McWhorter: Excerpt 6 from “The Elect”

March 31, 2021 • 12:30 pm

John McWhorter’s published the sixth installment of his upcoming book, The Elect, and you can read it free on Substack by clicking on the link below. But do consider subscribing.

This section is about the recent saturation of America with the history of slavery and its sequelae, which, McWhorter maintains, is just an intensification of what most people knew for several decades. He cites the popular t.v. series “Roots”, the movies “Django Unchained,” “12 Years a Slave,” and various books and museum exchibitions, though it’s clear that the pressing of slavery upon us has been intensified since the death of George Floyd. But the existence and horrors of slavery are not a secret, nor was the slaveholding of people like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

A couple of excerpts:

Ta-Nehisi Coates urges “the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage.” But this is the divorcé who can’t stand seeing his ex have a good time. To tar today’s America as insufficiently aware of slavery is more about smugness and noble victimhood than forging something new and needed.

To wit: is there any degree of saturation that slavery could reach into the American consciousness that would satisfy The Elect, such that they would allow that a battle had been won?

Yes, a degree of saturation that would mandate reparations for African-Americans, like the ones just enacted in Evanston, Illinois. But we’ll talk about that on another day.

To hope that every American – white everyman in South Dakota, Indian-American Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Korean immigrant grandma, American-born Latina hospice care supervisor, daughter of Bosnian immigrants working on her social work degree, Republican councilwoman in Texas – will be wincing thinking about plantations while biting into their Independence Day weenie, even in a metaphorical sense, is utterly pointless. Pointless in that it will never happen, and pointless in that it doesn’t need to.

I can guarantee that psychologically, black America does not need their fellow countrymen to be quite that sensitized. A poll would reveal it instantly, as would just asking some black people other than the Elect ones, and the reader likely readily senses that. I can also guarantee that profound social change can happen without the entire populace being junior scholars about racist injustice. Such change has been happening worldwide for several centuries.

But Elect ideology requires you to classify what I just wrote as blasphemy, and claim endlessly that slavery is a big secret in America. . .To be Elect is to insist that America hushes up slavery. This is a falsehood. It endlessly distracts minds that would be better put to addressing real problems.

McWhorter goes on to say that he has no objection to removing statues and honorifics from Confederates or even from racist notables like Woodrow Wilson, but he draws the line at people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He highlights the problems, which many of us have pondered, with damning figures of the past by the moral standards of the present, and gives two examples:

In the future, being pro-choice may be deemed immoral. The celebration of any conglomeration of cells chemically set to become a Homo sapiens as “a person” may spread to intellectuals of influence and become as intelligentsia-chic as Electness is now. How do we feel about people of 2100 advocating that educators not celebrate the achievements of people in 2020 because they were not opposed to abortion?

Or, why are today’s Elect not roasting Barack Obama for his only having espoused gay marriage via “evolving”? Note that we are only to pretend not to understand history and circumstance when the figures are white.

. . . Obama was dissimulating as a thoroughly sensible political feint, and The Elect pardon Obama for it, allowing an “evolution” of a kind that could never rehabilitate other figures in their minds – i.e. Washington freeing his slaves. Apparently Obama’s (supposed) homophobia was okay because he is “intersectional” – as in, because his brown skin placed him under the thumb of white hegemony, it’s okay that he was homopho … but see? There is no logic here.

I’ll give one more excerpt and then pass on; there’s a lot more to read in the piece, including a thoughtful discussion of how Critical Race Theory and anti-racism affects people’s view of their “identity”, and why there are so few books by black writers that aren’t about race.  But I have tacos to eat, and miles to go before I scarf.

To be Elect is to insist that figures in the past might as well be living now, and that they thus merit the judgments we level upon present-day people, who inhabit a context unknown to those who lived before. As many kids would spontaneously understand, this is false. As to whether adults know something they don’t, I suggest trying to explain to a fifth-grader the case for yanking down the Lincoln Memorial.

To the extent that no one would look forward to having to kabuki their way through that, we know that this witch-hunting against long-dead persons is a distraction from doing real things for people who need help here in the present.

13 thoughts on “McWhorter: Excerpt 6 from “The Elect”

  1. McWhorter is excellent, as always.

    In the UK, a new report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (which was set up following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests here) has found that factors like class, income, and geography have a bigger impact than race. Overall, the report concludes that seeing everything through the lens of race is misleading and whilst racism undoubtedly exists in the UK the Commission found no evidence of institutional or structural racism. Campaigners and activists are unhappy with the report, needless to say.

    A black academic who served on the Commission told the BBC that the educational outcomes of a male student of black Caribbean heritage are much worse than those of a boy in the same classroom from a black West African background, and that Bangladeshi girls are doing well in London but performing more poorly in the Midlands. He contrasted the higher levels of racism he experienced growing up with those of today. An activist interviewed on the same programme denied that any such improvement had occurred, despite it being pointed out that in the intervening period legislation has forbidden racial discrimination in fields such as housing, employment, etc.

  2. We just had a report as a result of BLM in the UK, to some controversy saying the UK is not deeply institutionally racist, but there is already a lot of kick back saying things have not improved. The interesting contrast of the report is that African Britons do considerably better at school than Afro-Caribbean Britons in the same communities. Lots of legacy if empire issues there no doubt?

  3. For those who listen to podcasts, McWhorter was on yesterday’s episode of Chris Hayes’s “Why Is This Happening?” and he was just brilliant. It was an interesting discussion.

  4. On the plus side, a court just ruled that a university professor cannot be compelled to use preferred pronouns.
    It will be interesting to see if this gets taken to a higher court.

  5. As always, McW nails it. His key point—that all of this performative racial-virtue substitutes theater for real deeds that will help people in the here and now, and that that is what the people who really *need* that help want, way more than pieties from elite poseurs—is %1000 on the money. And his prose style is out-and-out brilliant. Too bad there’s only one of him.

  6. John’s quote from Zora Neale Hurston was good. In her piece “How It Feels to be Colored Me” she wrote,

    Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. […] I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries. My country, right or wrong. Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can they deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.

    That was 1928, but the Elect have still to hear her.

    1. Jez, thanks much for the link to Hurston’s full essay. What delicious writing! I love her sweet sense of humor. Now I must go find something else of hers to read…

  7. ” …witch-hunting against long-dead persons is a distraction from doing real things for people who need help here in the present..” Let’s not forget that witch-hunting against the long dead does real things for a certain class of people. The class of paper-shufflers who deliberate over which school building should be renamed; the educrats who draw up lists of words and names to avoid so as to “decolonise” one subject or another; the D/E/I office staffs who conduct endless solemn discussions of the “systemic racism” built from the spectral influence of the long-dead; and the administrators who, whatever happens, observe that invisible bias can never be ruled out—and must thus be contained by the employment of ever more administrators.

  8. When he asked his question about Black American men writing nonfiction, I immediately thought of Neil de Grasse Tyson…only to find out a sentence later that he had preempted me! Then I thought of Clifford V. Johnson, whose graphic novel on string theory (I know!) I bought and have started, but then…it turns out he was born in London, UK. D’Oh!

  9. There are two facts about slavery that should be more well known today. First off the fact that the descendants of slavery are much, much better off owing to their ancestors being brought here. Second, the fact that the slaves themselves were much better off being brought here. The people brought from Africa were already slaves in their native lands. If they weren’t brought here they would either have been slaves to other Africans or sold to Arabs. If you read accounts about the horrific way slaves were treated by other Africans or Arabs then American slavery is much more humane in comparison.

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