Neoracists Posing as Antiracists and Their Threat to a Progressive America
by john mcwhorter
How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody
by helen pluckrose and james lindsay
pitchstone, 352 pages, $27.95
Death has a way of focusing the mind on the transcendent. It helped set off America’s First Great Awakening. In April 1734, the little community of Pascommuck, three miles outside Northampton, Massachusetts, suffered what Jonathan Edwards recalled as the “very sudden and awful death of a young man in the bloom of his youth.” Not long afterwards, “a young married woman, who had been considerably exercised in mind, about the salvation of her soul,” unexpectedly followed him to the grave. The youth of the parish began developing a new seriousness, further concentrated that autumn by “the death of an elderly person, which was attended with many unusual circumstances, by which many were much moved and affected.” By December, Edwards reports, “the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in, and wonderfully to work amongst us.” Five or six local residents were converted “in a very remarkable manner.” The entire town became consumed by religion and matters eternal. The following summer, all Northampton “seemed to be full of the presence of God.”
On Memorial Day 2020, another “very sudden and awful death”—on a street in Minneapolis—lit the fire of a latter-day awakening by which we are still enthralled. Young and old across the United States were overcome by a spirit of antiracism. They proclaimed that “Black Lives Matter.” They offered testimony of their oppression. They confessed their privilege. They marched, chanted, knelt, and raised fists in unison. They purchased antiracist texts by the hundreds of thousands. They defaced and destroyed images. No institution, no city, no hill or molehill in America lay undisturbed.
Many have commented on the parallels between the Great Awakenings of America’s past and the current “Great Awokening.” Antiracism indeed seems to partake of the religious. It incorporates and expresses dogma, doctrine, prayer, liturgy, confession, the expiation of guilt, blasphemy, even eschatology. Linguist and cultural critic John McWhorter has been the most prominent in drawing out these resemblances at length. As early as 2015, he proclaimed antiracism “our flawed new religion.” Others have followed by labeling antiracism (or social justice ideology more generally) a “religion,” “church,” “faith,” and even “cult.”
Is antiracism a religion? I think so. But calling Antiracism (as it’s a religion, it seems appropriate to capitalize the name) a religion doesn’t get us very far. In fact, it doesn’t get us anywhere at all. Most claims that Antiracism is a religion are built on a series of analogies between Antiracism and some religious expression the author dislikes. The argument amounts to a simple syllogism: (This) religion is bad. Antiracism is like (this) religion. Therefore, Antiracism is bad. McWhorter argues in precisely this way. In a somewhat more sophisticated manner, so does the popular writer James Lindsay. This mode of argument not only leaves much to be desired intellectually, but also ultimately fails to explain Antiracism’s mass appeal or to offer a positive alternative.
Every social order is religious. Every society enacts a vision of human nature, a definition of the general welfare and a framework for achieving it, the highest values to be granted the greatest esteem under the force of law, the legitimation of social and state power, and their liturgical enactment through ceremonies, rituals, and narratives. This is as true of a liberal society under an official regime of secularism as of any other society.
The problem with Antiracism is not that it is a religion or a faith. The problem is that it is a bad faith. It is an insult to reason and contrary to both human nature and social reality. Such a faith is certain to pass away. Unfortunately, its inevitable downfall does not guarantee that Antiracism’s end is near or that it will not destroy many more lives, communities, and institutions before its demise. To hasten that day requires a prescription wholly other than “no religion.” Even if such a result were desirable—and I do not think it is—it is impossible. Man is a political animal whose nature is to live in community. No community is possible without a common framework of values and beliefs supported and enacted through law and the state. Antiracism is a religion and a bad one at that. To answer it requires a better religion—not only better than Antiracism, but better than the liberalism that gave it birth.
A writer known by the pseudonym Spotted Toad coined the phrase “the Great Awokening” in late 2017, and it entered general usage in early 2018. The phenomenon itself, however, dates to around 2014 and the outbreak of social unrest in the wake of that summer’s infamous police killing in Ferguson, Missouri. As discovered by Zach Goldberg, a political science PhD candidate at Georgia State University, around that time white liberals suddenly and dramatically began radicalizing on race. By 2018, their opinions had moved to the left of black Americans on the quality of contemporary American race relations, the causes of contemporary black underachievement, and the legal remedies that should be used to counteract it.
