McWhorter back in form, speaks truth to wokeness in the NY Times

August 25, 2021 • 9:15 am

I was afraid that when John McWhorter ditched his Substack site to write twice weekly for the New York Times, he would tone down some of his strong critiques of woke anti-racism. Apparently he hasn’t, as you can tell from his latest op-ed. (Try clicking below; it’s supposed to be for NYT subscribers but you might get free access, or see it via judicious inquiry).

This piece was even the top of the editorial column yesterday afternoon:

You probably know the story. On the University of Wisconsin campus there used to be a big glacial boulder (I’ve seen it) that was called “niggerhead rock”—exactly one time, by a local newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal, in 1925.  Here’s that single reference, and archivists have been unable to find another printed usage of that racist name:

Since then, the 42-ton hunk of stone has been known as “Chamberlin Rock” after Thomas Chamberlin, a geologist and former university president. It’s sort of a local landmark, and this is what it looked like in situ.

Photo: Wisconsin State Journal archives

Despite the n-word being used once, and 96 years ago, it apparently has rankled some black students, as the Wisconsin State Journal Reports:

The Wisconsin Black Student Union called for the rock’s removal over the summer. President Nalah McWhorter said the rock is a symbol of the daily injustices that students of color face on a predominantly white campus.

“This is a huge accomplishment for us,” she said on Wednesday. “We won’t have that constant reminder, that symbol that we don’t belong here.”

McWhorter also faulted the Wisconsin State Journal for printing the vulgarity in a 1925 news article.

University historians identified the news story as the only known instance of the offensive term being used. It’s unclear whether or for how long people on campus referred to the boulder as “Niggerhead Rock.” The term itself appears to have fallen out of common usage by the 1950s.

Kacie Butcher, the university’s public history project director, told the Campus Planning Committee that there may be other records beyond the State Journal story, but locating them is difficult because archived records are not well organized. What is well-documented during that time period, however, is the Klu Klux Klan’s active presence in Madison. Campus satire publications and comedy skits also mocked and dehumanized people of color.

Butcher told the committee that the rock’s removal presents an opportunity to prioritize students of color and engage in complex conversations.

Do you get a whiff of dissimulation here?

So the University administration ordered the rock, apparently now seen as a “racist monument” to be removed so the students could “begin healing.” As Spectrum News 1 reports, this was done on orders of the Chancellor herself. The rock now reposes in a distant locale:

After a process of recommendations, Chancellor Rebecca Blank approved removing it from its home on Observatory Hill. Her approval was necessary because it’s within 15 feet of a Native American burial site.

“Removing the rock as a monument in a prominent location prevents further harm to our community, while preserving the rocks [sic] educational research value for our current and future school students,” Brown said.

Friday morning, a crew started the process using harnesses around the boulder to lift it with a large crane. They began just before 7 a.m., and finished up after 11 that morning.

The rock will be moved to UW-Madison property on Lake Kegonsa, where university geologists and researchers can still have access to it.

Here’s the offending boulder being removed, probably at substantial cost (photo from the University of Wisconsin News):

The removal was a painstaking process that lasted just over four hours. Here, workers from JP Cullen and Dawes Rigging & Crane Rental maneuver the rock into position above the flatbed truck that would haul it to  university-owned land southeast of Madison near Lake Kegonsa. PHOTO: BRYCE RICHTER

To anyone with sense, removing the rock because it offends students based on a name used just once, is insane. The normal reaction to those students, and to the chancellor who ordered the rock’s removal to placate the offended, would be “Get a grip, people!”.  And, in fact, that’s exactly McWhorter’s message in his NY Times piece. He even calls it a “niggerhead” rock, printing out the word that, said the Times not long ago, couldn’t be used because intent doesn’t matter, only the effect of the word on people.

