Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

A Contentious Conversation on Whether “Wokeness” is a “Religion”

Prof. John McWhorter and Nathan J. Robinson discuss whether the social justice movement is deranged as Prof. McWhorter suggests.

John McWhorter is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and a regular contributor to the New York Times. He also hosts the Lexicon Valley podcast. His latest book is Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. Prof. McWhorter recently joined Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson on our magazine’s podcast for a high-spirited discussion on the book.

McWhorter

Thank you for having me.

Robinson

Okay. This book is extremely provocative, with a very controversial thesis. I want to start with this idea of religion, which is at the center of your analysis. You argue that there is a certain style of anti-racist or woke politics that’s not like a religion, but is, in fact, a new religion. Could you explain what you mean by a religion so that people can understand why you’re classifying it that way?

McWhorter

Well, the reason is that I want people to understand that these are not people you can try to break bread with by meeting them halfway. There’s no point in saying, Can’t you understand that there’s a marketplace of ideas? This is not the kind of thinking that they’re engaging in when it comes to these particular topics. Instead, it’s an idea that there is an article of faith, which is that you are acknowledging that you understand that racism exists, that there are imbalances in the system that are based either in the past or the present on race. That is what is important in this religion, that you acknowledge that you understand that to show that you’re a good person. It’s kind of a variation on showing that you have faith in certain other religions. And what that means is that you’re committed to showing that you understand that. Truth is, whether or not you’re actually helping Black people or poor people, it’s just showing that you know, and it’s policed in a way that really is reminiscent of the chasing away of heretics. And this is why for these people, if you don’t agree with them, they think it’s okay to see that you lose your job, or that you get disqualified from teaching a class or that you get shamed on social media. It can’t be that they disagree. It has to be that you are stomped upon. That’s heresy. And then there is suspension of disbelief, which is inherent to a lot of religions. And so for example, imagine saying, Let’s defund the police because you’re disgusted, justifiably, by what happened to George Floyd. Then a grandmother who’s living in a poor Black community says, No, I want more police. Well, frankly, she’s right. That’s it. Anybody understands that. However, we’re encouraged to think, well, it’s deep, it’s complicated. Because if you say, Let’s defund the police, it’s one way of showing that, you know, racism can exist. So I fully believe it’s a religion. We don’t use the words for religion that we use with this movement. But if there were an anthropologist who didn’t know language, couldn’t hear the words, and just watched how these people behave, the anthropologist would think that this was a religion alongside the others. We’re dealing with a religion, and we have to know what we’re dealing with. That’s the point of the comparison.

Robinson

It seems to me that by using this word religion, and by saying that what you mean is that we can’t break bread and have a reasonable discussion, it seems to be founded on what I think a lot of religious people would think of as a deeply negative view of the capacity for reason of religious people. I mean, I just imagine if you tried to sit down and make this argument to Martin Luther King, Jr., right? And you said, Your anti-racism is a religion, I feel like he’d look at you strangely and say, Well, of course I have a deep set of religious values that inform my actions in the world, but belonging to a religion doesn’t mean that you can’t have dialogue with people. I think a lot of religious people would consider themselves very reasonable and open to dialogue. Throughout the book, it seems to me like the word religion is used as a strong kind of pejorative.

McWhorter

Yeah, I can understand how people would feel that way. And it is something that I had to allow, unfortunately. There’s a part of religion that is not rational and that isn’t supposed to be. Now, Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t using the irrational parts of Christianity to free Black people. It had nothing to do with Jesus walking on water. It had nothing to do with the idea that there’s an afterlife. His religion involved things like charity, love for one’s fellow man, et cetera. As far as I’m concerned, that’s fine. In this case, even though it’s not called religion, we are supposed to allow things that quite simply don’t make any sense in the name of what is thought of as something larger. Now, I could just call that pure irrationality. But the thing is, that would leave the question as to why so many very intelligent people are suddenly being so irrational about this one topic. Where irrationality makes a comfort zone in the mind of a very intelligent and compassionate person, the only real comparison is the brilliant and compassionate person who truly believes—no offense if you’re one of them—that Jesus Christ is inside of them and loves them. That is something that you make your peace with as something that you can’t explain rationally. That’s what’s going on here. And to be honest, there would be no other way of explaining it, other than leaving the question as to why these people are so irrational. I think I know why: it’s a religion.

Robinson

You say, “these people.” This comes up a lot in the book. “These people,” the elect, people who are irrational and beyond reason. One of the things that struck me as strange throughout the book is that I don’t really know that I know the people you’re talking about. I don’t care for the work of Robin DiAngelo, for example, I’ve written critically about her. Others come up like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram Kendi—I don’t necessarily see them as beyond reason. I’ve read a lot of their stuff. I feel like it’s provocative. I feel like they’re thoughtful. I disagree with them. I’m persuaded by some of the criticisms, but the level of intensity with which you characterize people as irrational to the point of being beyond reason, I haven’t seen myself.

McWhorter

Yeah. And that may be that we occupy different spheres. For example, I work in academia. And I don’t usually say it of myself, but I guess you could say that I work in the media, and that sort of person is vastly overrepresented, and especially those two areas. I can say I know them very well. And on these questions, they are aggressively irrational. And the thing is, are we concerned that that kind of person is taking over, say, academia and the media? Now some people would say that those are just two little segments of society. But the last thing I’m trying to say is that everything that Coates or Kendi writes fails to follow the lines of logic. But I think that both of them push their points into an area where it really no longer is about reasoning. It’s about a kind of posturing, a kind of signaling, out of a sense that the proper position of the concerned Black person is that of victim regardless of what you’re thinking of the outcomes as being. And so for example, I don’t mean people who are insane. But say, Kendi, to take a more current example than Coates seems to be these days. Kendi will say, let’s get rid of standardized tests because Black people aren’t as good at them. The tests are racist. Okay. Now, there are all sorts of things in there that are huge questions that we’re trained not to ask. And so if the tests are racist against Black people, are you talking about there being a Black way of thinking? And what exactly is it? Which Black people share it, and why? Are we talking about genes? Are we talking about culture? If it’s culture, why Black culture? Are we talking about Africa? Are we talking about poverty? Notice that no one asks those questions of someone like him. And he is clearly intelligent enough to anticipate questions like those. It’s just that when he writes something like that, he’s writing from a different position than he might be when writing about things that are more empirical.

Robinson

Have you asked him?

McWhorter

You mean directly?

Robinson

Yeah.

McWhorter

He hates me. Those of you who are from the outside don’t always understand how deeply the animosity runs. Ibram Kendi thinks I’m the devil’s spawn. I couldn’t ask him anything.

Robinson

Well, have you tried to have a dialogue with him?

McWhorter

Yes, I have, Nathan. Many times. That goes way back in Glenn Loury’s and my podcast. I used to write about him very gently before he jumped me in public, and so I started jumping back. But more to the point, I have asked questions like this often in print, and Kendi is known for not giving answers to criticism. But no, it’s not as simple as that I’m sitting and complaining about something but he’s sitting there waiting to shake my hand and have a conversation.

Robinson

You say that there are a lot of questions you’re not allowed to ask or that you don’t get satisfying answers to. You give an example in your book. Why are so many people upset when one white cop kills a young Black man but not upset about all the murders committed, or why don’t they protest more against murders committed by Black people? You say that you don’t get a satisfactory answer to that. I think there’s an answer to that that I would like to see you respond to. It’s that when the state does something—when public safety officers who are entrusted with public safety do something—it’s like being betrayed by someone who is in a position of trust. For example, if the President killed someone, it’d be different, it’d be more newsworthy than if a random citizen killed someone. And we have a democratic process to hold our institutions accountable, whereas it’s much more difficult to hold a protest against a criminal. There’s a reason that people are uniquely upset when those who are entrusted with a public responsibility commit murder, even if it occurs less often. That doesn’t seem to me to be a crazy or insane or irrational position.

