Recently posted: John McWhorter talk on “Understanding the new politics of race”

February 11, 2023 • 11:15 am

Below you can (and should) see John McWhorter‘s 20-minute keynote talk in a January panel called “Towards the Common Good: Rethinking Race in the 21st Century” hosted by The Equiano Project at Emmanuel College and King’s College, Cambridge. The panel included Kenan Malik, columnist for The Observer, Munira Mirza, political advisor and Chief Executive of Civic Future, Dr Alka Seghal Cuthbertand (chair) and Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, University of Oxford.

I couldn’t find a video of the entire panel, but there’s another 75-minute discussion, featuring McWhorter, Sir Trevor Phillips, Alka Seghal, and Samir Shah, that you can watch here.

Here’s the theme of the discussion from which the video below was taken:

Despite the success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s in transforming the lives of black people, race politics in the US at the start of this century seems more polarised than ever. Racial inequality persists but there are fierce debates over the causes and solutions. Rather than seeking to realise the liberal ideal of a ‘colour-blind’ society, a new anti-racism politics wants to raise consciousness about race and the ‘problem’ of whiteness. Is this leading to more equality and progress or not? How should liberals approach this question? Crucially, how is the US experience influencing what happens in the UK and what can we learn from it?

McWhorter’s keynote deals with a topic he discusses often: the takeover of public discourse by a Social Justice crowd who flaunt their vindictive, authoritarian, and quasi-religious brand of antiracism, whose object is often to destroy the careers and credibility of their opponents. The talk is largely a precis of McWhorter’s book on Woke Antiracism, but has new stuff in it, too.

McWhorter exemplifies the Zeitgeist by describing several incidents. One is the suspension of USC business communication professor Greg Patton for using the Chinese filler pharse “negah. . negah. . negah” (equivalent to “that. . .that. . . that”) to show how people in different cultures use verbal marks of hesitation. But the fact that this Chinese word sounds like the American “n-word” slur was enough to offend students and then get Patton suspended and removed from the course. Intent, in this case, was irrelevant, for “offended” feelings, regardless of a speaker’s intent, are often sufficient to hurt someone’s career or get them fired.  The idea that “intent doesn’t matter” was also what got NYT reporter Donald McNeil Jr. fired for using the n-word in a didactic discussion with a student. As Reason reported:

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn said in a memo to staffers.

But the newspaper backed off on that (too late for McNeil!) when letting McWhorter himself spell the n-word out in full in his own column. Clearly didactic intent did matter, so long as it was the intent of a black man.

The other issue is a course in the history of Western classical music (including two weeks on jazz) that McWhorter taught for several years at Columbia. The last time, however, there was a new “antiracist” syllabus that omitted Brahms, Chopin, Wagner and replaced them with singer Nina Simone, who, McWhorter says, was a great artist but wasn’t involved in Western classical music. The reason for the change, says McWhorter, was because “two and a half people said so and everybody else was afraid of them.”

Here are two excerpts from his talk that I’ve transcribed that give you the tenor his feelings. But do listen to the whole thing; it’s eloquent and pretty short. Most of us will agree with McWhorter, but we can all use a dose of support from time to time.

He first describes the efforts of woke antiracists as:

. . . a reign of terror enforced by a small number of earnest but misguided people, and the reason that they get their way is because of how much progress we’ve made. Specifically, we in America are a society where the enlightened view is that to be a racist is almost equivalent to being a pedophile—it’s the worst thing you can be called that you’re actually likely to be. That is an accomplishment: that wasn’t true in 1960; that wasn’t really true even in 1980. That is a mark of advance in a society that, frankly, most human societies have not made. If people are a little oversensitive about it, that’s human nature. The fact is something great has happened. But the negative byproduct is that if someone says we have to have Nina Simone instead of Brahms, Chopin, or Wagner, then although almost nobody in the room agrees , they will do it because they know that if that person doesn’t get their way, they’re going to call the Music Department at Columbia “racist” on Twitter where the whole world could see it. . .

I find it ironic that the very success of the civil rights movement is instantiated in the pervasive fear of Americans of being called “racist”.  As McWhorter shows, that is a sign of success, and it’s good. His beef is with the fact that that movement has morphed into an authoritarian “reign of terror.” So what can we do?  As he argues in his book, just say “no” to these people.

