A new intelligentsia is pushing back against wokeness
William Lloyd Garrison, one of the United States’ most important abolitionists, lived with a bounty on his head for much of his life. His newspaper, The Liberator, advocated for an immediate end to slavery, and he faced down a lynch mob more than once for his writing. One of his avid readers was a formerly enslaved person who went by the name of Frederick Douglass. “His paper took its place with me next to the bible,” Douglass wrote of The Liberator in his memoir.
The two met at an abolitionist meeting in 1841 after Douglass stood up and described to the white crowd what it was like to live as someone else’s property. It was a powerful address, though Douglass, only three years removed from slavery, was so nervous he later couldn’t remember what he had said. Garrison became his mentor, retaining Douglass as a representative of the Anti-Slavery Society, publishing Douglass’s work, encouraging his book and sending him around the country to speak about the evils of slavery.
But the two had a bitter falling out in 1847 over the United States Constitution. Garrison believed that the document was pro-slavery, “the formal expression of a corrupt bargain made at the founding of the country and that it was designed to protect slavery as a permanent feature of American life,” writes Christopher B. Daly in “Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism.”
Douglass initially agreed. But by the time he published “My Bondage and My Freedom,” he had reconsidered, and believed that “the constitution of the United States not only contained no guarantees in favor of slavery, but, on the contrary, it is, in its letter and spirit, an anti-slavery instrument, demanding the abolition of slavery as a condition of its own existence, as the supreme law of the land.”
By then Douglass had his own newspaper, The North Star, and he began to advocate for political tactics to end slavery, something Garrison could not abide. In 1851, Garrison withdrew the American Anti-Slavery Society’s endorsement from Douglass’s paper. And then he went further: He denounced Douglass from the pages of The Liberator and did not speak to him for 20 years.
A white abolitionist tried to cancel Frederick Douglass, a formerly enslaved person, for disagreeing about whether America could ever free itself from racism.
Today we are having a new national debate about whether the United States is redeemable, about the nature of its founding figures and documents – even the date of its founding — and what to do with those who dissent. But one side is winning. Since George Floyd’s horrifying murder, an anti-racist discourse that insists on the primacy of race is swiftly becoming the norm in newsrooms and corporate boardrooms across America. But as in Douglass’s day, the sides are not clearly divided along racial lines. A small group of Black intellectuals are leading a counter-culture against the newly hegemonic wokeness.
They are public intellectuals like John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University; Thomas Chatterton Williams, a memoirist and contributor to The New York Times Magazine; Kmele Foster, cofounder of Freethink and host of The Fifth Column Podcast; and Chloe Valdary, founder of a startup called Theory of Enchantment. Also frequently opining against today’s new norms are Glenn Loury, professor of economics at Brown, and Coleman Hughes, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal (Hughes and Loury did not respond to interview requests). Each is contributing to a powerful counternarrative and as a result, their Twitter followers and podcast downloads are exploding. In being anti-woke and having experienced being Black in America (though not all identify as “Black”), these public intellectuals scramble the racial lines of today’s debate, speaking up for many who are too afraid to voice their opinions – and facing down the mob on their behalf.
“If I get canceled,” Williams told me recently, “I’ll get canceled by a white anti-racist. I really believe that.”
It would be wrong to overstate the similarities between these thinkers. They are by no means a coherent group, and disagree about many, if not most, topics. Foster is an anarcho-libertarian. Williams has left-wing politics, and McWhorter identifies as a liberal. Valdary founded a start-up that offers a curriculum of character-building, spiritual solutions to overcoming adversity (Disclosure: I am on the board and she is a friend). Loury is more conservative, and Hughes is perhaps most famous for testifying before Congress against Reparations.
What unites them into an emerging and increasingly influential intelligentsia is their rejection of the racial essentialism they view as ascendant in our current moment – the idea that one must prioritize race over everything else to combat racism.
“Racial essentialism is very reductive and actually oppressive,” Valdary told me. “Ironically, it reduces us as individuals to our immutable characteristics, which is precisely what we were supposed to be fighting against.”
