John McWhorter’s new serially published book on antiracism is a self-described extended editorial in which the avowed atheist seeks to make sense of the political ideology by characterizing it as a religion that is bad for the world in the exact manner in which he understands all religions to be bad. McWhorter is emphatic that religion, whether that of the Christians or of the Antiracists, “has no place in the classroom, in the halls of ivy, in our codes of ethics, or in deciding how we express ourselves.” This is a truth which McWhorter—a staff editor for The Atlantic—supposes is self-evident to “almost all of us,” or at least is self-evident to the kind of NPR-adoring sophisticates whom he explicitly addresses as his ideal reader.
McWhorter is not merely drawing analogies to religion. He writes, “I do not mean that these people’s ideology is ‘like’ a religion. I seek no rhetorical snap in the comparison. I mean that it actually is a religion.” To reiterate his point, while casting religion more broadly in the worst possible light, he elaborates, “Superstition, clergy, sinfulness, a proselytizing impulse, a revulsion against the impure—it’s all there.” McWhorter even enthusiastically embraces the whiggish history of the Enlightenment anti-papists, writing, “Antiracism forces us to think like people of the Dark and Middle Ages without knowing it. It’s scary, it’s unfair, and regressive, and it’s just plain wrong.” Alas, at least he acknowledges that he is neither a theologian nor historian by training.
Mercifully, McWhorter is on firmer ground when he pivots to analyzing contemporary race issues, including racial disparities in educational achievement. McWhorter pushes back against dominant antiracist narratives that claim any and all racial disparities are the direct consequence of ongoing systemic racism. He characterizes antiracism as falsely teaching 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 towards them, including a suspension of standards of achievement and conduct.” For McWhorter, such narratives are believed in blind faith because they lack any kind of falsification principle and are thus impervious to any credible evidence marshaled to the contrary.
Rather than ascribing achievement gaps to systemic racism as understood by antiracist ideology, McWhorter looks instead to cultural norms, particularly those in Black communities. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with that explanation (and I remain skeptical of it), this is a more nuanced argument than the pathologizing narratives one encounters from Fox News. Instead of blaming Black students themselves, McWhorter contextualizes certain persistent cultural norms against the backdrop of racial injustice that led to the development of those norms. Specifically, he examines the racialized backlash to integrating schools, which he theorizes led to a couple decades of widespread hostility manifested against Black students by white teachers and classmates, leading to a persistent sense of alienation from classroom education.
In this analysis, McWhorter sounds similar to the late statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Some segments of the Left have lambasted Senator Moynihan for his emphasis on the breakdown of Black families as a leading cause of adverse outcomes. Yet Moynihan was clear that this sociological description was deeply connected to the ways that Jim Crow culture and law worked to undermine Black stability. Likewise, McWhorter is concerned with the lingering effects of racism encoded as cultural norms, even as he expresses discontent with the way that antiracism ideology often blames those effects on everyday white people who are not directly responsible for those norms.
As evidenced by this careful line of argument, contrary to the accusations sometimes levied against him, McWhorter is not a spokesman for reactionary white conservatives mired in racialized grievance politics. While he is understandably not interested in spending the bulk of his time defending himself from that charge, he does occasionally tip his hand, as when he acknowledges that white privilege does exists (“I do believe that to be white in America is to automatically harbor certain unstated privileges in terms of one’s sense of belonging”) or argues that we should tear down the statutes of men like Robert E. Lee. That many will continue to take his writing out of context and label him a bigot or race traitor is evidence that too many readers operate in bad faith. But that is a problem with his readers—not him. Nevertheless, by choosing to write hyperbolically about “the woke mob” as the new “inquisition” that leaves “millions of innocent people scared to pieces,” he does sound frustratingly close to a Tucker Carlson segment in ways that make it harder to separate out genuine insights from contrarian identity posturing.
Toward the end of his book, McWhorter pulls back from analysis of racial disparities, to consider broader parallels with religion once again. This time he mutes his reactionary tendencies, and instead provides valuable warnings regarding how antiracism provides a flawed foundation for identity that is an alternative to “institutional religion.” In contrast to the Pauline doctrine, for example, that Christian identity transcends all other identity markers including ethnicity and even gender, antiracist ideology instead posits as a fundamental and unchanging dogma that racial identity is both paramount and insurmountable. McWhorter’s concern with this alternative foundation is that it essentializes race, even as it simultaneously maintains (correctly) that race is a construct first introduced to justify oppression. McWhorter argues that “we need to start reconsidering our sense of racial classifications.” He writes, “If we really believe that race is a fiction, we need to let racially indeterminate people make the case for that,” rather than doubling down on racial categorization as a primary mode of identification.
When we combine racialized identity with the widely held belief that oppressed racial groups have special moral insight (which, it should be noted, remains meaningfully different than liberation theology arguments that root that authority in contingent social position and not essentialized identity), we end up with inherently fragmented public discourse. This is especially the case when that discourse is already situated in an emotivist framework (as argued by Alasdair MacIntyre and others). All of this is a breeding ground for intractable racial conflict that grows more entrenched the more we seek to overcome it through antiracism initiatives. It is this analysis that most strikingly supports McWhorter’s most central claim that antiracist ideology is antidemocratic and anti-progress(ive), and is thus harmful for everyone.
In the end, however, I worry that McWhorter’s contribution to this discussion on race suffers from the same intractability he critiques. For it is doubtful that there is some race-blind classical liberalism framework to which we can appeal that will both rectify troubling racial disparities while also nullifying race as a central category of identity. If that is true, then we likely need a deeper source for primary identity, one that goes beyond what is on offer by either classical liberalism or antiracism. There are of course plenty of belief systems on offer as a potential source for that primary identity, but for my part, just give me that old-time religion; it’s good enough for me.