Anti-Racism Has Gone Too Far, says John McWhorter

John McWhorter is a bestselling author and linguist, and he’s out with a new book called “Woke Racism.” Here he is with Walter Isaacson discussing his theory and solutions for a more just and equitable America.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, continuing the discussion on race from South Africa to the United States, John McWhorter is a bestselling author and a linguist and he’s out with a new book, which is called “Woke Racism.” And he believes that issue has become like a religion. Here he is with Walter Isaacson discussing his theory and solutions for a more just and equitable America.


WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you, Christiane. And Professor John McWhoter, welcome to the show.


ISAACSON: You have this new book out, “Woke Racism.” And in many ways, it’s a discussion of the anti-racism that people like Ibram X. Kendi have been preaching. In fact, I use the word preaching advisably because you call it a religion. You make it as if it’s gone way too far and become too dogmatic. Explain your thesis.

MCWHORTER: Well, when I say that it’s a religion, what I mean is that we’re not talking about a sociopolitical program. We’re talking about a frame of mind that often is impervious to reason beyond a certain point with the idea being that you have a central commitment, which instead of being to assert your faith in Jesus, is to assert that you know what racism is, to assert that you know that racism still exists after the 1960s. That’s the central tenant. And the idea is that as long as you’re showing that you know racism exists, then whether or not you’re actually helping people who are of a race is less relevant. And to the extent that anybody questions you on this, you say that it’s complicated and look over their shoulder. And then, there’s also, just think about white privilege and original sin. The parallel between the way those two things are processed or supposed to be processed as almost eerie. White privilege is thought of not just as a fact, but as something that a white person who is ahead of the curve is supposed to eternally reflect about, feel guilty about and assume that they will never be free of until they are dead. And finally, there’s the intolerance, the degree of intolerance. So, especially lately, especially over the past couple years, although this has been long incoming, there’s an idea that with a certain kind of person, a certain kind hyper woke person, there’s a prosecutorial quality. If you don’t agree with them, it’s not that you get yelled a little, that’s one thing. It’s that you are fired. You are stripped of your honors in some way. You are not supposed to be within polite society. You have to be pushed out a window. That prosecutorial aspect of things where people who are in disagreement are treated as if they almost smell bad, what that is, even though we don’t use the word, is that people like that are being treated as heretics.

ISAACSON: Glenn Youngkin, the Republican, just recently won the governorship of Virginia, pushing against critical race theory being taught in the schools and that got into a whole debate of what does he really mean by that. Tell me what is your thinking about how this is involved in schools these days and why parents are pushing back.

MCWHORTER: Critical race theory starts as these obscure ideas in legal journals decades ago. Nobody is saying that that’s what’s being taught in schools. However, a descendant of that, an educational philosophy that is explicitly based upon the tenants of those articles has definitely made its way into educational circles. And what it means is that many truly well-minded teachers think that what students should be taught is that white people are potential oppressors, that black people are potential victim white oppression, that you should think of there being white and black cultural traits, and specifically that white cultural traits tend to be bad and black ones tend to be good. And there’s an idea that the soul of education should be to alert children to these power differentials and to thread that kind of idea through the teaching of just about any subject. Now, some people might agree with that philosophy. Some people would think that what the soul of education should be in a modern western society is to teach kids to be informed leftist radicals. And I don’t say that as a slur. You might defend that. However, I think most people are not going to think that that’s what school is supposed to be for. And that’s what this battle is. The idea that there’s no CRT in the schools, I think a lot of people really think that it’s claimed that legal doctrine that only grad students (INAUDIBLE) is being taught in fourth grade. If that’s what you think it’s about, then certainly you think that the right is just dog whistling. That’s not what parents are upset about. CRT has been extended to a whole education school philosophy that I’m not sure a lot of people are aware of, but it’s very real and it is affecting how kids are being taught in a great many school districts across the country. Including Virginia. That’s what the issue is about.

ISAACSON: Do you think it’s a good idea, though, that people like myself or my kids or whatever, understand a little bit more about the white privilege we have had?

MCWHORTER: You can understand some. I wouldn’t mind a light dusting of that being given to kids. I believe it was given to me. I went to quaker schools when I was a kid. And a lot of the teachers there were, you know, anti-war, leftist people. We got some of that. And that was part of an education. And an education should involve learning about slavery and Jim Crow and racism, that’s fine. It’s just that us versus them notion, that idea that the entire foundation of the nation has been kind of a shell game or a crime spree. I don’t think that’s what kids should be taught. That’s something you should start leaning about in college. And even then, as one of many opinions. And so, one of my children who is nine has learned about Sir Joyner Truth and what she went through in school. Good. But she’s not being taught that the American experiment is a joke or that she with her brown skin needs to be wary of the blond kids in her classroom. If she were being taught that, I would write a column about it very quickly.

