In this book, John McWhorter argues that woke ideology has become a “religion” whose followers, the “Elect,” are failing in their efforts to reduce racism and are actually harming Black Americans. In the excerpt that follows, he offers an alternative approach.—The Editors
Chapter 5: BEYOND “DISMANTLING STRUCTURES”: SAVING BLACK AMERICA FOR REAL
IF YOU HAVE READ me sniping for four chapters at what the Elect think we need to do, you may justifiably want to know what I would prefer as an alternative.
In this quick chapter, I shall tell you, and then in my final chapter I will explain how we can work toward something like it despite the Elect among us pursuing their charismatic but self-directed, sociopolitically futile, and quietly racist alternative.
The idea that what Americans need to do is simply “get rid of racism” is a ten-year-old’s version of political progress. Racism refers not just to prejudice but also to societal inequity; racism is also a matter of past as well as present attitudes and policies. Something this protean, layered, and timeless must be ever restrained as much as possible, but it is impossible to simply get rid of. More to the point, doing so is not necessary.
What ails black America in the twenty-first century would yield considerably to exactly three real-world efforts that combine political feasibility with effectiveness: There should be no war on drugs; society should get behind teaching everybody to read the right way; and we should make solid vocational training as easy to obtain as a college education.
Plank 1: End the war on drugs.
First, there should be no war on drugs. Even more potent drugs such as heroin should be available, albeit regulated, to those who seek them. Because drugs like these are illegal, there is a thriving black market for them. Underserved black men often drift into this black market, as an understandable choice when schools have failed them, and they know little about how to forge a life in the world beyond the one they have known—a world in which they have no personal connections.
Selling drugs makes few rich, but it becomes a way of getting by, while working with people you know, who are from the world you are comfortable in. I am quite sure that if I had grown up the way men like this do, I would choose selling drugs on the corner over trying to get through something called college and seeking a job wearing a suit among white people I thought of as distant, suspicious aliens.
But I am also quite sure of this because I believe in the strength of black people: If there were no such black market for hard drugs, the same men would get legal jobs.
Any legal work would be better than selling drugs, which puts people at high risk of being killed or at least going to prison for long stretches and becoming even less employable, as well as often leaving children behind to grow up without a father. Only some of the federal and state prison populations are there as a direct result of drug sales, but vast numbers of them are in prison for murders or theft that are themselves connected to drug sales, such as through turf wars between gangs that thrive on drug sales.
The war on drugs, meanwhile, is universally agreed not to have worked in any case. Its eclipse would create a black American community in which even men dealt a bad hand would likely work legally, spells in prison would be rare, and thus growing up fatherless would be occasional rather than the norm. Antiracism should focus strongly on ending the war on drugs, and there is no need for legions of whites to be instructed in how privileged they are for this to happen.
Plank 2: Teach reading properly.
There are two ways to teach a child to read. Phonics is one, where you teach kids to sound out letters, and highlight the awkwardly spelled words separately. The other method is called the whole word method, which teaches kids to approach words as chunks, guessing at how they are pronounced based on their initial letter and context, the idea being that English spelling is too irregular for it to be worth it to teach kids to sound out letters.
Since the 1960s, phonics has been unanimously demonstrated to be more effective at teaching poor kids to read. Middle-class kids from book-lined homes often manage to guess their way into learning how to read via something like the whole word method. A “light just goes on,” as parents of such kids describe it. However, that light does not often turn on for kids from homes without many books, where language is mostly oral. Kids like this need to be, well, taught to read.
Yet there are school districts throughout the United State where kids are taught to read either via the whole word method or via a hybrid one, when, again, studies show that just phonics is what works. Again and again, school districts that switch to phonics raise the test scores of black kids vastly, but the word never gets out on a national level. How teachers are instructed to teach reading (if they are at all) operates independently of the actual science of reading. I recommend Richard Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight for the details.
This may seem an inside-baseball issue, but it is essential to getting past race in America. Generations of black kids, disproportionately poor, have been sideswiped by inadequate reading instruction. To find reading a chore puts a block on learning math, or anything else, from the page and is a perfect pathway to finding “the school thing” tiresome and irrelevant. The impact on life trajectory is clear.