McWhorter’s piece is excellent, full of sarcasm, thoughtful analyis and good writing. And most of all, it says the thing that we all want to say when we see such reprehensible and ineffective acts of performative wokeness (but can’t say it unless we’re black):

The students essentially demanded that an irrational, prescientific kind of fear — that a person can be meaningfully injured by the dead — be accepted as insight. They imply that the rock’s denotation of racism is akin to a Confederate statue’s denotation of the same, neglecting the glaringly obvious matter of degree here — as in, imagine pulling down a statue upon finding that the person memorialized had uttered a single racist thing once in his or her life.

. . . If the presence of that rock actually makes some people desperately uncomfortable, they need counseling. And as such, we can be quite sure that these students were acting. Few can miss that there is a performative aspect in the claim that college campuses, perhaps the most diligently antiracism spaces on the planet, are seething with bigotry. The Wisconsin rock episode was a textbook demonstration of the difference between sincere activism and playacting, out of a desire to join the civil rights struggle in a time when the problems are so much more abstract than they once were.

How many of us, even though most of us believe it, would stay that the offending were acting, weren’t really offended, and were engaged in a grab for power? Or that they need counseling if they were that offended?  But of course a big share of blame falls on the cowardly administrators who caved into the students’ ridiculous demand (all bolding is McWhorter’s).

The true fault here lies with the school’s administration, whose deer tails popped up as they bolted into the forest, out of a fear of going against the commandments of what we today call antiracism, which apparently includes treating Black people as simpletons and thinking of it as reckoning.

True wokeness would have been to awaken to the tricky but urgent civic responsibility of, when necessary, calling out Black people on nonsense. Yes, even Black people can be wrong. As the Black professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law puts it in his upcoming “Say It Loud!”: “Blacks, too, have flaws, sometimes glaringly so. These weaknesses may be the consequence of racist mistreatment. But they are weaknesses nonetheless.” To pretend this is never the case where racism is concerned is not to reckon but to dehumanize.

But wait! There’s more!

Let us remember: The point here is treating a rock as psychologically damaging because of something someone dug up written about it at a time when people lived without antibiotics, television or McDonald’s. And yes, people often called big rocks and other things that ugly name in those days. But by that logic, we should be lifting away thousands of rocks nationwide. Note the perfect absurdity of an idea that America is “coming to terms” with racism by having cranes laboring all over the country moving boulders to different spots.

. . .My message here is not that the students should have just hit the books and kept their chinny chins up. Black America has problems that cannot be solved via personal initiative alone, and young people eager to help change the world are to be lauded for addressing them. If the Black students who had that rock pulled away do tutoring with Black kids in Madison’s more challenged public schools or get behind police reform efforts in the same city, then they deserve all due support. (I’d even consider giving them school credit for it.)

But the rock episode was settling for performance art and calling it antiracism. Kabuki as civil rights — it’s fake, it’s self-involved, and it helps no one. Yes, racism persists in our society in many ways, and administrators serving up craven condescension as antiracism are fine examples of it.

Them’s strong words, especially from the New York Times. In fact, I haven’t seen anything even close to it in several years. Remember, the NYT fired science reporter Don McNeil for simply saying the n-word in a didactic manner on a New York Times foreign excursion with students. He didn’t even print it, but here McWhorter prints “niggerhead”, and the word stays as a whole. How did he get away with it? Well, for one thing, McWhorter is black.

But the important thing is not just that he got away with it, but he got away with slapping down The Pretend Offended and calling them what they are: students who act out an outrage that’s not really felt. And the University of Wisconsin Administration also gets a trip to the woodshed. How refreshing to see a piece like this published in the New York Times! Is this a harbinger of change? Will the paper let McWhorter say exactly what he wants from now on, or is he doomed to be let go? (I can’t imagine he’d follow any orders to “tone it down.”) Stay tuned.

50 thoughts on “McWhorter back in form, speaks truth to wokeness in the NY Times

  1. The Black U Wisc students feel pushed around by White America as their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were. This is a way of getting back. Make them undertake the expensive and difficult removal of a big rock. I think the same thinking underlies all the difficulties to the establishment caused by ‘sacred’ mountains in the southwest and Hawaii.

