Book Reviews

A Skeptic Confronts False Prophets

August 22, 2022

Joshua Mitchell

Washington Fellow

John McWhorter unmasks the Establishment Church of Wokeness.

Editor’s Note: The essay was originally published by Law & Liberty on August 16, 2022.

John McWhorter has written an important book—a heretical book, really, because in today’s America, black men are anathema if they believe what he believes, or write what he writes. McWhorter knows the bounds within which he is expected to live, but will not suffer the faux righteousness disseminated by the Elect of the Establishment Church of Wokeness. We will come to this church’s relationship, if any, to the Christian churches shortly; but supposing some linkage, we might, with respect to its understanding of race in America, be tempted to invoke Rom. 1:22, and say of this new religion: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” Woke Racism is McWhorter’s account of its foolishness.

Why can men like John McWhorter not have a place in the ghoulish world The Elect has constructed, a world in which the necessary separation between politics and religion has collapsed, a world in which a self-assured and disconnected elite does immense harm to black America while professing to help it? Consider the term, diversity, one of the articles of confession of this new religion. In a country with an historic but never fully realized commitment to pluralism, diversity sounds like a noble idea. It is not. Diversity presupposes that persons must be treated in terms of their purportedly essential group identities. These group characteristics are monovalent. To be a woman, you must be a feminist; to be black, you must vote for the Democratic Party and shun conservative ideas, etc. 

Diversity claims to make visible those persons who heretofore have been invisible. It does that—at the cost of making invisible those persons who cannot in principle exist within the groups it purports to make visible: traditional women, black conservatives, etc. Pluralism demands that all voices be heard on account of their personhood; diversity demands that purportedly innocent victim groups be heard and ranked according to their victimhood. Those who have no standing as victims must be silent; victims alone may speak; victims alone count. The early twentieth century toyed with eugenics schemes that ranked races according to their strength; in the early twenty-first century, the Elect of the Establishment Church of Wokeness toy with a spiritual eugenics scheme that ranks identity groups according to their victimhood. The higher the ranking, the less its members are held responsible for caring for themselves and the more they stand in need of a state-funded army of “helpers” to make them feel safe, supported, and celebrated. 

There should be little wonder that transgenderism is the leading edge of the outreach missionary work undertaken by the Establishment Church of Wokeness; it represents the maximal case thus far discovered of a purportedly monovalent innocent-victim identity group in need of a state-funded army of helpers—medical, psychological, and legal. The AMA, APA, and ABA have been the vanguard of missionary zeal for its cause. So much for our once-vaunted independent guilds.

For this diseased moral accounting scheme to work without impediment, members of so-called victim groups who refuse to be condescended to or treated as innocent victims, must be silenced. Women who mock the contention that traditional motherhood is an artifact of patriarchal oppression? Silenced. Black men with sober hope who believe in America notwithstanding its several-hundred-year history of slavery? Silenced. John McWhorter has such sober hope. He is not a victim. As such, he belies that category into which he is supposed to fit. That is why John McWhorter must be silenced.

McWhorter argues that woke racism is a new religion. Like other religions, woke racism has superstitions, a clergy, original sin, evangelical outreach, an apocalyptic vision, heretics, and an eagerness to supplant earlier religions.

One of the principal virtues of McWhorter’s book is its psychological acuity. Woke racism is a disease; but it is a disease whose symptoms are only intermittently displayed. Your friend, neighbor, or family member can appear perfectly rational one moment, then lose himself in a fit of cathartic rage directed at a convenient scapegoat, or perhaps grovel at the altar to an innocent victim. If parishioners of this new religion were continuously enraged or groveling, the contrast with healthy rational neutrality would be obvious. What makes a diagnosis of this illness difficult is that its practitioners are rational most of the time. The advantage—and disadvantage—that you, the outside observer, have is that you witness the episodic outbursts at a bemused distance, while the parishioners themselves are oblivious to the chasm between their rationality and their intermittent woke condition. They think the whole of their lives are rational; yet you notice that in the morning they are buying groceries at the local market like a normal neighbor, in the early afternoon they are watching CNN or MSNBC participating in collective rage towards President Trump, and in the early evening they are participating in white self-humiliation sessions overseen by white or black high priestesses who promise to exorcize the racist demons they harbor. This is strange. You can see it; they cannot. 

Woke racism, in a word, is an outburst that appears within an otherwise rational framework, and is not to be confused with the complete destruction of such a framework. An emblematic literary depiction of this intermittency is the two-minute hate Orwell described in 1984. Oceania is a perfectly rational society, punctuated by the two minutes of cathartic rage its citizens undergo daily. Its citizens, like so many American citizens today, seem untroubled by the chasm that separates their everyday rationality from their intermittent cathartic rage or groveling. It is unclear how this disease, which intermixes with sanity, can be cured.

