🎧 John McWhorter on Why Woke Ideas Harm Minority Communities
John McWhorter and Yascha Mounk discuss whether "wokeness" is a religion and how it affects black Americans.
John McWhorter is an author, a member of the Persuasion Board of Advisors, a Columbia University linguist, and a columnist for The New York Times. His latest book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, argues that we must understand wokeness, quite literally, as a religion.
In this week’s conversation, John McWhorter and Yascha Mounk discuss the nature of today’s social progressivism, whether it constitutes a religion, and how we can actually help to reduce racial disparities in the United States.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: What is the unifying principle of the body of thought that is, for lack of a better word, called “woke”?
John McWhorter: There’s a certain kind of person who feels that we should focus our intellectual, moral and artistic endeavors on battling power differentials, especially where white people are the ones in power. To the extent that you are not on board with that being the very center of things, you deserve to be hounded out of polite society, you should lose your job, you should be excoriated in public, you should be treated in an uncivil way in the same way as someone who was an advocate for say, pedophilia would be. These are people who are putting forth a very interesting but fragile proposition that battling power differentials should be the center of everything, rather than, say, one of ten things that should concern you.
The idea is that there is something called “whiteness”, for one, and that we’re talking about white power over people who aren’t. There’s also an idea that being a cis straight person is a kind of power that’s constantly misused. And you could argue that that’s definitely true. I think that in terms of our reckoning, though, since roughly May of 2020, an awful lot of it has been the whiteness issue. And the idea is that whites have always been in power and have abused it, and that our focus must be on decentering that power by any means necessary.
Mounk: By and large, it certainly seems right that a world in which power differentials are less steep in everyday life would be a better world. Why is it that you think we have reasons to worry about some of these ideas?
McWhorter: Because we’re not encouraged to think about whether or not we were sufficiently concerned with battling that kind of power differential before two years ago; we’re supposed to just accept that we needed to really step it up, that something more extreme needed to happen. What we’ve seen since the murder of George Floyd worries me for two quick reasons. One, we have seen a real uptick in abuse carried out in the name of the supposed quest for social justice. One of many cases is that there’s a white curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He says that he’s very interested in collecting art from non-white people, but that he won’t stop collecting art by whites, because that would be “reverse discrimination.” [Amid outrage, he resigned]. And I should say, I’ve done some digging: He isn’t an obnoxious person. He was very well-liked. This sort of thing became normal starting in the spring of 2020, and it’s unjust.
I see a white man defenestrated for using the term “reverse discrimination,” supposedly, in the name of justice for people of my race. We’re being told that you have to push that man out of his job as a preliminary to helping black people who need jobs and childcare and health care. I don’t see the connection.
Mounk: The sympathetic way of looking at this is to say that excess is a normal part of any social movement. But activists are moving the country in the right direction, so perhaps you’re on the wrong side of history for opposing it?
McWhorter: Yes, there are always excesses. But the main point of Woke Racism is not me saying everybody needs to just sit down and shut up, or that black people need to just get over racism and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Black people are being hurt, frankly, mostly by well-meaning white people, and it truly disturbs me.
Let’s say that a white man gets fired for using a word. Whenever that sort of thing happens to someone, it seems like there’s this idea that you have to send an announcement of it to either Glenn Loury or John McWhorter. Frankly, it’s exhausting, because I didn’t ask for that. But nevertheless, it does give me a very accurate picture of how often this happens. It’s literally daily. More to the point, black people are being hurt. What people don’t get is that all of this talk of anti-racism is often unintentionally racist against actual people living actual lives. And I think that someone needs to say it who is black themselves, and maybe not young enough to be considered inexperienced, and not old enough to be considered over the hill. I just want to contribute my voice to this because I think that a great many people—both black and white—agree with me, but are afraid to say so because of the tactics that people like this use to have things their way.
Mounk: How is it that black people are being hurt by this?
McWhorter: A quick example is what anti-racism means in education, where the idea is that school boards and teachers propose that to be anti-racist, you can’t submit black people to real challenges, because the sorts of things that involve real challenges are white things such as precision, punctuality and having to raise your hand; that those are wrong, that you need to turn your whole field upside down in order to adjust to the presence of people of color, such that, for example, a classics department makes Latin and Greek optional.
That’s all harmful to black people, because it’s treating black Americans as if they aren’t as bright. In arguing that it’s racist to submit black people to standardized tests because black kids often aren’t as good at them, you’re effectively saying black kids shouldn’t be subjected to a test of abstract cognitive skill. I can imagine Strom Thurmond saying that, and yet we’re not supposed to discuss it. This is doubletalk. Or assuming that if a disproportionate number of black boys are suspended from schools for violence, it must be because of bias. What happens in schools where people take that anti-racist counsel into account is that more black kids, not to mention teachers, get beat up. I consider that to be an unintentionally racist act itself. This isn’t the way social history is supposed to work. This stuff hurts black people.
The unspoken notion is that the most interesting thing about being black is thinking about how white people see us, or don’t, or whether they see us fully. I have to stand athwart this and ask, “How much does it matter?” What you’re telling me is, “This white person doesn’t see me in my full essence the way my black friends do, and therefore that affects my success.” Does it really? Somebody who interviews you might not see you quite fully, but these days, they’re often operating under DEI imperatives, and even if they’re not, how does it affect your success in life? Among human beings, there are going to be some racist biases. Civil rights leaders two generations ago had no idea that we were waiting for white people to be psychologically pristine.
Mounk: Why is it that people say, “If a standardized test shows differential performance, it can’t be picking up the actual structural racism in our society”? Rather, it must somehow be mismeasuring what’s going on. And how should we deal with the fact that, unfortunately, the performance gap still persists?
McWhorter: The proper answer, if you ask me, is to ask, “How can we make kids better at the test?” There seems to be a proposition that to even ask that is utterly beyond the pale. And that’s partly because of a tacit sense that whiteness is to be decentered and resisted, and that having to get a precise answer is too uptight. I literally think that’s what some people are thinking. That’s an interesting proposition—that there is a kind of intelligence other than the ones that include, say, getting the right answer—but nobody is putting forth much of an argument as to how that really works. What’s really going on is a kind of reflexive anti-whiteness.
Mounk: How do you think the state of black America has changed over the last 15 or so years?
McWhorter: This will be read as arrogant, but there’s no doubt that the story is mostly positive. Terrible things happen. There are sometimes reverses. But anybody who thinks that the story of black America from 1965 to now is not dazzlingly positive in almost all regards is someone who simply is not especially inclined to look much into it. And you’re certainly not going to find evidence of it in the way that history is usually told.
But if you pull the camera back and think about 1965, and think about last week, there’s been massive improvement. The question is why so many people pretend that that’s not true. And I hate to say “pretend,” but it is a kind of pretense. It’s the victimization mindset, which psychologists recognize as a human thing. It’s not anything like all black people, but it’s disproportionately represented in academia and the media.
It is a pretense that things are never getting better. And I don’t think it’s something conscious and practical. People like that have developed a sense of their purpose in life as being this kind of victim. If you took that away from them, they wouldn’t quite know where to stand, because they develop their sense of purpose and security—it’s almost a comfort zone—in being the Cassandra.
That is a kind of person, and that is, frankly, an awful lot of the black punditocracy. They can’t admit progress. Fanatical movements are often like that. There can never be such a thing as progress, or the movement doesn’t have any reason to exist. It has gotten to the point that anti-racism is one of those.
Mounk: Make the case for why we should think about this [body of thought] not just as having certain religious overtones, not just as some of the adherents having a kind of religious fervor, but in a quite literal way as a new religion.
McWhorter: You have to take away the religious labels: there are people who talk about faith, the rapture, and the Second Coming, and there are people who talk about hegemony, social justice, and intersectionality. All of those things right there make it seem like we’re talking about something different. I call this a “religion” not because I’m looking for a way to sell books. I started thinking of it this way six or seven years ago. Thinking of this as a religion is heuristically valuable in that there is no reasoning with this kind of person on issues such as race. Dealing with people like this—otherwise very intelligent and reasonable people—you can see a steel door go down in their eyes. There is a religious aspect to this.
I know many people would prefer that I just call it an “ideology.” However, I’m talking about something more fervent than that. And then you have the other parallels to Christianity. I’m agnostic as to whether those are accidental, or whether it’s because Christianity was already there in place, but white privilege and original sin are the exact same thing. And that’s not typical of all ideologies. This particular place of white privilege has a stain that you can never remove. It’s exactly like original sin, the white people who don’t agree being defenestrated—how heretics used to be treated—which is different from the way that kind of person was treated even five years ago.
