How a New Religion Betrayed Black America – The Brooklyn Rail

John McWhorter
Racism Awakens: How a New Religion Betrayed Black America
(Portfolio, 2021)

If the nation’s conversation on race has turned into epithets hurled at school boards over the (alleged) teaching of critical race theory to six-year-olds, partial credit must go to Ta-Nehisi’s writings. Coates (between the world and me), Robin DiAngelo (white fragility), and Ibram X. Kendi (How to be an anti-racist), widely known books whose musings on race have supercharged our conversation with concepts like white privilege, systemic racism, and white fragility. In politics, the culture war between the “woke” and the non-woke relentlessly rages on, and we could count casualties in the results of the upcoming 2022 midterm elections.

But it would be wrong to view the conflict as a two-sided fight between enlightened progressives on one side (the anti-racists) and Trumpian fanatics on the other (the racists). There is another voice in the arena that argues vehemently against the “woke” understanding of America’s racial situation. This critic, who proclaims that no, it’s not racist to be anti-anti-racist and who identifies as a 1960s-style progressive liberal, dissects the “KenDiAngelonian religion” as a constellation of dangerous misunderstandings that do more harm than good. In his opinion, such an “Orwellian poppy” does not advance the situation of “blacks” in America [throughout the book, McWhorter uses the lower-case “b”] while inspiring a mix of guilt-inducing puritanism and witch-hunting among its (largely white) adherents. This third voice in the “woke” war belongs to the black social commentator, New York Times columnist, author, radio, TV and podcast personality John McWhorter, whose new book is Raised racism.

I hesitated above to describe McWhorter as a black social commentator, guessing that he was best thought of (as he discussed with Randall Kennedy in a recent podcast) as a “social commentator who happens to be black.” McWhorter’s wisdom extends beyond race (music lately), but the fact that he is Black is highly relevant when it comes to his nurturing “awake” thinking, conferring a legitimacy that might not be his if he weren’t black. It’s not so easy, in other words, to dismiss him outright as another anti-black racist (although he’s also been called that).

But McWhorter isn’t just a social commentator who happens to be black, he’s also a linguist who happens to be black (creole languages ​​are his specialty, for example, not black English). It’s this John McWhorter—the linguist—on the faculty at Columbia University, whom I’ve followed for years, having used his books—word on the street (1998) comes immediately to mind – in teaching the history of the English language, as well as in courses for writers and educators on grammar and style.

Unsurprisingly, I approached her again Awakening of racism wondering if that other McWhorter, John McWhorter-the-Linguist, would appear in his pages and, if so, how that might sharpen our understanding of his argument and enrich our view of the book.

I didn’t have to look far. He was there on the first page, in the middle of passages describing how New York Times Food writer Alison Roman was skewered on social media in 2020 and suspended from her post for “having the nerve, as a white woman, to criticize two women of color”. McWhorter’s view here is that “woke” vigilantism has blown things cruelly out of proportion and unjustly ruined people’s lives (Awakening of racism contains many other examples), but I was struck in the following sentence by a pronoun choice:

Roman, as a white person, was supposed to hit two very rich, very successful, and much better known people than her.

that her? Strict grammarians, as McWhorter well knows, would insist “that shebut McWhorter, a great champion of how English is actually spoken, goes with the vernacular, with the “natural”. There is nothing “ungrammatical” about non-standard dialects, he wrote, “nothing illogical…there is no such thing as a deficient dialect of a language” (see page 29 of McWhorter’s word on the street).

Why talk about it? Linguistically, McWhorter is anti-snob language, as progressive as it gets. Look for a trace of the reactionary, the repressive, the narrow-mindedness in McWhorter the language maven – and you won’t find it.

But in Raised racism, McWhorter’s tone is changed. There is no playfulness in the alarm he sounds in these pages. Do you know the overture to “Counsel to a Prophet” by poet Richard Wilbur?

