It’s become commonplace to argue that wokeness has all the trappings, if not the makings, of a new religion.
The argument is persuasive. In its language and practices, wokeness imitates some of the common aspects of religions. It has myths (that America’s true founding was in 1619) and beliefs (that systemic racism permeates every aspect of America’s institutions) that believers take on faith. It has clerics — Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Ta-Nehisi Coates — who speak ex cathedra. And it promises transcendence: In taking up arms against white supremacy and its effects, the righteous may participate in the defining struggle of our time.
Thus argues John McWhorter — a professor of linguistics at Columbia, and himself a black man — in his new book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. The zeal of the “Elect,” as McWhorter calls the adherents of this new creed, has made wokeness one of the most powerful forms of religious observance in America today. In a matter of years, a fringe ideology formerly limited to academia has swept through corporations, churches, schools, and federal and state governments. Addressing himself to readers half-convinced of this ideology’s truth, McWhorter argues that wokeness is harmful to the very people it purports to help.
The appeal of wokeness remains puzzling to the outsider. Certainly, the collapse of mainline Protestantism has left many people searching for a moral purpose. But what attracts them to such a ruthless “religion,” which encourages its followers to flagellate themselves and persecute others over an ever-expanding list of racial wrongs?
Strangely, McWhorter says, wokeness seems to soothe people’s consciences. This is due partly to its emphasis on the truth of one’s personal experience. Adopting a thesis from American philosopher Richard Rorty, McWhorter argues the triumph of the 1960s counterculture transformed the Left from a “reformist” enterprise into a “cultural” one. Whereas the Old Left saw the American system as partially flawed and in need of reform, the New Left wanted to abandon the American project entirely in favor of new cultural norms. The transformation destroyed trust in the American system and placed “self-expression” at the center of the Left’s politics. In the same way, McWhorter argues, wokeness testifies that personal experiences of racism are proof that the system is beyond reform. Sixty years after the civil rights movement, racism, according to the woke, is the defining experience of American life.
More alarming than the content of woke beliefs, however, is how quickly they have been adopted by millions of Americans. Many have done so insincerely, out of fear or a desire to get along. One core tenet of wokeness is that a rejection of wokeness is itself evidence of racism. As McWhorter writes, “The implication is that if you don’t think racism [is] the culprit, then you are a racist.” The cost of paying lip service to a seemingly well-intentioned ideology is low, while the costs of criticizing it can be high: People have lost their jobs and reputations over spurious accusations of racism. On a more personal level, wokeness flatters the moral vanity of those who profess it. It gives liberals a good, paternal feeling of having cared for marginalized “people of color” without requiring them to do anything other than mouth the correct platitudes.
The problem, McWhorter argues, is that wokeness is actively hurting black Americans. In an effort to reduce racial disparities, for instance, schools have become hesitant to suspend and expel black boys for violent and disruptive behavior, creating a chaotic learning environment that leaves them and their peers undereducated. In colleges, the movement away from merit-based admissions has taught black students that, in a reversal of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous formula, the color of their skin matters more than the content of their character. Worst of all, according to McWhorter, is that “antiracism” flattens the complexity and beauty of black life into a tawdry tale of victimization at the hands of a “white supremacist” society. In this worldview, black people are defined by “what someone does to you, rather than what you like to do.”
McWhorter outlines three preliminary solutions to the racial achievement gap instead of the “quietly racist alternative” of wokeness: Legalize drugs, teach phonics to schoolchildren, and “get past the idea that everybody must go to college.” On the first, McWhorter is overly optimistic about the legitimate employment opportunities that legalization would afford impoverished young black men, and he ignores the policy’s likely harms, including increased drug abuse and addiction. On the second, he is probably right. Phonics instruction is effective in improving reading for black children raised in bookless homes, and mandating it could help to close racial achievement gaps. McWhorter’s third recommendation is correct but politically unlikely given that Democrats have long emphasized that college is the best path out of poverty and legislated to that effect.
But these solutions don’t touch on the reality of wokeness as a religion. McWhorter, an atheist, uses “religion” pejoratively, but his understanding of religion is shallow and his arguments about it are underdeveloped. To him, all religions are nonsensical, each having its own “catechism of contradictions.” He cautions readers to avoid debating with the woke, to ignore their “victimhood claims on race,” and to refuse to be silenced — just as one would ignore the religious claims of a faith one doesn’t believe in. McWhorter thinks he has disarmed wokeness then by relegating its claims to the purely religious sphere.
But by equating this new creed with a religion, McWhorter grants too much respect to wokeness and too little to genuine faiths. Real religions address the deep needs of every soul, regardless of class or racial background. Wokeness is a pseudo-religion for the elite. It lives off a borrowed Christian inheritance and presents some Christian ideas in garbled form. But it is no more a religion than communism. And its influence is not a matter of personal conviction but a direct result of its long-standing entrenchment in government.
In 2020, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, explaining why he was tolerating civil unrest in the face of draconian coronavirus restrictions, explained that someone protesting “400 years of American racism” was “not the same … as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.” Those opposed to wokeness should take him at his word.
Josh Christenson is an assistant editor at the Washington Free Beacon.