I’m not a theologian. But where do you draw the line? Why is it not a religion when you are also encouraged to believe things that don’t make logical sense? You’re not just encouraged to embrace contradiction. You’re encouraged to not think about things too hard, another part of religion around the world. To me, that’s not just Marxism. That’s not just a cultural revolution. If labels were not involved, anthropologists would not say that this is an ideology; they would say that this is a religious faith, right down to the prayer.
Mounk: It seems to me that the ideologies that I’ve studied have those elements as well. If you look at actual Marxists like my grandparents in the early 20th century, they had a religious fervor. And they had a theory of a kind of original sin as well: if you’re bourgeois, you have original sin. And the only way to expiate it is to engage in revolutionary practice, to overcome your bourgeois interests. But you will never fully succeed.
What do we gain by calling this a religion, rather than an ideology that has an incredible emotional pull?
McWhorter: Let’s try this. I can imagine people drinking their cocktails in 1937, having arguments on the Upper West Side. They’re Stalinist, and they will not listen to the evidence of what Stalin is doing. And those people hold on into the 1940s. Nobody of any importance was holding on to that by the 1950s. They admitted it. Now maybe part of the reason they admitted it was because the nature of the evidence was so graphic—but people admitted it. That doesn’t mean they give up on Marxism. There was a certain openness to empiricism. Now, of course, there’s the kind of person who will say, “Marxism was just never tried,” etc. But there were people who had to say, “Okay, Stalin was not a god,” and would admit it quite clearly.
But if you call it an ideology, based on where that word sits in our soul today, it makes it sound like you can reach these people. And I truly believe that you cannot reach a person like this, and that these issues are too important to waste time talking about John Stuart Mill, to try to sit a person like this down and say that there needs to be a marketplace of ideas and to ask them to be more open. And I know it now, based on a lifetime of grappling with them.
Mounk: There are many people who believed in ideologies who believed in them to the end of their lives, even after the terrible failure of those ideologies became blatantly obvious. That’s true of many Marxists; it is true of many extreme nationalists. And there are some religious people who fall out of a religion or who become converted to a different religion. It’s not clear to me that these two things map onto each other as cleanly as you suggest.
McWhorter: It’s degree: “There is an illiberal ideology afoot. These people are annoying, and it’s because they are hosting an illiberal ideology.” That to me sounds like it’s time for forums and seminars.
These people are adherents of a religion. We could, in terms of terminology versus reality, say that a lot of those old ideologies deserved the name “religion.” If we shook it up and started again, we could say those were religions too. But “ideology” sounds more approachable than “religion.” You’re not going to have a seminar where you try to approach people’s religion. You try to push people’s ideology—it encourages people to think of this as a current in intellectual history, and to think about the fact that a lot of those movements in the past eventually faded away. Whereas here and now—I’m thinking on my feet, and I may do it wrong—I don’t see it fading until racial differences become so obscure (in, say, about the next two generations) that the whole argument stops making any sense. This kind of person is so convinced that they’re correct, and passing it on to new generations—especially with modern technology and social media—that I can’t see it fading. It’s impregnable. And ideology, to me, sounds more pregnable.
Mounk: Ian Buruma, building on your characterization of this body of ideas as a religion, has written that we should expect that Protestant nations around the world might take it up more easily—nations that have an evangelical tradition might take it up more easily. But Catholic countries like France or non-Christian countries like Japan should remain pretty immune to it.
Do you agree with Buruma and is that your prediction for how it’s going to play out?
McWhorter: Yes, the problem is most acute in Canada, England, mainland Scandinavia, and Germany. Those are the places I hear the most from. Not France, yet. There are rumblings in Brazil; I couldn’t tell you exactly why, although there’s a certain racial history—
Mounk: —Brazil is also at this point between 30 and 40% evangelical Christian.
