Notes on Woke Racism
McWhorter nails it, politely.
John McWhorter’s latest book Woke Racism is comfort food for the rational connoisseur. It’s simple, nourishing and it sticks to your ribs. It’s the kind of intellectual meal one should expect of a caring, mature grownup served with just enough spice so that it’s not boring, and plenty enough starch so that you can’t just wolf it down like a snack. I say it should be a staple of a thoughtful American’s literary diet. If we’ve got any sense, we shall be coming home to it on a regular basis if only on Thanksgiving.
Coming into the read, I have been given a couple of different characterizations of McWhorter. I’ve been familiar with him for at least a decade and first encountered him through his association with the folks at City Journal and the Manhattan Institute. As a black conservative writer in the early 2000s I was impressed by his gracious bearing when we agreed on matters of race which was most of the time. At that time, I was advised that he was not the kind of person to chill out over beers. More recently I was told that in writing this book, he finally didn’t give a rat’s what people thought of him any longer. I understand that feeling of thinking your way out of a box that other cats refuse to leave, or to use another well-worn black metaphor, of escaping a barrel of crabs.
The Moral Core
McWhorter’s genius is in his couching the entire metaphor of religious devotion to the moral posturing and punitive campaigns of those I call the Wokies. His graciousness remains in evidence as he explains that they are well-educated ordinarily reasonable people, but that under the spell of the various Wokish axioms, on the subjects of race they immediately exit the realm of logic and reason. Also, very cleverly, McWhorter nails the primordial animating force of this phenomenon in his understanding without saying that it is all about power. That owes to the great Karl Marx.
Battling power relations and their discriminatory effects must be the central focus of all human endeavor, be it intellectual, moral, civic, or artistic. Those who resist this focus, or even evidence insufficient adherence to it, must be sharply condemned, deprived of influence, and ostracized.
If we are to understand something deep about what America is going through, I think some credit is due to the moral leadership of Marxist theory. Especially for those who find traditional religion to be fundamentally morally compromised, some of the ethical aspects of Marxism are what fills the gap. What goes unstated in our Red and Blue delusions is that Marx himself was a humanist.
Marx (and Kierkegaard) were near the center of a reforming sensibility in Christianity that one might call the destruction of the theory of the Sons of Ham. The Christian idea that the poor were ordained to be poor, that the slaves were ordained to be slaves and that the Kingdom of Heaven would be just enough reward for earthly suffering was attacked by those two. If it were said to be God’s will that slavery exists, then this is the sort of ‘Christian Conservatism’ that Marxists would object to. Of course Marx saw capitalism as creative of slavery. The worker was the oppressed class. This ethical principle slides very neatly onto any number of racial assumptions about Africans in America and so naturally generates the affinities we see today, most recently appropriated by Colin Kaepernick’s documentary that compares the NFL draft and tryouts to the slave auction block.
Again this is all about power, and without getting into these philosophical weeds, McWhorter nicely elides what is evident at a deeper level. The Wokies are activist and aim to disrupt power inequalities around race. Merely talking about it does not suffice. They must smoke it out and do something about it. This is the moral center of their universe. It is the religion for those who want less demanded of them than Christianity requires, despite the fact that Catholic Social Teaching is ‘socialist’.
In order for our communities to thrive and be able to uphold and protect the dignity of human life, at all stages, rights must be protected and responsibilities met. St. John XXIII enumerates these rights: “We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood (Pacem in Terris, 11).”
It is my opinion that the Wokies and the Wokish ideas are doomed to failure because of the contradictions in their reductionist use of race. This is made crystal clear in the book. You can’t destroy racism so long as you sustain the fiction of race itself, and by making all failures and suffering of black Americans the fetishized effect of all racism, everything becomes racist. That’s because black Americans, like all people, fail and suffer for every possible human reason.
The Negro Racialists
McWhorter stands near me in my own location within black culture and specifically outside of the privileges of its racialists who always manage to grab what I consider outsized and inappropriate influence. If there is one takeaway that I want readers to keep from Woke Racism it is the clarity of agreement of black and white adherents to the precepts of the ‘Catechism of Contradictions’ we are all familiar with in our exasperation dealing with true Wokies and their lazy defenders. Those contradictions, within black culture are evident to those of us who are old enough to have seen blackness invented and reinvented over the decades. There is real progress and change in the minds of black Americans, but there are always regressive elements. Let me describe a few. This should help anyone who has the handicap of not having paid attention closely to various arcane movements within the black intelligentsia. In short, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi are just a couple of new jack icebergs in an ocean of struggle. In 1991, it was Afrocentrism, remember?
I cast American black strivings overwhelmingly into the context of the middle class & bourgeois aspirations associated with the American Dream. As nebulous as that may sound, what nobody wants is a travesty of justice, which slavery, the failure of Reconstruction and Jim Crow clearly were. We the people in our efforts to form a more perfect union have not consistently established justice and insured domestic tranquility. But clearly by the time of the Negro, three generations after the death of Benjamin Banneker, such figures as Booker T. Washington (b. 1856), W.E.B. DuBois (b. 1868) and Carter G. Woodson (b. 1875) had each been born and grew to have contrasting ideas about the best kind of college education for that Negro. In contrast, Marcus Garvey (b. 1887) basically said to hell with American dreams, let’s go back to Africa. I could not possibly do justice to any of these great men in my abstractions of their messages to us but it serves the purposes of this essay to boil it down. 3/4ths of them said America is the place, one was fed up. Washington’s lesson was for the Negro to take up a technical education. DuBois would have us be philosopher kings, as he himself aimed to be. Woodson said all that’s cool so long as you chill on the Divinity schools and fluffy majors.
I use the term Negro to describe that African American whose existential benchmark had much to do with constantly comparing himself to his white contemporary. For those among us who cannot manage to get the stain of the fraction 3/5 out of their minds, there is a natural appeal to the revolutionary designs of Garvey. But all such prescriptions aimed at ‘raising the race’ were for the Negro. The intellectual evolution of the Negro required self-determination of the sort the Negro was socially and intellectually hard pressed to accomplish. The requisite social change was the Civil Rights agenda and the destruction of Jim Crow. The intellectual change continues to this day, and for many it is complete. Where it has gone wayward is in this branch of Woke thinking which once again has every intention of making ‘People of Color’ out of all of us by forcing us to constantly compare every aspect of our lives to The White Man.
For African Americans there are myriad ways out of the Negro box. The swiftest is to renounce the very concept of race and to denounce everyone who keeps reconstructing its social construction around Americans. Those reconstructors are quick to racialize every new thing with their Woke reactions. Every black American with a tale of woe who responds to the alter calls of the Wokish puts himself right into that old Negro box. It has all come to that.
The White Man’s Burden
On the other side of the net are the whites and their Asian doppelgängers all corralled by the Wokish to bear the shame of any success not shared ‘equitably’ with the so-called People of Color. McWhorter doesn’t go far to characterize them so much as he identifies some of their innocent cosmopolitan habits, like watching Mad Men on television or reading the New York Times. It doesn’t quite matter because the attraction to become a Wokie is equally wrong at the philosophical level. Whether you seek to raise or denigrate your racial identity, you are still making use of it according to the prescriptions of the religion. You are still admitting to your undeniable possession of a racial soul which must be put right, at the very risk of everything.
So is born the new civilizing imperative called for by Wokies. Whether it is done in schools, at work, online or in the arts. Whether you call it CRT or DEI or ESG. Whether you use terms like ‘diversity’, ‘equity’ or ‘social justice’, so long as you perceive race and weight it, you are playing into the hands of the Wokish, who will inevitably grow more capable and powerful as they gain more adherents and passive observers.
Unlike Stoicism, the Wokish catechism is evangelical. They take their burden seriously and cannot stand the presence of apostates. They always have a pocket full of kindling and a ready match. Their trail of destruction has been subtle, but McWhorter and many others have seen the fire in their eyes and felt the heat of their contempt for disagreement. His prescriptions fall short of legendary Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions but evoke them nonetheless. My favorite:
This religion has no place in this school’s curriculum. It is indeed a religion, because I’m afraid you don’t seem able to explain your take on this issue with what I think of as logic. If White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist do it for you, you don’t seem to be able to tell me why, which suggests that those books are not as valuable as you seem to think. If you insist on exposing my children to this religion when they are supposed to be getting an education, I will gather a group of parents and we will transfer our children to another school. And we will write all about you on Twitter before, while, and after we do it.
That’s a punch in the nose and on the mark. Yet McWhorter is not the sort that goes for the jugular. As an atheist in America in the rarified world of the academy he stands among an as of yet un-networked multitude of grownups, sensitive and aiming to make social progress in those realms most suited for what higher education might assist. In his final paragraphs he asks us to “Be Spartacus”. I think he knows the enemy of liberty and he knows price of regaining it.