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PBS NewsHour interviews John McWhorter on his new book

The Contrarian

In the first of a partnership series, Root Quarterly's publisher profiles Philly-raised iconoclastic cultural critic John McWhorter, who braves the Twitter mob every day

The Contrarian

In the first of a partnership series, Root Quarterly's publisher profiles Philly-raised iconoclastic cultural critic John McWhorter, who braves the Twitter mob every day

John McWhorter’s favorite dinosaur is the Parasaurolophus.

“I have a balsa skeleton of that one,” the linguist, educator, writer, and Philadelphia native son tells me. We twitter about how much we love those balsa wood bone kits that came out in the early ’80s, and I tell him that my sister and I had a Tyrannosaurus rex and a Stegosaurus. McWhorter has recently been back to visit Philadelphia from his home in New York, where he’s a tenured professor at Columbia University. When he was in town, he sought out the dinosaur bones at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

“I read about dinosaurs to an extent that would perplex many people,” McWhorter says, “including some of the nerdier, more academic books about them.”

I am not perplexed, and I am also positive that no one has unearthed and articulated this particular fact about McWhorter in the prior 148 interviews — he’s counted — that he’s given about his bestselling book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.

He’s been on podcasts, in newspapers, and on television programs on networks such as ABC, PBS, and CNN, even hitting morning shows including The View, with its audience of regular Americans all throughout the United States tuning in to see celebrity talking heads such as Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar. It’s often the most-watched daytime program in the United States, which is not usually where a professor of linguistics finds himself on any given morning.

To reiterate: McWhorter wants real change. He’s unimpressed by people who think a Black Lives Matter sign in their window puts them on the road to salvation.

McWhorter, 56, believes that only someone like him — a middle-aged, Black professor armed with solid arguments — can call out what he thinks are the incongruities, inconsistencies, and religious tendencies of the progressive left at this moment. And so he’s been doggedly doing interviews, patiently explaining, archly complaining, and continuing to put aside other more fun work as he wraps up this particular tour of duty in the American culture war.

While he was here in late winter, he stopped at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “The truth is, one of my favorite things was the Turner they have — the fire on the water, that painting — and, that’s corny. I’m not supposed to like that,” he says, but admits that he “thoroughly enjoyed it.” He mentions the connection to the landscapes of the Hudson River School, and says that he really appreciates “high light on European canvases … those really touch me. It’s less people than landscapes.”

A scholar grows in Mt. Airy

He grew up in an integrated West Mount Airy in the ’70s, and is a Friends Select alumnus. “Many people now find it hard to imagine, because you say a ‘mixed neighborhood’ and what most people think, especially if you’re talking about the late 20th century, is that it must have been White people were moving out and Black people were moving in — and so the White people were, you know, old White ethnics who couldn’t afford to leave, and then poor Black people were moving in. West Mount Airy was nothing like that,” McWhorter says.

“It was solidly middle-class people living side by side with the houses practically alternating. And so it was a really lucky childhood; not wealthy, but comfortably middle-class.” He explains that while Black kids still tended to play with Black kids and White kids with White kids, “there was no tension,” McWhorter says. “It was very interracial, peaceful, slightly hippie — it still is. So that was my experience. And I remember it fondly. I still take people in my life to Marion Lane on Mount Pleasant and show them that I grew up across from Carpenter’s Woods. It was absolutely paradise, and I love Philadelphia.”

We also talk about the grand depictions of upper-middle-class Black families at the turn of the 19th century in HBO’s original series The Gilded Age, which McWhorter just wrote about in his column for The New York Times. It’s nice to discuss art and music for a moment.

If he weren’t on an endless speaking tour, McWhorter tells me he would rather be doing more research on a little-known play whose plot line and dialogue is — like many musicals of their time — too topical to be resurrected, but whose music by Fats Waller should be more widely known. He wrote about his interest in Early to Bed in The New Yorker in 2013, which he characterized as “a Broadway show about a whorehouse in Martinique.”

