Reviewed in the United States on November 3, 2021
John Hamilton McWhorter (born 1965) is a linguist who is professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.
I’ve found that, ever since he wrote ‘Losing the Race’ (which I did enjoy), I tend to like McWhorter’s successive books less and less. Some portions of this book probably suffer from its having been “viscerally driven” (see below), but overall it does not add very much to his (and others’) books, apart from his characterizing its opponents as a ‘religion.’ (The term ‘philosophy’ or ‘ideology’ would have been more accurate; there is nothing ‘religiously’ transcendent about BLM, et al.) It would have been better if he had focused more in-depth on current events (e.g., police; the 1619 Project), and less on snarky comments about Ibram X. Kendi. Anyway, on to the book itself.
He wrote in the Preface to this 2021 book, “This book is not a call for people of certain ideology to … see the folly of defenestrating people for disagreeing with them. My assumption is that the people in question are largely unreachable by arguments of that kind. Rather, this book is a call for the rest of us to understand that people of a certain ideology are attempting to transform this country on the basis of racism… My main aims will be: 1. To argue that this new ideology is actually a religion in all but name… 2. To explain why so many black people are attracted to a religion that treats us as simpletons. 3. To show that this religion is actively harmful to black people… 4. To show that a… liberal… agenda for rescuing black America need not be founded on … this new religion. 5. To suggest ways to lessen the grip of this new religion on our public culture… I want to reach those on the fence… I want them to commit to …what I seek” helping make things better for real people.” (Pg. ix-x)
He continues, “I write this viscerally driven by the fact that the ideology in question is one under which white people calling themselves our saviors make black people look like the dumbest, weakest, most self-indulgent human beings in the history of our species, and teach black people to revel in that status and cherish it as making us special… Many will … see me as traitorous in writing this book as a black person… However, they and everyone else should also know… that white readers will be more likely to hear our views like this when they are written by a black person, and I consider it nothing less than my duty as a black person to write this book. A version of this book written by a white writer would be blithely dismissed as racist…” (Pg. xiv-xv)
In the first chapter, he cites three cases of people losing their jobs and/or being criticized for statements made on Twitter, etc. He comments, “All of these cases occurred because of … a frame of mind we could term ‘Third Wave Antiracism,’ a movement whose adherents are more often termed ‘social justice warriors’ or ‘the woke mob.’ … Third Wave Antiracism… teaches that 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. Under this paradigm, all deemed insufficiently aware of this sense of EXISTING WHILE WHITE as eternal culpability require bitter condemnation and ostracization … and leaves millions of people scare to pieces of winding up in … a zealous brand of inquisition that seems to hover over almost any statement…” (Pg. 4-5)
He continues, “People in positions of influence are regularly being chased from their posts because of claims that they are insufficiently antiracist. School boards across the country are forcing teachers and administrators to waste time on ‘antiracist’ infusions into their curricula that make no more sense than anything proposed under China’s Cultural Revolution.” (Pg. 6) Later, he adds, “The Third Wave Antiracist genuinely reviles racism, as do most of us… But under our current conditions, the shakiness of their platform does not get in their way. This is because they can at any time shout out that you are a racist---and they do.” (Pg. 14)
He explains, “We will need a crisper label for these problematic folk… We will term these people ‘the Elect.’ … they see themselves as having been chosen… as understanding something most do not. ‘The Elect’ is also good in implying a certain smugness… Electism manifests itself in degrees, of course. There are especially abusive Elect ideologues… I do not with to imply that all the Elect are all of the especially abusive type… there is a difference between being antiracist and being antiracist in a hostile way, where one is to pillory people for what, as recently as ten years ago, would have been thought of as petty torts or even as nothing at all… and to pretend that America never makes any real progress on racism and privately almost hope that it doesn’t, because it would deprive you of a sense of purpose.” (Pg. 20-22)
He observes, “Whites flock and even pay to listen to Robin DiAngelo [author of ‘White Fragility’ and ‘Nice Racism’] teach them the counterintuitive lesson that they are racist cogs in a racist machine, with societal change possible only when they admit this and shed their racism (which will make poor black people less poor how and when, exactly?).” (Pg. 30) He adds, “Within [DiAngelo’s] system, if whites venture any statement on the topic other than that they harbor white privilege, it only proves that they are racists, too ‘fragile’ to admit it. The circularity here… is the logic of the sandbox.” (Pg. 31)
He asserts, “The Elect will insist that the term ‘religion’ diminishes them, but… Electism is very much a new religion… conducted in a language that misdirects us by misfiling the phenomenon under labels like … ‘social justice.’ … religions don’t need a God, but they do need a devil, and the Elect have that down quite comfortably.” (Pg. 60)