McWhorter

It does to me. I think you’re thinking about one paragraph in the book. And I do write that there is that argument about killing being by the state, but I’m thinking about what is ailing actual Black people living actual lives. And if you ask a mother, who is mourning the death of her son, whether she feels worse, because it was a white cop, as opposed to some kid from five blocks away, I don’t think that she would see much difference. And especially, we have to consider that the latter case that I just mentioned happens much, much, much more frequently. And so there really is a question to be asked about why we’re more concerned. And it’s not that nobody talks about what goes on inside Black communities. But we’re more concerned with Derek Chauvin than we are with the Black inner-city problem that everybody also knows about. If we roll the tape and start it again, there would be more concern, I suspect, with what kills more Black people. And yet my saying that in today’s climate is considered a renegade point. I think it’s because of this aspect of our thinking that gets distorted from what it would usually be.

Robinson

I see people on the left as very concerned with reducing violence.

McWhorter

As I say in the book—I’m sorry to interrupt—they are not nearly as upset as they are about what white cops do.

Robinson

I understand a lot of your criticism, like if you criticize someone like Robin DiAngelo, I think you and I perfectly well agree. I wrote a review of her book, and she’s talking about looking inward and focusing on yourself without any kind of policy agenda and the part of what you write that I do respect is that we need to analyze questions in terms of their impact, in terms of thinking about real policy, in terms of thinking about what can actually be accomplished rather than what is just making white people feel good, because they are acknowledging racism? That is a fair and important point. However, I worry about the part of your book that says directly, “Don’t try to have dialogue. It’s impossible. These people are religious.” That’s striking to me. I just had a long dialogue with Glenn Loury about systemic racism. It’s very interesting. We disagreed profoundly on stuff. It was extremely constructive though. We both came out of it feeling really, really good. I worry a lot about the characterization of people as totally off limits. So don’t even try. I mean, the reason I wanted to have this conversation with you is because I disagree with you. My colleague Briahna Joy Gray is always having conservatives on and talking to them. But to say to avoid dialogue and to put those people in the religion box and ignore them and work around them strikes me as a recipe for further social isolation. 

McWhorter

I find that depressing because, unfortunately, I meant what I said. I’m sorry, those people cannot be dealt with. And there’s a gray zone. Some people are more extreme than others. I’m talking about a small number of people. But my experience with people of that frame of mind starts in the ‘90s because I’m from academia. On that subject of battling power differentials, very quickly, you reach a point where they consider you beneath all contempt for not sharing a certain conglomeration of views and goals. And there’s no point talking to them. I don’t say that out of pique or temper. It’s just that they don’t view these things as matters of negotiation. Glenn Loury can be spoken to. I can be spoken to. If you had a serious disagreement with somebody on this side of things, I’m sure you found that you may both air your views, but there’s no movement. And if you’re talking about real life, as opposed to on display in a podcast, I’m sure that you’ve experienced some of the contumely that you find from people like this when you get past a certain point. So my idea is, they’re not going to change their mind, what do we do? Not to eliminate them. The idea is not to battle them. But what do we do to work around them? Because John Stuart Mill isn’t going to work with that kind of person. You might as well be saying, Let’s have a conversation about pedophilia. You don’t see what I mean by that?

Robinson

Well, it’s hard for me to be persuaded by this, because you tell me that this type of person is quite common, and they’re beyond reason, and that you’ve met them, and you know them, and you can’t talk to them, and you’ve tried, and it’s impossible. All I have is the examples that you produce in the book to persuade me that this type of person really exists. And when I look at those examples, I feel as if you are often being hyperbolic about them. For example, the dean who was fired supposedly for saying “everyone’s life matters.” Well, I looked it up, and she said she was actually fired because she had a power dispute with someone else in the department. And that person used her email as a pretext to fire her. But it wasn’t really because she was sincerely committed to a religion. And the student who complained initially about the email said she didn’t think that the dean should have been fired for that. And it seems like neither one of those people, the student who complained, or the dean who got fired, are actually the adherents of some woke religion that was beyond reason, because neither one of them sincerely felt like this woman should be fired for the offense of saying, “every life matters.” And that’s like the first example you get in the book. And I feel like that’s selectively leaving out facts to make those people seem more unreasonable than I see them as actually being.

