McWhorter’s new excerpt from “The Elect”

March 23, 2021 • 1:30 pm

It’s good of John McWhorter to make almost all of his upcoming book The Elect available for free on his website, though if you read him a lot you should subscribe, and I expect I will. His book, as you probably know, takes the view that anti-racism, as practiced according to the tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is in effect a religion, with all the accoutrements thereof.

This excerpt is one of his best, and he says things about black people that only a black person could, for while he can be accused of being a “self-hating black”, that charge won’t stick very well. This chapter is on how black culture has damaged black success, and how white people—either through patronizing blacks or having pushed them politically in various directions—are complicit in having contributed to such a black culture.

It’s a provocative argument, and I’ve read some of it before in Thomas Sowell’s books, but some of it I have to take on “faith”, as it were: particularly the stuff about how white Marxists were urging blacks to behave in various ways some decades ago. I’ll give a few quotes. The issue is the black-white achievement gap in schools, which McWhorter doesn’t blame on immediate and current structural racism (the Ibram Kendi view), but on black culture: specifically, a culture in which opprobrium attaches to “acting white” (i.e, striving, studying, and achieving). That culture, says McWhorter, may have been caused by racism, but is now self-perpetuating, and crying “racism” is not the way to eliminate disparities.

. . . I taught at Berkeley back then, and must note a black undergraduate after the ban was legalized who told me, outright, that she and others working at the minority recruitment office were afraid that black students admitted without racial preferences would not be interested in being part of a black community at the school. It was the baldest affirmation of the idea that being a nerd isn’t authentically black that I have ever heard: May, 1998, circa 4 PM on a weekday afternoon.

It is sentiments of that kind, as well as self-involved white guilt and its lack of genuine concern with black people’s fate, that conditions the fierce allegiance to exempting black students from the level of competition other kids have to deal with regardless of their background. The data on the calamities the mismatch policy creates are now overwhelming, and yet are indignantly swatted away or swept under the rug because they are inconsonant with announcing one’s awareness that racism exists. The result: black undergraduates and law students in over their heads nationwide as an influential cadre of people intone lines about “dismantling structures.”

McWhorter also claims that both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones have said either wrong or despicable things and haven’t been called out for it, which McWhorter sees as patronizing. In Coates’s case it’s that the first responders at the World Trade Center on 9/ll  were just ‘menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body.” Opprobrium? None.

For Hannah-Jones, McWhorter says this:

Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones insists that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. She got a Pulitzer for it. The 1619 Project included more, indeed, but the claim about the Revolutionary War, and the resultant redating of America’s birth to 1619, was the main thing that attracted so much attention to it. Hannah-Jones would have won no prize for a series without that central claim.

An enlightened America is supposed to hold a public figure accountable for her ideas. On the issue of the Revolutionary War, Hannah-Jones’ claim is quite simply false, but our current cultural etiquette requires pretending that isn’t true — because she is black. Someone has received a Pulitzer Prize for a mistaken interpretation of historical documents upon which legions of actual scholars are expert. Meanwhile, the claim is being broadcast unquestioned in educational materials being distributed across the nation.

Few things suggest the encroaching permutation of The Elect into the gray matter of this country than how few see the utter diminishment of Hannah-Jones that this entails. White people patting her on the head for being “brave” or “getting her views out there,” rather than regretting that she slipped up and wishing her better luck next time, are bigots of a kind. 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.

And a bit on a culture that McWhorter sees as damaged.

The story of how black inner cities got to the state they were in by the 1980s is complex and has nothing to do with blame. As I have not argued but frankly shown, a lot of it came from what genuinely concerned whites made poor black people do, during a period now forgotten and underdocumented, that ended up decisively grounding what it was to be black during the 1970s and 1980s, in ways those happy white Marxists never anticipated, as they were hoping the muh-fuckah was about to just burn down.

However, to simply term the issue as a “racism” that requires “elimination” now, simply solves no problems. For example, one might say that one cause of the problems was that the War on Drugs sent so many men to prison and left boys growing up in poverty without fathers. But to call the War on Drugs racist ignores that the laws it has been based on had hearty support from serious black people, including legislators as well as people living in poor communities. This time read Michael Fortner’s Black Silent Majority (Fortner is black). Are we really going to say that those black people were too dumb to see the “racism” in the laws they supported as helping make them safer in their daily lives?

The failure of so many thinkers to understand the difference between the effects of racism in the past and racism in the present has strangled discussions about race for decades.

I think the last sentence is pretty accurate, for you can see this conflation occurring constantly. I see it in those, for example, who claim that current structural racism in the sciences is why we have so few black scientists, as opposed to a “pipeline problem” that traces back to racism in the past. Although I’m not black, what I see in my branch of science is a constant striving and struggle to identify and admit or hire minority graduate students and professors. There is active anti-racism in this process, and thus the paucity of black scientists doesn’t seem to be due to present racism. (In fact, as far as NIH grants are concerned, the evidence is against that hypothesis.)

This is one of McWhorter’s best chapters and you should read the whole thing. If you keep doing so, subscribe.


9 thoughts on “McWhorter’s new excerpt from “The Elect”

  1. I’m a little uncomfortable with his history here. I taught for a black high school in the late 1970s. From McWhorter, one would assume that my students were subject to some kind of leftist indoctrination. Nothing could be further from the truth. I suspect that both McWhorter and his Elect are reluctant to acknowledge the impact that wealth concentration has had on all manner of social relations.

  2. Getting to a bedrock of truths and changing how we do things is universal and can be applied anywhere hopefully. This is where I think McWhorter goes… stop pissing about in the shadows with concocted truths and perceptions.
    CRT (imo) has the effect of layering over unstable foundations with bad ideology. Supporting and propping up it’s framing as it collapses in one corner only to find another weak point!
    It (CRT) will head spin forever without any concrete being laid.
    What is being done so far for racism is not all bad it just doesn’t get to address the fundamentals… for one, education equality with the opportunity to be your best and not someone else’s best.

    McWhorter is a builder in the real sense.

  3. I’m currently reading this book :

    Leonard Sax, MD PhD
    The Collapse of Parenting

    … when I encounter descriptions such as the violence McWhorter describes, I cannot help but remark how Sax’s evidence and argumentation for weakened modern parental roles – that is, undermined American parents of any race – explains it.

    The book is a “parenting” book but a non parent who is interested in explanations for a number of current adolescent / youth peculiarities, that might go unexamined, will find the book of some use.

  4. McWhorter’s brief discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates is unfair. The quote about 9/11 first responders is presented out of context, and conveys the impression that this is Coates presenting his considered judgment. In the book, however, it is clear that Coates brings this up to illustrate the rage against the police he felt in September 2001, shortly after the police shooting of his friend Prince Jones.

    The point of the passage is not to actually assert that the first responders were in fact “menaces of nature”, the point is to highlight the intensity of Coates’s anger and alienation at that time. It is quite clear from context that Coates would not now endorse the claim that the 9/11 first responders were simply menaces of nature, indistinguishable from the cop who shot his friend.

    By omitting this context, I think McWhorter’s characterization borders on dishonest. There might still be a lot to criticize about that book and Coates’s bleak view of American race relations, but highlighting that passage as an example of Coates’s pitilessness is exactly the kind of decontextualized outrage-bait that McWhorter rightly excoriates when it comes from the woke.

  5. I remember that Coates was learning French 10 or 15 years ago…I wonder how well he learned it.

    At times his much praised prose sounds to me queeny and mannered, and some times, like a bad translation of Foucault.

  6. I find the comparison with religion much overused.

    But in one respect, I would concur: Wokeness has replaced Christianity as the measure of morality among its adherents. It used to be that you were considered moral if you followed certain religious teachings like the Ten Commandments. Nowadays, an evil person is a racist, sexist, homophobe, transphobe etc.

Leave a Reply