Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion

By John McWhorter

Opposition to racism used to be a political stance. Now it has every marking of a religion, with both good and deleterious effects on American society.
An anthropology article from 1956 used to get around more than it does now, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” Because my mother gave it to me to read when I was 13, of course what I remember most from it is that among the Nacirema, women with especially large breasts get paid to travel and display them. Nacirema was “American” spelled backwards—get it?—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 antiracism. Of course, most consider antiracism a position, or evidence of morality. However, in 2015, among educated Americans especially, Antiracism—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.

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 Antiracist. 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.


1 reply »

  1. I do not think ‘racism’ means anything.
    Xenophobia and bigotry are pretty much typical, and they may shift categories, but they never go away in most people. If people can’t call you racial names they’ll just find other things to exclude others on and/or find other people to blame things on.

    I find identarianism crabbed and obnoxious, but I have absolutely no idea why ‘discrimination’ is supposed to be something anyone cares about. If you were against chattel slavery or low IQ neighbors in 18th century USA you’d be against African immigration either way. So who’s the raysist?

    I’m fine with taking in people who can learn how to speak and behave, and at least with brown people and barbarians they’re not welded to the Empire and its religion (though their kids might be). That being said, the desire for some people to live around nothing but NW Europeans and NE Asians is pretty logical, especially if you look at studies that show how difficult it is for people to communicate with anyone ~20 IQ points lower or higher than them. A very intelligent person (~130 IQ) stands about no chance in Hell of finding an intelligent black man or Mexican unless he is already somewhere that selects for intelligence or encourages self-selection along those lines. Thus, even if you are a mulatto from Turkey, if you are reasonably intelligent you’re probably a lot less likely to be frustrated and singled out if you choose to live amongst the Chinese or Dutch.

    Now it would be great if there were less crude ways to discriminate among populations, and to segregate along lines of compatibility, but as long as this is literally against the law what would you expect?

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