As early as 2015, John McWhorter was describing Antiracism as a religion, noting that its primary social locus was “enlightened white America.” McWhorter returned to this theme repeatedly, and in 2020 placed it at the center of a book-length project that is being published serially on Substack. Its title, The Elect, captures McWhorter’s core sentiment: Antiracism is a type of Calvinism in both form and substance. As with a television show that starts unevenly, the reviewer hopes that the book will improve with time. But if the first twenty-five thousand words are any indication, The Elect is shaping up to be a bad book. I don’t mean to suggest that it lacks all appeal. As part of the swelling backlash against wokeness, the title will surely sell well, thanks in no small part to McWhorter’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric. But as an attempt to understand and respond to Antiracism, it fails.
McWhorter’s basic argument proceeds by analogy. He calls Ta-Nehisi Coates a “preacher” and his writings “sermons.” He labels Ibram Kendi’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center a “divinity school.” Woke reading groups are “Sunday schools.” White praise of woke black writers is “genuflecting.” The Elect themselves are “parishioners,” with a distinct “Church Lady air.” From a woke perspective, privilege is an “original sin” and social media posts are “worship.” Texts such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility aim to hasten “Judgment Day.” Dissenters such as McWhorter are deemed “witches.” The analogies go on and on.
Behind them stands a simple claim. In McWhorter’s eyes, the religious and the woke share a distinctive psychology. Both insist that their adherents suspend disbelief, stop asking “real” questions, cease to reason, and “simply have faith.” Both are in it primarily for emotional satisfaction and look to their leaders for psychological “comfort.” As a result, “empirical sense” and logic are eradicated, replaced by absurdities like “tablets from on high” or “the Rapture.” In short, McWhorter knows that Antiracism is a religion because both are childish, intellectually vacant, emotionally overcharged, prosecutorial movements out to destroy logic, science, art, and liberty.
McWhorter is right to criticize Antiracism. But one can find similar critiques from more sophisticated sources. What makes McWhorter distinct is his hostility to Antiracism on the grounds of its religiosity. McWhorter is not simply condemning religious fundamentalism. He is denouncing religion itself. McWhorter is an atheist, and he attacks Antiracism with the same crudity displayed by New Atheists Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens in their attacks on Christianity. What McWhorter offers his readers falls well short of a genuine argument. He presents a weak, psychologized account of why the Great Awokening broke out, with no investigation into how wokeness operates as a faith, no understanding of its remarkable power over the social class that is supposedly the most secular, technically competent, and analytically rigorous in the country. Ironically, McWhorter’s case operates best as a sermon to stir the secular heart, to draw progressives away from the false gospel of Antiracism and into the true faith of atheistic materialist humanism.
James Lindsay offers an analysis similar to McWhorter’s and one that McWhorter himself endorses. In his book Cynical Theories, coauthored with Helen Pluckrose, and in a separate extended article coauthored with Mike Nayna, Lindsay identifies the broad class of ideas traveling under the label “Social Justice” as a “postmodern religion.” His analysis presents a functionalist account of the Great Awokening, following the theory of religion advanced by Émile Durkheim. In Lindsay’s view, social justice is a set of ideas partaking of the “sacred” that creates and maintains a “moral community” or “moral tribe.” From a functionalist perspective, religions exist because they fulfill universal human psychosocial “needs.” They create order, meaning, and belonging, and they do so through “irrational” means. Lindsay finds religion’s foundation in feeling and emotion rather than in reason. Philosophically speaking, he sees religion as inherently metaphysical, anti-materialist, and anti-skeptical. Because religion is “mythological,” it is in necessary conflict with reason, especially as manifested in science and technology. Thus, religion’s socio-political orientation is “inherently bent toward the totalitarian.”
While Lindsay and his various coauthors offer a more intellectually robust framework than McWhorter, they still leave much to be desired. Functionalist accounts of any phenomenon run into the problem of baking an empirical claim directly into the theoretical cake. Rather than demonstrating that religion performs certain functions necessary to the production and reproduction of social order, a functionalist account simply assumes that to be the case. This leads to the well-known tendency of functionalist arguments to degenerate into flatly anti-empirical “just so” stories immune to falsification. To “explain” religion as a human response to anxiety is little different from “explaining” opposable thumbs as an evolutionary strategy or “explaining” the camel’s hump as an evil djinn’s way of forcing a lazy animal to work longer between meals.
