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In a recent piece in The Atlantic by the acclaimed African American linguist John McWhorter, “The Virtue Signalers Won’t Change the World,” we are offered a nuanced and refreshing perspective on racial inequality in the modern age.
McWhorter has teetered in and out of the discussion on racial politics over the past few years. After the release of his famous book Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, a powerful take on the misconceptions of black America that charted out a new path toward racial equality without the separatism and victimology, he has been caught in the cross fire of identity politics and found himself in the heat of the battle.
It is obvious upon reading him that McWhorter is in it to help struggling black Americans, and that has lent itself to profound frustration toward the current intellectual trends surrounding the polarizing discussion on race.
Instead of focusing on the ever-present scourge of white racism, he wants us to focus on black uplift and inner city development, which in itself has come to be regarded as a controversial, insensitive, and even a racist position.
He has said recently that it’s high time to leave the conversation because of the prevailing trajectory, noting that if Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir Between the World and Me is being given to freshmen in college as mandatory reading then it’s time to step away for awhile. “If that’s how it is going to be, then I am out.”
I share his frustration.
Anti-racism has become a new religion, one of a few in modern culture. Trumpism is a cult-like religion, where the supreme leader is viewed by his followers as flawless and incapable of error. Social justice has become a religion on college campuses, where historically marginalized groups are brought to a safe space and dissident views are shut down and banished from the temple. To add to the ever-growing list, McWhorter unveils the parallel between anti-racism and religious doctrine:
“Third-wave antiracism is a profoundly religious movement in everything but terminology. The idea that whites are permanently stained by their white privilege, gaining moral absolution only by eternally attesting to it, is the third wave’s version of original sin. The idea of a someday when America will ‘come to terms with race’ is as vaguely specified a guidepost as Judgment Day. Explorations as to whether an opinion is ‘problematic’ are equivalent to explorations of that which may be blasphemous. The social mauling of the person with ‘problematic’ thoughts parallels the excommunication of the heretic. What is called ‘virtue signaling,’ then, channels the impulse that might lead a Christian to an aggressive display of her faith in Jesus. There is even a certain Church Lady air to much of the patrolling on race these days, an almost performative joy in dog-piling on the transgressor, which under a religious analysis is perfectly predictable.
The new religion, as a matter of faith, entails that one suspends disbelief at certain points out of respect to the larger narrative. Beyond a certain point, one must not press too hard when asking a priest why God allows bad things to happen to good people. In the same way, one must not ask, ‘If black people are strong survivors, then why do they disallow the utterance of the N-word even in referring to it rather than using it?’ And if one does dare to ask, the answer is inevitably heavier on rhetoric than reasoning. Antiracism requires one to treat the word as taboo—blasphemous—in all its manifestations and go in peace, as it were.”
To be clear, anti-racism is a good thing. Racism is bad, as we’ve all been taught since grade school and understand all too well, and therefore anything that goes against racism must be good, right?
Well, not quite. The problem is much more subtle. We have come to a place where the disparities between whites and blacks in terms of housing, income, and incarceration among other things remains intact, while the chattering classes continue to assign every worldly problem to the ever-present scourge of white racism.
The question we should all be asking is this: will extracting all of the implicit racism out of our society, if that were even possible, going to change what is happening in the inner city? The fact of the matter is, it has not.
Having more black people in universities and corporations is a laudable goal, insofar as diversity is a necessary element of our society, but unfortunately that does not always trickle down to black folks on the ground.
Affirmative action may very well be a good thing, but it is not obvious what steps such a policy would take toward crime prevention, academic parity, or income equality. It is time that we, whites and blacks and everybody in between alike, ask ourselves some tough questions about race in America:
Are we moving toward a balkanized hotbed of political tribalism along racial lines or a thriving multicultural society? And if we are indeed moving toward the latter, which I truly hope we are, then what kind of game do we need to play to get there more expediently?
As I wrote in another article, calling certain policies “racist” only makes them more appealing to Trump voters. We are seeing that more Americans sitting on each side of the political aisle find that talking to the other side is “stressful,” according to a recent Pew poll.
A substantial minority of both republicans and democrats say the country would be better off if large portions of the opposing political party would die off. We are descending into tribalism, and everyone seems content to just let it happen if it makes us feel good in the moment (which tribalism always does). We have two major political identities in this country, intensifying by the day in a competition for power, and I think very few of us have thought about what that crescendo is going to like when shit hits the fan.
In short, we need to step outside of our bubble and stop feeding into political polarization for no other reason than it feels comforting. We need to stop treating our political identity like a sacred religious ceremony. We need to recognize that fundamentally we are more similar than different, embracing the ethos of true religion where our fellow human beings are recognized as brothers and sisters in arms.
Idealistic, yes. Foolish, perhaps. Necessary, I believe so. And anyways, being that we live in an age colored by new religions, maybe we should consider taking a leap of faith and take opposing viewpoints into consideration.
“Social concern and activism must not cease, but proceed minus the religious aspect they have taken on. One can be fervently dedicated to improving the lot of black Americans without a purse-lipped, prosecutorial culture dedicated more to virtue signaling than to changing other people’s lives.
But the black person essentially barred from the polls gains nothing from someone sagely attesting to their white privilege on Twitter and decrying that ‘no one wants to talk about race in this country’ when America is nothing less than obsessed with race week in and week out. One may consider President Trump a repulsive, bigoted excrescence without morally equating anyone who didn’t prioritize his racism enough to deny him their vote in 2016 with those who cheered a lynching 100 years before.
All of the above hinges on feigning claims of injury, on magnifying indignation in a trip-wire fashion, and on fostering a Manichaean, us-versus-the-pigs perspective on humanity out of Lord of the Flies. Racial uplift in modern America does require dealing with matters more abstract than what a Douglass or a King faced. This is a challenge. Progressives shirk that challenge, however, in fashioning a new kind of activism based on performance and display. They should not do less; they should do better.” ~ John McWhorter