McWhorter on Antiracism as Religion, and Beyond

28 Jul

Yesterday I published a post at 3 Quarks Daily in which I quoted a July 21 remarks between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury to the effect that antiracism has become something like a religion. In particular, they focused on the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates. McWhorter has now published a piece in The Daily Beast, Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion.

Religion vs. Practical Action

In view of that piece I’d like to continue the discussion. First, here’s a bit of the Loury/McWhorter discussion I didn’t quote. This is McWhorter at about 35 minutes in:

What we’re talking about as not worthy, what you see as condescending, David Brookes pretending to think that he has no right to question something that somebody wrote just because they’re black and they have a way with a pen, none of that has anything to do with being concerned with black uplift. And black uplift has to take place separately from that. It has nothing to do with Charles Blow and his artful prose. So all those people are going to be doing the Bible. That’s what they’re doing, I think of it these days. It’s religion and I can’t say it’s a terrible thing, but it will have nothing to do with changing poor black people’s lives.

So, the religion of antiracism is one thing while political and social action that will improve black lives is something different. One of McWhorter’s concerns, obviously enough, is that the religion will distract attention and action away from concrete action.

Here’s a passage from McWhorter’s new article:

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.

The very fact that white America today cherishes this religion is evidence that Coates’s particular pessimism about America and race is excessive.
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. 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 reparations as a new topic.

Here is a passage from Coates’ piece that gives some idea of what he’s looking for:

A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.

John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

Coates had earlier noted that Conyers has been introducing his reparations bill, HR 40, annually for the last quarter century and had gotten nowhere with it, and all it called for was to study the issue. That is, all that Coates is calling for is a grand ‘conversation on race’ inscribed within the conditions of HR 40, whatever they may be. It is not a call to action. It is, to use a word that Loury had introduced into his conversation with McWhorter, an expressive act.

McWhorter continues:

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.

But Now I See

The same day, yesterday, McWhorter published his piece in The Daily Beast, Greg Epstein published an account of his ‘conversion’ to this new religion in Salon:

It was somewhere around the middle of the first chapter of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, “Between the World and Me,” where I began to realize that the quintessential atheist and humanist text of my generation, if there could be such a thing, was neither “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins nor “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris, nor any number of other worthy contenders by astrophysicists or cognitive scientists or philosophers or by humanist chaplains like me, but this shit right here.

Note that third word from the end: “shit”. It’s common enough, very common. But not in polite discourse. It’s usage in this sense is vernacular, and I suppose it is even supposed to signify black vernacular. It’s a clear sign that Epstein is about to get real, another vernacular usage

Epstein continues:

Coates was writing of good intentions, at the point where I began to recognize. Americans have good intentions. Few of us see ourselves as wanting to oppress anyone. Most of us pride ourselves on not being racist. But in an era where we are trying to do better than simply not kill people like Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner, Coates writes, good intention “is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”

He goes on to identify himself as having worked as “chaplain for atheists and agnostics” at Harvard and elsewhere. I hadn’t know that there was such a thing, but it makes sense. And, in view of McWhorter’s remarks, it makes sense that Coates’ book should be treated as secular scripture for nonbelievers.

Let’s hazzard one more passage from Epstein:

But reading Ta-Nehisi Coates woke me up from a groggy state, a kind of semi-lucid haze I did not realize I was in.

Coates, an award-winning journalist for the Atlantic, is primarily seen as a writer on race. And “Between the World and Me” is, on one level, a book about race, with the story of his murdered friend Prince Jones making Sandra Bland’s seemingly similar death look all the more like a depressing and infuriating act of terror. But atheists and humanists tend to see ourselves as transcending culture and race. So much so that I’ve always been dismayed to find the majority of people who tend to show up at the meetings of organizations with words like atheist and humanist in their names, are so very, very white. […]

Crafting a powerful narrative about white Americans — or, as he says, those of us who need to think we are white — who are living The Dream — Coates makes a profound statement of what is, and is not, good, with or without god. Coates refers not to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, not quite even to the “American Dream,” but rather to The Dream in which we forget our history, our identity and much of our nation’s prosperity is built on the foundation of the suffering of people of color in general and black people in particular.