. . . We can’t hope to change this by talking to people like that and saying, “Open up to new ideas.” They won’t. And that may sound cynical, but I’m basing it partly on my having experienced these people as an academic for the past 25 years, and especially over the past three. They’re impregnable; they’re thoroughly unreasonable. The issue is getting to most of us—all of the rest of us who are having our lives destroyed or affected negatively, or watching people having their lives destroyed or interfered with because of the actions of a vocal and frightening minority of people who themselves can’t be changed. There’s a bravery that’s necessary at this point. The only way we can keep society from being turned upside down by this religion. . . . we have to have the bravery to tell people like this “no” and to endure that there’s a certain kind of noice they’re going to make. But if we don’t have that bravery, if we don’t realize that being called a “racist” in the public square might not always destroy a life—sometimes, and in many cases, people are just scared— really, if we don’t do it, we’re going to lose what we have thought of as an enlightened society because of certain contingent things that happened during a pandemic and a particularly grisly murder of an innocent man. Just because of chance; just because of Zoom, Slack, boredom, habit, and fear. That is not the way that a mature society should operate.

The ending is quite eloquent, with McWhorter calling us to be “mensches” and stand up to the “misguided and recreational self-focused kind of manipulation” that goes under the name of “antiracism as social justice.” (I think the word “recreational” is quite appropriate.)

Anyway, ye who have ears, listen up

11 thoughts on “Recently posted: John McWhorter talk on “Understanding the new politics of race”

  1. If there is a John McWhorter world tour 2023 T-shirt – like there were in the days of arena rock – I’d wear one.

    1. Thanks for the link. An absolutely horrifying story that would seem grotesquely exaggerated if it were fiction.

  2. Great presentation by Prof. McWhorter. “Racist” has shifted over a single year from being an epithet that most of us spent our lives trying never to deserve (as he says) to a vacuous insult intended to stifle debate. No one will call you a pedophile (except a Crown attorney in Court) because it is slander if untrue. But any old idiot can call you a racist and you are not expected to defend or apologize. Just shut up, sit down, and get fired.

    So I think he’s saying don’t give it uptake. Say No to anti-racism as it currently operates. If someone hurls the r-word at you, the mensche in you must respond, “So? Your point?” They will be furious that their word no longer has power over you. (Your boss might still fire you though, so pick your battles.)

    1. The only realist choice these days to go on the offensive yourself. At work a while ago a woman accused one of the men of sexist behaviour. To be fair he was a bit of a prick. However, he came back by accusing her of being ableist and ageist. Again, she had made fun of his mobility issues, and did make disparaging remarks about older workers. She came back with accusing him of Islamophobia, he said she was an anti-Semite. She’s of Bangladeshi heritage, and while none of knew the guy was Jewish, suddenly he became very strict and observant! The rest of us started a pool taking bets as to when the other *isms and *phobias would get brought out. HR had a complete meltdown. Nothing was really settled.

      Hr doesn’t care who is right. Even if you defend yourself admissibly you still represent a potential risk. Just lawyer up and go on the offensive. It’s the only guarantee you have of being taken seriously.

  3. Yo, McWorther is outstanding. One could get a dozen great one liners out of his talk, but that would not really do it justice. He’s impressive and so very much on the ball, about all the time.

  4. I watched both the 20 minute McWhorter talk and the 75 minute panel discussion (which is a contributing factor to why I am so late in commenting this afternoon) and really found the panel discussion to be extremely compelling. I think that prof mcwhorter’s 20 minutes solo may be a part of the same overall multi-day program as the panel discussion. I heard from people on the panel, who, except for prof mcwhorter, i had not seen before. It was very rich. So i just wanted to reinforce the idea of clicking on the link that jerry provided for the 75 minute panel discussion. It may not be new content for all weit readers, but certainly was for me. And, of course, also put aside another 20 minutes, if have them, for prof mcwhorter’s solo talk.

  5. What a thoughtful eloquent talk by John McWorther. He touched me deeply. There should be more such people, not only in the USA, but also in Europe, which has a similar problem with anti-racist activism, though not (yet) in the intensity as in teh USA.

    One example: In the Free University of Berlin there is currently trouble because female students are being sexually harassed by a male. The General Student Committee has now sent out a message that affected female students should NOT call the police in case of contact.
    The reason? Police interventions for people affected by racism could in principle be associated with an increased risk of experiencing police violence.
    And: The police officers are “not sufficiently trained in dealing with exceptional psychological situations,” the letter continues. Therefore, such operations are often “escalated by the unnecessary use of force.
    The Berlin police strongly protested against the letter: “Whoever advises victims of sexual violence not to turn to the police thwarts the prosecution of crimes, makes himself an accomplice and exposes women to future assaults through false advice.”

  6. An excellent way to spend 20 minutes. Thank you for sharing. I am concerned that this talk may put him in the sights of these deluded people that want to crush anyone who does not think the way they do. Hopefully his speaking out will encourage others to stand up against theses academic bullies.

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