ISAACSON: Do you think systemic racism exists and there’s a problem in the society?

MCWHORTER: I do think that there are racial inequities in society. I’m not crazy is about calling it racism, but I know that that process is going to continue. Those inequities need to be battled against. But the problem is, that as often as not, fixing those things is not a about battling racism. So, even if racism calls the things, fixing it today is not going to involve battling the racism that dismays us all. Language plays a trick on us in these things. But for any instance of systemic racism, my attitude is not, oh, just let it be or black people need to try harder. No. I’m a very interventionist thinker. But I think that we tend to focus on bias to an extent that goes beyond what the actual evidence in society suggests. And we tend to extend the bias analysis beyond what I think logic or even compassion can truly accommodate. There are things we need to do, but I think we are offered an oversimplified and often rather inwardly focused agenda as to what you actually do about them.

ISAACSON: What do you think is the greater problem? The racism that you say still exists in our society or the accesses anti-racism movement?

MCWHORTER: It’s getting to the point where it’s the latter because the anti-racism movement teaches us to look into ourselves. The anti-racist religion that I write about is one where your job is to show that you know racism exists. Not to try to do anything a about it, but just to show. And so, a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curator can be fired for using the word reverse discrimination. He gets fired. That did nothing. That language policing did absolutely nothing. There are people in San Francisco who are very poor, disproportionately brown. They need real help. What did it help to fire this curator because he didn’t seem to be sufficiently hip to the precise scriptures of hyper woke gospel? Nothing. The new movement encourages too much of that kind of signposting and kabuki, this idea that you — and it is literal virtue signaling. Signaling to one another, signaling to America that you have virtue, as opposed to doing what civil rights leaders 50 and 60 years ago did, which was to get out on the ground and improve conditions for actual black people who need help. Now, the people in question will tell you that all of this awareness raising is necessary before anything can happen in society. And I ask why. Who said? Because the way this often put is as if that case has been impregnably made. But nobody expected white people to sit in prayer circles and think about their complicities before the civil rights victories of the ’50s and ’60s. And if you tell me that they need to do that now before we can make any further changes, once again, notice how there’s a lapse in the argumentation there. Why? Now, maybe somebody can tell us why it is that we can’t have any further change until people feel really, really, really guilty. But it seems to me that we can turn black America upside down it with some basic interventionist changes without hoping that white psychology can ever be so perfect.

ISAACSON: So, isn’t is there some value to people evaluating themselves, saying if intentionally or unintentionally some their thoughts may have racist roots? Isn’t that how we make progress?

MCWHORTER: It is definitely important that people evaluate themselves as white people have been being told to do since the 1960s and doing it. The question is whether they need to do it more. So, yes, all of that evaluation is good, but people were doing it quite a bit before it white fragility came out. The big question is, do people need to do it more? And I suggest not. And to the extent that someone would disagree with me, the issue is that that needs to be discussed. The idea is not simply to accept that we need this particularly stringent sense of one’s complicity as a prelude to change in the world. Because I ask why? And to the extent that question hasn’t been answered, we need to start having more constructive conversation.

ISAACSON: Let me read something from your book. A sentence near the end of your book that I found very interesting. You say that racism refers not just to prejudice, but to social inequity. Racism is also a matter of the past as well as present attitudes and policies. Something this protium (ph), this layered and timeless must be ever restrained as much as possible. In some ways, it sounds like you’re saying what some of the people on the other side are saying, that we have engrained in our society layers of systemic problems that come from past and present racist attitudes.

MCWHORTER: Sure. Here’s the thing. Every summer there is a grievous rash of killings of one another among black boys in big cities. It’s not among white boys, it’s among black boys. Talk about disparities. Way too many more black boys get killed in cities every summer, once it gets hot and people are outside than boys of other colors. It’s a problem. But if what your thought is racism. In a way, it’s almost callous. Because what will solve the problem, and there are people who are working on solving that problem, is not making white people less racist, nor is it solving some problem in society where in some subtle way racism is keeping resources away from black people that they should have. And in general, just the idea of racial disparities, whatever it is, why those boys killing each other and how can we stop them from doing it? The answer to that question is not when I see disparities, I see racism. You can see how if anybody is thinking that, it’s almost as if they are less interested in solutions for real people than in displaying that they know about something. That’s the discrepancy that I’m talking about. I’m concerned with the same things everybody else is. The question is, what do you do about them other than sitting around and talking about how you know that racism didn’t end in 1966.

