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

Right Issue, Wrong Strategy

Written by: on December 7, 2022

John McWhorter’s Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America is a sociological and political polemic with the premise that a new wave of anti-racial justice functions like a religion. The author argues that the results of this approach accomplish the opposite of what it intends. A professor of linguistics at Columbia University and New York Times opinion writer, McWhorter, targets this book not to the conservative right but to liberals in two categories. First, he aims at those who have “innocently fallen under the impression that pious, unempirical virtue signaling about race is a form of enlightenment and political activism.”[1] Second, the author addresses “black people who have innocently fallen under the misimpression that for us only, cries of weakness constitute a kind of strength, and for us only, what makes us interesting, what makes us matter, is a curated persona as eternally victimized souls.”[2] With a similarly and continuously strident tone, McWhorter argues throughout the book against what he terms Third Wave Antiracism, also termed “social justice warriors” of “the woke mob.”[3]

Central to McWhorter’s argument is equating Third Wave Antiracism to a religion. His comparison does not intend the use an analogy but a 1:1 relationship. “I do not mean that these people’s ideology is “like” a religion. I seek no rhetorical snap in the comparison. I mean that it actually is a religion.”[4] The adherents of this new religion are the Elect,[5] its leaders, the priests,[6] its creation myth is slavery,[7] the original sin is whiteness.[8] I have felt the pressures of what the author claims to be a demanded adherence in the form of critique that our church does not speak about racism enough. The phrase “silence is violence” has been used to make that claim. I have also heard from another side that racism is not an issue and is advanced as a way to receive monies under the guise of restitution. Between the two extremes exists a place of acknowledging racism, a place needed by all, including the church. James wrote, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” (James 2:1, ESV) John wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (I John 4:7-8, ESV) Respecting all people with inherent God-given value manifests the heart of God and is an essential aspect of faith.

The week after George Floyd’s death, I spoke with a former Board Chair, an African-American named Reggie. Both extremes were in full voice about that awful incident. Reggie grew up in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. He told me a story told to him by his father in Reggie’s youth. His dad worked and saved to buy a bright yellow Cadillac and finally bought the desired car. On his way home from work one day, two white policemen pulled him over and checked the ownership of the vehicle. Everything checked out. One officer went back to the patrol car and returned with a bat. He said, “That’s too nice of a car for a n***** to drive,” and smashed the front and back lights. When Reggie’s dad returned home, he expressed gratitude that the encounter did not go worse than it did. To deny the realities of racism ignores the obvious.

McWhorter claims that strict alignment with the extreme version of antiracism works against the goal, creating inequity, not equality. The one statement Reggie made that stuck with me goes, “we just want the same chance and the same respect as anyone else.” That sounds simple, but the broken heart of humanity often works against it.

In my opinion, McWhorter’s strongest argument aligns with Reggie’s desire. McWhorter believes that people have value and dignity in their human identity alone. To categorize one group as demons and another as victims works against equality and robs both of identity. He creates a strong case that the extreme version of antiracism works against the goal it claims to achieve.

As a critique of the book, I wonder if McWhorter’s aim to convince others will sometimes miss its target because of his choice of language. For example, when comparing antiracism to faith, the author trivializes faith in ways that make it sound like irrationality. “It is inherent to a religion that, amid various other tenets and commitments. . .one is to accept certain suspensions of disbelief. Certain questions are not be asked or, if asked, only politely. The answer one gets, despite being somewhat half-cocked, is to be accepted.”[9] I feel that an unfair caricature and those targeted in this book may well feel the same.

When talking about the “woke mob,” McWhorter adds that the Elect are intransigent,[10] unreachable,[11] sharks,[12] that reason like ten-year-olds,[13] expecting one to bow down to their mendacities.[14] I believe the strong parts of his argument get lost in language that enflames rather than informs or convinces. Poignant points like “Society is changing not out of consensus, but out of fear”[15] may not be heard above pejorative terms that often result in defensiveness.

The answer to the real issue of racism will not be solved on the extreme of making it everything or the other extreme of making it nothing. Unique in the ancient world, the new community, the church, had a Roman official worship next to a slave, a Jew next to a Greek, and a man next to a woman, each following Someone greater than all and unifying all people in relationship to God and one another. Will the church provide help in the solution to the evils of racism? May its early days inform its present days.