McWhorter: There! In terms of what’s going on—this is a prediction that I’ll make that I am happy to eat in ten years when we replay this and I’m bald and toothless—I think what we’re seeing is a schism between academia and the arts [on the one hand] and real people [on the other hand] that will be relatively unprecedented in this country. I’m beginning to think that the hold of this particular ideology on academia is permanent. I’m not sure anything can be done about it; that type is already controlling who gets hired. Because these people are utterly impregnable. You cannot open them up to other ways of looking at things. That seems to me to be the case in a great many of the arts, and it’s certainly what many people in the arts are telling me now. It’s kind of hard to resist this, if you’re in, say, an English department in a modern university. You can’t stand up to the whole department. Maybe we can contain it to these ideological hothouses—which, yes, I would think of as churches—and then in the rest of society, we have a situation where the hard radical left are giving us counsel from the sidelines just like everybody else, but aren’t running the show by threatening to call us racist on Twitter and making us pretend to agree. I have more hope for local school boards than the typical history or music department at a university.
Mounk: What does that mean for people who see themselves as being on your side of the fight?
McWhorter: People have to be told “no.” I actually have been privy to an episode this week, and I can’t be specific, but where a certain decision was made about a disinvitation because of a few grad students of this ideology who basically threatened to go to social media about this kind of thing. And their elders capitulated. That is not where we need to go, because if those elders had stood up to those few graduate students, nothing would have happened. Those graduate students would have been very unhappy. They would not have attended the talk of the person who was supposed to go. In other words, it would have been back to circa 2014, which was perfectly fine. 2014 wasn’t 1914.
But it has to get to the point that people are not so afraid of being called some names on Twitter. That kind of person is being given disproportionate power. If I could really pull all the strings I would just have people for six months see that being called names on Twitter, in many cases, is not going to ruin your life. That’s what we need to get used to.
Mounk: If you believe that the ideas you describe often harm the poorest African Americans, do you have some suggestions for how better to improve their condition?
McWhorter: I get impatient with a lot of the way we talk about these things today because I think that we could do an awful lot of good and relatively quickly with certain proactive, pragmatic, political strokes that are quite separate from people having kumbaya circles.
Ending the war on drugs would do more for black America than any amount of white people understanding their privilege. It would get rid of a market that understandably tempts poor black men to not seek legal work when they go to lousy schools and live under straitened circumstances. Those men would go into legal work, and society should receive them with open arms by offering serious, easy to access, and usually free vocational training.
The idea is not to just leave people with nothing, but to train these men in good, solid, working class jobs where they would have perfectly solid existences. And I know that would work because that was the way poor black communities worked until about 50 years ago—not paradise at all. But it would be better now because the world is better.
School is a problem for a lot of black kids, a lot of poor kids, because reading is taught badly. If you don’t read well by a certain age, you’re probably never going to like school, and that tells on you for the rest of your life. I think that poor black kids should be taught to read the way reading scientists since 1965 have found actually works. I have a big issue about phonics, and specifically how phonics—as in sounding out the letters—should be taught.
Those three things alone would make black people much less likely to encounter the cops. We can work on the cops, but with 18,000 precincts I’m worried that that is an ambitious thing to wish to change. I’m as disgusted with the cops as anybody else, but my goal is to get people away from them. Without any war on drugs, the number of interactions that black people have with the cops would be much, much less. Part of the reason cops wind up in black communities getting into people’s business: a lot of it is connected, sometimes flowchart style, to the war on drugs.
To me, this is anti-racism, because it would improve black lives. I’m afraid that the discussion we’re having now is needlessly abstract and more about virtue-signaling than changing actual lives. And it worries me because it’s imposed mostly by fiat, because social media allows that if somebody disagrees with you, they can call you a really dirty name in the public square. This isn’t constructive and in some ways, it isn’t a genuinely compassionate situation. It took such an uptick two summers ago that I really began to worry for the state of this country and for the state of black people.
With the Great Awokening, as Matt Yglesias so perfectly called it, I think there’s already a pushback that I detect. I think good-thinking, maybe progressive people can see that there is an excess that we need to do something about. I’m hoping that my book is one small part of getting people to think about the fact that you don’t have to give people like that everything they want just because they’re kind of scary. Certain segments of society are going to be taken over by that religion. Most of society, I hope, will not be. That’s my sense of it. I make no special claims to being a great prognosticator, but that’s my sense of how things are going to go from 2021.
Please do listen and spread the word about The Good Fight.
If you have not yet signed up for our podcast, please do so now by following this link on your phone.
Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover design by Joe O’Shea.
Connect with us!