Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America

By John McWhorter

Sometimes I imagine the following scene: I am seated at a sidewalk café in D.C., having dinner with a friend. Suddenly a troop of Wokesters show up. They command me to repeat their slogan-of-the-hour. Although I don’t disagree with their mantra, I feel that anything I say under coercion can’t be said sincerely – even if I would say it unhesitatingly in other circumstances.

What would I do at that sidewalk café? It’s my view that saying something insincerely in such a context corrupts both the speaker and the coercer. (Be it noted, sincerity has its limits. Of course I wouldn’t say, “I hate your new hairdo.” If you want the unvarnished truth about cosmetic matters, don’t come to me.)  

So why does this imagined scene on a Washington sidewalk seem to me high stakes? Isn’t repeating the mantra-of-the-hour a trivial matter, even if you’re doing it under implied threat? Not something worth spoiling a café dinner over? Well, I don’t always choose the times, the places or the situations of my life. Yet, intuitively, I know:

this one’s not trivial.

It was with that imaginary scene in mind that I sent for McWhorter’s book. Who is McWhorter? The jacket flap tells that he’s a Columbia University professor of “linguistics, American Studies and music history,” has published multiply in prestigious newspapers and magazines, and is the author of “over twenty books.” I’ve seen him before, in discussions on C-Span. Incidentally, he’s black.

He sets the scene for his book by naming three people, a food writer for the NY Times, a Dean of Nursing at a Massachusetts university, and a data processor, each of whom was fired for making some obviously inoffensive remark that was arbitrarily and publicly deemed to be offensive.

I know people who would never themselves participate in a Twitter mob but nevertheless reflexively suppose that victims like these three must have done something to deserve their downfall. Such people have one thing in common: they’ve never had their social faces ripped off.

To show the “heads I win/tails you lose” character of the accusers’ methods, McWhorter lays out ten Wokist antinomies side by side. Here’s one pair from his lineup: “You must strive eternally to understand the experiences of black people.” However, “you can never understand what it is to be black, and if you think you do you’re a racist.” 

Parenthetical remark from me: one reason I deeply enjoyed teaching philosophy was my conviction that, by extending the reasoning powers of students and showing their applicability in real situations, past and present, I was enlarging the power and the freedom of my students. So when I see someone working to subvert the intellectual self-trust of students, rebranding it as “acting white,” and encouraging unreason in its place, I feel outraged on behalf of the young people being seduced or pressured in such a way as to lose free access to their own natural powers.

According to McWhorter, Critical Race Theory makes those very moves. He cites Richard Delgado, a legal scholar and CRT advocate, who advises foregrounding “centuries-long mistreatment” over objective truth, and Regina Austin, also a legal scholar, who’s come out for “lawbreaker culture” that can, she claims, “add a bit of toughness, resilience, bluntness and defiance to contemporary black political discourse …”

Really? There came a point in my own development as a young adult when I decided not to send other people on trips I wasn’t taking.

McWhorter exhibits white people’s Wokery as the strategy of admitting one’s inherited racial privilege along with the guilt of that. By thus embracing one’s moral abjectness, one is in a paradoxically good position to pull moral rank on anybody not self-identified by those code words. On the whole, as I gather, the Woke protect each other, so it is always a good idea to confess your power, privilege and the racism underlying it — to confess it prophylactically, as it were.

In this crude display of pretend identification with the powerless and pretend dissociation from the powerful, I discern an embedded confusion about the nature of power. But not to worry. Plato can help us clear it up in the twinkling of an eye! In the dialogue whose English title is The Republic, Socrates is discussing the nature of political justice when a fellow Athenian named Thrasymachus bursts in, shouting that he knows all about justice. “Justice,” he says, has no ideal meaning. It’s the cover word for what’s really operative: the interest of whoever has more power. It falls to Socrates to point out that the powerful man can be mistaken about where his interest lies. Once Thrasymachus admits that, it isn’t hard to point out a genuine difference between functional power (say, the power to compose a song) and brute power (say, the power to outshout the singer). This ancient distinction, between brute and functional power, the Wokesters seem to have forgotten.

McWhorter offers three policy suggestions, each designed to enhance functional power: 

(1) phonics, to replace the less effective “whole word” approach to teaching children to read. If the child can read, all kinds of worlds, methods and avenues open up; 

(2) legalization of all drugs. If illegal drug dealing – a ruinously easy way to make a dollar – is closed down, young people will be motivated to acquire lawful ways to support themselves; 

(3) vocational schools to teach practical, marketable skills from which a decent living can be made and a successful life built.

I have only one objection to the brave and thoughtful analysis provided by McWhorter. He insists on imputing to Wokery the character of a “religion.” He even puts that word in his subtitle. “I do not mean that these people’s ideology is ‘like’ a religion. … I mean that it actually is a religion.” By repeatedly making that identification, he cuts his book off from a large class of potential readers, including those who may have reasons for faith as sound as his (never-stated) reasons for skepticism. He takes for granted that reasonable people are and must be religious skeptics. That’s not so. 

There’s one other reason for my objection. The concept of “religion” fails to identify his book’s target precisely. The behavior of people who exact confessions as the price of admission to their group, mete out endless and pitiless punishment to the excluded nonmembers, and discount all and every reasonable objection to their doctrines and methods, is not typical of any religion I’ve encountered in my own life. There is, however, one form of group organization that does meet all these criteria: the cult.

Wokery is a cult.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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