I suspect many middle-class people have not had the experience of watching a nine- or ten-year-old kid, cognitively normal, looking at a page or a sign and reading it out with the diligent but labored air we associate more with someone two or three years younger, moving their lips and talking of “what it says,” having yet to make the leap to fully silent reading, where the words are instantly processed bits of meaning. I suspect even fewer have had the experience of seeing cognitively normal people of twenty-five and older reading in this way, hobbled by poor reading training during childhoods in which few around them were recreational readers who could make up the pedagogical deficit via cultural modeling.
This shouldn’t be the norm, and antiracism should be centered in part on making school boards across America embrace phonics, or, in industry parlance, direct instruction.
Plank 3: Get past the idea that everybody must go to college.
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 the left endlessly baits applause with calls for college to be made more widely available and less expensive, with the idea that anyone who does not get a four-year college degree has been mired without “opportunity.”
Yet people can, with up to two years’ training at a vocational institution, make a solid living as electricians, plumbers, hospital technicians, cable television installers, body shop mechanics, and many other jobs. Across America, we must instill a sense that vocational school—not “college” in the traditional sense—is a valued option for people who want to get beyond what they grew up in.
The next time you employ a mechanic, plumber, cable installer, or ultrasound technician, ask yourself if that person seems to conceive of themselves as having been denied opportunity. Are they living a hardscrabble existence as they casually mention leading ordinary lives with their spouses and children—the latter of whom they often are putting through college?
Two likely objections:
1: WHY SO FEW PLANKS?
Some will find this list a little short. Racism is a big problem. Black America has a lot of problems. Wouldn’t a legitimate platform include a good ten or eleven planks?
No, actually. Part of what makes a platform pragmatic is processability.
An array of ten-plus distinct ideas is more a display than a plan for action—as in what we can actually imagine getting through Congress or adopted by a critical mass among fifty states. It may seem commensurate with the scope of the tragedy to present a flotilla of reform ideas, complete with busy-looking graphics, as if in doing that we acknowledge grievance and legacy with an appropriate gravity.
But in terms of how real life works in a vast, highly diverse, and politically polarized nation, to insist that black America can change only via a redux of the awesome, throw-paint-at-the-wall array of the Great Society efforts is a kind of utopianism, and utopianism is its own reward.
To propose a vast slate of demands, each carefully bullet-pointed into four or five sub-demands, is a battle pose that intrigues for a bright, shining moment, only for implacable reality to overtake it in short order. Can we dream? Sure—but of things that can actually happen. Utopianism lacks sophistication. It is the game of performers, not those who actually get things done for real people.
My pragmatism stems not from some kind of baked-in “conservatism” but from the lessons of history. A great many concerned people have proposed Marshall Plan–style slates of proposals for the black American community, and their fate is ever Ozymandian.
In the 2010s, Black Lives Matter composed one of these long lists of demands, which has had no impact on black lives since.
Commentator Tavis Smiley took a similar approach in various books, forums, and speeches in the 1990s and 2000s, and despite his sincerity and commitment, these “demands” never gained any purchase among people in power, and thus changed no black communities.
Going further back, the Great Society effort was the one time when circumstance allowed America to actually put into action a vast raft of programs directly targeting poor black communities. It is universally agreed that even these had very little lasting effect. As to those who say not enough was done, in my experience they cannot tell you just what or how much more would have had an effect and why. Frankly, they are often also not aware of just how very much actually was offered and funded for black communities in the era. It was a long time ago.
We need a more precisely targeted approach to black America’s problems. focusing on changes that (1) have an actual chance of making it into legislation and budgeting, (2) come with further gains built in—for example, ending the war on drugs will make vocational training more attractive to more poor young black men who will then help get the word out—and (3) are of a compact number, forming a single, coherent, and memory-friendly effort rather than a diffuse alphabet soup.
2: WHAT ABOUT THE POLICE?
Notably absent from my list of reforms is the police.
I heartily espouse police reform but consider it unlikely that anything can be done to stop cops from firing their weapons lethally in tight or even risky situations. I know this partly because, even in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, throughout 2020 cops continued killing or maiming people, despite all eyes upon them, with no real consequences. Jacob Black and Daniel Prude were the black ones most covered, with the general assumption that cops do this only to black people. The sad underground truth is that they do it to all kinds of people all the time, but this is not the place to dwell on that talking point. The key is that changing the cops will take eons; changing black lives should take less time than that.
However, with no war on drugs, encounters between black men and the cops will be rarer. No cops will be sent to poor neighborhoods to sniff out people selling or carrying drugs or to break up drug-selling rings, nor will cops be assigned to sit roadside waiting to stop people for drug possession. Furthermore, better-educated people with solid jobs, raised more often by two parents able to focus their full attention upon them, will be that much less likely to end up in ugly encounters with the police.
ELECT IDEOLOGY IS PRESENTED with great charisma. In our current climate, it can be mighty difficult to perceive that this seeming wisdom is actually poisonous. However, we must keep front and center that Elect philosophy is two things: performative and racist.
On the performativity, the Elect claim to be committed to making lives better for people. Yet quite often, their positions run orthogonally to forging change in the real world. Think of how seldom you see Elect wisdom presented in actual and sustained connection to changed happening on the ground. In fact, to focus on actual processes of making change is derided by core Elect philosophy as “solutionism” (many will recall the term from White Fragility), a hasty attempt to get past the discomfort of self-examination.
The real job to these people is supposed to be tarring others for heretical thoughts, talking only vaguely about how that is necessary in order to “dismantle structures.” Whites must be held at metaphorical gunpoint and demanded to do “the work” of becoming “antiracist” in their every waking moment and to despise themselves for lapses in doing so, despite that it is a work they are condemned never to finish. This is performance art.
On racism, Elect philosophy teaches black people that cries of weakness are a form of strength. It teaches us that in the richness of this thing called life, the most interesting thing about you is that the ruling class doesn’t like you enough. It teaches us that to insist that black people can achieve under less than perfect conditions is ignorant slander. It teaches us that we are the first people in the history of the species for whom it is a form of heroism to embrace the slogan “Yes, we can’t!” Elect philosophy is, in all innocence, a form of racism in itself. Black America has met nothing so disempowering—including the cops—since Jim Crow.
But goodness, the Elect make a good pitch regardless, partly because they truly believe what they are saying. “Dismantling structures,” “social justice,” “decentering whiteness”—if I were white and wanted to do the right thing on race, I would be confused.
“The black writers everybody tells me are the right ones say I’m supposed to think being black gives you a pass on criticism, and that I’m supposed to make way for whatever they ask for, plus also hate myself.”
“Then there are these controversial ones who say to stop treating them like children. I know they aren’t crazy, but neither are the ones in the Times and on MSNBC, and some of them practically weep on the air, they are so sincere about these things. What do I do?”
“That young Coleman Hughes is so smart, but come on, Ta-Nehisi Coates is such a brilliant writer. I learned some things watching Glenn Loury—come on, he isn’t crazy—but Ibram Kendi wears dreadlocks!” (So sorry—I just had to.)
I suggest a handy kit. However you possibly can, you should:
Fight to end the war on drugs.
Make sure kids not from book-lined homes are taught to read with phonics.
Advocate vocational training for poor people and battle the idea that “real” people go to college.
But one must do whatever one has chosen from the above while also resisting the Elect. That can be difficult, and I offer counsel in the final chapter.
“Chapter 5 Beyond “Dismantling Structures”: Saving Black America for Real” from Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America by John McWhorter, Copyright (c) 2021 by John McWhorter. Used by permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
In this book, John McWhorter argues that woke ideology has become a “religion” whose followers, the “Elect,” are failing in their efforts to reduce racism and are actually harming Black Americans. In the excerpt that follows, he offers an alternative approach.—The Editors Chapter 5: BEYOND “DISMANTLING STRUCTURES”: SAVING BLACK AMERICA FOR REAL IF YOU HAVE …