McWhorter is a fan of musicals, and he says that in 1943, a Black man writing music for a play was “utterly unheard of on Broadway until then, and largely after that.” Waller’s Early to Bed opened the same year as Oklahoma! The latter play, still very much in circulation, just closed its Philadelphia run of a well-reviewed revival with a multi-ethnic cast at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. McWhorter has been running around the country for the past decade collecting materials related to the Early to Bed score.

“It doesn’t get around,” he says. “It falls through the cracks. Jazz people don’t care about Broadway. I get it. … People don’t care about this silly show that ran for a year and then disappeared. But this was important. … All of it just scattered to the winds. [I’m] reconstructing as much of it as I can get my hands on. … I have to examine some rediscovered material in the Library of Congress that nobody knew was there. It’s possibly the overture, but I’ll bet it’s more the original orchestra parts, which nobody knew existed.”

But instead of scouring the stacks in true professorial fashion, McWhorter is speaking with me. About dinosaurs. About musicals. About Mount Airy and the Art Museum. And about what he believes are bad ideas that are harming Black people in America.

The elect

McWhorter’s publisher chose the name for the book, Woke Racism, knowing that it would rile people up. He wanted to call it “The Elect.” It’s been on The New York Times bestseller list, so it’s hard to tell what the better decision may have been. McWhorter’s original title evokes the Puritans of New England. They believed strongly in the idea of a covenant with God, and that Christ died not for everyone, but for the elect, a select few who were permitted into this divine contract.

So, who are the new elect? McWhorter argues it’s those who find themselves in the authoritarian-left flank of the social justice movement, who are not moved from their positions on racial issues by statistics, experience, or reason, and who have decided that they — and only they — hold the correct political solutions. He says it’s people such as historian Ibram X. Kendi and author Robin DiAngelo.

He has a flair for flaming thinkers whose ideas he thinks are subpar. You do not want to be in his sights.

“Kendi thinks that any problem Black people have is reducible to something called racism, usually systemic racism, and that therefore the solution to our problems is to get rid of the racism,” McWhorter tells me. “I find that to be literally a fourth grader’s analysis of how society works.”

“Racism does exist,” McWhorter told Goldberg on The View in November. “And this is the thing: I think that Black Americans can succeed despite the fact that non-Black people are psychologically imperfect. I’m saying that focusing on teaching America lessons about that isn’t necessary to creating happier Black lives.”

He continues, “It’s simplistic. It’s based on a TikTok version of history that, frankly, somebody with a PhD should be able to do better than. And it has very little to do with — once again — actually solving problems in the real world. And so I think he genuinely considers himself to have penetrated a thicket of conflicting ideas and found an elegant mechanism that all of us would perceive if we weren’t clouded with racist biases.”

This is the kind of shade he often throws at those he’s annoyed with when he’s recording one of his regular (since 2007) heretical conversations with economist Glenn Loury, also Black, who, as a result, is often similarly coded by progressives as mercenary or reactionary for his views on what will best catalyze the success of more Black Americans.

On DiAngelo, McWhorter is equally as biting — he may love the vegetarian Parasaurolophus, but sometimes he’s unapologetically about the kill.

“The issue,” he says, “is that she thinks that Black people are these hothouse flowers that need this very careful treatment; that Black people see White women crying as off-putting because it reminds us of White women crying and accusing Black men of rape in the Old South. That’s simply something she made up, or something one person told her — that has nothing to do with what general Black psychology is. And yet that sort of thing is being promulgated in her book that makes us seem like poster children, rather than people.”

McWhorter continues, “And what angers me is not the people who wrote [these books], but a society that embraces them and pretends that their advice makes sense, if I’m going to be really mean about it.”

He’s going to be really mean about it.

