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The anti-antiracist

John McWhorter on white privilege, Black communities, and the excesses of wokeness.

People cross the Brooklyn Bridge demanding police reform after a commemoration to honor the anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2021, in New York City.
David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

“Antiracism” is a term most Americans would never have heard just a few years ago. But it became commonplace last summer after the murder of George Floyd and the success of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Like many ideas, antiracism can be difficult to pin down. It refers to a wide range of concepts and practices with roots in decades of scholarship and activism. (Here’s a comprehensive explainer.) If the movement has a signature text, it’s probably Ibram X. Kendi’s 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist. For Kendi, antiracism is all about outcomes. Any policy that produces racial inequalities is by definition racist; any policy that reduces racial inequalities is antiracist.

But the term has come to mean more than Kendi’s consequentialist conception. Writers like Robin DiAngelo, the author of the mega-bestseller White Fragility, have foregrounded an understanding of antiracism that is more personal and symbolic; the focus is on white people looking inward and grappling with their own complicity in a racist society. Unsurprisingly, DiAngelo (who is white) has become a darling of corporate diversity consulting.

Whatever you think of Kendi’s and DiAngelo’s arguments, antiracism has become a force in American life — and that means it has lots of critics. Chief among them is John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University and now a writer for the New York Times. His new book is called Woke Racism, and it makes an intentionally provocative argument. For McWhorter, antiracism functions more like a religion than an ideology or a political project. And its adherents are obsessed with “performing” virtue, not for the sake of societal change but because of the sense of purpose it offers them.

McWhorter’s more serious charge is that antiracism isn’t merely wrong or performative — it’s actually harming the people it claims to support. And his goal, as he puts it, is to “explain why so many Black people are attracted to a religion that treats us as simpletons.” McWhorter says explicitly in the book that he felt like it was his “duty” as a Black man to write it. At the same time, he also says he’s not addressing “right-wing America” (for instance, he says he’s not going to appear on Fox News to promote this book) and that he is “not arguing against the basic premises of Black Lives Matter.” It is, in his words, “a particular strain of the left” that he’s critiquing.

I reached out to him for this week’s episode of Vox Conversations to talk about what he finds so objectionable about the antiracist movement, why he thinks there’s “no discussion to be had,” and what his perspective might be eliding.

Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

Why do you think of antiracism, not as a political project or an ideology but as a religion?

John McWhorter

Well, there’s a whole interview we could do about that. But a couple of things are that if you think about it, the idea of white privilege as a stain that can never be removed, where you’re responsible for regularly attesting to it with your hand up in the air — it is precisely like original sin.

Or another example is, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a good article, really good article about reparations. And on Twitter, you have people crying, “This is just the most amazing thing.” And I remember at the time thinking, “Yeah, this is a good article, but the way people are responding to this seems to go beyond what I would expect, given that reparations has been discussed a lot and vigorously.” There was a whole book called The Debt by Randall Robinson that was discussed intensely for years.

And yet Ta-Nehisi Coates writes this article, and people are writing about it as if it was the second coming. And it wasn’t that I was thinking, “Oh, this isn’t that good.” I was just thinking, “Why are people acting as if he’s opening up a discussion that we’ve never had before, or that was only had, say, 40 or 50 years ago?”

And I realized, “Okay, you see, it was scripture. People were reading it not as something new — they weren’t learning from it. He was saying something they already knew well. And I thought to myself, “That’s interesting. To them, that article is like reading from the New Testament.” And I really mean that, I’m not trying to put down the article in a backhanded way. I thought, “Wait a minute, Coates at this point is being received as a priest, as opposed to a writer.” I don’t think he was seeking that.

But I thought, “Wait a minute, that explains a lot of this.” And then I started thinking about white privilege and the original sin. But the main part is that a religion often involves a degree of suspension of disbelief. There’s a point at which you’re supposed to give in to a certain illogic; you’re supposed to have faith. And you have that in this religion, too, in that aspect, and it’s specifically that you are supposed to attest that you are not racist and that you know that racism exists. That’s the central tenet here.

So in Christianity, it’s about showing that you have faith in Jesus. In this religion, it’s about showing that you know racism exists. If that’s what you have to do, then you’re going to have a way of ignoring certain things, which under another religion, for example, you would find more important.

Sean Illing

I think your definition of a religion is sufficiently expansive to include basically every major political ideology. Every ideology is a story about the world, a story about why things are the way they are. To be an ideologue is to accept the terms of that story, to accept its interpretation of history and its heroes and villains. And once you’ve made that philosophical move, you’re committed to defending that story, to making the world fit into that conceptual box.

And I would say you have to distort the world to make it fit into that box, but that’s another question. So it’s not that your critique is wrong; I think it just overstates the uniqueness of this phenomenon, and maybe fails to appreciate just how thin the line between politics and religion is and has always been.

John McWhorter

That’s a neat point, because I’m always talking about what would happen if you just rolled it back and did it again. Would another group of humans see a difference, or lexicalize a difference, between ideology and religion? I’m very much open to that.

But why I am disinclined to call this just another ideology is because of a certain fervency in how this ideology is conducted. Where, for example, body language comes into it, that is modeled on what we call a religion rather than ideology. People put their hands up into the air, people put their bodies on the ground, in the name of this particular religion.

And then more to the point, I would say there’s the issue of heresy. What do you do if you have an ideology, if someone disagrees? And if you’re “the elect,” if someone disagrees, you don’t just not like them. You feel that they should be defenestrated, they should lose their job, they should be stripped of their honors, they should be basically banished from society. I must read something that happens every day based on this sort of thing. That fervor is different from an ideology.

So you have the “knee-jerk liberal” and the archconservative in 1973 having an argument. And they’re going to be going at it; they’re going to hate each other. Okay, that’s fine. But today that liberal, the elect person, doesn’t only not like the conservative’s views; the elect person thinks the conservative is somebody who should not be around them.

So you have, for example, an Andrew Sullivan who has to leave New York magazine because the people who work there feel sullied by the presence of his writings. And remember that this happened when everything was virtual. It’s not like anybody’s meeting him in the bathroom; it’s just abstract. That, to me, says religion.

Sean Illing

Look, human beings seek absolutes, and when they’re not supplied by conventional religion, they will find them in politics. That’s part of the story here, and it goes beyond antiracism or wokeness. Now, I do think it’s a problem that people get invested in a Manichean story of the world, anchor their identity to that story, and then find it hard to amend it as the world around them changes. That’s religion, but it’s also ... politics.

One of the things that occurred to me when I was reading your book is that you have an expectation of intellectual rigor for antiracism that I’m not sure any mass ideology would ever meet —

John McWhorter

Give me an example. That’s interesting.

Sean Illing

You could ask a communist 70 years ago to describe the utopia he was building or you could ask a run-of-the-mill Marxist at any time to explain the concept of alienation, and you’ll probably get a bunch of half-baked platitudes. When you reach the ground level, all of these ideologies are reduced to slogans and abstractions, but that doesn’t mean the whole project is completely vacuous.

John McWhorter

It’s not that there should not be major efforts to make life better for Black people who need help in this country or that we shouldn’t do specific things with Black people in mind, although it’s always pragmatic to have things that apply to poor people in general. These things need to happen. And we do have to check ourselves for racism.

My humble opinion, and it’s humble because it’s really just mine, is that we’ve gotten about as far as we’re going to go on that. I think that we have gotten to the point where a good number of white people, of all levels of education, know to look inward. And I’m not sure that we even need more than what there is. But you’re right: No, I don’t think I should have an expectation that every antiracist is going to be able to cite chapter and verse of what Kimberlé Crenshaw writes, or is going to have thought about every single permutation of what’s going on.

Sean Illing

Even if you’re right that some of this or most of it is essentially religious, to say it’s beyond reason is a bit dismissive, no? I mean, you write that there’s “no discussion to be had.”

Do you not allow for the possibility that there’s maybe something true or worthwhile here? Is it really nothing but virtue signaling and performance? Do you not see an earnest attempt to change minds and the world?

John McWhorter

I hate to say it, Sean, because I have a snotty voice and a snotty demeanor, and then I’m saying these things. The excess lately, I see no value in. Where people are getting fired and shamed and hurt and made to say things they don’t believe, no.

For example, the last story I read about this morning is this teacher at the University of Michigan, I believe he’s of Chinese descent. And he’s trying to have a discussion about Othello and the progress of Othello from play to opera. And he starts out by showing the classic Othello film with Sir Laurence Olivier. Sir Laurence Olivier blacked up to play Othello; that was the tradition back then. He [the professor] didn’t do a trigger warning.

And some students were so offended that he showed a clip from this, with somebody in blackface, that they got him dismissed from the class. [Note: According to the New York Times account of the incident, the professor, Bright Sheng, “voluntarily stepp[ed] back from the class.”] And he is enduring all sorts of sanctions. He apologized, but people didn’t want to hear it. Part of his apology was explaining how many things he had done in service to antiracism. That was considered defensive and not the point.

It’s clear that he’s just not allowed to apologize. Sean, I’m sorry, but that won’t do. Maybe that guy should be told that these days, if you’re going to show even Sir Laurence Olivier in blackface in the 1950s, you need to say a little something about how that was the practice and that you’re not saying that this was a good thing, but you want to show this artful film.

But instead, when he didn’t do it, instead of getting a little speaking to, he has to be put in pillory. That’s the sort of thing that we’re dealing with today. And no, I see no value in that happening to him. And the problem is that something like that, nowadays, happens every day.

Sean Illing

This is not 1960 or 1860 by any measure. And I think you’re right that there is often a desire to pretend as though the climate hasn’t changed or improved as much as it has, in order to justify the sense of besiegement.

And yet, as we talk, there’s a massive ongoing effort, spanning several states, to suppress the Black vote. Is it Jim Crow? No. Is it a political emergency? Yeah, I think so. But in the book, you minimize it pointing to the fact that Biden was elected in large part because of Black voters, which is true. But that’s not an argument against the downstream effects of what’s being carried out right now. There is an actual crisis. It’s not all made up.

John McWhorter

Oh yeah, oh yeah. What the Republicans are doing is utterly disgusting, in part because I see it as — talk about Othello-Iago — it is a callous pragmatism. They think, well, Black people all vote Democratic, and so we’re going to do all of this. The shamelessness and refusing to admit that this voter fraud that they’re calling attention to basically doesn’t exist — it’s disgusting. It needs to be fought certainly. Where I depart with the general intelligentsia consensus is the idea that it’s the same thing as the poll tax coming from the same racism, that Charles Blow-esque perspective.

Now, to prioritize the pragmatic over the fact that you’re disenfranchising a disproportionate number of people who are Black, you can say that is racist because it suggests that you don’t prioritize antiracism as much as you should. That’s a very different argument.

You’re right, I don’t address the voting issue much in the book. However, it doesn’t mean that I don’t think that that’s a problem. I don’t see it as “those bigots”; I see them as disgusting, callous operators. They don’t prioritize racism to the extent that even someone like me would prefer that they did. But I don’t see them as Jim Crow racists — I think that’s a simplistic view of how social history works.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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