Posted On June 2, 2021

The Elect by John McWhorter — partial-book review, and it’s not about Calvinism

by | Jun 2, 2021 | Theology

John McWhorter is a linguist and an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. I heavily cited his work earlier when previewing Voddie Baucham’s Fault Lines and discussing McWhorter’s contention that the word “Antiracism,” referring to the new woke religion of critical race theory, ought to be capitalized as a proper noun. McWhorter is also black and an atheist.

The circumstances around McWhorter’s The Elect are somewhat strange (at least to me), but the short version is that he recently published a book on profanity, and publishers don’t like their authors simultaneously releasing works to compete with themselves. So as to be able to release his work while it was fresh and relevant, and to avoid releasing the entire thing for free, he began releasing excerpts on Substack, a blogging platform where authors can configure a paywall as they see fit. Seeing that it was $5 per month to gain access to all of the excerpts, and the title was just too provocative for me to ignore, I paid up. Subscribing to the Substack gains the reader access to seven “serial excerpts” roughly the length of what will end up being chapters in the traditionally published editions.

Lest I find myself doing an impression of an attention-seeking Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Ph.D. student who attacked Baucham over typographical errors in a pre-release copy, I will merely note that the format does suffer from some of what you would expect from a book draft on a blogging platform. There are no footnotes, no page numbers (obviously), and the headings aren’t all that clear. I found myself hacking the CSS to switch the font to Lexend Medium, which we use here at Things Above Us. That said, McWhorter has now announced that a publisher has picked up the work and will release it in October of this year under the name, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. I have zero doubt these difficulties will be absent from the traditionally published editions. Moreover, what this means now is that there will be no more serial excerpts on the Substack.

McWhorter defines his aims as the following:

1. to argue that this new ideology is actually a religion in all but name;

2. to argue that to understand it as a religion is to see coherence in what may seem like a welter of “crazy” or overblown behaviors;

3. to explore why this religion is so attractive to so many people;

4. to show that this religion is actively harmful to black people despite being intended as unprecedentedly “antiracist”;

5. to show that a pragmatic, effective, liberal and even Democratic-friendly agenda for rescuing black America need not be founded on the tenets of this new religion;

6. to suggest ways to lessen the grip of this new religion on our public culture.

Naming and Audience

Who are the Elect?

In this particular work, McWhorter uses the term “Elect” to refer to adherents to what he calls Third Wave Antiracism. I suspect he is borrowing terminology from Third Wave Charismaticism, but they have little to do with each other materially.

One can divide antiracism into three waves along the lines that feminism has been. First Wave Antiracism battled slavery and legalized segregation. Second Wave Antiracism, in the 1970s and 1980s, battled racist attitudes and taught America that being racist was a flaw. Third Wave Antiracism, becoming mainstream in the 2010s, teaches that because racism is baked into the structure of society, whites’ “complicity” in living within it constitutes racism itself, while for black people, grappling with the racism surrounding them is the totality of experience and must condition exquisite sensitivity towards them, including a suspension of standards of achievement and conduct.

If you are familiar with Baucham’s Fault Lines, you may recall that he borrows from McWhorter’s calling Antiracism a new religion as early as 2015. However, that is not to say that First Wave Antiracism and Second Wave Antiracism are also religions. In McWhorter’s words,

One can divide antiracism into three waves along the lines that feminism has been. First Wave Antiracism battled slavery and legalized segregation. Second Wave Antiracism, in the 1970s and 1980s, battled racist attitudes and taught America that being racist was a flaw. Third Wave Antiracism, becoming mainstream in the 2010s, teaches that because racism is baked into the structure of society, whites’ “complicity” in living within it constitutes racism itself, while for black people, grappling with the racism surrounding them is the totality of experience and must condition exquisite sensitivity towards them, including a suspension of standards of achievement and conduct.

If you are a nitpicker or just don’t like me, you’ll notice that McWhorter didn’t capitalize that first instance of “antiracism” in that quote, but he did capitalize Third Wave Antiracism. I’m still capitalizing Antiracism, in fact, much in the same way that McWhorter capitalizes Elect. Also, we’re Calvinists here at Things Above Us, so adopting Elect as our term would certainly cause mass confusion.

Audience and Caveats

I did already mention that McWhorter is an atheist, so it should come as no surprise that his aim is not the same as ours at Things Above Us. There is the occasional profane word and the occasional convenient “come on, man” stab at Christianity.

Of course the “The Race Thing” oppositions make no sense taken together, but then neither does the Bible.

