Book Review: John McWhorter’s Woke Racism

This is a brief review of John McWhorter’s Woke Racism. It could be called an important book for people who are confused by this trend which seems to have the support of influential people and yet is filled with negative emotion and violence. John McWhorter, who is an African American and teaches at the prestigious Columbia University, explains that Woke Racism or Critical Race Theory (CRT) is condescending, patronizing, and Orwellian poppycock. Furthermore, it is the religion of people who are posers engaging in performance art which harms black Americans. This review will give an overview of his position and then make some concluding remarks.

Summary of John McWhorter’s Woke Racism

John McWhorter’s Woke Racism explains that Critical Race Theory is not like a religion, it is a religion

John McWhorter states that his target audience are black people who have bought into this trend and people who read the New York Times and listen to NPR. Others may listen in but building bridges with the political right is not one of the objectives of this book. Rather it is the identification and isolation of a sub-group within the left which McWhorter calls a dangerous religion.

He outlines his book as follows:

  • To argue that this new ideology is actually a religion in all but name, and that this explains why something so destructive and incoherent is so attractive to so many good people.
  • To explain why so many black people are attracted to a religion that treats us as simpletons.
  • To show that this religion is actively harmful to black people despite being intended as unprecedentedly “anti-racist.”
  • To show that a pragmatic, effective, liberal, and even democratic-friendly agenda for rescuing black America need not be founded on the tenets of this new religion.
  • To suggest ways to lessen the grip of this new religion on our public culture.

He begins by describing the kind of people who would participate in “third wave antiracism.” This third wave focused on the structure of America in 2010, where white people are basically racist and black people’s lives are defined by the struggle with racism. Woke Racism maintains that because of the lifetime struggle against racism, people in society must be sensitive to black people and suspend expectations and judgment based on typical standards of achievement and conduct.

Though their dogma is nonsense, somehow Woke Racism has influenced academic inquiry to the point that it sometimes strangles it. Positions impossible to hold at the same time such as “you must strive eternally to understand the experiences of black people” and “you can never understand what it is to be black, and if you think you do you’re a racist” cannot be questioned unless one desires to be attacked.

John McWhorter’s Woke Racism explains that Critical Race Theory is not like a religion, it is a religion. There is a required suspension of disbelief and the acceptance of contradictions. One either “gets it” or one does not, but because it is so fundamentally illogical, McWhorter calls Woke Racism a superstition. This superstitious religion has its clergy (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Robin DiAngelo, and Ibram Kendi), original sin in “white privilege” (without the possibility of redemption), and is “evangelical” and apocalyptic. In other words, the superstition has a viral component which spreads and takes over other religions and ideologies regardless of context. The underlying goal is to condemn “whites” as racist.

The root of Woke Racism is “critical theory.” Through critical theory, focus was shifted away from objective truth to broad stories of the past which are crafted in a way to justify current beliefs and activities. It is fragile performative ideology, which is embraced by black people because it prevents anyone from disagreeing with them. White people go along because they want to show that they know racism exists. McWhorter adds that white people who do not push back against this ideology also believe that because of black people’s insistence on the validity of this religion, it must be because those black people are “cognitively deficient, and therefore the most humane strategy is to just placate.”**

White people are often more woke than black people because of western masochism. This is the desire to feel guilty for something one did not do. White proponents must represent all white people living and dead in self-gratifying performance art. In other words, they pretend to care for the tough neighborhoods while ignoring how black people really feel. Black people settle for this religion because it provides identity, meaning and comfort.

Though Woke Racism portrays black people as spiritually deficient children, it does provide security for the insecure, a sense of purpose after the civil rights movement, and a way to understand being black. It is easy to understand one’s life through the exaggerated racial prejudice of white people. According to McWhorter, these ideas are not new, it is just that now a critical mass of white people are also part of the religion even though most black people do not see or live in the world in this way.

McWhorter responds to the “elect,” (the label he assigns the vocal proponents of this trend) by making three proposals; they are 1) to end the war on drugs, 2) teach reading properly and 3) de-prioritize the idea of going to college. In other words, instead of promoting this dangerous religion which infantilizes and harms black people while ignoring serious issues within the black community, McWhorter would rather focus energy on these realistic goals which would benefit the black community. Rather than ignoring the black-on-black violence in schools or turning a blind eye to lapses in black scholarship, moving forward on the listed items will do more for the black community than the entirety of Woke Racism.