But let’s be clear: McWhorter’s acerbic takedowns aren’t just effective, they’re stylish, and therefore that much more cutting. Somewhere, the ghost of Noël Coward is watching offstage, smoking and smirking.

McWhorter, a liberal/progressive Democrat, insists that it’s not in retaliation. He’s adamant that being called an Uncle Tom, a “shill for the right wing” — or worse — in no way affects his own psychology, and that his anger comes from stalled progress as more and more White people gaze piously at their navels rather than looking up to see what they can actually do to make the lives of more people better. “I hate to disappoint, but it has no effect on me at all,” McWhorter says. “It’s like waving gnats away.”

His advice to anyone in this situation is to stand your ground. “You know what you are, and what you aren’t. Don’t take it to heart that somebody says really mean things about you, with their face scrunched up, and their sarcasm. If it isn’t you? Move on.”

His anodyne appearance on The View is helpful, because it is McWhorter at his most condensed and clear, trying to speak to middle America: He explains that the first wave of antiracism entailed ending segregation and getting Black people legal rights such as voting, and that the second wave came about in the ’70s and ’80s, as the cultural tides shifted and more White Americans awakened to the idea that personally being a racist was a bad thing. Like most Americans, he supports these first two waves.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4DxvTIZ3tM

“The new idea,” McWhorter told the View hosts, “is that to get past what we need to get past, we need to teach non-Black America that they are complicit, in an abstract sense, in a racism that’s all around us, and that until you understand that complicitness, and feel a certain guilt for your White privilege, and realize that that stain will never leave you, then Black America can’t get forward. And my issue is just that I think Black America can get forward without that grand psychological experiment, which — it’s not that I don’t think it’s pretty, or something — I don’t think it’s going to work.”

McWhorter’s convinced that all of the self-appointed apostles of third-wave antiracism — people like DiAngelo and Kendi, like Ta-Nahisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones — are creating not a new social movement aimed at studying, documenting, teaching, or unwinding the difficult history of race in our country (all initiatives McWhorter supports), but an actual religion.

McWhorter is clear that he does not mean this metaphorically, or in the abstract.

He writes in the book,

I seek no rhetorical snap in the comparison. I mean that it actually is a religion. An anthropologist would see no difference in type between Pentecostalism and this new form of antiracism. Language is always imprecise, and thus we have traditionally restricted the word religion to certain ideologies founded in creation myths, guided by ancient texts, and requiring that one subscribe to certain beliefs beyond the reach of empirical experience. This, however, is an accident, just as it is that we call tomatoes vegetables rather than fruits. If we rolled the tape again, the word religion could easily apply as well to more recently emerged ways of thinking. … One of them is this extremist version of antiracism today. … To see them in this way is not to wallow in derision, but to genuinely grasp what they are.

“[Ibram X.] Kendi thinks that any problem Black people have is reducible to something called racism, usually systemic racism, and that therefore the solution to our problems is to get rid of the racism,” McWhorter tells me. “I find that to be literally a fourth grader’s analysis of how society works.”

This grasping and grappling is not, of course, without some actual conflict, and McWhorter believes that the best thing we can do is understand where adherents of this new religion are coming from. “To make sense of it, we must understand them — partly out of compassion and partly to keep them from destroying our own lives,” he writes.

“Racism does exist, and — call me a cynic — I’m not sure how much we can completely eliminate it,” McWhorter told Goldberg on The View in November. “And this is the thing: I think that Black Americans can succeed despite the fact that non-Black people are psychologically imperfect. My main interest is in what we can do to move ahead and to finish the job. I’m not saying racism is okay, and I’m not saying there’s no such thing as systemic racism. I’m saying that focusing on teaching America lessons about that isn’t necessary to creating happier Black lives.”

Indulgences and defenestrations

In his appearance on The View, McWhorter explained that making more and more White people focus on their own guilt and privilege won’t do anything to help Black people who are suffering.

