By Anya Shukla
I read one of John McWhorter’s other books for my mini-review six months ago, and I finally got to reading this one too. Honestly, my mini-review kinda said it all… but there are some new arguments in “Woke Racism” for a little variation.
Review: Although trained as a linguistics scholar, John McWhorter has recently made a name for himself as a Black conservative voice in liberal circles. In his newest book, “Woke Racism,” McWhorter continues to provide an unconventional (compared to the traditional liberal news media) perspective.
According to the Hidden Tribes study, “woke racists” (AKA progressive activists) make up about 8% of the American population but have an outsized influence on social media. McWhorter argues that these individuals contribute to cancel culture and—in a subtle way—systemic racism, the very issue they fight against. He demonstrates the religious nature of these activists as well. While he tends to exaggerate to make his point, several of his ideas do hold water. My Rating: 3/5.
What I Loved: I value that McWhorter advocates for what he believes in, even when he’s in the minority. And—despite being the kind of progressive McWhorter believes will never agree with his arguments—several of his points make sense.
First, cancel culture sometimes goes too far. McWhorter points to instances where people made an offensive statement, apologized, and were then fired despite their apology because of a social media backlash. He also notes that people can jump to support an idea—his example here is affirmative action—that claims to support diverse communities without considering its long-term impacts on people of color. Cancel culture then can prevent people from pointing out that the idea is harmful and offering up an alternative.
Second, oftentimes, people in power become surface anti-racists without actually making meaningful changes. McWhorter argues that corporate diversity workshops are well and good, but what’s more important is making a tangible effort to support underserved communities. Valid: I think we’ve all heard of companies putting out statements of solidarity without actually changing their practices :(
Third, affirmative action isn’t always helpful to people of color. This is McWhorter’s strongest argument, perhaps because he has extensive experience in education. He argues that when Black students with scores far below other applicants gain entry to a college, they often end up being less successful than they would have at a less prestigious university with more support. McWhorter cites his experience at Columbia, which throws its students into dense texts from the get-go: the pace is so intense that if a student doesn’t have much experience with literary analysis, they struggle to catch up. Giving students a poorer education just for a more “diverse community” isn’t beneficial. (And instead of pushing students of color towards a four-year education, communities should also value two-year degrees and trade school.)
I will say that I don’t know how admission committees work and if they actually would select students of color with lower grades and test scores just to fill a diversity quota. So this argument might not be realistic… but McWhorter provided a valuable perspective.
What I Didn’t Love: THE LACK OF SOURCES. McWhorter makes many, many, many claims without evidence! A big one is the idea that the woke left says “the hard sciences need to ‘open up’ to ‘diverse’ perspectives by pulling back from requiring close reasoning” (pg. 44). Uhh… no one said anything about reducing close reasoning. We need diverse perspectives because science doesn’t happen in a vacuum: when it comes to the application of physics, math, computer science, or chemistry, we need to ensure that the end product can be used by a wide variety of people. Science can be accurate and inclusive. It doesn’t have to be an either/or.
I guess that’s my biggest issue with this book: McWhorter paints the world as a black or white, us vs. them scenario. It’s possible for institutions to better diversity within their ranks while simultaneously supporting underserved people of color in their city. It’s entirely possible for “woke progressives” to be furthering diversity in a meaningful, tangible way. We can’t scapegoat an entire group without allowing for some exceptions.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “We need the hard left to point us to new ways of thinking. However, we need them to go back to doing this while seated, with the rest of us, rather than standing up and getting their way by calling us moral perverts if we disagree with them and calling this speaking truth to power” (pg. 275-276).
Up next: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen.