Book Review: ‘Woke Racism’ by John McWhorter

This eloquent manifesto is Mr. McWhorter’s 22nd book, a majority of those on the subject of linguistics. His is a split personality: A linguist in his day job as a professor at Columbia University (specializing in creoles, particularly the Saramaccan language in Suriname), he’s also an outspoken commentator on race whenever the national mood requires it. As Mr. McWhorter’s thinking on race is in conflict with that of the black American political mainstream, he’s often miscast as a black conservative by glib taxonomists. But he’s careful to point out that he wasn’t “thinking of right-wing America as my audience,” even as he acknowledges that many liberal readers will think him “traitorous” for writing this book.

Wall Street Journal

Mr. McWhorter’s targets in “Woke Racism” are antiracist crusaders whom he calls the Elect—borrowing a term used by the essayist Joseph Bottum in his book “An Anxious Age” (2014). Mr. McWhorter chooses not to call these people Social Justice Warriors or Inquisitors, deeming those labels “unsuitably dismissive” and “mean,” respectively. He’s not the first to trace the “rootstock” of their ideology to critical race theory. This is a once-fringe belief, now muscling its way into mainstream thought, that every individual’s fate is determined by racial “hierarchy” and power. The theory contends, writes Mr. McWhorter, that a nonwhite in America is “akin to the captive oarsman slave straining belowdecks in chains.

”The Elect, Mr. McWhorter notes, pursue a proselytizing brand of antiracism that has had a particularly harmful effect on academic inquiry, “sometimes strangling it like kudzu.” Bestselling books like Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility”—which flagellates white people for their incurable racism—and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” are the gospels of the antiracist left.

The Elect have a weapon in their arsenal that lends them outsize power. As a result of the “genuine and invaluable change” that has occurred in the modern white American since the Civil Rights movement, “being called a racist is all but equivalent to being called a pedophile.” Those who police our minds for racism believe that Americans who don’t fight to overturn “the systemic pervasiveness of white supremacy” must be regarded as racist themselves. The world of the Elect is “Manichaean,” its fervor “absolutist.”

The book finishes with a robust marine metaphor. Mr. McWhorter suggests that the woke be dealt with the way some swimmers deal with sharks. “You can make a shark approaching you go away by bopping it on the nose,” he writes. The Elect are like sharks. They need to be bopped on the nose.