McWhorter

Why did she lose her job? Did that thing that she wrote, have the effect, even if it was the result of a number of things, that it made sense to a body of people to dismiss her because they didn’t wish to have further conflict over such a sensitive issue? Was it that?

Robinson

That’s totally different from what you say in the book, which is that people who believe that that offense is worthy of losing their job believe that because they are adherents to a religion where it is a sin that must be punished.

McWhorter

If she hadn’t written that, would she have her job?

Robinson

She would have her job. But that doesn’t prove the thesis of the book.

McWhorter

If she hadn’t written that, she would have her job, meaning that if she writes an innocent piece of something, that she happens to phrase things the wrong way over Black Lives Matter, then her job disappears as opposed to if she hadn’t written that, where there would have been some problems.

Robinson

Right.

McWhorter

I consider that to be something worth writing about.

Robinson

Worth writing about is different from the thesis that says that there are people in a religion who are trying to get you for this stuff. I mean, I don’t doubt that someone can find some small offense and use it as a pretext. But I think it’s important to say that she thinks she was actually fired because someone had a grudge against her and was looking for some tiny, tiny excuse to act to push her out of her job.

McWhorter

Mm hmm. But what about the other cases I mentioned throughout the book? And of course, you might say that, because it’s one book, and there are only 200 pages of it, that you can gather together all those things and say that they’re just a collection of anecdotes. But I think that would be a little bit disingenuous at this point, especially when there’s been such a major uptick in this kind of thing over the past couple of years. It is something, that sort of thing, and often much more directly than what happened to Leslie Neal-Boylan, as I discussed in the book, and you may be thinking, well, if I checked up on each one of those things, I can guarantee you that you would find that most of them are quite clean. The issue is there is an element in a culture that is stronger than it used to be, and that there are these people and I do consider their views extreme and dangerous. And especially because a lot of what they do is supposedly in the name of helping Black people. I can’t imagine that somebody would not find this sort of thing alarming and see it as a cultural development. And a significant one. I guess you don’t…

Robinson

But hang on a minute. I think there’s a fudging going on here between a significant cultural development and the thesis of the book, which is essentially that a cult has developed that is beyond reason. I hear this on the right all the time: Stalinist Russia, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Robespierre, invoking all of these really horrifying examples of historical atrocities, emotion-laden historical atrocities. Every time I look into the other instances, they’re more complicated. They’re always more complicated. I mean, the New York Times lady who criticized Marie Kondo. You could say her sin was that two white women criticized a woman of color. Well, she said, you know, “Marie Kondo, bitch, you fucking sold out. I slap my name on anything. I don’t give a shit, please to buy my cutting board.” People thought she was making fun of Marie Kondo’s accent; she insisted she wasn’t. And the New York Times suspended her. Now you can argue that’s an overreaction. I think it’s important to include context to say that people thought, Wow, that’s really, really aggressive…And then people pointed out that she sells all sorts of stuff herself. And we’re like, why are you upset when Marie Kondo does it? I don’t think people are quite as unreasonable as you portray them, and I think you have to leave out certain facts in order to make them seem as unreasonable as you portray them.

McWhorter

No. The issue is, why did she lose her job? And as I also say in the book, there was a very similar episode with Alessandra Stanley, at the same newspaper, some years ago. People had the same sorts of feelings, but she didn’t lose her job. And I think that the difference between say, 2015, and in this case what was 2020, is significant, and should be called out. It is extreme; it has grown. And also, the last thing anybody wants to do is say, go read my stuff, et cetera. But after I was finished with Woke Racism, there was an article that I did in the Atlantic, about academics who write me, and of course, technically hundreds and hundreds of letters now are just a bunch of anecdotes, but we wouldn’t say that if it was letters about white cops abusing Black men. And that flood continues. You may have discussed it with Glenn Loury. It’s not the Cultural Revolution in terms of people enduring physical violence. It’s nothing of that kind. But I’m sure we both agree that it doesn’t have to be anything that extreme to be worth writing about. And to be written about as a scourge. Certainly, in academia, people are being treated regularly in ways that wouldn’t have made any sense to anybody as recently as five years ago, very explicitly, in the name of the racial reckoning. You sound like you think a few people are going a little too far. But that to write about these people as a unified entity, is to exaggerate a threat that doesn’t exist in any way that really needs to be called attention to in such direct terms and colorful language. But I respectfully disagree with that. And I don’t think that woke racism is hyperbolic. I’m writing about a real cultural development that will be recognized as such in the future. I’m not the only one calling attention to it.

