What happened to John McWhorter?

I’ve never paid much attention to McWhorter, and only gave him a bit of side-eye when I noticed that he’s one of the people who signed on to that University of Austin nonsense. But he’s a black professor at Columbia University! No way he could fall for that right-wing BS, right?

Wrong. He’s got a book out, titled Woke Racism, and it’s apparently as bad as it sounds. He’s a card-carrying member of the anti-woke brigade, and he’s written a whole book about his resentment that some people are actually conscious of the systemic racism in our country. Elie Mystal reviews it.

McWhorter’s central thesis is that being woke — by which he seems to mean acknowledging the ongoing fact of bigotry, systemic racism and the resulting forms of oppression — is a religion. Not “like” a religion — McWhorter refuses to hedge this contention with simile. No, McWhorter argues that people who advocate for anti-racism policies, racial sensitivity training and (of course) “critical race theory” are all part of a religious movement with its own clergy. (Ibram X. Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates have all been ordained, apparently.) He argues that this religion’s “Elect” has taken over the country and “rule[s] by inflicting terror” on those who dare to speak against it. Along the way, he warns that it is “coming after your kids” with a breathlessness that makes him sound less like a thoughtful academic and more like a conspiracy theorist looking for hidden critical race messages in the menus at Chuck E. Cheese.

McWhorter never engages with any of the actual cultish movements that are threatening American democracy. He likewise never engages with actual religions, the ones who get tax breaks and Supreme Court justices, who hold the power to take away human rights from pregnant people and civil rights from the LGBTQ community. McWhorter managed in the course of about 200 pages to claim that the woke are perpetrating a “reign of terror” — a phrase he uses twice — but devoted only three paragraphs (I counted) to the actual insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol and tried to overthrow the government.

When he finally gets to those attacks, McWhorter brushes them away, writing, “As scary as those protesters were, which institutions are they taking over with their views?” He quickly answers his own question with “none.” It’s easy to respond with a list of institutions that have either been fully taken over by anti-Democratic Trumpist ideology, from local school boards to the electoral machinery of Wisconsin to the Republican Party itself, or institutions that are so riddled with white supremacists that they can no longer be trusted (like various local police departments). But note the word choice from the linguistics professor. The people who attacked the Capitol were “protesters” with “views.”

McWhorter downplays White domestic terror threats in favor of regular criticism of Coates (the imagined Salieri to his Mozart, it sometimes seems) and other anti-racist thinkers, but he believes that speaking against this so-called clergy will earn people like him the ad hominem label of “race traitor” by critics. He warns readers that some will say he’s “not black enough” to write his book.

It is peculiar that someone would be concerned about radicals taking over institutions to start a reign of terror, but neglects an actual recent instance of just that happening…except to make excuses for them.

I don’t think he’s a race traitor, and would never use that term. I just think he’s a dumbass.


  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    Another Uncle Ruckus who, after lucking-out and obtaining a small amount of success in this white supremacist society, thinks he needs to lecture other African Americans on how to think and behave. I’m sure he’s expecting head pats from Master for parroting right-wing bullshit.

    With Black people like McWhoter, who needs the KKK?

  2. Eric O says

    This kind of saddened me. I had started listening to a lecture series by McWhorter about the English language a few weeks ago and found it to be very entertaining and informative. About halfway through, I was thinking, “I kind of like this guy – what else has he written?” then made the mistake of looking him up.

    Still managed to get through the rest of the series and enjoy it, but I don’t think I’ll looking for more stuff by him.

  3. christoph says

    Fun historical fact: Mozart and Salieri weren’t actually enemies, or even rivals. They just put that in to add some conflict to the movie.

  4. Waydude says

    I’d like to believe he’s just a dumbass, but the often justified cynic in me thinks he just saw an opportunity to write a book to make some money. “Hey what will inflame the libtards and trigger the right to buy a book? Wokism? Critical Racism? Woke Racism? Nailed it”

  5. says

    Eric O (#2) –

    There are plenty who come across as “educated” in one area, then reveal themselves to be total trash in another. Mathematician Simon Singh (appeared on Numberphile several times) is a defender of JerK Rowling, and aligns with TERFs and other anti-Trans bigots.

  6. robertmatthews says

    He’s been a bootstrap reactionary for decades now, the kind who blames people for whatever befalls them, as if poverty and racism are problems that individuals have to deal with and are unrelated to society. I enjoyed a couple of his linguistics books in the past, before I knew about his other persona.

  7. tacitus says

    This is so dumb. The Trump wing of the Republican Party are in the process of taking over a significant portion of electoral system in several swing states in preparation for successfully stealing the next election for Trump in 2024, and yet it’s “woke lefties” who are the threat?

  8. tacitus says

    Wow he sure has changed since he was on Record Breakers with Roy Castle.

    Those are the guys (twins) my mind goes to whenever I see that name, though theirs was McWhirter. But looking at Norris’s bio on Wikipedia, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’d both approve of the book if they were still alive. Looks like they were both hard right Conservatives, and founded a pressure group called the National Association for Freedom (NAFF!) which pushed for what would soon be called Thatcherism. Thee successor organization even tried to jump on the Tea Party bandwagon.

  9. bcw bcw says

    Unfortunately, the NY Times has him as an occasional columnist.
    He wrote this piece of crap a while ago
    It’s built around
    “The San Diego State University physics department is seeking a physicist. The job description asks candidates to show how they “satisfy” at least three of the following criteria: “(a) are committed to engaging in service with underrepresented populations within the discipline, (b) have demonstrated knowledge of barriers for underrepresented students and faculty within the discipline, (c) have experience or have demonstrated commitment to teaching and mentoring underrepresented students, (d) have experience or have demonstrated commitment to integrating understanding of underrepresented populations and communities into research, (e) have experience in or have demonstrated commitment to extending knowledge of opportunities and challenges in achieving artistic/scholarly success to members of an underrepresented group, (f) have experience in or have demonstrated commitment to research that engages underrepresented communities, (g) have expertise or demonstrated commitment to developing expertise in cross-cultural communication and collaboration, and/or (h) have research interests that contribute to diversity and equal opportunity in higher education.”

    He goes on an on about how terrible diversity requirements are and how affirmative act makes all the minority students no good. (He says they hold these slots for minorities so they are all less qualified.) By the way, it has just been revealed that Harvard holds 43% of it’s admission slots for legacy and sports candidates – no hand on the scales there.
    The rest of the column is all about wokeness, blah, blah, blah.

    At least I don’t pay the NY Times any more. I’ve been on “vacation hold” for four years which leaves me online access…

  10. rrhain says

    To avoid his nonsense and go to the phrase, “woke racism,” I would say there is such a thing: Those well-meaning White people who, upon having the eye-opening experience of just how much racism there still is in the world and how pervasive it is, end up going overboard in their attempts to be anti-racist and wind up being performative in their actions. A shining example of this could be seen on the current season of Project Runway.

    There was a White designer who was very aware of the racism in the world in general and the fashion industry in particular and was very vocal about her awareness of it, to the point of telling other designers of color about racism. And then there was the moment it all came to a head: There was a challenge to create a design that was personal to you and one of the designers, who was Black if I am recalling correctly, was a little bit concerned with putting her design on a White model. The solution was that she asked one of the other designers if she could switch models with them, and they said yes.

    But then another designer, of Asian descent, also was concerned about having his design on a White model and having just seen a model switch, decided to ask if he could switch models…with this performative-woke designer who had the only other Asian model (if I am recalling correctly about the number of Asian models that were being used).

    She was a bit concerned because she had already done a fair amount of work for her design for this model and to switch models would mean having to do a lot of rework. It was still somewhat early in the challenge, but every second usually counts. She decided to do it.

    But not without making it very clear to the other designer and everybody else in hearing distance that she was going to be set back by doing this but she knew how important it was for an Asian designer doing something that is connected to his Asian heritage to be able to present it on an Asian model. It suddenly became all about her and the sacrifice she was making in order to help this victim of racism be able to see his race vision race with race model race race racism race.