    1. I agree, Eli. They never received what was promised them when they were emancipated, They haven’t received any sort of reparations. I can’t say that I blame them. It’s a rock and I find this to be a reach to tie it to something racist, but you stated it perfectly “Make them undertake the expensive and difficult removal of a big rock.” I wish we could actually remove the sentiment behind the rock, statues, and places like the sacred mountain. Removing the hatred and supremacy would be the ideal solution. Then we wouldn’t have to be dealing with “rocks.”

      1. Efforts to remove or destroy rocks, statues, memorials and other public art are often acts of hatred and contempt as well as manifestations of a desire for power. The video of the Taliban blowing up Buddhist rock sculptures makes me physically ill, as does the destruction of statues of Confederate soldiers and crosses. They all arise from the same impulse, a desire to destroy things considered blasphemous by today’s elites. Tolerance goes abeggin’ and comes back empty handed in today’s world.

      2. Yes, because it certainly wouldn’t do to use those funds for some actual help for marginalized groups, when the funds could be wasted on rock removal instead.

    2. Seems like a deal real oppressors would be willing to take: moving a rock around in lieu of actually effecting real change. Someone should point this out to the Black U of Wisc students.

  2. I read McWhorter’s article last night and almost cheered! It was fantastic! What an antidote to lots of the NYT wokeness. This at least IS an audience that needs to hear McWhorter’s take. I hope McWhorter and Charles M. Blow residing in the same newspaper won’t cause some anti-matter reaction that will implode our universe 🙂

    The thing is: I was really interested to see NYT reader responses to McWhorter’s articles, but thus far no comments have been allowed, including for this article. What a disappointment and it has me wondering why that is? And on what basis the NYT decides to allow reader comments or not?

    1. Yes me too – the commentariat at the NYT is much less woke than the editorial board, and I was disappointed not to see comments. The NYT formerly had a public editor who might have explained or analyzed how the decision to turn on comments is made. No longer.

      1. I too have often noticed that the commentariat at the NYT is less woke than the eds. McWhorter is like the commentariat getting its nose under the tent pitched by the editorial board/staff. Surely they must recognize the danger here – unless they are so blinded by self-righteousness that they can’t quite fathom the mutiny-in-waiting by their commentariat. We shall see.

      1. Unlikely. His response would be that this would suggest that McWhorter’s views are legitimate and worth debating. Furthermore, he knows that he’s be asked for evidence supporting his position and he would be unable to produce that. For example, what is the mechanism by which systemic racism keeps non-impoverished black children from being as successful as white kids in lavishly funded school systems such as D.C.? He realizes that the Woke answer, that disparity of results proves that the problem lies not with any aspect of the culture these kids come from but entirely with systemic discrimination, is too easy to pick apart in a rational forum. He also realizes that he would be without his most potent weapon: the threat of accusing his opponent of being a racist. No upside for Blow in such a match.

        1. Yeah, you’re probably right. I was thinking of a joint column of the type that Gail Collins and Bret Stephens collaborate on from time to time. So the arena of any point-counterpoint with McWhorter and Blow—or McWhorter and Kendi, for that matter—will remain in the mind of the reader.

    2. I might be reading too much into this, but perhaps this signals an attempt by the NYT to expose their readership to a broader range of thought, and to broaden their readership.
      They certainly have been putting out bait for the astrology crowd and religious soft-heads recently.

    3. The “Guest Essays” as the NYT now calls its Op-Eds have the comments disabled. They’re always on for the regular opinion columnists.

  3. By the way, “The Chair” on Netflix is centered around a pretty accurate rendition of modern campus wokeness. It stars Sandra Oh as the newly elected chair of Pembroke University’s English Dept. One of her English professors, a white male, does a faux Nazi salute in class. (They should have done a rock as it would have been hilarious.) Woke theatrics ensue. It’s not a bad show. Her character’s adopted little girl steals many scenes.

  4. … and calling them what they are: students who act out an outrage that’s not really felt.

    Psychology’s tricky, and I’m not sure they’re only “pretending” to be outraged, hurt, or attacked. People in groups often take their emotional cues from the rest of the group, adopting the reasons they’re given and producing the expected reaction. This might be especially true for young people in challenging new circumstances.

