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Artillery Row Books

Opiate for the leftists

How Wokeism tries (and succeeds) at filling a religion-shaped void within the American left’s psyche

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America by John McWhorter.

During the protest outside of Netflix’s Los Angeles office over Dave Chappelle’s latest standup special, pro-trans activists clashed with Chappelle fans. Among the yells and chants, one protester screamed repeatedly at a counter-protestor, “Repent, motherfucker!” As striking as such language is, with its echoes of religious zealotry, it is hardly an outlier. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, the trolling-provocateur known as “Smooth Sánchez” recorded himself asking a white woman to get on her knees and confess her complicity in white supremacy, as a sign of her solidarity with Black Lives Matters. Despite being a stunt, it was hard to miss the sincerity of the woman apologizing for her white privilege. Likewise, the kneeling 9-minute moment of silence for Floyd led by Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer, adored in kente stoles, reminded some of a religious ceremony honoring a martyr. Such behavior and language has led many political analysis and cultural critics to liken “wokeism” (however loosely defined) to some kind of new religious movement. They say what we are witnessing is akin to a “great awakening”, or rather, “the great awokening”.

For Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter, this phenomenon isn’t merely comparable to other religious traditions — it is religion. According to his new book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, wokeism is a “religion in all but name”.

Reflecting on the state of race relations and racial politics in America, McWhorter offers readers a lay of the land as he sees it. McWhorter breaks down the history of American antiracism into three waves. First-wave antiracism fought slavery and then segregation. Beginning in the 1970s and 80s, a second wave of antiracist efforts focused on combating bigotry and exposing racist attitudes as moral failings. This third wave, which emerged around the 2010s, “teaches because racism is baked into the structure of society, whites’ ‘complicity’ in living within it constitutes racism itself, while for black people, grappling with the racism surrounding them is the totality of experience and must condition exquisite sensitivity toward them, including a suspension of standards of achievement and conduct”. McWhorter makes the case that not only is this worldview poorly defined and even more poorly maintained, but it is also causing real world harm (such as unjust accusations of racism, unwarranted firings and an illiberal environment within many corners of academia). The stakes are high: McWhorter fears that should this “third-wave antiracism” continue to gain “converts”, much of the racial progress made between Americans may be undone.

McWhorter points the finger at white anxiety

In examining some of the most popular works produced by “third wave antiracism”, such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, McWhorter catalogs a laundry list of confusing and unachievable tenets that have emerged. For example, when whites leave neighborhoods with a large black population “it’s white flight” yet, if a white person seeks to move into a black neighbourhood, “it’s gentrification”. Or if white people declare that they just do not find black people sexually attractive, they are racist yet if you are white and are attracted to black people, you are most likely subconsciously exotifying them. The examples go on and on. McWhorter believes that these ideas are designed to be performative but in the worst possible way, because they are unsustainable. No antiracist deed is redeeming and no apology for offence is good enough. This is not to say that the majority of people who consume this new antiracist literature are insecure. If anything, McWhorter finds, what makes this new trend even more tragic (and often comedic) is the lengths white people will go to prove they are not racist.

It precisely this fear, of being labelled racist or a white supremacist, that lies behind so much of the appeal. In explaining the rapid rise of new wave antiracism and its leading intellectuals becoming bestsellers, receiving large grants and winning prizes, McWhorter points the finger at white anxiety. Coupled with this angst is the genuine desire of white Americans to do what they can to be allies to racial minorities, believing wholeheartedly they are helping to right the racist wrongs of America’s shameful past and unjust present. The reasoning for black Americans is more complicated; McWhorter makes the case that much of it has to do with feelings of belonging and insecurity. 

Drawing on Joseph Bottum, McWhorter describes this collective as “the elect”, devoted to the idea that “Battling power relations and their discriminatory effects must be the central focus of all human endeavor, be it intellectual, moral, civic, or artistic”. He contends this is not just a political philosophy, but rather a “religion”: “I do not mean that these people’s ideology is ‘like’ a religion. I seek no rhetorical snap in this comparison. I mean that it actually is a religion.” Furthermore, McWhorter claims, “An anthropologist would see no difference in type between Pentecostalism and this new form of antiracism.”

