Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics
newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Leave your feedback
Jeffrey Brown visits Columbia University to talk to professor and author John McWhorter, whose new book, "Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America," pushes back on ideas that have gained popularity in recent years amid the ongoing national debate over race and racism.
Now we turn to our "NewsHour" Bookshelf.
Jeffrey Brown recently visited Columbia University to talk with one professor whose new book pushes back on ideas that have gained popularity in recent years amid the ongoing national debate over race and racism.
The recent election results in Virginia, in which independent voters like these suburban women broke heavily for the Republican candidate, to John McWhorter, it was part of a growing backlash against one trend in American culture.
John McWhorter, Author, "Woke Racism": I don't see it as evidence of racism rearing its ugly head as usual. It's not a backlash against the racial reckoning. It's a backlash against a certain kind of racial reckoning that alarms people, with good reason.
McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University and contributor to The New York Times, is one of today's sharpest critics of anti-racism theory, rhetoric and practice.
I think that a real extreme point was hit in the summer of 2020, and that, at this point, everybody is rubbing their eyes and realizing that something went too far, not that there's something wrong with a racial reckoning in general, but that something went beyond what most even good people would consider sensible or fair.
His new book, "Woke Racism," pushes back against what he calls a new religion on the American left.
I wanted to write a book explaining that this new version of what's being called anti-racism is actually very harmful, and sometimes even contemptuous of Black people, because, one, if I say it as a Black person, it's harder, not impossible, but harder to call me a racist or a white supremacist.
And I also felt that I wanted to get my version of it out, the way I'd been thinking about it, because I got the strong feeling that a great many people, including Black ones, agree with me.
You're not denying that racism exists.
Not at all.
You're not denying that a kind of structure is in place that does harm people that has historical roots, that impacts individuals up to today?
Mm-hmm. I don't deny those things at all. There is personal racism, and then there's structural racism, although I wish people wouldn't call it that.
I like to think of it as there are racial inequities. Some of them are due to racism. Sometimes, the racism is in the past, rather than the present. But I think calling it structural racism encourages a kind of oversimplification that discourages coming up with solutions that actually work.
The murder of George Floyd in 2020 led to protests in the streets and demands for a reckoning throughout American institutions.
To McWhorter, who calls himself a liberal, the results have been largely performative on the part of many whites, and often harmful to Blacks, of whom, he contends, society expects less.
Your sense is that anti-racism, as practiced, is itself a form of racism? That seems to be the strongest charge in the book.
When you treat people with pity, when you tell people that they don't have to try as hard…
What does that mean? Let me stop you. Pity? Try as hard?
When your idea is that, because of a people's history, they are not subject to the same standards as everyone else, and so, if you say, it is racist to subject Black people to standardized tests because history makes it so that they're not as good at them, and, therefore, Black people don't get good at standardized tests, and run into them later, and, in the meantime, when you say Black people shouldn't have to take standardized tests, there's a short step from that to implying that Black people aren't as bright.
And then somebody says, it looks like Black aren't as intelligent, and you say that they are racist. And everybody knows that there's a kind of double-talk going. I think Black people deserve better than that kind of societal dialogue.
He points to the influence of books such as Ibram X. Kendi's "How to Be an Antiracist" and Robin DiAngelo "White Fragility" — both have been featured on the "NewsHour" — which he believes overemphasize racial opposition and power hierarchies, a philosophy, he writes, seeping into American schools.
I wondered if you're subject to the charge of overalarmist yourself. I mean, you write, "These people are coming after your kids," very strong language.
Everybody thinks I meant that as some kind of rhetoric. No, I meant it.
You meant it, as in?
This is trickling into our educational curriculum.
Now we have this whole debate over whether Critical Race Theory is being taught in the schools. Those obscure legal papers are not being taught in the schools. But something derived from that philosophy has become a major underpinning of what people are taught in schools of education.
You teach white kids that they're potential oppressors. You teach Black kids that they are potentially oppressed people, that Black people and white people live in a kind of opposition, and that engagement with the world should be focused on battling power differentials, rather than power differentials and about eight or nine other things.
There is in this country what's called a reckoning, right, a rethinking. Doesn't this country need a reckoning, a rethinking around social justice issues?
You know what? No. And it's not because I don't think a racial reckoning was necessary, but I think that this country's intellectual and moral culture had become much more mature about the nature of racism, including systemic racism, especially in the 2000 teens.
I think a lot of this began with social media and the heightened awareness of the relationship between cops and young Black men. All of those things were happening.
What kind of reckoning would you like to see?
I would like to see the reckoning we were having before.
I guess that makes me a conservative. I'm talking about 2019. It used to be that being called a racist really didn't bother that many people. We tend to forget how much that changed by roughly about 1980. Now you are called a racist, it almost feels as bad as being called something like a pedophile.
And that's good. It means that we have had a heightened awareness. That's part of a racial reckoning over decades, that a white person feels that to be a racist is one of the worst things on earth.
Now, he argues, things have gone too far, and he cites cases in which language has been proscribed or someone has lost a job or been publicly shamed for perceived racist remarks or behavior.
What I'm talking about is a national trend that anybody who's awake can see. And it's not just cherry-picked examples.
And one way that we know is that there's so much interest in this on the part of people who are left of center. It's not just FOX News.
You anticipated another response, critical response, of your book, which is: The real danger is on the right. The real danger is a threat to democracy. It's a threat to voting rights. It's banning books in schools.
Do you see those as real dangers?
They sure are, and also the ones that I'm bringing up.
I think that the things going on, on the left are real, just as the things going on, on the right are real. I am saying what I think most enlightened people think, but that they're worried about saying, because, if you say it, you get called a white supremacist on Twitter.
I don't care if somebody calls me a white supremacist on Twitter. And I'm going to keep writing.
All right, the book is "Woke Racism."
John McWhorter, thank you very much.
Thank you, Jeffrey.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Support Provided By: