Review: John McWhorter, Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America (New York: Forum, 2021)

The word “woke” has been used in connection with racial awareness for at least a century.  In tracing the history of this word, Aja Romano (2020) notes that its earlier use, as a call for African Americans to be wary of mistreatment, changed in more recent times to designate a critical perspective on political racial dynamics—first gradually among Blacks, then dramatically among both Blacks and Whites after the Ferguson protests of 2014.  Since political vocabularies rarely remain stable, both the word and the idea of “wokeness” were quickly co-opted by a variety of individuals pushing various kinds of radical change, particularly naïve anti-racists who saw their own wokeness as a tool for shaming the less enlightened into displaying proper racial attitudes and behaviors.  The term “wokeness” thus became a vehicle by which genuine racial critique was conflated with social intimidation.  This was a useful development for defenders of the existing order, who now had only to point to the fervor and excesses of the “woke” in order to discredit racial critique and to justify current arrangements.  John McWhorter’s latest book, Woke Racism, needs to be understood within this context. 

We do need a good critique of “wokeness,” especially as it is used to demonize those whose only offense is to display a less than perfect sensitivity to race in situations where such sensitivity would not ordinarily be expected. McWhorter deserves credit for focusing on this problem, particularly in the current political environment where, as he himself notes, doing so will make him a target for claims that he is not “black enough” to take on this issue (pp. 167-68).  But—again—what we need is a good critique, and this book falls short of that.  

Cultural phenomena like excessive wokeness arise in a larger landscape defined by a number of social forces that clash with and reinforce each other.  Adequately critiquing such a phenomenon, therefore, requires looking at this larger picture and identifying where and how something like wokeness becomes excessive.  Such a critique should consider, among other things, the rising tide of anger in the U.S., the role of political polarization, and the amplifying influence of social media.  Unfortunately, McWhorter neglects all of these factors, and resorts, instead, to simple counter-demonization.

The problem stems, in part, from McWhorter’s central claim that wokeness is a religion.  To be clear, he is not simply saying that wokeness resembles a religion, or that it exhibits features of a religion.  Comparisons like these might provide some insight, since wokeness does sometimes draw from spiritual sources, and extreme wokeness can resemble religious fervor.  But for McWhorter, wokeness “actually is” a religion (p. 23).  He is emphatic on this point, repeats it throughout the book, and expends much energy trying to cram every aspect of wokeness into the mold of a full-fledged religion.  Hence, its leaders are its “priests” (p. 30), slavery is its “creation myth” (p. 57), Whiteness is its “original sin” (p. 33), and its adherents are “the Elect” (p. 19).  Not only does this trivialize real religion (which McWhorter seems to equate with mere irrationality), but it also leads to sweeping stereotypes of the so-called woke “Elect,” who, according to McWhorter, are all irredeemably “intransigent” (p. 159) and “unreachable” (p. 152).  In McWhorter’s mind, the woke “Elect” are “sharks” (p. 179), who think like “ten-year-olds” (p. 139), who expect you “to bow down” (p. 17) to their “mendacities” (p. 13), and, who, if you disagree, call you a “moral pervert” (p. 174) and a “racist” (p. 173), “no matter what you do” (p. 173).  They are “smug” (p. 35) and “gruesomely close” to Hitler (p. 15), and if you question them, they “howl” (p. 59) with “white hot fury” (p. 89) and intimidate you with “menacing phrases” (p. 73) and “word-salad” answers (p. 113).  If they are White, they “pump fists” and hold up anti-racist books (p. 33), and if they are Black, they “exaggerate their victimhood” in a quest for a ”sense of significance” (p. 167).  At one point, McWhorter attempts to soften this cartoonish image by conceding that not all of the “Elect” are actually quite this bad (p. 21)—but later in the book he renders this caveat hollow by insisting that all the “Elect” really do share exactly the same attitudes because (according to McWhorter) if any woke person differs on any one point, they will be attacked by the others—so they will inevitably surrender, willy-nilly, to the entire wokeness “gospel” (p. 137)

Besides producing this rigid caricature, McWhorter’s demonization and his unflagging identification of wokeness with religion “pure and simple” (p. 175), robs his analyses of substance.  In some places, McWhorter starts to make a potentially illuminating point—for example, that individuals can be “coached” into internalizing feelings of hurt and resentment they might otherwise never have felt (pp. 163-64), or that turning such emotions onto unsuspecting people can evoke social anxiety bordering on genuine terror (p. 183).  But these insights are quickly dropped when he moves back to more accusations and more invocations of the “religion” trope.  Similarly, McWhorter does describe genuine cases of wokeness run amok, in which extreme rage has been destructively vented onto unsuspecting people.  But many other cases that are lumped in with these turn out, when their details are known, to be more questionable and ambiguous than McWhorter indicates.  The details of such cases are crucial in evaluating them, and I will give some examples of this below; but obtaining these details can be difficult and time-consuming, especially since few of McWhorter’s examples include his sources.  

McWhorter’s strongest cases include those in which a relatively or completely innocent person was fired from a job due to a minor or non-existent racial transgression.  The alleged offender may be someone who displayed some degree of cluelessness, such as the attendee of a party who wore blackface to satirize a comment by Megyn Kelly (p. 71), or someone who simply made a public comment with no reasonable expectation of giving offence, like the researcher who reported data indicating that violent demonstrations tend to alienate potential supporters (p. 4).  Both of these cases illustrate the kind of extreme retaliation that McWhorter wishes to highlight, and both of them support his claim that there is a contagion of individuals who create widespread fear and intimidation about giving even the slightest racial offense, no matter how innocently.  But a greater number of McWhorter’s cases are not so clear and are worth looking at in more depth.  

To begin with, it should be noted that nearly all of McWhorter’s examples involve, in one way or another, the protests following the death of George Floyd during a period when outrage about racial abuse was exceptionally high.  These cases may constitute a skewed sample, therefore, and many involve events that flamed into and then faded out of public attention as part of a larger media war about Black Lives Matter (BLM).  McWhorter invariably adopts an “anti-woke” bias in describing each event, often misrepresenting or omitting significant aspects of what actually happened.  For example, in addition to the firings described above, McWhorter describes two other firings, both of which occurred in contexts that were not so clear-cut.  One firing resulted from what McWhorter describes as a “gentle homily” (p. 51) by MIT chaplain Daniel Patrick Moloney, who wrote an email calling for understanding of police who kill.  McWhorter fails to include Moloney’s full statement, which emphasized George Floyd’s criminal history, seemed sympathetic to police overreaction, and appeared to suggest that racism is not a significant problem among police (see NewBostonPost, 2020).  

The other firing involved Leslie Neal-Boylan, Dean of Nursing at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, who upset BLM protestors by saying “everyone’s life matters” (pp. 2-3).  In this case, McWhorter omits the fact that Campus Reform, a conservative group, discovered two letters written by Neal-Boylan shortly after the firing asserting that her controversial statement was only a “rationale” and “an excuse” for a firing that actually concerned disagreements she had had with the Dean of the College over administrative matters (Lowell Sun, 2020).  Similarly, some of McWhorter’s descriptions of people forced to resign for reasons of “political correctness” ignore the fact that those resignations represented culminations of long histories of previous anger within the organizations over management, funding and compensation decisions (e.g., the Curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, p. 72, and the Chairman and Board of the Poetry Foundation, p. 71) (see Lefebvre, 2020, and Schuessler, 2020); and others who resigned “in persecution” (p. 45) include conservative writers like Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan with reputations for bending facts and creating their own crises (see Shephard, 2020 and Ames, 2018).  

One-sided accounts can additionally be found in McWhorter’s praise for Harding University’s refusal to rename a building currently honoring a former president (p. 184) without mentioning that this president had fought the school’s decision to desegregate by arguing that Blacks bore the “curse of Ham” and would bring an upsurge in pregnancies and sexual diseases to the school (Key, 2009, p. 290; Dailey, 2016), and in McWhorter’s implication (pp. 185-86) that the censorship of artist Philip Guston was a result of wokeness, when, in fact, that censorship came from the museum’s fear of controversy about Guston’s anti-racist work—in other words, was not a case of woke individuals cancelling moderates, but vice versa  (see Luke, 2020).  Some of McWhorter’s examples are trivial, referring to snide or silly comments by anonymous tweeters (pp. 47, 55, 56), and others seem devoid of any factual basis at all, such as McWhorter’s claim that conservative writer Randall Kennedy was “broken” at Harvard (p. 64) (as near as I can tell, this last claim is supported by nothing more than some speculation about Kennedy in a recent New York Times article by McWhorter himself (McWhorter, 2021)).  

McWhorter’s portrayal of social scientific research is also selective and inaccurate.  For example, he states that “it is universally agreed” that anti-poverty programs had little effect (p. 146), a claim that is contradicted by a number of authoritative sources (e.g., Lanahan et al., 1985; Jencks, 2015; Council of Economic Advisers, 2014), and he uses correlational data to make invalid causal inferences about the effects of college attendance on politics (pp. 90, 91). McWhorter also cites literature seeming to imply that differences in rates of school discipline and incarceration between Blacks and Whites are due solely to greater misbehavior by Blacks (pp. 98-101)—but, in doing so he ignores numerous studies finding that when the nature and severity of offenses are controlled for, Blacks receive disproportionately greater punishments than Whites (Skiba, 2002; Kansal & Mauer, 2005; Gregory & Weinstein, 2008; Edwards et al, 2013; Bishop et al., 2020).  Regarding this last point, one of McWhorter’s rare citations indicates that his main source about Black misbehavior is Christopher Paslay, a wokeness critic and founder of a Teachers for Trump group, who, in turn, draws heavily from a survey of teachers by the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank (not to be confused with Fordham University) that has been criticized for doing poor and misleading research (Burris, 2021).  It is not surprising, therefore, that the study McWhorter and Paslay cite (Griffith and Tyner, 2019) lacks the usual quantitative and operational controls of survey research, relying instead on global impressions of the teachers and subjective interpretations of the authors.  So, for example, while a small proportion of the surveyed teachers felt that serious misbehaviors by students were frequently underreported and more than twice as many felt they were not, the authors conclude that underreporting is “rampant” (Griffith and Tyner, pp. 31, 29), a word which McWhorter then quotes and attributes, incorrectly, to the teachers (p. 101). McWhorter is similarly inaccurate in quoting or paraphrasing other sources like Eric Hoffer (p. 60), Ta-Nehisi Coates (p. 107), and Jamil Smith (p. 116) (see, respectively, Hoffer, 2010, p. 91, Coates, 2015, p. 87, and Smith, 2017).  

McWhorter may have a valid point that social encouragement and reinforcement drive hurt and outrage about racial slights in some (or even many) cases.  But he seems to take this as license to dismiss nearly all anger about racial injustice, which he repeatedly describes as “performance art” (p. 6), “kabuki” (p. 75), “pretend” (p. 22), ”ridiculous” (p. 167), etc.  Likewise, he interprets virtually all expressions of concern or regret by Whites about America’s racial history as pathological self-mortification.  The result is an air of contempt that permeates the book, and a striking tendency by McWhorter to assume that he knows what others feel better than they do themselves.  Yet he is also particularly incensed by those who use phrases like “institutional racism,” and “systemic racism” because such terms imply intent (pp. 77-78, 163).  Again, this is a potentially valid point, since woke critiques often expand the term “racism” in ways that can be legitimately questioned, and the whole topic of racism-as-disparate-impact versus racism-as-conscious-intent deserves serious discussion.  Characteristically, however, McWhorter jumps to sweeping conclusions, such as when he calls a statement by Princeton faculty members about institutional racism a “transparent lie” (p. 165).  The problem for McWhorter in such preemptive dismissals is that they might equally be applied to his own argument that wokeness itself is a form of anti-Black racism (pp. 98, 147-48).  One might reasonably argue that if an individual or collective action disproportionately burdens the members of a race, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that action is “racist”; or one could legitimately argue the opposite: that the word “racism” is so widely associated with conscious intent, it should not be used in such a context.  McWhorter is entitled to take either side in this debate, but not to take both sides and apply them selectively and inconsistently for whatever suits his immediate purposes.  

Woke Racism will supply many angry conservatives with a great deal of material, carefully chosen and presented, to reinforce their rage.  But as an attempt to reduce hate and polarization by supplying badly needed skepticism and clear thinking, it is a failure—and one more likely to increase rather than decrease the problem.  


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