Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Religiosity Dressed in Justice Clothing

Written by: on December 8, 2022

John McWhorter teaches, writes, and more recently gives many interviews. He teaches at Columbia University on subjects ranging from linguistics to music history to American studies. In “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America,”[1] McWhorter writes a book classified as American history development and status since the Emancipation, but it is anything but a dispassionate accounting of American history and the dynamics of racism. While his broad context is American history, the book comes across more as social commentary illumined by Enlightenment rationalism as he traces the development and impact of what he calls “Woke Racism.” He also offers an alternative path for addressing the impacts of historic and present-day racism through concrete policy and implementation recommendations.

In this book, McWhorter postulates that one manifestation of anti-racism from what he terms the “hard left”[2] has all the markings of a religion.[3] He writes, “With the rise of Third Wave Antiracism we are witnessing the birth of a new religion, just as Romans witnessed the birth of Christianity.”[4] This new religion believes being anti-racist through addressing power differentials/issues of privilege must at the center of everything; it is the only thing that matters; it is the only thing that will bring justice. But, McWhorter argues, actual transformative acts of justice that would improve the lives of black people get lost in the religious-like fervor of pursuing the purity of anti-racist ideology and performance.

In Chapters 1-2 McWhorter lays out his argument, noting the collection of tenets making up this school of anti-racism thought and practice alongside of also describing the components that transform this movement into a religion. Those components include the suspension of disbelief,[5] people who act as preachers of this movement’s core beliefs,[6] this movement’s notion of original sin,[7] the movement’s evangelical and apocalyptic zeal,[8] the adherents’ commitment to banning (canceling) those they deem to be heretics,[9] and this movement’s determination to “supplant older religions.”[10] The way he describes these components called to my mind some of the dynamics of a cult, and I have certainly experienced the ethos of those adhering to this extreme manifestation of anti-racism as cultish.[11] I found it curious that he didn’t make this connection, but rather compared this movement to Christianity in a way that seemed more typical of someone not familiar with a healthy church that encourages freedom of conscience or someone who skeptically stands outside the community of Christian faith.

In Chapter 3 McWhorter discusses what attracts people to this movement, unpacking the history and impact of critical race theory.[12] He follows this in Chapter 4 by discussing how this movement, its ideology, and its practitioners (whom he calls the Elect) harms Black people.[13] In this chapter he especially tackles the issue of identity, writing that the Elect call “…for everyone who isn’t white to found their primary sense of self on not being white and knowing whites don’t quite ‘get’ me.”[14] Finally, in this last two chapters, McWhorter offers his own practical plan for addressing the impacts of racism in three key ways he believes will help Black people (end the war on drugs, teach children to read using phonics, and encourage vocational training as equally valid for preparing adolescents for adulthood)[15] and offers steps for “getting real work done with the Elect around us.”[16]

In many ways this is the world I have been living in and trying to navigate, especially since 2017 when we experienced significant leadership changes in our national offices. Several new colleagues at that time embodied the characteristics of woke racism as described by McWhorter. It’s been painful. At the same time, other new colleagues have truly helped guide our national staff into better practices of being a diverse team who sees and honors each other AND gets some practical transformation work done. What I found most discouraging is McWhorter’s closing counsel that there is no discussion to be had with those who hold this Elect viewpoint.[17] I certainly experience the challenge of engaging anyone who is ideologically driven to the point irrationality. I encounter this on both extreme ends of US life. At the same time, from my time living in the Middle East/Western Asia, I have had the opportunity to listen in on conversations my local Christian colleagues are having with their Muslim counterparts on how best to engage radicalism in their context. And it is not just talk that they share, but they have also developed and implemented transformative actions. Radicalism stems from a different historical context than what we face in a US or European context, but it also shares many of the same features. My colleagues in the Middle East practice self-differentiation (Friedman) and have developed their antifragility capacities (Taleb). This gives them the courage they need to forge a new path (Bolsinger). Their example has encouraged me to stay engaged with my colleagues in the States at our national offices, to ask questions and share feedback, and to continue to contribute to our shared practical work. It has felt like some of the more extreme expressions of this woke ideology has receded and something more helpful and holistic is emerging.


[1] McWhorter, John H. 2021. Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.

[2] Literaturhaus Berlin, dir. 2022. John McWhorter »Woke Racism« - »How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America«. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itWUJmgneWE.

[3] McWhorter., ix.

[4] Ibid., 23-24.

[5] Ibid., 25ff.

[6] Ibid., 28ff.

[7] Ibid., 30ff.

[8] Ibid., 34ff.

[9] Ibid., 43ff.

[10] Ibid., 50ff.

[11] “What Is a Cult? | Characteristics of a Cult & Behavior – Video & Lesson Transcript.” n.d. Study.Com. Accessed December 9, 2022. https://study.com/learn/lesson/cult-characteristics-types-behavior.html.

[12] McWhorter., 61ff.

[13] Ibid., 97ff.

[14] Ibid., 112.

[15] Ibid., 139ff.

[16] Ibid., 151ff.

[17] Ibid., 157ff.

