Linguist John McWhorter on how to combat the harms of 'woke racism'

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People protest outside the offices of the New Mexico Public Education Department's office in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Supporters say the new curriculum, which includes ethnic studies, is "anti-racist." (Cedar Attanasio/AP Photo)
People protest outside the offices of the New Mexico Public Education Department's office in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Supporters say the new curriculum, which includes ethnic studies, is "anti-racist." (Cedar Attanasio/AP Photo)

Can anti-racist “wokeness” actually be perpetuating racism?

In a new book, linguist John McWhorter says yes.

"It has become a major problem today. Not only because it isn’t pretty. Not only because it is extremely dishonest," he says. "But because in the name of helping Black people, this philosophy often harms Black people instead."

In the classroom, on college campuses, even in the workplace, McWhorter says fervent attempts at anti-racism have patronized and infantilized Black people.

"This is an utterly incoherent discussion. And it’s one that leaves Black kids looking dumb. It repulses me."

Today, On Point: John McWhorter on how what we call 'anti-racism' can be harmful – and what to do instead.


John McWhorter, linguist and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Author of "Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America." (@JohnHMcWhorter)

Also Featured

Elie Mystal, justice correspondent at The Nation. (@ElieNYC)

J. Luke Wood, professor of education at San Diego State University. (@DrLukeWood)

Interview Highlights

How do you define the modern day anti-racist movement?

John McWhorter: "What we're talking about is a division of the radical left. And I don't mean radical left, of the slur. But a division of the radical left who feel that we have to center battling power differentials. I know that sounds kind of dry and abstract. But battling differentials in power, especially where white power is concerned, that that needs to be at the center of what we do intellectually, artistically, how we judge people morally. And that if a person doesn't agree with a certain agenda that's centered on that, to the expense of everything else, then those people deserve to be shamed, possibly even dismissed from their positions. And in general, stripped of their epaulets. And so it's an evangelical and even prosecutorial way of being an anti-racist.

"I should say, I just want to get a couple of things out of the way very quickly. One, I do not not understand systemic racism. The book makes it clear that I know what systemic racism is, and that it needs to be fought. It's very important. And when I say in the book that there is a woke racism, and that I'm worried about what these ideals are doing to Black people, my corollary is not 'Black people need to just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and stop talking about racism so much.' The book is also about societal solutions. The book is written because I am worried about what this new anti-racism spells for Black American people who need help."

On an example of the harms of 'woke racism'

John McWhorter: "For example, we're talking about academia, and the intellectual and school. And we've got these ideas that are creeping into how people are taught to teach children — especially children who need help — that says that getting the wrong answer is too much to expect of Black kids. That precision, showing up on time, raising your hand is too much to expect of Black kids. And even that there is a such thing as math being racist. Or you go further, music theory is apparently racist. I just read an article saying that the bar exam is racist. Standardized tests are racist.

"All of these ideas, few of which I think our audience is unfamiliar with at this point after about May 2020, are really damaging to what we think of as Black kids. Really damaging to what we think of as to engage in the life of the mind in general. And notice I'm not talking about critical race theory and the ambiguity of that word, etc. I'm just talking about these particular policies and ideas that are affecting what we think of as school, and how Black people are supposed to relate to school. That's one example."

What makes you think the modern-day fight against racism in the U.S. has more religious fervor than a political effort to change America?

John McWhorter: “So standardized tests. The issue is that standardized tests are being eliminated because Black kids tend not to be as good at them as, for example, white kids. And so the solution these days is to say the test is racist. Let's get rid of it. Now, the tests aren't perfect. That's certainly true. But then on the other hand, and I am answering your question, on the other hand, those tests were instituted in order to get past bias, and what you could call racism and just assess people on the basis of their Homo sapiens cognitive abilities.

"And so my sense with the test has always been if we're going to question the use of the test, it shouldn't be because Black kids needed more help getting good at them than other white kids. Societally, that is a very dangerous thing to do because of what it makes Black kids look like. My proposition is simply to say, how can we get Black kids better at the test? Which was the older way of doing it.

"Now this is the thing. If I say that it's something that I think deserves to be at the table, I've got everybody's welfare in mind. But there's a certain frame of mind that says that what I just said is hideously clueless, malevolent, wrong. That I should be chased out of the room. That I'm just trying to let white people off the hook, that I don't get it, that I'm repulsive. And why I say that this is a religion is because that way of looking at these things, which really has, you know, gone up several pegs since early 2020, and I don't mean just about me — is that that's how you treat a heretic.