There are two fundamental ways to understand our current cultural moment. In the first view, which is increasingly the ruling one, America needs much more than police reform to end racist police brutality. What’s required is a shift in consciousness that puts aside ideals like a race-blind society in favor of an anti-racist worldview that prioritizes the racially marginalized. In this view, a spate of recent firings and resignations, dubbed by some an illiberal “cancel culture,” is actually marginalized communities finally finding a platform for their views and a voice for their displeasure at problematic opinions they find dehumanizing.
As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez , the New York Democrat, put it in a tweet, “The term ‘cancel culture’ comes from entitlement — as though the person complaining has the right to a large, captive audience,& one is a victim if people choose to tune them out. Odds are you’re not actually cancelled, you’re just being challenged, held accountable, or unliked.”
But there’s a growing pushback against this view that sees our current moment less as a racial reckoning long overdue and more as moral panic as anti-racism becomes increasingly normative.
This view was most cogently presented by a letter defending free speech recently published in Harper’s Magazine and signed by 150 public figures and intellectuals including J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, and Noam Chomsky. The much-needed reckoning over police brutality and inclusiveness has “intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity,” the letter argues, citing instances in which journalists and researchers were fired or resigned for falling afoul of the online mob. “We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.”
A counter-letter with its own long list of signatories accused the Harper’s letter of trying to silence marginalized people; “Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people — particularly Black and trans people — can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern.”
But the racial lines of the letter and counter-letter are not quite so clear cut. Foster, McWhorter, Hughes, and Valdary all signed the Harper’s letter. And Williams spearheaded it.
Williams, whose father is Black and whose mother is white, has written two memoirs. The first, “Losing My Cool,” chronicles his desperate attempts to be considered authentically Black, which was synonymous with being cool in the New Jersey suburb where he grew up. A major impediment to his efforts was his scholarly Black father, called Pappy by Thomas and his brother, who was born into segregation in the South and committed to his sons’ education. Pappy forced Thomas to study with him every day after school, on weekends and throughout the summers of his boyhood. The memoir is about Thomas’s attempt to navigate what he portrays a two competing cultures – nihilistic, misogynistic and anti-intellectual hip hop at school, his father’s 15,000-book library at home.
But if “Losing My Cool” narrates an attempt to fully inhabit a Black identity, Williams’ second book, “Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race,” is his attempt to shed the designation “Black” altogether. In arguing for a post-racial society, Williams lays out what he views as the similarities between today’s anti-racist worldview and that of the racists they are trying to excise from society.
“‘Woke’ anti-racism proceeds from the premise that race is real – if not biological, then socially constructed and therefore equally if not more significant still – putting it in sync with toxic presumptions of white supremacism that would also like to insist on the fundamentality of racial difference,” he writes. “Working toward opposing conclusions, racists and many anti-racists alike eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while any of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice.
“We can simultaneously resist bigotry and imagine a society that has outgrown the identities it preys on,” Williams concludes.
The anti-racist worldview Williams critiqued in his book, which came out in October, is now in hyper-drive. But Williams’ critique has been resonating, too; over the last month, he has gained 30,000 new Twitter followers, and become a lightning rod for the new culture war.
It is not lost on Williams that he is a man who eschewed his identity as Black, and now has new prominence at least in part due to the fact that society still perceives him through that lens.
“What I reject is the biological insistence that Blackness is distinct from other forms of humanity,” he told me recently. “For me, it’s a cultural tradition,” he explained. “It’s a heritage, it’s love of my father, and the world he represents. It’s some of the best artistic achievements that have come out of America; it’s a discipline, as Ralph Ellison said. It means that you are part of a specific group of people in America who descended from slavery.
“I guess in some ways, I would be arguing for a Blackness that’s more like Jewishness,” he went on. “Many of my Jewish friends insist that Jewishness is not racial, it’s ethnic and cultural. It’s a tradition.”
Moreover, Williams in no way denies that racism exists. In “Losing My Cool,” Williams chillingly describes a horrible act of police brutality in which two of his brother Clarence’s teeth were knocked out by two cops inside the garage of the family home. When Pappy told Thomas what had happened, it was only the second time Thomas had heard his father cry. But the experience did not hit Thomas or his brother Clarence the same way.