Is woke racism a new religion? How we answer this question gives some indication of the cure that will be needed. McWhorter argues that woke racism is a new religion. Like other religions, woke racism has superstitions, a clergy, original sin, evangelical outreach, an apocalyptic vision, heretics, and an eagerness to supplant earlier religions. If it is a new religion, then we might have several responses to it. We might say that like all religions, it satisfies an ineradicable longing in the human heart, and therefore, in light of Christianity’s decline, it will reign for a long time, perhaps centuries. Alternatively, we might say that mankind in the twentieth century had almost liberated itself from the religious superstition of Christianity, that a new religion, no less irrational has now arisen to take its place, and that we must resist its irrationality no less than we were called to resist Christianity. On this latter account, the antidote to woke racism is enlightenment. This is McWhorter’s position: 

A new religion in the guise of world progress is not advance; it is detour. It is not altruism; it is self-help. It is not sunlight; it is fungus. It is time it became ordinary to call it for what it is and stop cowering before it, letting it make people so much less than they—black and everyone else—could be.

I am not so sure enlightenment in its generally understood sense can serve as an antidote. I say this because in the Establishment Church of Wokeness, enlightenment is seen as one of the fruits of “Whiteness” and, so, far from being an antidote, it is seen as the very poison that must be purged. This is a profound problem, which Plato first wrote about in the Republic: when a soul or a city is sick, the medicine needed to cure it will be misconstrued as a poison. An alternative account, which McWhorter does not consider, is that woke racism is in fact a deformation of Christianity, whose cure, therefore, cannot be enlightenment in the generally-understood sense, but rather a recovery of an undeformed Christianity, whose understanding of enlightenment predates the period of the Enlightenment in western history by some 1,700 years. If this is the real cure, then our cure will be found in the churches. Christianity can recover a healthier account of original sin than woke racism can possibly provide. Whatever our position may be, it should be clear that we are taking one or the other side of two possible positions: either a darkened religion is cured by enlightenment in the generally understood sense, or it is cured by a recovery to the enlightened version of the religion of which the darkened version is a deformation.

What do white and black Americans get from participating in woke racism? Whites, McWhorter proposes, get to be members of The Elect, that special standing in America dating to the Puritans, that saves them from the loneliness of democratic anonymity, and distinguishes their purity from the stain of the irredeemably damned. They understand that America is systemically racist; only irredeemables would believe otherwise. That is why The Elect can say with certainty that the police are agents of white systemic racism and must be defunded. They know best what is best for the country as a whole, and for black Americans in particular. They know that they alone can save black Americans, by removing or lowering the bar on standardized tests, and ignoring grades, both of which are insidious constraints established to protect and fortify Whiteness.

It is worth mentioning that black political thought in America, until the race grievance industry got fully underway, was characterized by an immense range of ideas, united by the understanding that human agency mattered.

What do black Americans get from the Establishment Church of Wokeness? The black Elect, too, pride themselves on knowing with certainty something that others, especially whites, are too steeped in ignorance and sin to recognize, namely, that America is systemically racist. The Puritan Elect had special knowledge that “the world” did not and could not comprehend; the black Elect possess special knowledge that, regardless of what worldly evidence suggests, the world is racist. To doubt this is reveal that you lack such special knowledge. Black America as a whole receives something equally insidious, namely, the strange comfort, familiar in the period of American slavery, that they can do nothing to thrive and flourish, unless the Elect provides it for them. 

That is why it is senseless to talk of personal responsibility. Nothing black Americans can do on their own, with their friends, with their families, and with their communities, can alter their fate. Confirming this contention has required nothing less than the erasure of the history of black success in America. In the wake of the Great Society Program, as a noble hope was transformed into the race grievance racket, precisely this was done. Now several generations later, the history of black success having been erased, young blacks and whites in America are taught that slavery was followed by Jim Crow, which was followed by systematic racism of an even more insidious form. Individual agency, mediating institutions of the sort Tocqueville had in mind for all of us, the rule of law, the U.S. Constitutional framework—none of these can be of any help to black America.      

McWhorter does not make this point, but it is worth mentioning that black political thought in America, until the race grievance industry got fully underway, was characterized by an immense range of ideas, united by the understanding that human agency mattered. What has been disheartening, even frightening, is the extent to which in the hands of The Elect, this view has all but disappeared. The hope for freedom has been supplanted by despair and resignation. Here, The Elect loom large, for they see clearly what the irredeemably stained cannot see, namely, that all of mankind looms small.

McWhorter’s proposed on-the-ground way of dealing with the Elect is of a piece with a growing chorus of thinkers on the right and even on the center-left. Zealotry can only be listened to and endured for so long before citizens close their door and tell proselytizers to go away. The shame, here, for McWhorter, is that at its best, the political left brings forth new ideas about justice that all societies need from time to time, to be renewed. The Elect parishioners in the Established Church of Wokeness, who think they have found the key that unlocks the riddle of history, are in fact obstacles to the provisional achievement of justice that it is each generation’s responsibility to establish.