To reiterate: McWhorter wants real change. He’s unimpressed by people who think a Black Lives Matter sign in their window puts them on the road to salvation.

His own policy prescriptions to help more Black people achieve success are: Teach kids how to read via phonics instead of the “whole word” method, especially if they come from houses that aren’t lined with books; end the war on drugs; and provide more training for Black Americans — and young adults in general — for solid, middle-class jobs in the trades rather than telling everyone they need to go college. People are paid well to build our houses and fix our roads — often paid better than those who hold degrees in the humanities — and we need more people in these vocations right now. He tells me that, on the cutting-room floor for the book, there was also the prescription to provide free contraception to all young women so that they can finish high school and get jobs before becoming mothers, and to discourage them from becoming single mothers.

Watercolors by Christopher Clark Spencer

He is also clearly distraught by gun violence. “I hate to say this about Philadelphia, but it’s true: There’s a spate of shootings every summer,” McWhorter says. “Black boys. It’s very few White boys, even working-class White boys. It’s Black boys shooting each other over roughly nothing. That happens in cities across this country every summer. It’s a tragedy. To look at that and say the problem is racism? If that’s true, it’s in a very abstract, Rube Goldberg sense.”

Former Mayor Michael Nutter published an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer in early December, 2021 calling out the same dynamic, saying that it was an outrage that District Attorney Larry Krasner denied the crisis of gun violence in the city:

It takes a certain audacity of ignorance and White privilege to say that right now. As of Monday night, 521 people, souls, spirits have been vanquished, eliminated, murdered in our City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, the most since 1960. I have to wonder what kind of messed up world of White wokeness Krasner is living in to have so little regard for human lives lost, many of them Black and Brown, while he advances his own national profile as a progressive district attorney.

McWhorter says, “There are too many people that really need help for us to indulge in that third wave.”

McWhorter’s choice of word, “indulge,” is either linguistically canny or a happy accident. It gets at his argument about the religious character of the social-justice left: In third-wave antiracism, in order for the country to atone for its sins, non-Black individuals must realize the sin of White privilege (or now, ‘White-adjacent’ privilege1), profess it publicly, and then continually work to satisfy the debt.

The process is similar to the notion of an “indulgence” within Western medieval churches and in early Roman Catholic traditions, developed alongside the concept of purgatory. It was believed that people could either reduce the punishment for their sins on earth through contrition, confession, and satisfaction, or spend time in the intermediate state of purgatory before being accepted into heaven. Since “good works” could include, say, building a new cathedral, the practice was, of course, corrupted: The wealthy, particularly, could afford to buy their way out of spending time in purgatory and instead go straight to God. One might argue that, for instance, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey giving $10 million to Ibram X. Kendi’s university program is a modern iteration.

“People supposedly committed to political transformation breezily ignore the yawningly abstract relationship between testifying to ‘privilege’ and forging change in the real world,” McWhorter writes in Woke Racism. “At one meeting at Northwestern University’s law school in 2020, professors actually stood up and ritually denounced themselves as not only harboring privilege but as being outright racists. All were required to do this.”

The requirement is where the rub is. This is where McWhorter feels he can be helpful. He told the audience during an event hosted by Heterodox Academy that he has in his mind a certain kind of person he can assist. He imagines a White, middle-aged, non-racist woman who likes her Chardonnay, and who spends her time dutifully doing her job at the university, or within some other sector of the professional managerial class. (Someone like your author, for instance).

McWhorter wants that person to know that he understands she may feel railroaded into reading prescribed books such as White Fragility, or making statements that satisfy the third-wave antiracist liturgies even if she doesn’t believe them, just to keep herself out of trouble; in this framing, it’s the equivalent of being compelled to participate in religious ceremonies at work. It’s someone like Jodi Shaw, a former employee of Smith College in Massachusetts who is suing the school because of the flaws in exactly that kind of mandatory anti-bias training. These cases will soon set precedent about whether employers can compel speech in this way, or whether doing so violates the First Amendment.