Robinson

I go so far as saying that it’s fine to write about it. My concern with this book is that you go so far as to say, Do not talk to these people. They’re beyond reason. And I know a lot of these people. And empathy doesn’t come across to me in the book. And sometimes I see you do something that seems to me to be misrepresenting stuff. Like when you talk about the California mathematics framework, which tries to remove the high stakes of errors and send the message that learning is always unfinished, and that it’s safe to take mathematical risks. And you say that that’s an artful way of saying that diverse kids should not be saddled with the onerous task of having to get the actual answers. Well, when I click the document, it gives an example of what it means by that, and it’s literally a teacher saying to their students, like, Okay, who got the wrong answer here, tell us first, you know, so that people aren’t afraid of being wrong. And they understand that being wrong is part of the process of mathematics. And I thought that was great, because the whole point of the mathematics framework is that the kids come from backgrounds where math really scares them. It’s the high stakes. It’s not that there’s no such thing as right and wrong in math anymore. It’s that the high stakes of errors where people feel like oh, shit, if I get this problem wrong, I’m bad at math. If you inculcate that it makes it much harder to teach students math. So they got all these methods for trying to make it so that it’s more comfortable and enjoyable to learn math and that being wrong is part of it. And so I don’t think it is like people saying, Oh, now we’re in a world of relativism, where the diverse kids don’t have to get the answers. It’s about the habit of taking diverse kids, and figuring out what the best way of getting them to the right answers is, that seems reasonable. That seems like you could criticize that and talk to people, not like religion.

McWhorter

No. I’ve read that document. And I know the page that you’re talking about. And it’s a peculiar page, because as I’m sure you noticed, it’s rather disconsonant with what most of the document is basically saying right from the table of contents. They are quite explicit about how they feel about how we should reconceive what we think of as using the mind, as what school should be, as what math should be, in view of being what they call anti-racist in terms of that lesson that they give. I remember reading that page and thinking, that doesn’t quite sound like what they’re talking about. But the main thing is it only covers a tiny sliver of all of those lengthy prescriptions that they give in the pages before, where it’s clear that they are thinking that the precision of math is something to be suspect, and what they mean in that document is not, put everybody together in a group and watch them all gradually come together upon the correct answer, and don’t criticize anybody for being wrong at first. I’m not sure what teacher would need to be told that. That’s not what that document is about. Because if it were, it wouldn’t be saying anything new. There’s an anti-racist reconception that they encourage. And it’s not about just continuing to do what any decent teacher has done in the past. What do you think that document is for? What were those 21 pages about?

Robinson

I think it’s about trying to find ways to get kids who are not good at math, to be good at math.

McWhorter

And you didn’t notice that…

Robinson

I think they’re very concerned with racial disparities in math achievement. They want kids to do well, even if they come from backgrounds where they haven’t had an exposure to math, and they’re trying to think of lots of new ways to get kids to be better at math, to get them to understand math, to get them to appreciate math, and not be put off and hate math. Everyone hates math. I don’t think you’re right about math being taught this way. Because I was taught math in a way that really put me off, where they immediately separated the kids who had natural talent from the kids who didn’t. And if you don’t, you feel stupid, and you feel horrible. And I think that is extremely common in public schools. And I’m glad people are trying to address it, because I think math is great and important.

