nonviolent protests in the late 1960s were more politically beneficial to Democrats than violent ones.

This problem wasn’t confined to a lively corner of the internet. New York City’s then schools chancellor Richard Carranza taught staff that such virtues as objectivity and individualism were part of “white supremacy culture.” Well-educated professionals made best sellers out of books like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist (reviewed here) and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility that seemed to teach the opposite of judging people by the content of their character.

Many Democrats were concerned on two fronts: First, on the direction of antiracist activism, period. And second, on the possibility of political fallout. Extremists on the left made it easy for Republicans to tar Democrats as opponents of free speech who were trying to inject controversial views on race into our children’s curriculum. Of course, much of the right’s rhetoric was classic fearmongering. But many progressives gave them plenty to work with; examples like Carranza’s presentation, after all, do not require embellishment.

Those concerns, it turns out, were not in vain. Last week, Republicans swept three statewide races in Virginia, including the governor’s office, and nearly unseated New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy. Political analysts and pollsters believe that the GOP victories were due, in part, to suburban parents’ frustrations over the way racial issues are taught in schools. Now, according to The Wall Street Journal, Republican Party leaders are planning to use education as a core issue in the 2022 midterms.

Simply put, the 2021 elections should serve as a warning to the left about how the excesses of woke culture can set the cause of racial equality and justice backwards.

Fortunately, a new book can help us find a way forward. In Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, the Columbia University linguistics professor and New York Times columnist John McWhorter argues that the modern antiracist crusade emanating from the far left is not merely a political movement, but a religion. It is not “like” a religion, he explains; rather, it is what any anthropologist would recognize as one, with its own superstitions, rituals, clergy, and judgment day. The 56-year-old Philadelphia native also makes a compelling case that, despite its worshippers’ best intentions, the religion offers “an oversimplified sense of what racism is and what one does about it.” He goes on to say that the adherents, whom he calls “the Elect,” are “content to harm black people in the name of what we can only term dogma.”

McWhorter identifies three waves of antiracism in the United States. The first two waves were the fight against slavery in the 19th century and legalized segregation in the 1960s. Both waves were essential and righteous—their aim was for Black people to be treated equal to whites—and we are better for them. But today’s third wave, he writes, is an attempt to divide people based on race in exactly the way the first and second waves taught us not to. Rather than striving for equality and emphasizing our common humanity like the first and second waves, third-wave antiracism requires us to “divide people into racial classes” in the name of “acknowledging ‘power.’” It is that step backward, and the double-talk used to justify it, that McWhorter thoroughly exposes.

The parallels McWhorter draws between the Elect’s third-wave antiracism and Christianity are staggering. White privilege, he writes, is the Elect version of original sin—a stain white people are born with and must ceaselessly acknowledge but can never be absolved of. The Elect’s clergy are Kendi, DiAngelo, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose texts constitute a “triple-testament tome.” Judgment day is “the great day when America ‘owns up to’ or ‘comes to terms with’ racism and finally fixes it.” Social media mobs are the Elect’s effort to ban heretics.

Just like many religious texts, the Elect have what McWhorter calls a “Catechism of Contradictions”: a “collection of tenets that, stated clearly and placed in simple oppositions, translate into nothing whatsoever.” For example, McWhorter observes that white people must “strive eternally to understand the experiences of black people” while accepting that they can, in fact, never understand and are racist if they think they do.

Once one recognizes third-wave antiracists as a religion, other pieces of the puzzle fall into place. The Elect are hostile to people with differing opinions because, like all fundamentalists, they do not view their beliefs as opinions. The Elect think they already know the truth, and are proselytizing to the unconverted. Elect ideology dictates that, above all else, “one’s central duty is to battle racism and the racist.”

The Elect’s gospel has caught on rapidly in spite of obvious contradictions and flaws, which McWhorter attributes, in part, to the same attractions held by any religion—a sense of belonging and easy explanations for what ails us (racism) and the cure (eradicating racism). But it’s also a product of fear. White people who disagree with the Elect risk being publicly tarred as racists or white supremacists, a charge McWhorter calls “all but equivalent to being called a pedophile.” Black dissenters like McWhorter himself will be accused of self-hatred or shame. It’s enough to scare a great many into silence.

Of course, one can ask: Even if third-wave antiracism is a religion, is that such a bad thing? McWhorter argues that despite purportedly lofty talk about “dismantling racist structures,” the Elect religion is actually harming the people living in those structures, even condescending to the Black people it is purportedly trying to help.

McWhorter also laments that the Elect holds Black intellectuals, like Coates or Nikole Hannah-Jones, to a lower standard. Coates, for example, was given a pass after writing in Between the World and Me that he had no sympathy for the white cops and firefighters who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for The New York Times’s 1619 Project, despite making the dubious central claim that “one primary reason the colonists fought the American Revolution” was to protect the institution of slavery. The pushback from scholars was so strong that she walked back the claim months later.

But McWhorter’s most stinging criticism of the Elect is that the “work” they are doing—policing language, conducting trainings on white supremacy culture, canceling historical figures who weren’t woke 200 years ago—amounts to little more than performance art with a tenuous connection to improving Black people’s lives.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s former curator, Gary Garrels, lost his job in 2020 for refusing to stop collecting work from white artists, saying that would constitute “reverse discrimination.” But how did ousting Garrels help the Black people a mile away in the Tenderloin living in tents on the street? Why isn’t old-fashioned activism—organizing coalitions and lobbying legislators—a better approach to fighting inequality than condemning every tweet or email that isn’t sufficiently antiracist?

As an alternative to the navel-gazing, McWhorter proposes actionable policy proposals that would help Black people more directly and measurably, such as ending the war on drugs. He also offers practical advice to readers who aren’t sure how to engage meaningfully with family, friends, and coworkers who are part of the Elect without facing the threat of being called a racist for any perceived transgression.

McWhorter says he does not believe that it is beneficial or progressive to nod in consent at every claim of racism made by a person of color. “If the designation of someone or something as racist seems incoherent, chances are it is just that, not ‘complex.’”

One thing McWhorter does not discuss at length (maybe he would if he were writing it today) is the political consequences of Elect ideology for Democrats. Virginians chose Republican Glenn Youngkin over Democrat Terry McAuliffe after Democrats bungled their response to Youngkin’s attacks on critical race theory—even though it isn’t even taught in Virginia’s public schools—which is a primary influence on Elect thinking. But one hopes that with the election directly on the heels of Woke Racism’s release, Democrats will be motivated to think carefully about whether to wholeheartedly embrace or distance themselves from the more extreme and tyrannical elements of the far left. Reading McWhorter’s book would be an excellent place to start.

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David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization that advocates for political reform.