ISAACSON: Well, the last quarter of your book really is about solutions. Ideas that it you have, including on the war on drugs. Tell me when you think the solutions are.

MCWHORTER: It is not it is fix the police. The reason I say that is not because I’m not aggrieved about police but because there are 18,000 police precincts and you have to work on each one of them. I don’t see how there’s going to be a magic want about that. I want something faster than that. Therefore, the war on drugs is — has destroyed black communities for almost 60 years. And what it creates among many other things, including way too many encounters with the cops, is that there is a standing black market that a black guy from an underserved neighborhood with crummy schools and very few resources can join in order to make half of a living after he leaves high school. It’s there. There’s a black market where you can give people hard drugs. And if you’d rather do that than take the risk of finding legal employment when you’re not used to leaving your own world, you’re not sure where that would go and you lived within very narrow horizons for no fault of your own. Chances are you go to prison. You might be killed. And if you’re in prison, if you have had some kids before, you’re not going to be there for them. The kids then become you. You come back to the community. You’ve got no job skills. You’re possibly addicted to something because prison was such a terrible place. Your life is over. That is such a common trajectory for a certain kind of underserved black man. It would change completely if there were simply no way to make that living. I completely understand why somebody might choose that, but if there were no way to make that living, I’ve been arguing this since 2005, that same guy would go get legal employment. And yet, might start a show store, although you can do better than that, especially if, and this is one of my other points in the book, you have a celebration of vocational education and you make it so that he can get a two-year degree, probably for free or close to it, and something where he can work with his hands and make a thoroughly decent middle class living. And this is the sort of thing we tend not to think about. We think he’s supposed to go to college. No. College is nice but it’s not for everybody. So, if we just take the men out of a situation where it’s tempting to do something that kind of gets you by but probably ruins your life, but, you know, who among us think about what’s going to happen in a month and get back to vocational education, black America would turn upside down in 20 years. And the change that needs to be made is to end the war on drugs.

ISAACSON: What good do you think will come out of the book? I noticed at the beginning you say, this is not reason for these people or these people. What was the purpose of the book and what do you hope will happen?

MCWHORTER: The purpose of the book was to unite left of Center America behind an agenda that will really help black people and to discourage white and black people from supposing that our moral job is to listen to the hard radical left telling us that if we disagree with their view on what we need to do or not do, we are white supremacists. Because the modus operandi is that if you disagree with people like that you get called a white supremacist on Twitter. That scares most people to their socks. And so, most of us are pretending to agree with that certain kind of person because we’re afraid of them. Those people think that they have found the answer, the solution to black people’s problems. They think that battling power differentials in a symbolic way is a necessary beginning to changing society. I think most of us disagree. And I wrote this book to ask people to start asking a spine and telling these people to sit down. Not get out. I wrote this book because I wanted there to be a book by yes, and openly admit, a black person, saying that the way these things are going is not the only way it can be. Now, I know that some people are going to say that I am a reverse racist. That I am not — that don’t like myself. That I’m a white supremacist. And you know what, a great many black people agreed with me. It should be important to note. I’m saying something that I think is very ordinary that you don’t get to hear from enough because of the overrepresentation in the media and an academia of people, both black and white, who think in the way that I’m talking about. This is a voice from the bottom, in a way. And I just hope that some people can see that there are different ways of looking at how we get past race than, for example, people calling you white supremacists on Twitter to get what they want. That’s not what social progress is supposed to be.

ISAACSON: Are you concerned that some of your arguments are beginning to be co-opted or used by the far right?

MCWHORTER: That’s a valid question. And I think that we could also ask people who are on the very hard left, are they concerned that some of their views will be used by the very hard right to caricature what the left think? And the answer is yes, they will. And so, yes, some of my views will be misused. But I can only answer that question with a question. Does that mean I shouldn’t have my say? Should I express myself in a way where I do so much qualifying and hemming and hawing that I don’t really say much of anything at all that anybody can gleam and therefore, I might as not have said anything at all? I’m not going to do that. So, that’s the answer to your question.

ISAACSON: Professor John McWhorter, thank you for joining us.

MCWHORTER: Thank you, Walter.

About This Episode EXPAND

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani met with British officials today as nuclear negotiations are set to resume later this month. Andrew Forrest has a vision of turning steelmaking green. Today marks the passing of Frederik Willem de Klerk, the last president of apartheid South Africa. John McWhorter is a bestselling author and linguist, and he’s out with a new book.