“This experience hurt and infuriated Clarence,” Williams writes. “But he told me that it never diminished his self-confidence or led him to conclude that as a black man this must be it. The truth here, the hard, inequitable truth, is that Clarence and I actually are freer than Pappy. Though we experience racism – sometimes even violently – it simply fails to define us as it might have had we been born just two or three decades sooner.”
He brings a similar nuanced approach to bear on our current moment. “Certainly, we have a police-brutality problem and certainly there’s racism and certainly that impacts Blacks disproportionately, but we also have a police-brutality problem that kills enormous amounts of whites, Native Americans and Latinos,” he told me. “Oftentimes, we get into this confused conversation where we make class differences racial differences. We don’t really take into account all the very different kind of textures in Black life that exist now.” Many Black people have no contact with the criminal justice system, Williams said. Meanwhile, white people killed by the police get very little attention. Like others I interviewed for this piece, Williams mentioned Tony Timpa, a white man who died in Dallas while handcuffed and pinned to the ground; police officers joked over his dying body for 13 minutes.
Overplaying the racial element not only hinders reforms that would work, Williams argued; it also fuels a dangerous cultural overreach. “I’m 100% supportive of what the Movement for Black Lives has done to raise awareness about police violence and I hope it gets to some real reforms,” he told me. “But the excesses are really worth dwelling on.”
Those excesses include people losing jobs and a chilling of debate in their wake. “The worst thing is that you don’t even allow yourself to think or say things,” he said. “Not many people have to be punished for the self-regulation to take effect. I see that happening already.” His inbox is full of letters from people who are afraid to voice their opinions.
But for many activists and journalists, this is what progress looks like. One of the most convincing on this front is Issac J. Bailey, a journalist and Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. “I am less worried about an overcorrection right now than I am of a resettling of the status quo,” Bailey told me recently.
Bailey takes issue with the way that writers like those who signed the Harper’s letter characterize the anti-racist position on racism and white supremacy. “It does not mean that is the only thing or that it is the most important thing,” Bailey said of race. Rather, “we recognize that it is still an important factor that actually touches all of us in different ways.”
The anti-racists are trying to decenter whiteness. And the goal, Bailey explained, is not to impose uniformity of opinion, but to get people to do some soul-searching, and to recognize when they are having dangerous thoughts that could result in harming people of color.
As proof of the prevalence of racist viewpoints, Bailey provided himself as an example. “I grew up thinking that dark skinned women weren’t beautiful,” he said. “One of the other things I’ve been struggling with is this link between crime and Blackness. Those kinds of thoughts are still with me, and if I am not vigilant about those thoughts, they can guide my actions which might cause real, tangible harm,” he said. “If I can see that within my own life, I find it hard to believe that those kinds of factors aren’t also affecting other people – especially white people.”
Bailey was raised in poverty in Myrtle Beach, S.C. If Williams’ memoir is about the desperate desire to be cool, Bailey never had that option.
At the age of 9, Issac developed a severe stutter after his brother Moochie went to prison for killing a white man. Bailey’s memoir, “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South,” is his devastating attempt to grapple with the survivor’s guilt of making it while Moochie and, later, two of his younger brothers, went to prison. The book is a journey of learning to reject the dichotomy often presented in America between “good black people” and those who get caught up in the criminal-justice system.
It was his experience being made to feel that he was a lesser human because of the stutter — first by children who mocked him, then by well-meaning adults who suggested he try to fix it — that made Bailey reevaluate how to think about race. “When I think of this goal of color blindness, I actually see the same flaw, starting off from this premise that there is something wrong with acknowledging race, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging race,” he said. “It’s how we treat each other based on that acknowledgment that’s the real issue.”
In other words, you do not have to get rid of race to get rid of racism.
For Bailey, Blackness is a shared culture, an amorphous kinship created by a common struggle. And that struggle exists whether you choose to identify as Black or not, because it is imposed on you by society. That American society is finally showing signs of listening to marginalized communities is progress – progress Bailey is scared will evaporate if things like the Harper’s letter gain steam, though he agrees free speech is important.
