The complete title of McWhorter’s new book is Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, and we’ve talked before about some of the contents that McWhorter posted on his earlier Substack column. The book isn’t yet out in paperback, but I got a hardback copy several weeks ago from interlibrary loan. (I have no more room to put books on my shelves–not even 2 inches of space.) The book is available now only in hardcover, but you can either wait until the paperback appears this fall, get it from the library, borrow it, or buy the hardbound copy for $18.01. But don’t wait to read it.
I recommend it most highly. (You knew I would.) It’s a short read—187 pages of text—and written in a simple but punchy style. McWhorter doesn’t pull any of those punches, either, describing the performative character of “woke racism” in a way that only a black man could get away with. (For instance, he says that a lot of people’s offense is simply a lie.)
You can get a taste of the style from the Amazon site “look inside” feature, and the topics from Table of Contents. Here are the contents and then a table from the first chapter which shows the contradictory nature of what McWhorter calls “third wave racism” (Electism):
A screeenshot, since I can’t transcribe it:
The lens through which McWhorter views “wokeism” is as a religion: a real religion, not just a metaphor for religions that worship a God. Although I don’t think this trope is absolutely necessary for McWhorter to make his case, but it does add considerably to our understanding of the phenomenon. The “Elect” (his word for the “woke”) will brook no dissent, believe in an original sin (racism, of course), demonize those who are against them, cast them to a social-media hell (or worse: getting them fired or banned), have a common set of tenets that, as shown above, contradict each other (cf. Christianity: God is loving but if you don’t accept him you’ll burn forever), and have a set of inerrant prophets, including Ibram Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Their words are not to be questioned; the prophets are to be worshipped and evoked as often as possible.
The book is not intended for The Elect because, as McWhorter asserts, their minds aren’t open. That’s true, just as my book Faith Versus Fact wasn’t intended for fundamentalist religionists. In both cases our books were intended for either those on the fence, those with open minds or, in McWhorter’s case, for those who already dislike Wokeness but want a critical analysis of its flaws as well as some bucking up. Wokeism may, for instance, repel you for reasons you don’t understand, and McWhorter supplies those reasons.
There are several, and since this isn’t a full review, I’ll just touch on them. First, “Electism” (or, as I prefer, “Wokeism”) is largely performative: it is a show of virtue without really accomplishing anything to lessen the inequalities that have plagued black people. How, for example, does firing a professor who explicates the “fill-in” word in Chinese “ne-gah” (just as “like” is a fill-in word in American English), accomplish anything to eradicate racism? We know of dozens of such performances. Academia is full of them, and they’ve spilled over into society at large. I see them every day.
Don’t get McWhorter wrong: he does see inequality of blacks and whites as a serious problem, but also thinks that black people have to lend a hand in helping us fix it. I’ll mention his solutions below. But by laying out the arrant stupidity (well, “misguidedness”) of performative Electism, he not only helps us understand it, but also to fight it and to stop flagellating ourselves as irreparably broken racists. In this sense it is heartening. It doesn’t aim to perpetuate racism by mitigating white guilt, but to show that much of that guilt is unwarranted.
In fact, McWhorter’s notion is that Electism actually harms black people in several ways. One way, which I’ve seen at my own university, is by infantilizing them: treating them as an especially sensitive group that must be coddled rather than respected. Once you realize how this infantilizing is done—and it’s done by both blacks and whites, but is especially odious when by whites—you can see signs of it everywhere. And this infantilizing leads to lower both the expectations we have for black achievement as well as the standards that we hold everyone to. It is, in fact, the very reason why the meritocracy is being dismantled, and why colleges and schools are getting rid of standardized tests. But this doesn’t help black people. How could it? It may get more of them into universities, but McWhorter claims that, in the elite schools at least, poor secondary-school education plus a culture not based prizing learning leads to many black students being underprepared, and either dropping out of or changing schools.
Another virtue of the book is that, like Mill’s “On Liberty,” McWhorter constantly anticipates the objections of the Woke and defuses them in advance. These include the idea that McWhorter must be a self-hating black, that we need affirmative action for all minorities, whether or not they’re disadvantaged, and that affirmative action must be based solely on how one is grouped racially. It must also last forever.
The initial chapters describe the phenomenon of Electism, make the case that it’s a real religion, and give many examples—you’ll be familiar with some—of how Electism plays out in everyday life. It’s horrifying to see what the Elect have gotten away with, but of course they get away with their shenanigans for one reason only: white people really don’t want to be called racists, and will do nearly anything to avoid that label.
Electness meets the road in the last two chapters. Chapter 5 contains McWhorter’s recommendations for how to really help black people. They may sound too few, or too silly, but the more one thinks about them, the more they make sense. In his view, there are only three correctives.
1.) End the war on drugs
2.) Teach reading properly (he recommends phonics, and knows whereof he speaks)
3.) Get past the idea that everybody must go to college
Each of these has wide ramifications that you can imagine if you think about them. But you needn’t, for McWhorter gives the rationales in detail. Sadly, none of these things are being emphasized or accomplished by the Woke, and none of them are the subject of the performative wokeism we encounter every day.
The last chapter deals with people who oppose performative wokeism but still want to help black people. What do you do when the Elect come for you? McWhorter sees acting on his advice as critical, for Electism is no longer a problem with colleges alone. It’s plagues all of American (and much of British and Canadian) society. McWhorter’s suggestion includes not engaging the Elect (they won’t listen), do not apologize for your actions or views if you advance them in reason good faith, and, most important, stand up to the woke. Don’t buy their bullshit, don’t let them make you feel guilty, and, if you disagree, just say so and walk away. And build your own group of like-minded people who are also antiracist.
That, of course, requires that you “out yourself” as an opponent of the Elect. I have already done so, but what do I have to lose? I don’t use Twitter, I have my own platform here, and I’m retired. Nobody can fire me. But there are many who do have things to lose. McWhorter’s advice is to stand up for your principles, even if you suffer by doing so. Just as atheists did, the more one “comes out”, the more heartened your ideological confrères become, and the more likely they’ll be to join you. The Elect, of course, will deem you a racist simply for opposing their mishigass. Don’t let them get away with it.
McWhorter finishes the book by addressing those who agree with his arguments:
The Elect will ever be convinced that if you join these brave, self-possessed survivors, you are, regardless of your color, a moral pervert in bed with white supremacy.
But you aren’t and you know it.
Buy and read this book. Surprisingly, the professional reviews have been good (it even got a star from Kirkus!), and it’s selling quite well. Don’t miss out.
Oh, and let me add that, as you might expect, the book is wonderfully written with simple and stylish prose. But if you’ve read McWhorter before, you’ll expect that. He’s a national treasure, a man whose voice is especially urgent as America tears itself apart over racism.