Woke Racism’ is just another tiresome reactionary rant
John McWhorter’s latest book joins a growing library of ‘anti-woke’ tomes railing against an imaginary problem as a sop to an increasingly neurotic middle America.
In some respects, there’s much to admire about the idea behind linguist John McWhorter’s latest book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. But ideas are ten a penny. It’s the execution that counts, and this piece of work is little more than a guillotine to crack a nut.
Marketed as an examination of how “illiberal neoracism, disguised as antiracism, is hurting Black communities and weakening the American social fabric,” the 224-page tome’s premise is the sort of slack-jawed, “How could they do this to us?” cultural investigation that’s all too common among US pop academia. As the world’s greatest hypomanic nation, America is a restless, fidgety, discontented place, which makes it such a creative, inventive land of opportunity. But its collective neurosis also makes it a sucker for pointless navel gazing, self-indulgence and narcissism. In America, nothing evolves. Shit just ‘happens’ – and it’s always somebody else’s fault. The fact that religiosity, tribalism, prejudice, and the manipulation of language is what built and continues to fuel America counts for nothing. Wokeism is happening right here, right now, and it’s going to destroy America before the next Super Bowl if we don’t get a move on, sheeple!
From professional guilty white liberals such as Robin DiAngelo and her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, to Jon Entine’s cod-scientific Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, countless American authors attack the problems of the day with a breathless urgency. The trouble is, Woke Racism is big on puff, low on proof. It comes out of the traps like a rabid dog but fizzles out like a puddycat. Why? Because Woke Racism, like so many conservative toolkits, is trying solve a problem that’s not really a problem, but merely a cultural phenomenon.
At its heart, Woke Racism is yet another reactionary shill game aimed at scaring suburban Americans into thinking The Purge is on its way. By raising the question, “How has the conversation on race in America gone so crazy?” McWhorter shows his hand early on as a ‘shockademic’ who wants Americans to think the country has suddenly lost its mind, conveniently ignoring the impact that genocide, centuries of industrial scale slavery, colonialism, segregation, and the occasional bombing of faraway lands back to the Stone Age may have contributed to unresolved national disharmony. By promoting ‘woke racism’ as the latest bogeyman, McWhorter gets to scaremonger white folks for clicks and dollars while simultaneously offering a convenient prophylactic for their paranoia: blame it on the blacks.
What McWhorter’s paymasters want him to say is that racism is black people’s fault, because if we didn’t complain about it, it wouldn’t be a problem. Case closed. This might seem a trite thing to say, and in its own way, an incendiary accusation to level at a fellow writer. But there’s really nothing more to Woke Racism. Reverse engineer this book so that you end with an Anglosphere of compliant, malleable black people, and woke racism disappears, as if by magic. For many black people, however, in a racially charged context, pretending that racism doesn’t exist is not an option. Turning the other cheek on it just gets you shot in the back – figuratively and, in the cases of Walter Scott, Jacob Blake, Casey Goodson, Andrew Brown et al, quite literally.
McWhorter says he’s been rubbished as a “sellout” and an “Uncle Tom” for his rightist take on wokeism. But what does he expect? These epithets, as well as ‘coconut’ or ‘c**n’, aren’t racial slurs in the traditional sense; they’re highly politicised, weaponised words that are as much a shorthand for a dealing with fifth columnists like McWhorter as ‘woke’ has become the juvenile put down du jour for any conservative with a limited vocabulary enaged in a battle of wits with a ‘progressive’. Back in May, a survey published by YouGov revealed that 59% of Britons don’t even know what woke means. I’d hazard a guess that a similar survey of Americans would demonstrate even greater ignorance – not that this is a bad thing. Reactionary elitists are as obsessed with wokeism as they are with socialists, Islam, drill music, feminists – anything they’re too stupid to understand or too scared to engage with.
With its origins in 1930s African American heightened cultural awareness, in a classic sense, to be woke is to be ‘conscious’, ‘hip’, or cognisant of ‘the man’ or the establishment’s desire to control, manipulate, and ultimately subjugate the credulous. But having gone through the cultural blender, being woke basically now means anything left of being a straight, white, middle-aged, vaguely Christian bloke. Concomitantly, this same hegemony is pulling the strings of a growing legion of Brexiteers, Proud Boys, Trumpsters, anti-vaxxers, anti-immigrant, anti-anything right-wing loons who see those opposed to their conspiracy theories, religious crusades, and drooling mania as ‘sheeple’. Somehow, yapping on about being manipulated by a Jewish-run global media or democratically elected ‘tyrannical’ governments (that these self-same people voted for), or being outnumbered and outperformed by ‘foreigners’ – and underscoring this discontent with violence – is fine. But fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry, in McWhorter’s book, isn’t. Okay. And he wonders why people call him a ‘sellout’.