“Suddenly, all these other voices which have long been silenced are finally being heard, now is when you say things have gone too far, because you don’t like the way that they are using their newfound voice?” he said. “Our time should be spent more on making sure that real, long-lasting change comes out of this moment, than on anything else right now. For me, this kind of letter only takes away our focus from that effort.”
One of the vehicles of the new anti-woke counterculture is The Fifth Column, a podcast hosted by Foster, Matt Welch of Reason Magazine and Michael Moynihan of VICE. The podcast has grown in recent months to a significant listenership; new episodes get about 70,000 downloads in the first week. And the hosts’ inboxes are jampacked with emails from people – lawyers and administrative assistants and grad students – who fear voicing their opinions and being canceled or fired.
Foster, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Freethink, often makes powerful disquisitions on the show from his anarcho-libertarian point of view that are moving even if you don’t agree with him. On a recent episode, he argued that it was not only Black Americans who were the victims of slavery; had it not existed, he argued, the entire country would be more prosperous.
“Think of all the brilliant Africans who were imported to this country by force and pressed into service, and their progeny, which must have included a couple of Einsteins, who were never allowed to achieve anything, who were robbed of opportunity,” he said. “The injury is all of ours. It is collective. It belongs to the country.”
Foster was born in Washington, D.C. His mother is Jamaican. His step-father was born here, and was in high school when Brown v. Board of Education forced schools to desegregate. Foster grew up with two different models and two different understandings of what Blackness meant. It resulted in a kind of racial fluidity.
Today he identifies as “racially agnostic,” which is to say, he doesn’t self-identify as Black.
“I find, both because of the biological and genetic imprecision of race, but even more so because of the fraught contemporary issues that we have with respect to race and the really nasty history of the concept, that I would prefer not to engage with it at all,” he explained to me. “I live at a time in history, in a country where my race simply is not a persistent hindrance to me. My phenotypic traits don’t prevent me from gaining access to any place that I actually want to go. I’m not interested in going to a neo-Nazi meeting or a Klan meeting, and just like most sensible Americans, I wouldn’t actually want to be a member of a white-only golf club.”
Foster’s insistence that he doesn’t have to identify as Black despite living in a society that sees him that way is a radical act. But not everyone sees it that way – at least, initially.
“The first time I met [Foster], he had a bit of a reputation as the Black guy who didn’t self-identify as Black, and I rolled my eyes at that,” Matt Welch, Foster’s friend and co-host on The Fifth Column, told me.
“I’m older than he is and I grew up in Southern California and saw with my own eyes racist policing and the effect that that has, and it’s fundamental to how I look at the world and how I look at politics and policing and a bunch of other things,” Welch told me. “So I went to the obvious knee-jerk, not very well thought out response which is, ‘Oh yeah, so you’re not Black? Go try to catch a cab!’ and it took me a long time to see where he is coming from on that. What I finally realized is that it’s an expression – and this is true of all the anti-woke Black stars – they differ between each other in different ways. But they are all defending individualism.
“Kmele in particular is basically saying, ‘a fundamental reason why I reject this label is, I don’t want your baggage. What you assume what Black means, I don’t want any of that. I’m going to do whatever I’m going to do based on my own choices and my own sense of the world. Some of that is going to look mighty Black to you and some of the stuff is going to look mighty un-Black to you and I don’t give a shit.’ Once I saw it as that, it started to actually make me question my own approach to things.”
Foster’s decision not to identify as Black is a radical insistence on his right to define himself, to live an unqualified life on his own terms. (I wondered if it would offend him for me to describe him as part of a group of Black public intellectuals. He assured me it would not, but suggested I include this struggle in the piece.)
None of this is to say that Foster is naïve about police brutality, a subject he cares about deeply. But he worries that the lens of racism might be clouding, rather than clarifying, the solutions which would put an end to police violence, mass incarceration, and even the income gap.