“2020 was the elect throwing people out of windows left and right,” McWhorter says. “People losing their jobs, and everybody just turning away because they don’t want it to come for them. 2021 was different. That’s when a certain pushback started. That’s when it became, somebody tries to push someone out the window and they get their lawyers and push back and end up being able to stay in the room. 2021, someone like me gets hired by The New York Times, which I think would have been less likely in 2020.”

If this shift hadn’t occurred, McWhorter says, “then I would have had no hope.”

He’s starting to see momentum on the kind of dissent he believes is a necessary corrective to the excesses of the progressive left: “I think people did some thinking and realized that there might be some value to pushing against the extremes of this sort of thing.”

The eruption of anger in San Francisco that resulted in three progressive-left school board members being removed in a recall vote in February of 2022 is the latest example of this distinction between the performative and the proactive, which McWhorter says is coming home to roost. Performative antiracism — scrubbing the names of U.S. presidents from middle schools or removing murals, for instance — was a higher priority for these board members than keeping schools open during the pandemic so that kids could learn math and language during a critical developmental period in their lives. Parents, many of them Chinese American2, showed that they’re willing to flex their muscles if they think their kids are getting short shrift. It’s clear they believe that the path to success for their children is not through virtue signaling, but through sine curves and syntax.

McWhorter is especially worried to see what “woke racism” is doing to STEM fields. “To see this sort of thing penetrating into the sciences is especially eerie,” he says, “because it quite simply doesn’t make sense to tell some person who studies quantum physics that they have to demonstrate how their work is significant in terms of fostering diversity. This simply makes no blessing sense at all.”

We also talk about how art can be diminished by a laser focus on the political, finally spinning down into Soviet-style propaganda from some artists. “I get the feeling many of them are rather numb to the actual joys and challenges of art,” he says. “And, so, they want to reduce it all to being about questioning power differentials.”

Conversion

McWhorter’s own educational journey led him from the farther-left ideology he was raised on to the work of one of his intellectual heroes, Shelby Steele3, whose books include A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America and White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.

McWhorter says his mother taught social work at Temple and advocated for progressive policies. “I grew up … immersed in what is considered ‘the gospel.’ I don’t mean to ridicule, but my mother had solid, leftist, antiracist views. And she taught me what the realities were — used to drive me and my sister through Kensington sometimes, to show us that White people could have ghettos, that there was nothing Black about it. So I got the drill.” McWhorter says his “indoctrination” into progressivism included his mother making him read sociology textbooks way back in the summer of 1977.

As he grew older, and when he got to California as an adult, his own experiences were putting larger and larger cracks in the edifice of what he’d been taught. He thought to himself, “Racism is not as very violent now as it was 25 years ago. It does not define most Black lives, despite what goes on with the cops. And anybody who says that is striking a pose, and I want to know why,” he says. “And so I started going with it,” and he began speaking out and writing.

“I decided I can’t pretend. And when I was at Berkeley, in the late ’90s, this really boiled over for me because racial preferences were being dismantled. And Black and White people were very, very upset about it, and making absolutely outlandish claims about why this was being done and what was likely to happen, about where the Black students who had been at Berkeley so far had come from. There’s this myth that all of them were these poor kids from the ghetto, when almost none of them were. And I watched all of this.”5

McWhorter describes a slow process of taking in the reality in front of him and the rhetoric of the public debate rankling him. Finally, he says, he had to say aloud, “I don’t believe this, and I’m tired of people coming to my office and assuming that I think like this, because it feels almost like an insult.”

At that point, he wrote Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, published in 2000. McWhorter is the author of more than 20 books. “I probably missed my calling as a lawyer,” he tells me. “I like to have my point.” Indeed.

But most of all, he says, “I wanted to be honest.”