McWhorter

And I think it is, too. But that document is about reconceiving what we think of as being good at math. And there are several like that. And I disagree with that prospect. And I understand the page that you’re talking about and there are various places where they use words like rigor, but what they’re talking about in terms of general philosophy of math teaching is not about precision and rigor. It’s about exploration. And I consider that very condescending when it comes to what you and I both know is the essence of math. If you were taught math meanly—I was lucky, I was not—that is not the way it should go. No offense, but I think you’re giving a watered-down version of the document because you are seeking to be more empathetic than me. I understand that.

Robinson

I mean, I’m quoting the passage that you quoted as objectionable, which is removing the high stakes of errors and sending the message that learning is always unfinished, and it’s safe to take mathematical risks. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say.

McWhorter

In isolation, sure.

Robinson

But that’s the quote that you choose to give to readers to argue that wokeness in the math curriculum has gone crazy.

McWhorter

Nathan, you understand what it is to write a book. So what you’re saying is that in order to be authoritative on this, I was supposed to give the whole text of what that document said, in which case, if I did that for each one, including Leslie Neal-Boylan, and gave the entire history, the book would be 400 pages, and no one would read it. And so how do we handle the challenge? Wait. How do we handle…

Robinson

Uh…

McWhorter

Wait. No. No.

Robinson

How does that mean you can’t put in context?

McWhorter

How do we handle the challenge of making a point in a way that a person has time to actually take in without it being considered overly simplified?

Robinson

Oh, that’s slippery. I don’t think leaving out facts that change people’s impression of an incident by showing that the people involved were not doing the thing that you say they were doing is impossible because of the constraints of the likes of which…

McWhorter

Would she have her job if she hadn’t written that? That’s the crucial point.

Robinson

That is the crucial point.

McWhorter

Are you closed to the idea that it is?

Robinson

But the point of the case study is to prove the existence of a religion.

McWhorter

Would the case be different if she hadn’t written that? The religion meant that that could be used in that way.

Robinson

I don’t see that as proof of there being a religion. I see that as proof that people in university departments use small offenses as grounds for carrying out their grudges.

McWhorter

But that wouldn’t be considered an offense of that kind of authority until roughly two years ago, and it’s one example of many that I gave in the book of things happening. Here is somewhere where this religion is extending its tentacle.

Robinson

I look at a lot of the examples, and, as I say, there was more to the Alison Roman incident. Okay, so I’m gonna take this idea. You give what you call this catechism of contradictions where there are all these contradictory things that supposedly, again, these people think you have to believe. One of them is that if you only date white people, you’re racist. But if you date Black people, you’re racist, too. One of them is that you must strive to understand the experiences of Black people, but you can never understand what it is to be Black. One of them has shown interest in multiculturalism, but you’re not culturally appropriate. It strikes me that these are ways of putting it that make therapy a contradiction. But there are ways to reconcile those things perfectly well, like showing an interest in multiculturalism, but not culturally appropriating. For example, there’s not much uproar about Eminem because people understand that he practices a Black cultural form, but he respects it, right? So he shows an interest in multiculturalism, he’s able to practice a Black-developed cultural form, but he doesn’t just lift it without any respect for the artists who created it. And there’s not much uproar among these people who supposedly believe in this contradictory thing.

McWhorter

Yeah, I can see what you mean, and Eminem was allowed. But you might remember that there was a time when he was considered much more controversial about things like this. And then the next thing is, you say he did it with respect, okay. But the question then becomes what that respect means, especially with other cultural forms, and the contradictions really do often cancel one another out. This is what bothers me about the contradictions in particular: if you really do analyze most of them, you could think that our job is to come to a certain kind of middle ground understanding. But then I also say in the book, that the problem is that the sorts of people who police these sorts of things never seem to be able to allow anybody to find the proper middle ground. People are always creating an offense of one kind or another, on the basis of having run afoul of either Column A or column B. Now, you could just call that a society engaged in a constant kind of discussion. But it also means that the race thing, as we call it, often is a very subtle kind of dance, which—and you might think, well, okay, some things are subtle and difficult—doesn’t serve much of a purpose in helping poor Black people who need help, which, as you notice, as the book goes on, is what I’m saying we’re losing sight of.