Rooted in their common atheism (though Lindsay would probably prefer “post-theism”), Lindsay and McWhorter exhibit many of the same biases and shortcomings. Both traffic in the cutting anti-religious analogy. Both dislike anything that departs from empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism. Both embrace an atheist macho aesthetic, of which Christopher Hitchens was the exemplar. Most importantly, both offer the same tired prescription, born of a common failure to understand the Great Awokening in the first place.
Lindsay names this alternative to Antiracism “liberalism.” By this term, he seems to mean the cultural and political commitments of the American professional-managerial class in the late 2010s, sometime after Obergefell but before George Floyd. This liberalism includes the hallmarks of liberal political philosophy, such as individual liberty, legal equality, secularism, the public-private divide, invisible-hand solutions (such as the “marketplace of ideas”) to social problems, toleration, and faith in progress. It incorporates character traits of moderation, prudence, and skepticism. It embraces the fruits of all the postwar civil rights movements, up to and including transgenderism.
But this is not all. Lindsay claims something deeper is at work. Beneath liberal culture and politics supposedly lies liberal epistemology, a theory of knowledge that draws on the philosophical traditions of rationalism, empiricism, skepticism, and pragmatism. In Lindsay’s hands, liberal epistemology often comes off as an idealized version of the scientific method; we could just as well call it “positivism.” Theistic religion is a “pre-modern” epistemology, whereas a woke faith like Antiracism is a “postmodern” epistemology. Both are anti-liberal because they claim to describe empirically unverified and unfalsifiable phenomena—whether gods, spirits, powers, authorities, theories, structures, experiences, or narratives. Liberalism, by contrast, has no faith. It rejects metaphysics and (in Lindsay’s words) all similar “pseudo-profundity” and “high-minded bullshit.” It accepts as truth only that which has been revealed by empirical science and universal reason, and even that only provisionally, balanced always by a moderate and healthy skepticism.
A philosophical critique of positivism is well beyond the scope of this review (Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Kuhn, and Edward Feser each make for excellent starts on the matter). Fortunately, it is also unnecessary. It will be sufficient merely to show that liberalism is neither an anti-faith nor an indifferent welcomer of all faiths. It is itself a faith. We know this not only from the works of liberal philosophers, but more importantly from actually existing liberalism, the everyday beliefs and practices of liberal societies. Liberalism has an anthropology, a vision of the human person as bearing the capacity and the obligation to become a radically autonomous individual beholden to no moral authority save that which he has chosen through a fully rational and constantly reenacted choice. Liberalism has a mythos, with the State of Nature, the Social Contract, the Original Position, the Dark Ages, the Wars of Religion, the Triumph of Reason, and Progress making up its narrative. Liberalism has an ethos: a humanitarian impulse toward the eradication of physical and psychological suffering. Liberalism has a politics: a limitless expansion of legally codified rights defined and defended by a representative state dedicated to actualizing the liberal anthropology and supporting decentralized, invisible-hand systems for the conquest of nature and the production of plenty.
Actually existing liberalism gave up long ago on justifying itself as that social order revealed by reason. Consider the everyday hostility in liberal societies to anything deemed to be true. Every objective truth constitutes an external restriction on freedom. It prevents the liberal from exercising, in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Anything deemed true in a narrowly empiricist sense is merely the next candidate for human manipulation through technique. John Rawls, liberalism’s preeminent philosopher of the last century, settled on the view that liberalism is not indicated by reason, not based on any particular epistemological premise, and not associated with anything we might call the truth. It is simply a political system suitable to people who want to see themselves as free and equal and have a desire to cooperate with each other. Richard Rorty was more honest than most in confessing his attachment to liberalism as, at its core, “a matter of faith.”
When we understand liberalism as a faith, we begin to see our current predicament more clearly. The failures of liberalism are due not simply to the Antiracist refusal to submit to facts, but to the larger failure of positivism and liberty to resonate culturally. That the most liberal sectors of American society—law, education, psychology—have not only fallen completely under Antiracism’s sway but were themselves the origins of the Great Awokening strongly challenges the claim that somehow Antiracism and liberalism are opposites. It suggests instead a deeper and troubling affinity.
Progressive liberals like McWhorter and Lindsay are not the only ones who fail to see the common threads connecting liberalism and Antiracism. Many conservative liberals want to see Antiracism as a kind of Marxism. With their invocations of “racial capitalism” and a performance of radicalism, some Antiracists likewise want to be seen as Marxists. The more substantive basis of the claim, however, is an ideological resemblance. Both Antiracism and Marxism define society as a composition of conflicting and inextricably linked groups—“classes” for Marxists, “races” for Antiracists—created through relations of domination and subjugation. Both promise to eliminate this conflict by eliminating the social relations that created the groups and thus the groups themselves (with the rival options of eliminating the categories versus eliminating the members of the oppressor group getting worked out historically).