There is a cost to a false positive, in other words, to identifying something as racist when it’s not. And that cost is not just felt in the solutions it obfuscates, but on a personal level. The way Foster explained it, if he has a negative interaction with someone that is rooted in racism but he chooses to see it as non-racial, he’s lost nothing. But if he has a negative interaction that wasn’t racist and he imposes a racial filter on it, he has lost a piece of his humanity.
To illustrate the point, he quoted from James Baldwin’s seminal book “The Fire Next Time,” in which Baldwin writes that because of the brutality white America metes out against Black Americans, every Black American “risks having the gates of paranoia close on him.”
“In a society that is entirely hostile,” Baldwin says, “and, by its nature, seems determined to cut you down – that has cut down so many in the past and cuts down so many every day – it begins to be almost impossible to distinguish a real from a fancied injury.”
Here’s how Foster put it: “I think conditioning yourself to believe that the whole of the country or the whole of a particular race are at all times and in general disposed to think about you as a racial entity, as opposed to as a human, as an individual, I think that’s probably to your disadvantage.”
The whole discourse of white privilege is similarly insulting, Foster argued. It robs him of his ability to be an individual in a way that is presumptuous and dehumanizing. “In the current moment, everywhere I look I see these signs that say Black Lives Matter, and I see Brooklynites who have scrawled the same slogan on their T-shirt with a Sharpie or something like that,” he told me. “And it’s hard for me to see that, these people who are obviously motivated by good and conceive a sort of injustice, and imagine that there’s something they can do about it.
“But the slogan actually suggests that when they see me, they imagine me as somehow disabled, as somehow disadvantaged,” he added. “They imagine themselves as superior to me, whether or not they conceptualize it in that way. They are privileged and I am not. And nothing could be further from the truth.”
The anti-woke Black intelligentsia is leading a counter-culture to a woke hegemony and the online culture that popularized it. But their views hew more closely to those of most Black Americans than the new antiracism. Polling has long indicated that white liberals express radically more liberal views on racial and social issues than their Black and Latino neighbors. And while police brutality is a real and pervasive problem, the ideas promulgated on Twitter that pass as progressive on the racial front would be foreign to many Black Americans, says McWhorter, the linguist at Columbia University who has been writing about the excesses of anti-racism for years now.
Like Foster and Williams, McWhorter does not deny that police brutality exists. “The cops are not nice to Black people, and that is a very serious problem,” he told me. What he disputes is that Black people are disproportionately killed by the police because of their race, a view he argues cannot be sustained when other demographic data is taken into account.
It’s a controversial claim, but then, McWhorter is no stranger to controversy. In 2000, he wrote a book called “Losing the Race” in which he critiqued what he viewed as a sense of defeatism in the Black community. The book made him a very controversial figure in academic circles, though his job was never imperiled. Still, McWhorter writes in the Afterword to the paperback edition, “the black hate mails are but a trickle amid hundreds of responses from black Americans who are glad I wrote the book and wish me well.”
It reinforced what McWhorter knew from sitting around the extended family table at Christmas. “A lot of this is so different from what that white woke college professor would think these conversations would be,” he told me recently. “They don’t know that you can just sit and listen to Uncle or Cousin whoever, who really sounds much more like Glenn [Loury] and me and Thomas [Chatterton Williams] and Coleman [Hughes] than you might think. And I don’t think that they are rare. It’s not weird Uncle Buster sitting over in the corner spouting off all this conservative stuff. It’s most of the room.”
“The center should be what most Black people around the country feel, which is that racism exists but it’s not everything, and often Black people’s problems are something other than how their white middle-manager happens to feel about them,” he went on. “That’s a very narrow, sclerotic view of what a human being thinks of as the world and their relation to it.”
And yet, it’s increasingly a prevalent one, portrayed in books like Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” which has been at the top of The New York Times bestseller list for a month. McWhorter wrote a scathing piece about the book in The Atlantic recently: “Few books about race have more openly infantilized Black people than this supposedly authoritative tome. Or simply dehumanized us.” McWhorter has also decried the increasingly hostile environment in which people are defrocked for dissenting viewpoints. He’s gotten over 100 emails from people, including many academics, who are afraid to speak their minds for fear of losing their jobs, and he’s a big critic of cancel culture.