Robinson

The one area where I do agree is the idea that a prerequisite of policy is trying to figure out the areas in which racism still affects everyday American life, and that this is a difficult project, because racism often operates in quite subtle ways. Oftentimes, the stamp of history lasts a long time. A lot of the people that you call a religion, I treat them as operating in a good faith attempt to figure out lingering deep injustices that are the result of hundreds of years of apartheid in this country. And I really came away wishing that this was a more empathetic book that engaged more deeply with the texts that they write, with sociologists, with anthropologists, and, I don’t know. It felt aggressively dismissive to me in a way that I don’t think makes it possible for good conversations to be had.

McWhorter

Now I respectfully disagree. My dismissiveness about a certain kind of person was sincere. And my question for you would be, if I wrote the book that you just described, what would it be for? You’re talking about engaging all of the ideas of these people and really reaching out to fully understand everything they mean, and coming to a very temperate conclusion. What would the point of that book be? Why do people write books? I mean, I wasn’t writing an academic monograph. I was writing a book for normal people. It was a book of opinion. Why am I not allowed to have an opinion? And if I express an opinion, why is it inappropriate that I express it directly rather than hedging so much? And I’m capable of hedging. But if I had so much, I wouldn’t have said anything. What kind of book is that? I’m just gonna interrupt a little more. I don’t mean that I’m trying to make the book sell. I’m not doing it to prick people’s ears. But if I write a book about hedging, what’s it for?

Robinson

Write a book about hedging? I don’t criticize you for having an opinion. I criticize what that opinion is. No, I think the opinion is wrong and exaggerated. I don’t have an objection to having an opinion. I think that the purpose of the book that I’m describing is to actually persuade people who disagree with you. I mean, I don’t think people who disagree with you will be persuaded by this book. In fact, you say in the book that the audience is people who look around and think the world has gone crazy. So you’re kind of explaining to people who already have the sense that your thesis is right, but the people that you’re writing about, I don’t think are going to be persuaded. And I suppose you said that’s because they’re beyond reason.

McWhorter

Yes. What led you to think I was trying to convince them?

Robinson

Well, I…

McWhorter

I can’t reach them. I’m writing to the people other than them, who are often under the impression—which you may share, but no offense—that those people are pointing our way towards making Black lives better. I don’t think they are.

Robinson

Well, I understand you have to go and I don’t want to keep you any further. I do really appreciate your time. I know I asked critical questions about the book.

McWhorter

It’s all right.

Robinson

Yet I do believe that there is at least some value in getting people together who have profoundly different perspectives. I certainly enjoy it. And I don’t think that the country is ever going to get on a path to better policy if people conclude that those far away from them are not able to be or should not be spoken with directly.

McWhorter

Well, we’re gonna have to agree to disagree, because I think that when we’re talking about this particular disproportionately influential minority of people, yes, I am quite confident that we will get ahead despite what those people think. And despite that they mean it beneficently. I do believe that. But we’ll see. Let’s talk about it in about 10 years.

Robinson

I think you should talk to Coates. You and Ta-Nehisi Coates should sit down for three hours and hash it out. It’d be fascinating.

McWhorter

I don’t think it would.

Robinson

Really.

McWhorter

First of all, I know it. He and I did try to talk to each other about 15 years ago. It did not end well. And you would have to follow the internet trail to find the things that he has said about me. He’s not open to my views, but it’s not about the two of us. It’s in general, a certain frame of mind that says white supremacy is there, it’s incontestable, its nature isn’t contestable, and anybody who has any quibbles is either naive or is out for a buck. There are very reasonable people who genuinely believe that and dialogue therefore becomes impossible.

Robinson

Well, thank you very much, Professor McWhorter, for talking to me today. I wish you all the best.

McWhorter

Thank you, Nathan.

More In: Uncategorized

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

Filled with endless wonders, as well as sensible commentary on war, the family, and the legend of Spartacus.

The Latest From Current Affairs