He argues, “This brings us to why black people choose to be Elect. It can’t be enjoyment of the pride in sticking up for another group, because they ARE the group… Consider… the idea that our main focus must ever be on smoking out remnant racist bias, with its implication that this bias is a conclusive obstacle to black success… This idea paints black people as mentally and spiritually deficient children… Why do so many black people settle for it?... a major reason is insecurity.” (Pg. 80-81) He continues, “To be a black Elect is to have a sense of belonging…. Many educated black people… [worry] that they maybe seen as having left their community behind, that they are not engaged in what used to be called the Struggle. One way to easy that sense … is to adopt an identity as a beleaguered black person, where you are united with all black people…” (Pg. 86)
He asserts, “Here is how the Elect ideology does not genuinely care about the welfare of black people. You are to turn a blind eye to black kids getting jumped by other ones in school… You are to turn a blind eye to the willful dimness of condemning dead people for moral lapses normal in their time… You are to turn a blind eye to innocent children taught to think in these ways practically before they can hold a pencil…” (Pg. 97-98)
He argues, “Black boys get suspended and expelled from schools more than other kings… because they are discriminated against… because teachers hold biases against them. The white kid acting up is a scamp; the black kid acting up is a thug… But the simple fact is this: Black boys do commit more violent offenses in public schools than other kids. Period… the black boys [the Elect] think should be allowed to beat up other kids in school are handing out the beatings to OTHER BLACK KIDS…” (Pg. 98-99)
He states, “Black journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones insists that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. She got a Pulitzer for it… An enlightened America is supposed to hold a public figure accountable for her ideas. On the issue of the Revolutionary War, Hannah-Jones’s claim is quite simply false, but our current cultural etiquette requires pretending that isn’t true---because she is black… Meanwhile, the claim is being broadcast, unquestioned, in educational materials being distributed across the nation.” (Pg. 108)
He contends, “Electism forbids us non-whites from being individual selves, out of an idea that white racism is so onerous that our self-definition must be fashioned against it, despite that this vastly exaggerates the role of racism in most black lives---including that police brutality, while appalling, is just one of thousands of types of experience one goes through from cradle to grave, it at all… the problem is that Elect philosophy teaches black people to live obsessed with just how someone maybe doesn’t quite fully like them, and then die unappeased. This is the meaning of life?” (Pg. 112-113)
He challenges, “I ask the reader: Name a NONFICTION book by a black American writer that neither battles nor even addressed race or racism… I know there are some black nonfiction writers out there of more conventional politics on race who write without being ‘race men’… But the fact that the ones most readers could name are such a small set is indicative … of the tacit sense among black American writers as well as our white supporters that our job is to write only in service to the Struggle.” (Pg. 115-116)
He asserts, “it is considered a mark of sophistication to understand that the black guy having problems in 2020 is shackled by racism just as his great-grandfather under Jim Crow… The nut of the issue has always been that if we don’t trace the problems to racism, then the only other possibility must be that black people are inherently deficient somehow. Given how vastly unlikely that seems, we must point to racism. That, for example, is a fair summation of the philosophy of Ibram Kendi.” (Pg. 120-121)
He summarizes, “Are you ready to be savaged for championing common sense, reason, and treating people as genuine equals, while being told that doing so is inappropriate when black people are involved, and that this is called ‘antiracism’? The Elect’s harm to black people is so multifarious and rampant that anyone committed to this religion and calling it antiracist walks in a certain shame.” (Pg. 137)
He suggests, “What ails black America in the twenty-first century would yield considerably to exactly three real-world efforts that combine political feasibility with effectiveness: There should be no war on drugs; society should get behind teaching everybody to read the right way; and we should make solid vocational training as easy to obtain as a college education.” (Pg. 139-140)
He acknowledges, “Notably absent from my list of reforms is the police. I heartily espouse police reform but consider it unlikely that anything can be done to stop cops from firing their weapons lethally in tight or even risky situations. I know this partly because, even in the wake of George Floyd’s murder… cops continued killing or maiming people, despite all eyes on them, with no real consequences… The key is that changing the cops will take eons; changing black lives should take less time than that. However, with no war on drugs, encounters between black men and cops will be rarer… Furthermore, better-educated people with solid jobs, raised more often by two parents able to focus their full attention on them, will be that much less likely to end up in ugly encounters with the police.” (Pg. 146-147)
He concludes, “The Elect… are today a mob, pure and simple… they are arguing from religion rather than reason… out of a misguided sense that they are the world’s first humans to find the Answer to Everything. The Elect must be othered. We must stop treating them as normal…” (Pg. 152)
He ends, “a question that will hover over assessments of this book … [is] Am I black enough to write this book?... I make no apologies for not being a character from ‘The Wire.’ I am committed to getting help to black people who need it, and my positions in this book stand or fall on the basis of their applicability to that mission.” (Pg. 167, 169)
Some people will love this book, others will hate it. I doubt it will “persuade” any to move from their current positions…. For my part, I would observe that, while some individuals may have lost jobs, etc., without ‘due process’ due to social pressures, name-calling their accusers doesn’t help much for the future.