    It’s not a conscious process. If the others in the tribe keep telling an individual that something is painful to think about and exhibit pain themselves, that individual will quite possibly feel genuine pain. No faking necessary— even if the trigger is benign.

    This would mean a situation is more dangerous, I think. People putting on a show for effect would be more likely to drop it if they don’t get the effect they want. A toxic group feedback loop of the genuinely anguished is going to be a lot more difficult to deal with. And those in that over-sensitive group are probably going to have a lot more problems later in life, too.

    1. Agreed Sastra. I do get McWhorter’s point about the performative nature of the outrage. But on the other hand I see a fair amount of overreach in the culture wars (actually on every front of conflict) in attributing deception to the people we aren’t agreeing with. Basically “look, no reasonable person could be saying or doing this, so they must have some psychological motive or agenda, rather than a sincere belief.” As you say, it’s damned easy for people to start internalizing beliefs and feelings of their tribe.

      And that’s a point that needs to be made very explicitly in steeling the new generation against the indoctrination of (for lack of better word) wokism. Many young people are LEARNING not just to be offended, but emotionally, mentally wrecked by purported affronts to social justice. This gives them the impression that this emotional fragility and “pain” is a natural human reaction for which we must set up steep protection. They don’t realize it’s a LEARNED response and that in principle we have a CHOICE how to react.

      As an example, a woman in a strict Muslim country, e.g. Saudi Arabia, fully inculcated with that cultural more, if for some reason her abaya came off in public revealing her in a t shirt and shorts, she would feel overwhelming embarrassment and mental anguish, even on a moral scale.

      Yet western women roam the streets in pants and short sleeve shirts and shorts all the time without any such anguish. And in fact, women who have come from those strict societies and adapted to western life (e.g. deconverting) don’t experience the anguish anymore.

      In other words: many of the things that cause us mental anguish can be traced to our having LEARNED to feel that way, not because it is of any inviolable part of the human psyche.

      Which also means we always have to be able to ask not only “do we feel this way?” but “SHOULD we fell this way?” That is, if we have a choice, does it really help people along a mentally healthy road to encourage them to be affronted or “hurt” by something? Might it not be better in many cases to NOT inculcate that psychological reaction? Surely the answer is yes.

      We have to get it in to the heads of the inculcated (or before they are inculcated) that their pain is a LEARNED response, not a fact of their race or skin color or sexuality or biology. And that learning to be offended or psychologically hurt.

      I have sons who are encountering wokism in their schooling (and one has issues that could easily place him in to the hands of people who would instruct him to be emotionally fragile), so I’m trying to gently steel them in this regard. (Without enforcing a parental dogma).

      1. I have to add here that whether the outrage is genuine and innate, or learned from others, one still needs should have therapy to deal with it. McWhorter’s article would be just as valuable even had he not asserted that the outrage was pretense.

        Good points, though.

  5. The topic of McWhorter’s essay recalls The Coiffure himself — former Texas governor and US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry — whose family owned a West Texas hunting camp where, in the time-honored Lone-Star-State good-old-boy tradition, Perry would entertain fellow pols on weekends. The hunting camp was known colloquially as “Niggerhead,” after the word printed in big block letters on a large flat rock at the camp’s entrance.

    Once the name became a political embarrassment, the solution hit upon by the Perry clan was to paint over the old name and, eventually, to flip the big flat rock around on the chance that the old block letters might yet bleed through the new paint job into public view. Far as I know, no one ever insisted that the flat rock itself be removed since — like the boulder in Badgerland — even under the most outré interpretation of panpsychism, rocks have no choice in their naming.

    1. You’ve hit on a clue, Ken. This rock’s primitive consciousness was no doubt twisted into “false consciousness” (as we Marxists used to say) by that 1925 news story, leading to its malign influence on anyone who passes by it on campus. Speaking for myself, there are whole geological strata that make me feel unsafe. I advise the U. Wisc. authorities not only to move the rock, but to cover it with
      a big paper bag. Let the healing begin.

