When John McWhorter, professor of Linguistics and American Studies at Columbia, described antiracism as America’s ‘new flawed religion’ in 2015, few could have imagined just how prescient that description would prove to be. Just this week, the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi thanked George Floyd for “sacrificing his life for justice” while CEOs, celebrities, and other politicians all made versions of the same promise: the work was not done.
McWhorter, author of the upcoming book ‘Nine Nasty Words’ does not count himself as a follower of this new religion. does not count himself as a follower of this new religion. In fact, the professor has become one of its fiercest critics, tirelessly deconstructing the latest example of ‘woke craziness’ to illustrate its incoherence. With that in mind, we thought it was essential to get John’s opinion on the Derek Chauvin verdict and his thoughts on race relations in America more generally. We really enjoyed speaking to John and thank him for his time.
On the Derek Chauvin conviction: 'There is a sense in America that what this verdict was about was black people being killed by the cops. I see it as a victory about people being killed by the cops. And if it has to be a black case that galvanises change under that misconception, well, life isn’t perfect. But I am very happy about what happened to that man. And I’m very sad about what happened to George Floyd. But I’m equally sad about what happened to Tony Timpa, which was very similar, and Tony Timpa was very white, and it was only four years ago, and no one heard about it.'
Did he get a fair trial?: 'If fairness requires a certain fear of the streets erupting — that’s not the way I would choreograph it — but maybe sometimes you have to break some eggs to make an omelette. The cop problem is real partly for a human, not race, reason….I think it’s a misperception that the cops are uniquely against black people, and that is the main obstacle to getting past race in the United States.'
Is antiracism a religion?: 'It’s a religion — any martial anthropologist would recognise it as such. One of the oddest things is to see mathematicians and philosophers who’ve made their way through Plato, Kant and Kierkegaard, and then all of a sudden when they’re reasoning about Black Lives Matter, they exhibit the reasoning power of roughly an orangutan. Suddenly that’s considered sophisticated.'
Giving up on the true believers: 'You can’t engage people like that… There is nothing you can do to talk somebody out of a religion. There’s no conversation to be had, it’s worthless. Some of them will say they want to have a conversation with you. But what they want is for you to learn from them. If there’s anything that they have to learn from you, it’s that they want to learn what your mental barriers are to understanding their truth.'
His advice to white people: 'A lot of people need to have a little bit more of a backbone, and understand that this person who’s sitting there looking over their copy of “How To Be An Anti-Racist” and telling you that you’re a racist, let them. And then walk on because the world will keep spinning and you will keep existing. I think some white people need to have the courage of their convictions even about this thing called the race thing. And just say, “No, I’m not a racist. Maybe you are. And let’s now talk about football”. That we need more of.'
On the elitism of antiracism: 'If you’re somebody who is more familiar with struggle or you have a kid in a bad school or you know what it’s like to live in a bad neighbourhood. In a way, this sort of thinking [antiracism] is going to be less congenial. And many people would say, “Well, it’s because you’re a racist”. No, it’s it’s not that. It’s that there is a certain luxury in thinking of black people in these abstractions.'
On Ta-Nehisi Coates: 'There is a certain kind of person who builds their sense of significance in society on a victim role. A person can do that of any colour. It’s a personality type. With black Americans, one way that you do that is to focus on your victimhood or your people’s victimhood, at the hands of whites. It’s not that there isn’t racism. But the idea that what makes you special is your victimhood status in comparison to whites, that can become who you are. Coates is a good writer, but Coates is that kind of person.'
On the n-word: 'I feel that it casts black people as hothouse flowers to a degree that I find condescending. And that’s not to say that people are supposed to run around using the word. But I think America had it about right as recently as about 1995. And since then, we’ve started to treat it in a way that I’m not sure was very productive. But that’s just me.'