Is Anti-Racism Our New Religion?

Black Lives Matter supporters and allies gather inside the Minneapolis City Hall rotunda on December 3, 2015, following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. Photo: Tony Webster tony@tonywebster.com


By John McWhorter

My mother gave me an anthropological article about the Nacirema to read  in 1956. Since I was 13 at the time, what I remember most from it is that Nacirema women with especially large breasts get paid to travel and display them. Of course, Nacirema was “American” spelled backwards and the idea was to show how revealing, and even peculiar, our society is if described from a clinical distance.

These days, there is something else about the Nacirema—they have developed a new religion. That religion is Anti-Racism.  Most consider Anti-Racism a position, or evidence of basic morality. However, in 2015, among educated Americans especially, Anti-Racism—it seriously merits capitalization at this point—is now what any naïve, unbiased anthropologist would describe as a new and increasingly dominant religion. It is what we worship, as sincerely and fervently as many worship God and Jesus and, among most Blue State Americans, more so.

The Times, the New Yorker

To someone today making sense of the Nacirema, the category of person who, roughly, reads The New York Times and The New Yorker and listens to NPR, would be a deeply religious person indeed, but as an Anti-Racist. This is good in some ways—better than most are in a position to realize. This is also bad in other ways—worse than most are in a position to realize.

For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, now anointed as James Baldwin’s heir by Toni Morrison, is formally classified as a celebrated writer. However, the particulars of his reception in our moment reveal that Coates is, in the Naciremian sense, a priest. Coates is “revered,” as New York magazine aptly puts it, as someone gifted at phrasing, repeating, and crafting artful variations upon points that are considered crucial—that is, scripture. Specifically, Coates is celebrated as the writer who most aptly expresses the scripture that America’s past was built on racism and that racism still permeates the national fabric.

Coates as a Priest

This became especially clear last year with the rapturous reception of Coates’s essay, “The Case for Reparations.” It was beautifully written, of course, but the almost tearfully ardent praise the piece received was about more than composition or style. The idea was that the piece was important, weighty, big news. But let’s face it—no one, including Coates himself, I presume, has any hope that our current Congress is about to give reparations for slavery to black people in any significant way. Plus, reparations had been widely discussed, and ultimately put aside, as recently as 15 years ago in the wake of Randall Robinson’s The Debt. Yet Coates’s article was discussed almost as if he were bringing up a new topic.

It actually made perfect sense. People loved Coates’s article not as politics, since almost no one thinks reparations are actually going to happen. But belle-lettristic concerns weren’t the key either: People were receiving “The Case for Reparations” as, quite simply, a sermon. Its audience sought not counsel, but proclamation. Coates does not write with this formal intention, but for his readers, he is a preacher. A.O. Scott perfectly demonstrates Coates’s now clerical role in our discourse in saying that his new book is “essential, like water or air”—this is the kind of thing one formerly said of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Suspension of Disbelief

One hearkens to one’s preacher to keep telling the truth—and also to make sure we hear it often, since many of its tenets are easy to drift away from, which leads us to the next evidence that Anti-Racism is now a religion. It is inherent to a religion that one is to accept certain suspensions of disbelief. Certain questions are not to be asked, or if asked, only politely—and the answer one gets, despite being somewhat half-cocked, is to be accepted as doing the job.

“Why is the Bible so self-contradictory?” Well, God works in mysterious ways—the key is that you believe. “Why does God allows such terrible things to happen?” Well, because we have free will … and it’s complicated but really, just have faith.

It stops there: beyond this first round, one is to classify the issues as uniquely “complicated.” They are “deep,” one says, looking off into the air for a sec in a reflective mode, implying that thinking about this stuff just always leads to more questions, in an infinitely questing Talmudic exploration one cannot expect to yield an actual conclusion.

Selective Outrage

Anti-Racism requires much the same standpoint. For example, one is not to ask “Why are black people so upset about one white cop killing a black man when black men are at much more danger of being killed by one another?” Or, one might ask this, very politely—upon which the answers are flabby but further questions are unwelcome. A common answer is that black communities do protest black-on-black violence —but anyone knows that the outrage against white cops is much, much vaster.

Why? Is the answer “deep,” perhaps? Charles Blow, at least deigning to take the issue by the horns, answers that the black men are killing one another within a racist “structure.” That doesn’t explain why black activists consider the white cop a more appalling threat to a black man than various black men in his own neighborhood. But to push the point means you just don’t “get” it (you haven’t opened your heart to Jesus, perhaps?). Jamelle Bouie answers that there’s a difference between being killed by a fellow citizen and being killed by a figure of authority, but does that mean “It’s not as bad if we do it to ourselves”? Of course not! … but, but (roll of the eyes) “racist,” “doesn’t get it.”

Intolerably Mistaken

One is not to question, and people can be quite explicit about that. For example, in the “Conversation” about race that we are so often told we need to have, the tacit idea is that black people will express their grievances and whites will agree—again, no questions, or at least not real ones. Here and there lip service is paid to the idea that the Conversation would not be such a one-way affair, but just as typical is the praise that a piece like Reni Eddo-Lodge’s elicits, openly saying that white people who object to any black claims about racism are intolerably mistaken and barely worth engagement (Eddo-Lodge now has a contract to expand the blog post into a book). Usefully representative is a letter that The New York Times chose to print, which was elicited by David Brooks’s piece on Coates’s book, in which a white person chides Brooks for deigning to even ask whether he is allowed to object to some of Coates’s claims.

Note: To say one is not to question is not to claim that no questions are ever asked. The Right quite readily questions Anti-Racism’s tenets. Key, however, is that among Antiracism adherents, those questions are tartly dismissed as inappropriate and often, predictably, as racist themselves. The questions are received with indignation that one would even ask them, with a running implication that their having been asked is a symptom of, yes, racism’s persistence.

Reprinted with Permission from The Daily Beast

John McWhorter

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

2 thoughts on “Is Anti-Racism Our New Religion?

  1. This is a great piece, but there is a really bad typo in the first sentence. McWhorter was not 13 in 1956. He was given the book when he was 13 (much later).

  2. Well stated. Only a monster would agree that “racism” is a good idea, and that particular thought experiment is easily dispensed with. The real issue is that no one is allowed to have a conversation about this topic, or even bring up counter-points, unless they are a true believer. In which case they would never raise any issues to begin with, then, see?

    The religious analogy is apt – “While we do not condone divorce, it’s not that we don’t allow divorcees in our church. The fact that they never seem to feel welcome or want stay in our church has nothing to do with our stance…”. Hmm, really, tell us more about that…

    Group-think and circular reasoning are never really good ideas, regardless of one’s political leanings. Thank you for your voice on this issue.

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