I put the counter-argument to him, that cancel-culture is simply the democratization of who gets to set the standards of acceptable speech, now shared with marginalized communities thanks to platforms like Twitter.
“The fact that people can have their say now is great,” he said. “That’s definitely fantastic. But we’re in a situation where a lot of what the people in question want to say is, ‘You’re a heretic,’ and because we’re so afraid of being called that, those of us who disagree with them just let them hold over us. That’s a disproportionate power.”
He went on: “They can always say, ‘If you don’t agree with me, you are a moral pervert.’ And that makes everybody jump. They are not going to use that weapon as responsibly as people prefer. We have to learn to stand up to it, or we’re going to have a perverted society.”
The use of the word “heretic” is intentional. McWhorter was among the first to identify what he sees as a religious component to anti-racism. Back in 2015, he wrote an article about anti-racism as “our flawed new religion,” and he is currently working on a book about it.
I tend to resist this characterization. In the current online culture, there are as yet no parameters for forgiveness or grace, central tenets of many religions, including my own, Judaism. Judgment is swift and severe. And there doesn’t seem to be much sense of a collective, of mutual responsibility or fellowship that transcends opinions; you are worthy of belonging so long as you hold certain views, and when you don’t, there is only collective judgment and closing ranks. Anti-racism seems to forestall the very things we turn to religion for: a sense of belonging based on good deeds and intentions, collective meaning that transcends the boundaries of the individual, and reassurance that though we are fallible, we can yet be redeemed because we can change.
McWhorter explained that he views anti-racism as religious in the sense that it requires suspension of disbelief. “You have to allow something that doesn’t strictly make sense, that’s part of how religion works,” he explained. “And third-wave anti-racism has an enormous chunk of that.”
As for a sense of the collective, he clarified that he wasn’t thinking of things in an individualistic way. “There are different kinds of Blackness than we’re often told; that’s where I’m coming from,” he explained. “I’m thinking more in terms of collective, of what Black America would be like if actual Black America rose up, as opposed to a certain articulate radical fringe that gets covered by The New York Times and MSNBC,” McWhorter told me. “I would want it to be, people rising up saying, ‘We are self-standing people who like ourselves, who want certain things to happen for our community and we’re going to tell you how it should be and we’re going to work out how those things are going to come about, and that includes protesting against the police. But we do not need anybody to think about being privileged over us, we do not need a psychological revolution in how white people feel; we frankly don’t care that much how white people feel about us.’”
Valdary, too, pushes back against the way the Black community is being portrayed in the anti-racist discourse. “Right now, it is in vogue to portray Black American lives as just depressing,” she told me. “I find that insulting because my life is not depressing.”
For Valdary, who is a close friend of mine, the collective at stake is not only Black America but all of us, the Beloved Community described by Dr. King. She believes the hyper-focus on race in the current anti-racist discourse stems from a spiritual deficit plaguing America more generally. “I think that spiritual problems manifest in different ways and it’s certainly the case that, at least with regards to police brutality, it manifests in racial ways,” she explained. “But the source of it is not racial, the source of it is a spiritual problem. And this is something that everyone from Dr. King to James Baldwin recognized when they were writing in the 60s and 70s.”
Valdary sees herself as the inheritor of a rich heritage of Black thinkers like Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou, who also took a stand against racial essentialism. Like the others I interviewed for this piece, her opinions are steeped in conversation with these writers of previous generations.
“People don’t have a real touchstone for reality,” she explained, citing Baldwin again. “People have lost their ability to have a healthy relationship with themselves and others and they have lost their ability to derive meaning from their own lived experiences and are seeking meaning from political wars and identifying politically in a certain way.” This is true of most Americans, regardless of race, Valdary said. And it is only together that we find our way to spiritual healing.
“Not only for our own sake but for the sake of the Beloved Community as Dr. King envisioned it, it is our responsibility to carry forth the rich tradition of our ancestors but also to try to bring into fruition the real egalitarian society that is the reflection of the vision of our ancestors for both Black and white Americans alike.”
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward. You can email her at [email protected].