• With the rise of Third Wave Antiracism we are witnessing the birth of a new religion, just as Romans witnessed the birth of Christianity. The way to get past seeing the Elect as merely “crazy” is to understand that they are a religion. To see them this way is not to wallow in derision, but to genuinely grasp what they are.
  • –John McWhorter, Woke Racism, p. 231
Conservatives and old-fashioned liberals find themselves increasingly confounded by the movement that calls itself antiracist. In particular, antiracists insist that racism explains every adversity in the outcomes of African-Americans. They brand as racist anyone who suggests that other factors, including material disadvantages or cultural habits, could play a role.

John McWhorter has concluded that it is futile to argue with these antiracists. To the question, “Are you a racist?” they will accept neither no nor yes for an answer:

  • To apologize shows your racism; to refuse the apology, too, shows your racism. To not be interested in black culture shows your racism; to get into black culture and decide that you, too, want to rap or wear dreadlocks also shows racism. p. 10

McWhorter sees the anti-racists as promulgating a new religion, in which they are the Elect and others are the heathens. He terms it a religion because it includes many beliefs that are illogical and even contradictory, but to which one must nonetheless commit if one is to join the Elect:

  • Key to being Elect is a sense that there is always a flock of unconverted heathen. Many of the heathen are, for example, the whites “out there,” as it is often put about the white people who were so widely feared as possibly keeping Barack Obama from being elected (twice). p. 34

McWhorter does make one attempt to describe a central belief implicit in this religion:

  • Battling power relations and their discriminatory effects must be the central focus of all human endeavor, be it intellectual, moral, civic, or artistic. Those who resist this focus, or even evidence insufficient adherence to it, must be sharply condemned, deprived of influence, and ostracized. p. 11

Anyone would concede that power relations exist and are important. But to strip away all other elements of human culture in order to focus solely on power is unrealistic and unwise, as McWhorter points out.

McWhorter suggests that the irrational belief that racism is the essential and ever-present feature of our society gains traction from the fear that it instills in most of the rest of us:

  • Now most cringe hopelessly at the prospect of being outed as a bigot, and thus: In being ever ready to call you a racist in the public square, the Third Wave Antiracist outguns you on the basis of this one weapon alone. Even if their overall philosophy is hardly the scriptural perfection they insist it is, that one thing they can and will do in its defense leaves us quivering wrecks. And thus they win. p. 14

If antiracism is indeed a religion, then perhaps it is not surprising that between the time Woke Racism was written and the time it was published, antiracist curricula became a heated issue in the context of public schools. Although they would not put it in these terms, the parents going to school board meetings to protest “Critical Race Theory” are trying to maintain the separation of church and state.

“Antiracists have not consciously set out to create a religion. As McWhorter concedes, they would object to their movement being characterized as such.”

Antiracists have not consciously set out to create a religion. As McWhorter concedes, they would object to their movement being characterized as such. How, then, should it be characterized? For example, is antiracism just another reform cause of the sort we have seen often in American history? Examples include anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, temperance, civil rights, and opposition to the Vietnam War.

I would argue that those other movements articulated particular goals, with organizations and activities that were devised to try to achieve those goals. With antiracism, the goals are vague—and the movement has hardly any organizational structure, with no official hierarchy. The main activity seems to be spotlighting the heathen and forcing their submission and/or punishing them.

Because they had goals and organizations, earlier reform movements thought in terms of persuading others. The Elect have such a strong conviction in their righteousness that they see no need to persuade. Instead, they come across as seeking to indoctrinate or intimidate those who would disagree with them.

McWhorter says that it is pointless to argue with this viewpoint:

  • The Elect must be othered. We must stop treating them as normal. Already, the term “woke” is used in derision, but using that term with a snicker is about as oppositional as many dare to be against this mob. It isn’t enough. How do we step up with such a destructive current of cognitive interference in our way, wielded by people of power, and chilling us with the threat of social excommunication? p. 152

Earlier reform movements offered adherents the hope for a better tomorrow. So, too, did religions, if only in the afterlife. Antiracism lacks such a positive vision:

  • To these people, actual progress on race is not something to celebrate but to talk around. This is because, with progress, the Elect lose their sense of purpose. Note: What they are after is not money or power, but sheer purpose, in the basic sense of feeling like you matter and that your life has a meaningful agenda. p. 40
For more on these topics, see the EconTalk podcast episodes Glenn Loury on Race, Inequality, and America and Jason Riley on Race in America. See also “Black Power Gained, Black Agency Sacrificed,” by Arnold Kling, Library of Economics and Liberty, May 3, 2021.

Woke Racism is a book with many insights. But I came away from it thinking that McWhorter’s account is incomplete. For one thing, he does not cover the gender-identity movement, which shares with antiracism the same irrationality, moral righteousness, and eagerness to identify and punish heretics.

I find the focus on heresy to be the most distinctive feature of contemporary social justice movements. Almost every political movement has its scapegoats, and almost every religion offers adherents a sense of possessing superior moral insight. But fending off heresy is only one element of religious and political movements that we have seen until recently. What is distinctive about contemporary social justice movements is that the identification and punishment of heretics is so central that it has become almost the sole activity to be undertaken. It has become the “sheer purpose” or the “meaningful agenda” for many people. I find that quite confounding.

*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

Read more of what Arnold Kling’s been reading. For more book reviews and articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.

As an Amazon Associate, Econlib earns from qualifying purchases.