About the Author

Elmarie Parker

10 responses to “Religiosity Dressed in Justice Clothing”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Elmarie, this post was a joy to read. I appreciate your balanced interaction with the material. I shared you disappointment with McWhorter’s caricature of the church. When one builds a straw-man argument, it can be easily dismissed. I can’t remember who, but someone said that Dovstoyeski wrote about deep issue and wrote the different sides of the argument into his characters. Never once did he lessen the argument of the one he argued against. He presented the best of the opposing view. I also appreciate your contradiction of McWhorter’s pessimistic take on the value of discussion with extreme antiracists. What is one lesson you’ve learned in the Middle East that you believe would help the ongoing racism in America?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Roy. Thank you for your thoughtful interaction with my post and for your question. One lesson I’ve learned in the Middle East that I believe would help the ongoing racism in America…great ask. The most significant lesson I’ve learned from my partners who are working in their own radicalized contexts is the importance of inviting people to participate in practical problem solving…what tangible issue is impacting the whole neighborhood? After identifying that, work at solving the problem making use of the skills or insights of everyone around the table. Don’t get lost in ideological debates…stay focused on the practical. What I’ve witnessed is the way this approach has drawn together communities that otherwise had been torn apart by ideological debates and radicalism. From a Gospel perspective, this approach is all about tangibly loving one’s neighbors; one has to listen to the other, hear the other, respect the other, and welcome the other (and their insights/concerns) in order to solve problems that impact everyone.

      • Kayli Hillebrand says:

        I had a similar question to Roy and appreciate your response. It sounds like in your and the work of your colleagues that this asset-based approach in some form of community development has been a key aspect of change and conversation. Have you found any specific questions to pose when conversations or actions get to a stale mate at times?

  2. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Elmaire! Love the title! I am glad to hear you are experiencing more openness from within your national leadership. What particular practices have you found effective in producing this type of change?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Denise. Thank you for your feedback on my post and for your question. I think one of the things that has made a significant difference in how we are organizationally talking about the impact of racism within our own structures is the hiring decisions made by our executive for the people charged with facilitating this conversation and developing the communal practices that are opening up a better way. She hired well–people who are well differentiated and bring the skills needed to effectively navigate complex organizational dynamics and challenging topics (all of which have been centered on better understanding the layers to racism historically and in the present along with better understanding the LGBTQ+ community and issues of harm they have faced/are facing and implications all of this has for what kind of church organization we are called to be). Some of the folks initially leading these discussions within our particular ‘department’ did not and do not have that level of spiritual/emotional maturity or differentiation and so approached things in a very ideological and accusative manner. Those experiences rank up there as one of my top three toxic organizational culture experiences. Not fun.

  3. mm Eric Basye says:

    Great summary. I agree, it is concerning that he gives no room to listen to the Elect. Might as well just write them off, right?!

    If you could magically implement 1-3 “principles” for engaging race matters in the US, what would they be?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Eric. Thank you for interacting with my post and for your question. 1-3 “principles” for engaging race matters in the US, hey? Great question. I think one that I am finding very helpful in my own organization is the value of staying curious. It’s helped me to keep listening to my colleagues, even when their approach to the conversation has been really heavy-handed and they haven’t been all that curious in return. Another has been to pay attention to my reactivity in a conversation–especially when it’s being carried-out in a heavy-handed way. I’ve tried to note my reactivity to myself so that I can further examine that on my own time. That has helped me be able to keep listening and trying to understand in the moment. The third would be humility. There’s just a whole lot I haven’t experienced that my colleagues of color have experienced. Yes, I’ve had a lot of challenges in my own journey that I’ve had to navigate and my own share of paternalism, patriarchy, sexism, etc. to deal with so that gives me some awareness and insight. But my colleagues of color all have their own stories and experiences too and they are different from mine. Their stories reveal different layers to the challenges we need to address as communities if we want to be a society where everyone can thrive.

  4. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Elmarie; You have an interesting perspective because you have spent so much time in the middle east. It is encouraging to hear that the more extreme elements of the woke mob (The Elect) are going away and something more helpful is emerging. It was a helpful book to better understand the woke mentality.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Troy. Thank you for your interaction with my post. I do want to clarify…I don’t think my colleagues who come at these conversations from more of an ideological place have gone away. It’s more that there are others who have been asked to have primacy in shaping how we as a large (over 300 staff) organization talk with each other about race and gender issues. Those colleagues have created a better environment for actually learning and laying a foundation for a different ethos to emerge. It has helped me to develop a more nuanced understanding of the spectrum of ways that the conversation around race and gender can happen AND how some approaches can more favorable generate transformative change that brings everyone along on the journey vs. an ideological approach that insists on uniformity developed through shame and fear. I’ve learned a lot.

  5. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Elmarie, After reading everyone’s blog I still have not got a clear picture of how McWhorter defines religion. One of the major pieces of Christianity is about the deconstruction of the power differentials that seem to be inherent in human ego. So I am perplexed at his comparison.

    ANYWAY….what might a self-differentiated “elect” glean as useful for discussion in this book?

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