Is It Wrong to Read John McWhorter?

I understand that German-Welsh-Americans may be selective in the African-American authors they read and quote, but since some of those who ridicule white evangelicals also recommend black conservative intellectuals like Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, maybe an opening exists for appealing to John McWhorter for a brief moment. Here, the instruction has less to do with how African Americans make their case for racial injustice than with the way that white Americans receive arguments about racism’s persistence and depth:

Coates is a symptom of a larger mood. Over the past several years, for instance, whites across the country have been taught that it isn’t enough to understand that racism exists. Rather, the good white person views themselves as the bearer of an unearned “privilege” because of their color. Not long ago, I attended an event where a black man spoke of him and his black colleagues dressing in suits at work even on Casual Fridays, out of a sense that whites would look down on black men dressed down. The mostly white audience laughed and applauded warmly—at a story accusing people precisely like them of being racists.

This brand of self-flagellation has become the new form of enlightenment on race issues. This brand of self-flagellation has become the new form of enlightenment on race issues. It qualifies as a kind of worship; the parallels with Christianity are almost uncannily rich. White privilege is the secular white person’s Original Sin, present at birth and ultimately ineradicable. One does one’s penance by endlessly attesting to this privilege in hope of some kind of forgiveness. After the black man I mentioned above spoke, the next speaker was a middle-aged white man who spoke of having a coach come to his office each week to talk to him about his white privilege. The audience, of course, applauded warmly at this man’s description of having what an anthropologist observer would recognize not as a “coach” but as a pastor.

Parallels between anti-racism and religion are particularly telling since McWhorter has repeatedly argued that opposition to bigotry has turned into a form of orthodoxy and people who question are heterodox at best, but likely heretics:

I have seen whites owning up to their white privilege using the hand-in-the-air-palm-out gesture typically associated with testifying in church. After the event I have been describing, all concerned deemed it “wonderful” even though nothing new had been learned. The purpose of the event was to remind the parishioners of the prevalence of the racist sin and its reflection in themselves, and to offer a kind of forgiveness, this latter being essentially the function of the black people on the panel and in the audience. Amen.

Some might see all of this as a healthy sign of moral advance. And I suppose if I had to choose between this performativity and the utter contempt most whites had for any discussion of discrimination 50 years ago and before, I’d choose our current moment. But goodness, it piles high and deep, this—well, I’ll call it fakeness. The degree of fantasy and exaggeration that smart people currently let pass in the name of higher-order thought on race parallels, again, Biblical tales.

Coates, for example, argues in one article after another that America’s progress on race has been minimal, despite pretty window dressing here and there, and that there is no reason to hope things will get any better. Yet one can be quite aware of the prevalence and nature of racism in America while also understanding that the recreational pessimism of views like Coates’s is melodramatic and even unempirical. To insist that Starbucks or even Dylan Roof define America’s progress on race is as flimsy as treating certain young black men’s misbehavior as embodying the black essence. Perfection is ever a dream; we are, as always, in transition. Everybody knows that.

The very fact that the modern equivalent of the graduate student I knew reveres Coates’s writing is a sterling indication that America has grown up quite a bit on race even in the past quarter of a century. The fact that this brand of enlightenment has not made it to every barstool and kitchen table in the country hardly disqualifies it as influential. Anyone who really thinks that on race America has merely rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic isn’t old enough to realize that most smart white people as late as 1978 would have found The Wire about as interesting as Chinese opera.

In which case, social media banter about race these days (which also shows up in books that describe how much white churches have perpetuated racial hierarchy) has more to do with the purity of each person and less to do with those people who still experience some of the real consequences of racism in the United States:

This new cult of atonement is less about black people than white people. Fifty years ago, a white person learning about the race problem came away asking “How can I help?” Today the same person too often comes away asking, “How can I show that I’m a moral person?” That isn’t what the Civil Rights revolution was about; it is the product of decades of mission creep aided by the emergence of social media.

What gets lost is that all of this awareness was supposed to be about helping black people, especially poor ones. We are too often distracted from this by a race awareness that has come to be largely about white people seeking grace. For example, one reads often of studies showing that black boys are punished and suspended in school more often than other kids. But then one reads equally often that poverty makes boys, in particular, more likely to be aggressive and have a harder time concentrating. We are taught to assume that the punishments and suspensions are due to racism, and to somehow ignore the data showing that the conditions too many black boys grow up in unfortunately makes them indeed more likely to act up in school. Might the poverty be the key problem to address? But, try this purely logical reasoning in polite company only at the risk of being treated as a moral reprobate. Our conversation is to be solely about racism, not solutions—other than looking to a vaguely defined future time when racism somehow disappears, America having “come to terms” with it: i.e. Judgment Day. As to what exactly this coming to terms would consist of, I suppose only our Pastor of White Privilege knows.

5 thoughts on “Is It Wrong to Read John McWhorter?

  1. I have only read one of McWhorter’s books, his 2003 publication, “Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care,” in which he seemed to be condemning the deviant trend of culture losing its grip on proper language in favor of street talk, slang, ebonics, etc., through most of the book but then at end more or less shrugged his shoulders in resignation saying that languages will evolve over time and what are we going to do about it anyway. Left me a bit confused.

    Along those lines and in the context of his current post at American Interest, once again he seems to be at a loss to understand the current vogue among white (evangelicals, especially) who seem to be agonizing over the sins of their forefathers in their treatment of black people. Reminds of a time when I was cajoled into attending a special event at a large urban church known for its roots in 2ndGen rivalism where a sizable choir from a large local AME congregation was to perform some bluesy gospel numbers. Before the musicians, all decked out in African dress of various kinds, very casually came into the “hall” and worked their way up to their positions on the oversized choir loft, a of a kind of documentary about what it was like to be a slave was showing on a large screen projection. Looking around the place I saw various white people throwing their arms in the air, wringing their hands, and sinking their faces in their palms with disconsconslate grief in response to it all. Looks like McWhorter is properly confused after all.


  2. I read that book, and have ever since loved McWhorter. (Google for an older oldlife article pointing to an episode of his Lexicon Valley podcast with a KJV scholar)
    I didn’t quite get your same takeaway from the book. His #1 message does seem to be ‘language changes, get over it’, so I don’t know that he was exactly ‘condemning’ the decreased tolerance for formal language as documenting it.
    Very interesting article. I’m glad McWhorter is using his ‘privileged’ position as a black intellectual to write truths that whites would have trouble with. I’m not sure I’d put him in the same category as Sowell though. From listening to Lexicon Valley, I appreciate that he often steers away from partisan topics, but I get the sense that he’s as liberal as the next Columbia professor, but cool and friendly enough not to be defensive or argumentative about it.
    He always throws out anecdotes of being at some party and having a conversation with somebody — seems like he must always be going to parties! I would love to be at a party with John McWhorter some day.


  3. Rube – good points. However, if I was on some college’s faculty as a speech/communication professor I’d announce to the class on the very first day that any use of ValSpeak, uptalk, or vocal fry during an oratory will mean an automatic ‘F’ for the semester. As I once heard a well known speaker at a small college commencement say to the graduating class back in 2008, “… just because someone (politician) is preaching “change” to you does not always mean that it will be for the better…” Clearly, that advice fell on deaf ears given the results of the election later that year.


  4. Rube, yeah, I think McWhorter is pretty liberal and sometimes a tad smug about it. Glenn Loury and he sometimes stumble across a economic topic that is revealing. (John was especially proggy on Kavanaugh.) But he does not seem overly ideological.


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