    It was truly painful to watch. And needless to say, the other designers, many if not most this season not White, were not really happy with the display. They tried to tell her that she can say no. She’s done so much work. If it would be too much of a setback, then just say no. Everybody understands. Different models, different proportions, you only had so much budget to by fabric and you bought what you did based on the assumption that you would have enough to build a garment based upon the measurements of the model you were assigned and if you’ve already started cutting and piecing together, you may not be able to just take it apart and resew it back together as if it were a minor alteration.

    But if you’re going to say yes, then say yes and then SHUT UP. They have confessionals where you can talk about how you saw what had happened before with the other designer wanting to put her design on a Black model and how you wanted to continue that sentiment and let this other designer put his work on an Asian model, but there’s no need to make it a performance for everybody in the work room and lording it over the other designer about how woke and accommodating you are.

    It’s a bit like the “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” And it’s also why nobody gets to say they aren’t racist. Quite often, you don’t realize the full effect of what it is that you’re doing and the implications for what it means. Yes, White people need to step up, pay attention to their actions, and actively work to do better in their dealings with other people, but that doesn’t mean we’ve “won.” It isn’t something that you can tell you’ve done right or even well for yourself because you cannot see all the effects of your actions in the moment.

    The confrontation in the work room was so bad that she ended up quitting the competition, which was probably a good thing all around.

  11. Walter Solomon says

    I thought he’d been conservative for years or, at best, a so-called concern trolls liberals and progressives.

  12. Walter Solomon says

    That should’ve been “concern troll of liberals and progressives.”

    I don’t know how well his book is selling but hopefully it will flop like Chris Christie’s has.

  13. Eric O says

    Intransitive (@8)

    I had no idea about Simon Singh’s views either. I read The Code Book over a decade ago back when I was a bit of a nerd about cryptography. It was very well-written, easy to understand despite some of the complex concepts, and I recommended it to a few people. It’s upsetting to hear that he went the way of a lot of famous British scholars and got all TERFy.

    It’s difficult to see cases of people who’ve done some pretty respectable work turning out to be not-so-great on basic social issues. I want to like them because I liked what they did, though at the same time, it’s hard to enjoy something when you know it was produced by a bigot.

  14. azpaul3 says

    I don’t think he’s a race traitor, and would never use that term.

    Of course not. He is, after all, a human being expressing his ideas. A fellow academic expressing a point of view.

    I just think he’s a dumbass.

    Right again. You’re on the side of the angels indeed.

  15. John Allen says

    He’ll be right at home in the intellectual dark web, fetishizing reactionary heterodoxy alongside the rest of them. The dump-trucks full of cash will be purely coincidental.

  16. PaulBC says

    bcw bcw@14 Yeah, I noticed that column and had the same reaction, though it’s not his only “anti-woke” column in NYT.

    It makes total sense to look for commitment to diversity when hiring faculty, because faculty are on the frontlines of encouraging or discouraging students to continue in a field. It doesn’t matter if they are STEM, social sciences, or anything else. In fact, a physicist is in an especially influential position because of the underrepresentation of women and American-born minorities. It’s a given that all other things equal, a department will want a professor who can help them meet a diversity goal, assuming they have one.

    I would add that “all other things equal” is not a crazy stipulation. There are many talented PhDs being minted in many fields, far more than there are faculty openings. So please don’t try to convince me that a narrow focus on publications (for example) is the right criteria. In fact, that’s the “fiction”, a fiction of meritocracy, which it seems like McWhorter has swallowed hook, line, and sinker.

    I’m not happy about making this critique. McWhorter is a smart, funny guy who has made insightful observations about language over the years. I’d like to think of him that way, but it’s increasingly difficult when his writing sounds like every piece of “politically incorrect” backlash I’ve read in the past 30 years.

  17. wcaryk says

    I do have all his books an linguistics, as well as his Great Lectures CDs. All very worthwhile.

    In any event, I promise you that you will like what he — and most particularly Ron Perlman — have to say about Trump’s speaking style. Do hang on till Ron Perlman chimes in. Hilarious.

  18. dstatton says

    How does one “terrorize” a tenured professor at Columbia? Calling him a jerk? It is indeed strange that a professor of linguistics would misuse the phrase “reign of terror.” It’s obvious that he has jumped on the wingnut welfare train.