I usually go wrong when I psychoanalyze John McWhorter, as he’s a complex individual and I know him only through his writings. The last time I erred was when I predicted he’d become less anti-woke when he took up his twice-weekly column at the NYT, expecting that editorial pressure would soften his words or beliefs. I was wrong: his next column was a hilarious and decidedly anti-woke column on the “n-wordhead” rock at the University of Wisconsin.
So I’m loath to explain part of his latest column at the NYT, which is a list of things he likes about progressive antiracism. One thing I do sense about McWhorter is that he’s defensive, but that’s no vice in a black man who spends his time attacking the likes of Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. Perhaps showing us that he actually likes some stuff rather than deploring everything is meant to show us his human side. I haven’t kept up with the reviews of his new book Woke Racism, though I’ve read parts of it and will give a brief take when I’ve finished. In fact, the only one I saw was in the Washington Post, which was not only negative, but mean-spirited (also written by an African-American). That must have stung, and perhaps played a role in what we consider today.
So here we have his latest piece (click on webshot to read; if you subscribe to the NYT you can subscribe to his pieces as well):
There are four things that McWhorter admires about true progressivist changes in race and racial relations. I agree with him about 2.5 of them, and disagree with the other 1.5. The first is the one with which I disagree (McWhorter’s words are indented, and bolding in indents is his).
1.) Land acknowledgments. I find it very odd that in his previous writings, and in his new book, McWhorter properly decries “performative antiracism”: antiracism that really doesn’t accomplish anything to lift up minorities or repair racial relations. He thinks that most of these “performative” acts exist to signal the virtue of the actor, and I agree with him. But among the most conspicuous of the performative acts are the increasingly ubiquitous “land acknowledgments” that are especially obvious in woke academia. Yet McWhorter likes these, and I know that some readers do. His reasons (all bolding is McWhorter’s):
So, after the Thanksgiving holiday seems a good time to point out some other things I appreciate about our times.
One of them is land acknowledgments. There is an increasingly common practice, especially in academic circles, of prefacing public presentations or events with a ritual acknowledgment that the land the event is taking place on was originally occupied and cared for by Native Americans, with a specification of the particular Indigenous nation of that land.
I’m glad this is happening, despite the opinion of some, such as the New York Post columnist Kyle Smith, who called land acknowledgments “the latest in meaningless self-scourging progressive fashion statements.” I’ve always found it quietly dismaying that the land that America occupies was wrested from people who had lived on it for millenniums before, and that today Native Americans represent such as small percentage of our body politic, and so much has been built up on the land, that there’s no realistic way, given the magnitude of the injustice, to reverse it or even adequately redress it. I’ve often thought, “Under this parking lot, right where that subdivision is, whole lives and societies existed that are now utterly lost.” The least we can do is to regularly — yes, ritually — mention this, especially if this least is the best we’re willing to do.
We’ve discussed the flaws in these acknowledgments: that Native Americans continually displaced each other, so whose land is to be acknowledged, and sometimes the land wasn’t even “owned” by Native Americans (most of whom had no concept of owning land, but did use it). I know of one college where they decided to create a land acknowledgment and hired a historian to suss out the past usage of the land. He found that the land wasn’t used regularly by any Native Americans, but very occasionally a few of them hunted on the land. When he scheduled a talk to the school to impart this information, he was deplatformed.
But most of all, land acknowledgments are virtue signals, pure and simple. Native Americans aren’t there to hear them, so they are just liberals telling each other how good they are. And the acknowledgments do absolutely nothing to help Native Americans. If colleges wanted to actually accomplish something, they’d contribute to the welfare of the tribes whose land they “stole” by giving them money or giving back land (untenable, of course), or do something real. McWhorter is recommending these ritual invocations as history lessons, but imagine what would happen if they had these in Europe? The acknowledgments would go on for hours. If the absence of firm knowledge, the odious history of colonists’ genocide of Americans is best taught in history books where it can be described in broad sweep, not proclaimed at the beginning of every talk referring to a few acres of land.
2.) Television for kids increasingly shows black characters.
I like what I see on television. Particularly children’s television. I look over my daughters’ shoulders and see a heartening multiplicity of Black stars and characters on their favorite shows that just wasn’t there a few years ago. One that comes to mind: Netflix’s delightful baking show, “Nailed It!” is hosted to perfection by Nicole Byer, a young Black woman. No, I haven’t forgotten that the wonderfully diverse “Sesame Street” has been with us since 1969. But the sheer frequency with which today’s children’s shows (and not just the stuff of public television) are, yes, centering people of color feels different. “Sesame Street” once felt like a televised utopia; today’s fare, especially animated, commercial programming, often presents diversity as something blissfully unremarkable.
I agree completely. I don’t watch kids’ shows, but I do watch the news and some newslike shows like “60 Minutes”, and I’ve also noticed that the commericals increasingly feature black people and black families. When I was a kid all you saw were white people. It’s very heartening to see African-Americans appearing in ads without any notice or emphasis that they are not white.