Such “tribalism” or “identity politics” is supposedly a characteristic of illiberalism; whereas Marxists know classes and Antiracists know races, liberals know only individuals. But Marxists are hardly the only purveyors of this vision of society and politics, nor are they its inventors. In the English-speaking world, accounts of social warfare between distinct, rival, and implacable groups goes back centuries before the Communist Manifesto to the decade prior to the English Civil War. Michel Foucault writes of a “race war” discourse, first disseminated by middle-class English Puritans and culminating in the great proto-liberal victory of republican government and the beheading of a king. Liberals justified their nineteenth- and twentieth-century empires by the distinction between the civilized and the barbarous, an argument advanced by the liberal hero John Stuart Mill. In multicultural liberal societies like the United States, democracy has always had a “tribal” character, with different ethnicities organizing under different partisan banners. In fact, just since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, actually existing American liberalism has been replete with all manner of legally inscribed differences between groups: men and women, Protestants and Catholics, Christians and non-Christians, old and young, married and unmarried, heterosexuals and homosexuals, citizens and noncitizens.
Antiracism is not a Marxist faith; it is a therapeutic one. And American liberalism has demonstrated its complete compatibility with the therapeutic for two generations. Antiracism’s power comes through corporations, professional associations, universities, and schools rather than street protests. Its popular texts are self-help books, not instruction manuals for revolution. Twitter and Shell Oil fund its anti-capitalist affect. It defines domination in the first instance as a psychological process of denigration. Its accounts of contemporary racism emphasize personal psychological wounds both received and given. It promises to save victims from suffering, in particular from the psychological suffering caused by “hate.” It traffics in therapeutic categories: identity, harm, racial trauma, white fragility, microaggression, lived experience, authenticity, self-care, self-love. Its vision of liberation begins (and often ends) in an emotional or spiritual awakening to suffering. Its core tenets—Diversity, Equity, Inclusion—are oriented to the goals of self-esteem, recognition, wellness, and organizational harmony.
None of this should be surprising. How else could the Great Awokening conquer the country’s mostly white leadership class in government, business, and the professions so quickly and so completely? American managers and administrators have been dedicated to the more moderate and less thoroughly racialized ideology of diversity for as long as they have embraced the therapeutic, and it is useful to understand how the two categories complement each other. Diversity tells the manager that difference is an inescapable problem. Lines of race and ethnicity (as well as sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity) make peaceful and productive cooperation difficult even without the compounding effects of bigotry, prejudice, and “hate.” The therapeutic tells the manager that organizational success is a function of “human relations.” The employee’s “whole self” is required at work, and thus employee emotion and personality require constant management and rationalization. Diversity and the therapeutic meet in the antiracism training session, the inclusive employee assistance program, the employee resource group, the empathetic executive. Their ends are both organizational harmony as well as individual transformation and empowerment.
Of course, the great question is whether Antiracism actually promotes organizational harmony and individual empowerment, or instead destroys the organizations and individuals that adopt it. Much evidence already exists for the latter, from Evergreen State College to poor youth mental health to declining national race relations to the country’s post-Ferguson and post-Minneapolis murder spikes. It is frightening to think that, because so many American institutions have already fallen to Antiracism, the entire society will suffer alongside them. We can be confident that one day Antiracism will expire. A faith so puritanical, intemperate, and inhuman cannot survive indefinitely. But woe to those cursed to live during its reign.
What comes after Antiracism? The great risk is a restoration of therapeutic liberalism and thus the repetition of the very processes that brought us here in the first place. Woke capital with its coterie of therapeutic managers, woke government with its undersecretaries of diversity, woke professionals building their legitimacy upon the cultivation of self-realization, are all bigger than Antiracism, and their efforts to eradicate social conflict through psychological control will live on long after Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo have been forgotten. American liberalism has proven for more than half a century its congruity with the therapeutic. The correct response to Antiracism is thus not “secularism” but right faith, not “liberty” but virtue. In resisting Antiracism, we must not fall back upon our liberal state-sponsored worship of the Self. We must insist instead upon public acknowledgment of the Truth.
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College.