He concludes by offering sample conversations of how to prepare for and avoid unproductive discussions with the elect. Because Woke Racism adherents are unwilling to reconsider any of their positions despite the glaring contradictions, they must be isolated and ignored. This does mean that one must be able to withstand and endure the accusations of being a white supremacist, mainly because one is not. This is how people must endure, survive, and live well.

Libertarian Christian Commentary on John McWhorter’s Woke Racism

An alternative for the uncomfortably obvious reductionism of Critical Race Theory

Most libertarian Christians should probably enjoy this work because it offers a peaceful and easy alternative for the uncomfortably obvious reductionism of Critical Race Theory. In other words, Woke Racism is hypocritical and tries to fight racism with racism; the movement is fundamentally unjust. The sample conversations at the end of the book would be helpful to navigate some of the encounters one might have in the least expected moments. McWhorter acknowledges that the rules of the race discourse “game” require that people who are black must publicly lead the effort to push back against this peculiar understanding of race. The late Walter Williams was known to do similar activities with a fair amount of humor.

This book is not a comprehensive presentation of what race is and where Woke Racism fits within the broader racial discourse. It is a very systematic breakdown of what CRT is and why it should be ignored along with “the elect.” Though likely not his priority, McWhorter does give readers a possible tool for identifying this pattern of thought in other areas of life with his discussion of critical theory. Critical theory teaches people to engage in the cherry picking of certain ideas to construct a story which validates specific conclusions rarely beneficial to society as a whole. In other words, important narrative altering details are left out of the story; it is not unusual to find this type of phenomenon in historical narratives.

However, one can see the pattern of selective storytelling in discussions on economic theory, partisan political discourse, corporate journalism, and bureaucratic science reports just to name a few. The prevalence of this type of thinking may be a result of the broader bubble economy. In other words, malinvestment and/or government subsidies results in a kind of intellectual moral hazard, the moral hazard that is critical theory. As with all moral hazards, the revealing of the damage and true cost of the misdirection of human effort are often difficult and painful. Woke Racism is an example of a subsidized discourse or academic pursuit run amuck with long term negative consequences. Having a better understanding of the concept of race may be helpful to answer some of the questions of identity which would prevent a repeat of this phenomenon. Racial categories are simply generalizations based on a single identifiable characteristic.

The entire movement of Woke Racism is founded on caricatures of entire groups of people. I have explained elsewhere that each person, including those colored people excluded from the discussion of the book, has an infinite number of identifiable racial characteristics through which a person’s character is constructed. To focus only on one characteristic as if it is the only one of value is to create a caricature or confusing representation of a person living in a constructed world of specific social and power dynamics. All else is ignored to reach the predetermined conclusion, white people are racist, they and their society are problems. There can be no resolution of problematic phenomena because the problems identified are caricatures of reality. There is only escalation until some kind of breaking point.

McWhorter discusses this phenomenon when describing the performance art of the elect; the focus is the work of calling people out for their racism because there is no concrete goal. Activism is done for activism’s sake. With this perspective, it is easy to see the dance of profiteers, the misinformed, and people pushing back. It is all an unfortunate waste of time and resources in a period when there are far more serious issues unfolding. Perhaps, that is the point.

Concluding Thoughts on John McWhorter’s Woke Racism

The Lord condemns hypocrisy which immediately disqualifies CRT

The edge which believers have is our faith in Christ who cautioned us against superficial performative behavior (e.g. virtue signaling), especially behavior which can misdirect attention—social malinvestments—and hide other un-Christian-like activities. The Lord condemns hypocrisy which immediately disqualifies CRT as a legitimate path for reconciliation and spiritual growth for those interested in bringing light to the world. The complex identity of the individual and the faith in the Truth of Jesus enable creativity and diligence for productive solutions to problems. Liberated from narrow subjective views like CRT, believers are free to seek better pathways of promoting God’s love, peace, and blessing for positive results.

Listen to the LCI Podcast, Ep 258: What is Critical Race Theory? with Phil Magness