3.) Television for adults is changing the same way.
Interestingly, the same thing is happening on popular animated shows for adults: On the long-running “Family Guy,” Blackness has often been played for comedy; but on a recent episode, the main character, Peter, gets a new boss, a Black guy, whose race is incidental. He stood out not for being Black but for trying to squeeze the fun out of at-work birthday parties — you know, like a stereotypical boss. A recent episode of the also long-running “Bob’s Burgers” introduced a character as the game master of a Dungeons & Dragons-style game who was nerdy, charmingly awkward and a Black woman — i.e. a full spectrum of a human being. The hit “Ted Lasso” portrays today’s United Kingdom, where whiteness is hardly default as Black and brown people are part of the warp and woof of all levels of society. A recent “Archer” episode even jokes about today’s Britain, when Lana (voiced, as it happens, by the Black actress Aisha Tyler, who had a recurring role as Ross’s girlfriend on “Friends” back when there was a mild uproar about that show’s lack of Black friends!) wrongly assumes a Black man will stand out in a London crowd.
This is also a welcome change. Although McWhorter notes that these changes could be seen as superficial, like land acknowledgments, they are not: television shows are an important part of the fabric of American life, and we need to realize that American life is multiracial and multicultural.
4.) People are becoming increasingly aware of “systemic racism”.
The idea of systemic racism — societal inequities rooted in racism of the past or present that represent barriers, in many instances, for people of color — is now common coin to a greater extent.
Sure, I have documented my issues with the way we are taught to think about systemic racism, and to say that opinions about how to address it differ is putting it mildly. The argument for reparations, for instance, is not the utterly settled question some suppose. And controversy will continue over whether the take on systemic racism originating in, and taking a cue from, critical race theory is a useful one.
However, I welcome the increased awareness of the notion of systemic racism.
. . . an undergrad today would be much less likely to see race matters only that far. The racial reckoning of recent years; the cultural decentering of whiteness; and the airing of what is meant by systemic racism have brought about that positive evolution. The other day I heard some white kids — upper-middle-class New Yorkers — casually referring in passing to systemic racism while walking down the street from school, clearly thinking of it as an assumed concept.
But as I recall, McWhorter has previously discussed the problems with systemic racism, and not just with reparations. The problem, which he doesn’t mention but has in the past, is that “systemic racism” is now seen as racism presently built into institutions and societal structures (laws, universities, science, etc), creating present-day bias that is taken to be the cause of inequities (disproportionate representation of “majority” people and underrepresentation of minorities).
So when the white kids in McWhorter’s last paragraph casually refer to systemic racism, are they correct? For example—and I know this well—the underrepresentation of minorities in STEM fields is very often described as a result of systemic racism (or, in the case of sexes, “systemic sexism”): racism pervasive among scientists who, it is said, are biased against blacks, Hispanics, and women (consciously or not). But this is not the case: science is bending over backwards to hire and promote women and minorities, and to urge students to go into STEM. The inequities we see in STEM are simply not due to “systemic racism” in science. Yes, of course a few scientists may be racists (though I’ve never met one), but you will find that in all fields. I would describe STEM as “strongly antiracist”. The inequities are due to racism in the past that put minorities in situations where they don’t get opportunities needed to get into STEM.
You must distinguish—and McWhorter does this all the time—between present-day biases and the residuum of older biases stemming from slavery, racism of the past, and so on. And groups may also differ in their preferences. Here are medical fields which have the greatest imbalance in favor of women (data from the AMA):
- Obstetrics and gynecology—83.4%.
- Allergy and immunology—73.5%.
- Medical genetics and genomics—66.7%.
- Hospice and palliative medicine—66.3%.
I refuse to believe that this is due to anti-male bias in those professions, and I suspect that a large proportion of these inequities is due to sex differences in preference, with women preferring more patient-oriented, hands-on fields than men. (Surgeons and radiologists, whose contacts with patients as humans are minimal, are overwhelmingly male.)
At any rate, I agree with McWhorter that if you construe “systemic racism” as “equities rooted in racism of the past or present that present barriers” then yes, there’s systemic racism. But it’s vitally important, if we’re to achieve more equality or equity, that we distinguish between “present” and “past” biases. This is why I agree only 50% with this contention.
Regardless, I am still curious as to why McWhorter wrote this column. He explains it as follows, and I suppose that’s as good a take as any.
Whether you think of me as a contrarian, as I’m often labeled, or a cranky liberal, as I sometimes refer to myself, I do a lot of complaining about our supposedly brave new world: Cancel culture is real, and out of hand; wokeness frequently oversimplifies and infantilizes us; the term “woke” is broke. But believe it or not, there are things I like about our current era, including, as you know, cheering on “they” as a singular pronoun. So, after the Thanksgiving holiday seems a good time to point out some other things I appreciate about our times.