There is more, and I recommend it to you, though not so much for what it says about Coates’ book – Epstein thinks of this as a book review – as for the validation it gives for McWhorter’s thesis.

Obama and Beyond

I find this all quite interesting, though I’m not sure what to make of it. But, as I indicated in my 3 Quarks Daily piece, it seems to me that President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney belongs in this same cultural space, though there are differences to be noted, of course. While Coates does not write out of a religious framework, however one may take his readers’ response, Obama was, on that June 26st, speaking at a religious ceremony, a funeral. And he crafted his eulogy as a sermon, starting with a verse of Scripture as the seed of his remarks and concluding with an old and cherished hymn, “Amazing Grace”. Though he is not an ordinaned minister, he was acting as a lay preacher, a common role.

In his speech he asserted that slavery was America’s original sin and he asserted the need for change. But he did not make any specific suggestions, not even when he mentioned guns:

None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy. It will not. People of goodwill will continue to debate the merits of various policies, as our democracy requires – this is a big, raucous place, America is. And there are good people on both sides of these debates. Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete.

It is easy enough to infer that he would like to see gun safety measures implemented, but he doesn’t call for them. He doesn’t call for anything except that we change, that we walk “a roadway toward a better world.”

Though I was an am excited about this address, I note also that there is nothing new here. That is not, after all, what sermons are for. What’s exciting is that this particular lay preacher is also the President of the United States and that this is his strongest statement about race relations. That gives his words political resonance.

But political resonance does not, by itself, change lives. As President Obama can address the nation any time he so wishes, on any occasion. Why did he take this particular occasion to make his key statement on race relations? Why did he choose the ‘protected’ space of religious ritual to make his statement? What will he say about race relations in his State of the Union Address in January 2016, his last State of the Union?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. Perhaps there is no answer. Perhaps these matters are hanging in suspension.

I’m thinking, hoping, that the emergence of this space is part of a larger process of a major transformation in our ways of life, a transformation driven as well by global warming, technological change that is changing how we live and restructuring the world of work, and by globalization. Change at that scale is hard to contemplate, and will be hard to achieve. But we have little choice in the matter.

As far as I know the recent papal encyclical, Laudato Si’ is one of the few, perhaps the only, documents we have that explicitly contemplates change on such a massive scale. I’ve not yet read it carefully, nor do I expect that I can subscribe to everything in it – who could? But there it is, inviting us to dialog.

Let’s Roll Up Our Sleeves

Meanwhile, as McWhorter noted in another recent article, there are relatively modest actions that we can take that will make a difference in black lives:

1. The War on Drugs must be eliminated. It creates a black market economy that tempts underserved black men from finishing school or seeking legal employment and imprisons them for long periods, removing them from their children and all but assuring them of lowly existences afterward.

2. We have known for decades how to teach poor black children to read: phonics-based approaches called Direct Instruction, solidly proven to work in the ’60s by Siegfried Engelmann’s Project Follow Through study. […] Children with shaky reading skills are incapable of engaging any other school subject meaningfully, with predictable life results.

3. Long-Acting Reproductive Contraceptives should be given free to poor black women (and other poor ones too). It is well known that people who finish high school, hold a job, and do not have children until they are 21 and have a steady partner are almost never poor. […]

4. We must revise the notion that attending a four-year college is the mark of being a legitimate American, and return to truly valuing working-class jobs. Attending four years of college is a tough, expensive, and even unappealing proposition for many poor people (as well as middle-class and rich ones). Yet poor people can, with up to two years’ training at a vocational institution, make solid livings as electricians, plumbers, hospital technicians, cable television installers, and many other jobs. […]

Note that none of these things involve white people “realizing” anything. These are the kinds of concrete policy goals that people genuinely interested in seeing change ought to espouse. If these things seem somehow less attractive than calling for revolutionary changes in how white people think and how the nation operates, then this is for emotional reasons, not political ones.

Can we not do both? I think we can. But we do have to realize not only that these ARE different tasks, but different kinds of tasks. McWhorter’s four programs can be done within the our current social, economic, and political framework. Rethinking the world on the scale implied and required by the realization that racial oppression is at the heart of the American project, of the project of modernity, and then reorganizing the world, that is something else.


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