He likens woke “religion” to a “brain worm”

True to his expertise as a linguist, McWhorter joins a host of scholars of religion in highlighting the complex descriptive and definitional journey the word “religion” has undergone. Yet he hastily brushes aside conceptual concerns in describing “the elect” as religious. Without any substantive definition, McWhorter’s comparative evidence, such as whiteness as original sin, accusations of racisms as witch hunts, and dissenters as heretics, come off as half-baked. Every example used by McWhorter is rooted in reference to Christianity, and a particularly ugly understanding of the Christian tradition at that, suggesting a rather limited grasp of the diversity of Christian history as well as other religious traditions. Offhand comments, like “of course, the ‘race thing’ catechism of contradictions makes no sense, but then neither does the bible”, blunt many of his insights by evincing an unsubtle rejection of religion writ large. While it might not make sense to McWhorter, every Christian tradition has had an exegetical means for and tradition of “making sense” of the Bible, from Origen’s allegorical interpretation to Martin Luther’s sola scriptura. McWhorter disregards this context and instead reduces it to an illogical framework used to uphold harmful, irrational beliefs.

McWhorter’s descriptions of religious people and their activities are also jarring, when for example, he likens woke “religion” to a “brain worm” eating away at people’s intelligence or a “virus” infecting people’s logic. In one particularly eyebrow raising line, McWhorter claims that the antiracism movement has gone from the “concrete political activism of Martin Luther King to the faith-based commitments of a Martin Luther”. Not only does this overlook King’s profession as a Baptist minister who constantly linked his crusade against racism to his Christian faith, it also sidelines the foundational role religion played in framing the fights against slavery and combatting segregation. Despite the centuries of debates, councils, commentaries and theories that every religion has produced, as well as the legions of philosophers, theologians and thinkers who have emerged to engage with their tradition’s deepest questions and life’s biggest challenges, not to mention the spiritual grappling of ordinary religious peoples, McWhorter ironically and unfortunately reduces religion to being defined by “not asking questions”. 

With classic “opium of the people” logic in perfect accord with the shallowness of New Atheists, Woke Racism portrays religion as superstitious therapy to soothe the weak minded. For McWhorter, what makes the woke “elect” religious is, in short, their fundamentalism, their superstitions and their stupidity. McWhorter’s framework for approaching religion lacks sophistication and, more importantly, scholarly empathy. Readers interested in consulting legitimate scholarly approaches to such a complex question as what is religion, and how religious anthropologists actually study religious groups (I recommend Christian Smith and Tanya Luhrmann for starters) should look elsewhere.

The rise of wokeism is no coincidence

McWhorter is at his best when going intellectually toe to toe with the figureheads of the new antiracism. He challenges their underlying presuppositions when it comes to what it means to be black in America, he exposes weaknesses in their arguments concerning reparations and implicit bias and offers insightful counters to some of their boldest and most influential claims concerning racial progress. Woke Racism asks these intellectuals tough questions with even tougher data when it comes to black boys fighting in school, university admissions, why their definitions of black identity are defined by “not being white”, and how the media only seems to promote black intellectuals on the subject of race, challenging the reader to name one black scientist besides Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Many of these arguments made by McWhorter echo earlier works of his, such as Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America (2005) and Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (2000), but can also be found in books such as Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (1990), Glenn Loury’s The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (2002) and Thomas Chatterton Williams’ Unlearning Race: Self-Portrait in Black and White (2019). McWhorter is a part of a diverse chorus of black thinkers on the left and right offering insightful criticisms and alternative antidotes to many of the same arguments and problems.

The data presented by McWhorter conveys that wokeism is more of a substitute of religion, or perhaps more specifically a substitute for Christianity, than a new religion. Given that human beings are moral believing animals, the decline of mainline American Protestantism and the rise of wokeism is likely not a coincidence. The moral absolutism and inflamed passions of “the elect” might remind us of Christian dogma and doctrine, but as Tom Holland has shown, so much of America (and by extension the Western world) remains steeped in Christian norms and suppositions.

Despite all its appearances, the secularism of wokeism, and its lack of reference to superhuman power/s (gods, spirits, ghosts, energies or dynamisms), speaks to the changing landscape of a post-Christian America that is still bound to much of its language, traditions and norms. As politics becomes increasingly our dominant way of conveying meaning, we should not be surprised that wokeism is trying (and succeeding) to fill a religion-shaped void within the American left’s psyche. McWhorter is a serious thinker addressing a serious problem, as race relations in America hit an all-time low. Woke Racism, however, is weighed down by a shallow understanding of the richness of religion.

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