McWhorter, however, cannot be as easily dismissed as just another shucking and jiving academic minstrel. He comes to the big table with impressive credentials. As a professor of linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University in New York, and the author of an industrious 20 books, he knows his onions, as they say in France. But such an impressive CV denies him the mitigation of ignorance. He should know better. This book is thus a very cynical piece of work, as it plays right into the hands of people who would have him on a one-way freight train to nowhere, given half the chance.
Claiming that, “a version of this book written by a white writer would be blithely dismissed as racist,” McWhorter ignores the reams of copy and airtime given to white reactionaries, let alone overtly racist social commentators, who have no difficulty finding publishers or broadcasters for their work in the US. Does he not know that The Bell Curve is still in print? Does he not have a regular gig at Columbia, in New York City, ‘woke’ capital of the world? McWhorter’s folly is a spin on the oxymoronic, “You can’t say ‘X’ as you’ll be called a racist” – all the while saying ‘X’, publishing ‘X’, and making a good living from railing against ‘X’.
It’s this sort of sloppy, false equivalence that’s at the heart of the ‘anti-woke’ ‘free speech’ libertarian movement and runs through Woke Racism. We live in an age where assorted wannabe champions of freedom decry ‘medical apartheid’, have adopted anti-Semitic yellow stars in protest against mask wearing, and see the introduction of anti-racist policies as akin to slavery. Ask these people what they know of real apartheid, the real Holocaust, and real slavery, and their faces glaze over. McWhorter legitimises this propagandist view of the world, encouraging cynics to view progressive ideas – not centuries of systemic discrimination – as the bad guy.
Taking a swipe at writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Ibram X. Kendi, McWhorter argues that these new school anti-racists and their zealous adherents have helped to develop ‘woke racism’ as a ‘religion’ aimed at stifling debate. The theory is, this all-powerful synod – or ‘Elect’, as he calls them – has pulled off something of a bloodless coup in America. Unlike the January 6 Capitol crazies, the extreme-right, fundamentalist Islam, or any other group waging an actual armed struggle against America, the wokerati is quietly introducing rules, regulations, and norms that are “inflicting terror” on dissenting voices – i.e. the right-wing hegemony and their millions of acolytes, who actually own and work dutifully for America Inc.
Speaking recently to NPR’s Morning Edition,McWhorter summed up the evils of cancel culture thus: “The idea is that you are to be fired. You are to be dismissed from polite society. You are to be sanctioned. You can't be among us. You're dirty.”
In going for both the woke jugular and the reactionary dollar, McWhorter flagrantly ignores the industrial racist complex that gives real religions – not his imaginary woke one – a free pass when it comes to underpinning mainstream American racism. There’s no balance or nuance in Woke Racism. There’s no real critique of the criminal justice system, the Supreme Court, the rise of Trumpism, and the fall of the Republican party into a pit of racist lunacy; no analysis of the right-wing media or the incendiary alt-right social media that have helped, ironically, give credence to one of wokeism’s greatest strengths: its ‘fuck you’ assault on racism, authoritarianism, and America’s neo-imperialist posturing.
Undoubtedly, wokeism, like any social or cultural phenomenon, has much to answer for. Failing black schoolchildren, for instance, by lowering academic standards to suit some idealistic levelling of historically unfair playing fields – something some American educational authorities have done – is not progress. Likewise, cancelling, no-platforming, or firing individuals for minor indiscretions or expressing uncomfortable yet nonetheless legitimate opinions is a naive way of dealing with life’s complexities. Better to discuss, debate and only then disbar when someone goes beyond the pale. If to be woke is to not understand this fundamental contract of human negotiation and communication, then I’m out.
Nevertheless, at the expense of sounding ‘neo-woke’, what McWhorter is railing against is a largely well-intentioned desire to maintain societal and cultural checks and balances, often in the face of states that are way behind the anthropological curve. One only has to look at how the Anglosphere took its eyes off the ball following the 2007-2008 crash, obsessed about austerity, forgot about humanity, and then left a gaping cultural void into which all manner of people, ideas, causes, and movements have fallen in pursuit of answers to see that woke is just another attempt to make sense of a senseless world. John McWhorter knows this. But as he also knows when it comes to making a buck, a right-wing grifter never lets the truth get in the way of a not-so-good book.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.