Many who are reading this book picked up White Fragility and were baffled at its reception. You need not be: White Fragility is a primer on original sin, no more baffling than the New Testament.

Indeed, McWhorter isn’t even writing this book for conservatives but for his fellow liberals (if I’m allowed to use that word fairly; I will not call him a leftist), and he swears off appearing on Fox News to promote it. Rather, McWhorter is writing for “New York Times-reading, National Public Radio-listening people who have innocently fallen under the impression that pious, unempirical virtue-signalling about race is a form of moral enlightenment and political activism, and ever teeter upon becoming card-carrying Third Wave Antiracists themselves.” And the other is “black people who have innocently fallen under the misimpression that for us only, cries of weakness constitute a kind of strength, and that for us only, what makes us interesting, what makes us matter, is a curated persona as eternally victimized souls, ever defined by the memories and injuries of our people across four centuries behind us, ever ‘unrecognized,’ ever ‘misunderstood,’ ever in assorted senses unpaid.” Don’t expect him to appear in a Founders Ministries documentary alongside atheist James Lindsay and totally-not-atheists Tom Ascol or Michael O’Fallon anytime soon.

But even beyond the stabs at Christianity and that he’s not writing to us, I believe what we have in this work is helpful.

An Additional Religious Parallel

In the third excerpt of seven in The Elect, McWhorter parallels Third Wave Antiracism in terms of religious tenets. Subsequent headers are named, “The Elect Have Superstition,” “The Elect Have Clergy,” “The Elect Have Original Sin,” “The Elect are Evangelical” (not in a Protestant Christian theological sense), and “The Elect are Apocalyptic.” The section that follows better explains what we’ve been calling — and this is a really unhelpful term — “cancel culture.” In McWhorter’s words, “The Elect Ban the Heretic.”

In Fault Lines, Baucham drew his own set of parallels: cosmology, original sin, law, gospel, martyrs, priests, means of atonement, etc. What McWhorter points out in terms of “cancel culture” is that Antiracism has — and this is my term — a new ecclesiology, or at least additional ecclesiology to there being a new priesthood. Parallel to historical church-state traditions that executed heretics, Antiracism seeks to be the media orthodoxy and thereby burn, er, cancel them. And it’s all in the name of “social justice.”

The Harm

One response to a book like this might be to own that Electism is a religion. You might consider it a better one than, say, believing that God’s son died for our sins and was reborn, waiting to envelope you in his eternal grace if you believe in him. This new religion is about countering racism. Who could be against that?

But we must ask whether the Elect approach actually shows signs of making any difference in the lives of black people, other than making educated white people infantilize them. While purportedly “dismantling racist structures,” the Elect religion is actually harming the people living in those structures. It is a terrifyingly damaging business.

McWhorter goes on in the fifth of seven serial excerpts onward to explain the harm that Antiracism has inflicted upon black people. The fifth excerpt in particular is split into two parts: “Elect Ideology Hurts Black People,” and “Elect Philosophy Fills Black Hearts and Minds with Defeatist Nonsense.” Both are well-stocked with case studies illustrating negative effects.

The sixth excerpt concerns slavery, our cultural awareness thereof, and the cancellation of historical figures who “weren’t woke enough.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates urges “the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage.” But this is the divorcé who can’t stand seeing his ex have a good time. To tar today’s America as insufficiently aware of slavery is more about smugness and noble victimhood than forging something new and needed.

To wit: is there any degree of saturation that slavery could reach into the American consciousness that would satisfy The Elect, such that they would allow that a battle had been won?

In the seventh and final excerpt (apparently for now), McWhorter addresses why Electism is so appealing. He ends this by previewing what was the next excerpt: “What a serious and effective ‘antiracism’ should be.”

Should You Get It?

I definitely think it was worth my five dollars, though I’ve probably spent more by virtue of the excerpts having come out gradually and the Substack’s subscription model. The first few excerpts may also be available for free if I understand correctly, so you might go in and see if it’s worth your five dollars to read the remainder of them or some of the other posts McWhorter has to offer. What McWhorter does not — and indeed cannot — offer is the gospel, let alone specific insights in regards to the church. I say read Fault Lines first. Read The Elect next if you wish. Finally, I don’t discount the value of reading books from the Antiracist canon if you must. I enjoyed reading The Elect despite having to endure the occasional atheist barb. I must also note that I am a Navy veteran; I am therefore much less affected by profanity than most of our readers.

Do you know what does affect me? White Fragility. It is so difficult to read. I’ve been at it for over a month, and I have only made it a quarter of the way through.

 

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