"There's a notion that if you don't agree with these things, then maybe you should be fired. There's the whole rhetoric that I can't be in a space with this person. I feel unsafe. I feel unpolluted. That's behaving in the way that many religions — and there are good things about religion. But that many religions have treated nonbelievers. And I truly believe that an unbiased observer who didn't know of language, and was just watching things going on, would see very little difference between the kind of treatment that people get for questioning this kind of orthodoxy, and what happened to Galileo. I'm not saying that I'm definitely right, but there's a sense that someone like me shouldn't speak at all and must have malevolent intentions. That's extreme.”


You even have a matrix here of the tenets that you say third wave anti-racists are deeply moved by. One of them is No. 9: 

'Black people cannot be held accountable for everything every Black person does, versus all whites must acknowledge their personal complicity in the perfidy of whiteness throughout history.' Why spend time worrying about the performative?

John McWhorter: "I'm not sure that that catechism of contradictions, as I call it, is about performance. What those things are, all of these views that cancel each other out, such as the on the one hand, if a white person doesn't hate Black people, you think they must be racist. But then, on the other hand, they do date Black people, there's this whole other point of view where we're supposed to examine whether or not they are exotifying the other and whether or not that's valid.

"The question becomes, What are we looking for? If racism is this subtle after we've identified it, what societal purpose would it serve and why are we obsessing with that rather than, for example, getting rid of the war on drugs? And in answer to the objection, why can't we do both? I say why? Why is the obsessing about tiny little biases in psychology really worth our time at all when there are people out on the streets suffering?

"But performance is one thing. The catechism is a problem because it's the race thing. You know how we talk about, Oh, we're going to talk about the race thing. And everybody knows, and especially educated America knows, that that means everybody's going to start looking over each other's shoulders instead of in the eyes, and talking about how things are complicated that frankly often just don't make any sense, and there's never any real resolution.

"And when you talk about the race thing, what it's supposed to be is a certain kind of Black person points out that there are things wrong. And the white person is supposed to sit and say, Yes, that's true. I'm not sure what that does for being out in the world, and doing things for real people the way the old time civil rights leaders did. We're kind of used to that idea that dealing with race is partly about having these elliptical conversations where people show that they are aware of something.

"But I'm not sure we always think about whether or not all of that consciousness raising and frankly, all of that performance, that kabuki, pretending that those 'race thing' conversations really lead to anything. Is that necessary before we actually go out and fix things in the world? I'm not sure that we have something on the past leaders in that. I think we've drifted into something partly because today's problems are harder."

Lessons in how to stop the harms of ‘woke racism’

John McWhorter: “Police is not one of them and it's because I'm a pragmatist. And I'm not sure I can see any kind of quick reform of 18,000 police precincts across the United States. You get cynical after a while. I want police reform too, but I'm trying to think of something that would be faster. So I have three things, I'm beginning to realize that maybe I should have opened the book with the three things. Because I can tell a lot of people read about halfway through it and they think that I'm done. But no, the solutions were important to me as everything else.

"War on drugs has to end. It creates a black market that frankly gets too many Black men killed or up the river, that has to go. Second, we need to cherish and make free and effective vocational education so that the very same Black man, who through no fault of their own drift into that black market, will drift into the kinds of hands-on labor that makes a middle class existence within one generation. We're always talking about the counterintuitively well-paid plumber. Well, how about that? And so the idea is that what will save underserved Black America is a focus on that kind of vocational education, and not four years of college.

"We've got to get past the idea that the default American experience is to go live in a dorm for four years after 12th grade. Since 1945, it's a shopworn idea. And then also, I'm not an education wonk, but something I've seen, I suppose partly as linguist, partly as race commentator, partly just as human being. Is that too many Black kids are done in by not being taught to read properly. And if you're not taught to read properly, you never really like school and God knows what's going to happen by the time you're in high school.

"And so phonics, learning to read by sounding out the words. Believe it or not, there is an educational philosophy that that is not the proper way to teach people how to read. I respectfully disagree. There's a whole literature on it. And especially if you're not from a book-lined home, you need to be taught that good old fashioned way. And I want that to be available to many, many more Black kids than it is now. And so if you take those three things: drugs, phonics, vocational education.

"The reason I say those three things, is because I think if all those things happen tomorrow, Black America would be turned upside down in one generation and we could have a much more genuine and less ... performative conversation about race. Those things are things I really think would help. And I've been fighting about the war on drugs since 2006, that didn't just come to me while I was writing 'Woke Racism.' So I want to help. I want things to change, and I'm worried that too many people are detoured and other stuff."

From The Reading List

New York Times: "‘Woke’ Went the Way of ‘P.C.’ and ‘Liberal’" — "In 2018, the NPR correspondent Sam Sanders made this modest proposal: 'It’s time to put woke to sleep' — arguing that the term had passed its sell-by date."

This program aired on December 2, 2021.


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Jess Yarmosky Freelance Producer, On Point
Jess Yarmosky was a freelance producer for On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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