When you come, as you must soon, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed to state the obvious…

McWhorter writes with the urgency of a frustrated prophet, insisting that any well-meaning reader still capable of critical thinking should see waking experience for what it is, a fundamentalist but secularist”religion” which elevates its practitioners – it calls them “the chosen ones” – to a position of judgment over the rest of society and doing little more. He draws a parallel between the Christian doctrine of original sin and the woke position on white privilege: in woke America, white people are burdened from birth with an inevitable stain of white privilege which, despite good intentions, makes them complicit of our racist society. To be reborn as anti-racists, they must follow the canons of the scriptures (Coates, DiAngelo, Kendi) and fundamentally change mindsets – their own and those of others. The awakened, regardless of their intentions, carry the burden of systemic racism. They have work to do, even down to the level of figuring out if it’s safe or hurtful not to capitalize the “b” in “black” – or just change the rules and require everyone comply or be rescinded.

What frustrates and angers McWhorter is that this woke religion, with what he sees as its self-flagellation and self-righteous vigilante, largely makes no difference in black lives, “other than forcing educated people to infantilize them”.

While claiming to “dismantle racist structures”, the religion of the Chosen actually harms the people living in these structures. In McWhorter’s account, it’s a terribly damaging undertaking. Once you accept the Elect ideology, you undermine black welfare in all of the following ways:

You have to turn a blind eye to black kids being banged by others at school.

You need to turn a blind eye to black undergraduates thrown into schools where they are in over their heads and into law schools unable to adjust to their level of preparation in a way that will allow them to succeed the bar exam.

You must condone the willful obscurity of condemning dead people for moral failings normal in their time, as if they were still alive.

You have to close your eyes to the madness of the idea of ​​black “identity” as [being] all about what white people think rather than what black people think.

You must close your eyes to the shortcomings of the work of black intellectuals, because blacks do not have the privilege of whites.

You have to close your eyes to the fact that social history is complex and instead pretend that those who tell you that all racial disparities are the result of racism are showing genius.

You have to turn a blind eye to innocent children [being] learned to think this way practically before he could hold a pencil.

Despite his strengths, McWhorter understands that black America has its problems, but these will not be solved by white people’s efforts to control themselves and each other to conform to the woke ideology.

We grasp McWhorter’s beef with awakened sensibility in an anecdote he offers that draws on his linguistic expertise. All languages ​​have “cover terms,” ​​he explains, like our Like and you know. “In Mandarin,” he says, “we slip away by saying ‘this, this, this…’, as if trying to find out what the thing or concept is called.” This Mandarin phrase is pronounced nay-guh. Which sounds a bit like another word.

You may already see where this is leading. A professor of corporate communications at the University of Southern California, whose class included black students, gave a lecture on hedging terms in different languages. After mentioning that in China people say “nay-guh, nay-guh, nay-guh”, this professor was called to the mat and suspended from teaching this course for the remainder of the semester.

McWhorter anticipates that readers of woke “chosen ones” will align themselves with university administration in bending over backwards here to protect the “sense of peace and mental well-being” of black students. He accepts that such readers – who would likely not be caught reciting the preceding paragraph aloud – are beyond the scope of his arguments. Awakening of racism rather, is aimed at the rest of the progressive crowd who might understand that the professor’s point had everything to do with preparing students for international trade negotiations and nothing to do with racism. And if this professor’s discipline has done anything to remedy the plight of marginalized America, McWhorter fails to see it.

Well, what about the plight of black America? According to McWhorter, the problems of black America will not be solved by the thought police of woke ideology. The real solutions will not lie in modernizing white consciousness and accepting its white privilege. On the contrary, another type of transformation is necessary. McWhorter offers a platform for change with only three elements:

What afflicts black America in the 21st century would yield significantly to exactly three concrete efforts that combine political feasibility and effectiveness: there should be no war on drugs; society should commit to teaching everyone to read correctly; and we should make a solid vocational education as easy to obtain as a college education.

Closing pipelines to prisons, laying the groundwork for real education, opening pathways to productive employment: if these measures cannot completely transform the daily lives of today’s oppressed, they are at least steps in the right way. As for seeking global change through the self-examination of the privileged trying to recognize and atone for their white privilege, McWhorter can only shake his head. Needless to say, he sees no solution in banishing the semi-linguistic homophones of the Chinese from the classroom.

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