He has the same feeling now, and believes he’s the right messenger with the right message. When I ask if during this past year he’s had anyone land a point he hadn’t considered, he says — emphatically — no. Nothing has changed his mind, and he’s glad to have done it. Who else would have? he asks.

“This isn’t about arrogance. I just thought, if I were 27, like, frankly, if I were Coleman Hughes5, the accusation would be that I’m too young,” he says. “If I were 75, the idea would be that I’m an old man who doesn’t know what’s really happening. I thought this book would need to be written by somebody who was in their 50s. It’s me.”

Plus, he says, he writes incredibly fast, and it was timely.

“And I thought, Okay, I have to do it. And I’m going to have to do all these interviews, the media is going to be all about it. It’s going to foster a notion that what I wake up thinking about is affirmative action, rather than fun things,” McWhorter says. “But, I thought, if I don’t do it, nobody else will. And it’s time. So that’s why I wrote it, and it really has had exactly the effect that I wanted it to.”

By this, he means that there are more open conversations about race that acknowledge both our history as well as more concrete pathways to success for Black Americans, and fewer people posing on Instagram with their copy of White Fragility.

Plus, now we all know it’s the humble Parasaurolophus that McWhorter wakes up thinking about.

“They were actually kind of boring as creatures,” he says — but they are still the ones who have his heart.

“The long crest — I think that is just so cute.”


1 Cultural commentators such as Wesley Yang, Asra Nomani, and Jay Caspian Kang have criticized the political move to reclassify Asian Americans as “white adjacent” due to their academic and economic success. As one example of how this new framing takes shape, North Thurston Public Schools in Washington indicated in its 2020 equity report that Asians no longer qualified as “students of color.”

2 In 2016, San Francisco Board of Education President Alison Collins (now recalled), who is Black, wrote on Twitter: “Many [Asian Americans] believe they benefit from the ‘model minority’ BS. In fact, many Asian American [teachers, students, and parents] actively promote these myths. They use White supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead’ … Where are the vocal Asians speaking up against Trump? … Do they think they won’t be deported? profiled? beaten? Being a house n****r is still being a n****r. You’re still considered ‘the help.’” Gary Kamiya wrote in The Atlantic, “Collins’s insistence that Asian American parents who want their kids to get good grades and ‘get ahead’ are ‘house n****s’ using ‘white supremacist thinking’ did not go over well in the Asian American (in San Francisco, mostly Chinese American) community. That community has typically punched politically far below its demographic weight, but during this election, neighborhoods with large Chinese American populations came out in force.”

3 Steele is a longtime member of the Hoover Institution, which is now under the leadership of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

4 Writing in The New York Times in January, McWhorter argues that affirmative action has a place at universities, but that it should be based on economic disadvantage rather than on race or sex.

5 A profile on Hughes was included in the same spring 2022 issue for Root Quarterly in which this essay originally appeared.


Heather Shayne Blakeslee is the founding publisher and editor-in-chief of Root Quarterly: Art & Ideas from Philadelphia, named a Best New Magazine by Library Journal when it launched in 2019.  She’s served in myriad capacities with arts, social justice, and environmental advocacy enterprises in the last 25 years, leads the folk-noir band Sweetbriar Rose, and is the founder of Red Pen Arts, a consultancy that offers support to social entrepreneurs and the arts and culture community. She is an Arts Fellow with the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, and a grantee of the Mercatus Center. 

 Christopher Spencer is an artist and a church restoration technician for Master Liturgical Designs. He is a graduate of the Lorenzo de’ Medici art school in Florence, Italy, and holds an undergraduate degree in peace studies from Brandeis University. From 1996 to 1999, he was the second-fastest oyster shucker in the Boston area. Spencer has also been the head fencing coach at Haverford College for the past thirteen years.

This article is in RQ’s Spring 2022 issue, “Lions & Lambs.” Subscribe to Root Quarterly here.  

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John McWhorter speaks at TED2016 -in Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

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