    2. An alternative to the $50K cost of removing the Wisconsin rock would have been just have someone put graffiti on it, painting it with the inspirations du jour. There are lots of big campus rocks that get that treatment.

      1. I think budding sculptors among the offended students should have had at it, carving it into a form and naming it with a moniker they found aethetically pleasing and “accessible” and “relevant,” perhaps naming it “WAP.”

  6. Just imagine how many hours of research at least one student (and possibly many) needed to do just to find a way to claim that yes another thing on campus is ‘racist’ and causing ‘harm.'” Students and activists seem to devote an enormous amount of time to simply seeking out more things to be outrage about. Maybe someone came across this one by accident; I guess that’s possible.

    The fact that this is happening shows on its own just how performative much of social justice is. And then there are the resources dedicated to it. While colleges, workplaces, and many other venues spend billions on speakers and programs that have been proved to be largely worthless (and sometime even increasing racism), we know that here, at the very least, the school formed a committee to write a report providing “recommendations,” and then the administration spent time and money on the simple moving of a giant rock.

    “But by that logic, we should be lifting away thousands of rocks nationwide. Note the perfect absurdity of an idea that America is ‘coming to terms’ with racism by having cranes laboring all over the country moving boulders to different spots.”

    What a perfect metaphor for how performative activism has become Sisyphian, and a good reminder that activists have made it so by design.

    1. If, in fact, the only reference to the offensive term was in a 1925 newspaper story, I’m mystified as to how would the Wisconsin Black Student Union could possibly have been aware of that? Was there still a copy of that 1925 newspaper laying around in the waiting room of some dental office in Madison that someone stumbled upon? I was wondering whether it might be that the rock was actually still being referred to in that manner in certain circles. However, I looked at several news articles and never found an explanation as to how this term had come to the attention of the Wisconsin Black Student Union.

      1. I’m assuming that some freshman taking English100 chose the Rock as an essay topic, and word would have spread from there (or something along those lines.)

    2. Well, it is Wisconsin. An activist looking to demand the removal of something is not going to find very much, as Black slavery was a tiny part of the state’s history. Natives enslaving each other would be the most common, over the last few centuries. Then there are a significant number of White folks owned by natives, then probably Black slaves of White people who brought them into the area.
      The goal seems to be to demand the costly removal of something, and enjoy the submission of those who might have higher status than you perceive you have yourself.
      It is a process of exercising base desires.
      Nobody can really believe that the rock itself, or some statue or building was actually oppressing anyone, unless someone convinced them to believe that.
      It also seems that when you teach programs in grievance studies, you are going to attract and create people who find meaning in their lives only through the expression of grievances. If legitimate ones cannot be found, then they must be manufactured.
      It would be uncomfortable to demonstrate to those people that this is just not who we are as a people, and that such behavior is unacceptable. When you do so with a toddler, they are happier, as they know their limits. The parents are happier, as they don’t have to deal with escalating tantrums and demands.

  7. I no longer have a subscription to the NYTimes, so can’t read the entire column.

    Here is my question: Does anyone sense that perhaps the obsession of digging out racist histories, no matter how recherche, is perhaps a kind of displacement of academic or social performance anxiety?

    And not just by certain students of color…but also by teachers and peers as they see people struggle and are afraid to make corrections or suggestions lest they be cancelled?

    1. If you use the Bypass Paywalls extension Firefox or any Chromium-based browser (Chrome, Vivaldi, Brave, Edge) you can read the whole article, or indeed any other at the NYT and many other news sites.

  8. “Why is there a hole in the ground there?”
    “Oh, that’s where N—-head Rock used to be.”

    The furore over the rock and its removal just revived the old, hitherto unused, name.

  9. They will need to do a perfect job of filling the hole and seeding the grass there so the ground blends in perfectly with its surroundings. Otherwise, by the logic that dictated the removal of the rock, any remaining sign of the rock’s existence in that spot would inflict the same “harm” and do just as much to perpetuate racism as the rock did.

  10. Notice the administration boilerplate that removing the rock “prevents further harm” and provides an occasion to begin “healing”. I first became aware of the clichéd use of these buzzwords when I heard a departmental discussion about research reports. There was, no kidding, actual mention of the need for healing after grad students suffered the “harm” of hearing their research presentation criticized. Maybe John McWhorter, as a linguist, could trace the path by which these therapeutic words came into the woke/administratese language. My hunch is that the sanctification of victimhood can be traced back to School of Ed jargon of a few decades ago.

  11. On the other hand, is there no limit to the expense that someone threatened by such a mob must be willing to accept in order to be able to hold his or her head up? Must she resist the mob even at the cost of her career or at the cost of her company if she is in the right? Should the $50,000 be compared to intangible costs such as unending racial strife on campus or becoming known as a college charged with racism, affecting alumni donations as well as applications for admission? Such damage, though unjust, may be hard to repair. We are not dealing with rational forces here.

  12. In addition to the performative and utterly nonproductive nature of such shenanigans, stories like this actually do harm to the cause of making progress against the real issues, because many people who might otherwise be sympathetic are going to see people removing a boulder at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars because its existence is traumatic, and will think, “Okay, obviously the people involved don’t have any real problems (other than perhaps psychological/psychiatric ones). Everything must be pretty much okay.” Or they may think that there really are problems to be addressed, but think that there is no point throwing one’s hat in the ring with people such as this. One might almost reasonably suspect this to be a false flag operation, given how embarrassing it is, or ought to be.

    1. No, but as I mentioned in another comment, the “Guest Essays” (as the NYT now calls its op-eds) don’t have comments turned on. I suspect it’s just a matter of policy so they don’t have to make or justify a call to enable or disable comments on any particular piece.

      1. I notice the occasional NYT editorial board piece does not accommodate comments. That does not seem right to me. If any piece always warrants enabling comments, it should be the editorial board’s pearls of wisdom.

      2. That’s interesting. Most of the Guest Essays currently on the NYT site

        do have comments enabled. Some are by guest writers not at the NYT, others are by NYT staff editors or members of the editorial board. The two by Opinion Writers (Peter Coy, McWhorter) don’t have comments. Not sure what the differences are there.

  13. There’s an organization now at my old school, an organization which is lauded by many in the most reverential tones, whose sole purpose is researching and revealing the woeful sins of the individuals after whom the campus buildings are named. Thus they’ve changed the name of my/our dining hall and even the name of our storied dorm, Taliaferro. The dining hall was named after an early 20th century Jim Crow Governor, but no one even knew that until the researchers ferreted it out….I always thought it was named after the old lady who ran the place. But, like Cromwell being exhumed and beheaded, we are now in a cycle where these things have to be dredged up in order to be reviled. All kabuki theatre. But these kids want battles to fight, to be standing at the Edmund Pettit bridge once again, and it isn’t happening. The works of the early racist dining hall governor guy were undone root and branch by the civil rights movement. All that was overlooked was the name itself.

  14. Near the Australian town of Wodonga is a large hill that looks like a very large perky breast; it has the nickname of Tit Hill. The bulldozers are probably on the way.

    1. Calling a tree “oreja de negro” suggests that black people were thought to have different ears compared to non black people. This is racist. However the word “negro” per se is not racist in Spanish (and other romance languages) since it just means black.

  15. There is another memorial rock (Madison Grant, racist, eugenicist and conservationist) that was removed in June in California:

    A few snippets:

    “As part of California State Parks’ commitment to redressing racist and discriminatory features within the Parks system, a 1948 memorial honoring Madison Grant in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park has been removed.

    The large stone monument was removed by an excavator during a small ceremony on June 15, attended by California State Parks and National Park Service leaders, history scholars, and representatives of the Yurok Tribe and Save the Redwoods League. The ceremony focused on both acknowledging the past while creating a more inclusive and equitable park system for the future.”

    “Madison Grant, from his truly shocking Wikipedia page, which you should read.”

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