[1] John McWhorter, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America (New York: Penguin Random House LLC., 2021), xii.


[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Ibid., 23.

[5] Ibid., 19.

[6] Ibid., 20.

[7] Ibid., 57.

[8] Ibid., 33.

[9] Ibid., 25.

[10] Ibid., 159.

[11] Ibid., 152.

[12] Ibid., 179.

[13] Ibid., 139

[14] Ibid., 13.

[15] Ibid., 15.

About the Author


Roy Gruber

Husband, father, pastor, student, and sojourner in Babylon

10 responses to “Right Issue, Wrong Strategy”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Roy: I liked this book because I did not know too much about the “woke” movement. McWhorter does a great job of explaining the history and motives of “The Elect.” I spends a lot of time detailing the ways that the movement is a religion but his isn’t wrong. Racism is still an issue in America but the Elect takes things so far they don’t provide any hope. McWhorter provides some hope in the last two chapters and ends it on a positive note.

  2. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Roy, thank you for your insights. I agree with you McWhorter’s choice of terms, especially around Christianity showed that he is a bit antagonistic, and has not experienced a grace filled, unconditional love Christian community. I am interested to hear what you might see is the role of the church in providing an influential culture?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Denise, thanks for your question. To keep from writing a small book in reply, I’ll generalize. I believe too many in the church are trying to win a culture-war with words. I believe a better way to influence culture for the better will come from actions more than words. Acts of compassion, done in Jesus name, with no strings attached speak a powerful language in a world so bent on raging. In our church, we have made a conscious effort to serve outside the walls of the church in real ways. Our trips to Poland to deliver supplies to Ukraine is one example of what that means. Let me put it in vernacular, Christians need to put their actions where their mouth is. Everybody is talking but few bring observable hope for a better way forward.

  3. mm Eric Basye says:

    Great blog. Well stated. I would agree with you, McWhorter’s language is strong, such that it seems more divisive than capable of building bridges. I wonder, how would you suggest he better communicate his points in a way that is more winsome and relatable?

    Also, you might want to check this podcast out with Trabian Shorters. Diane shared it with me. It has been a game changer for me. SImilar to what you state, that all people have value.


    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Eric, thanks for the lead on the podcast and for your question. McWhorter makes some really good points but when you name-call the ones your trying to convince, I believe you only create defensiveness. I mentioned this in a comment to someone else this week – Dovstoyevsky wrote about some big issues and argued for certain directions on those issues. In presenting the other side, the side he did not agree with, he presented it in its best light and argued its strongest points. In the end, he argued for another way, but he respected the opposing view. When people feel disrepected, they are not going to hear your valid points. I think McWhorter’s argument stands on its own merits without using the disparaging names. By analogy, I believe pastors do well to represent the questions or concerns people have about faith, the Bible, and Chrisitans well. Its easy to knock down a straw-man but its not helpful.

  4. Elmarie Parker says:

    Roy, thank you so very much for your blog. I really enjoyed reading it and appreciated both the strengths of McWhorter’s argument that you noted and the challenges that his rhetorical style presents (as well as the limitations of the comparisons he draws with Christianity). What from his insights would you consider integrating into how you as a leadership team and church engage the challenges of racism in your context?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Elmarie, thanks for you kind words and your question. Serving in Utah brings unique challenges with the predominant faith of Mormonism. Utah is not very ethically diverse, though that is changing rapidly right now. This growing diversity will be blessing. I’ll apply your question to the LDS people. Some people make fun of their faith, mock their traditions, and resent their influence. I believe all that does is build barriers and make people defensive. Its one thing to compare beliefs, even noting the differences. It’s another thing to treat people disrespectfully. Increasingly, I believe you cannot reach someone you do not love. To truly love someone, you have to respect them as a person, including their beliefs. McWhorter’s use of strong language and name-calling reminded me of similar language aimed at LDS folks and it has only hurt relationships and effectiveness in this context.

  5. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Roy: Thank you for another thoughtful post. I’m interested to know if you have experienced some of the woke ideologies entering your congregation, even if not as extreme as McWhorter paints the case?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Kayli, thanks for you question. I’m in Utah, which leans to the right as a highly conservative state. If anything, we have more of the other side of the issue – people who deny many of the current racial issues. I believe racism is a real issue on biblical, personal, and social grounds. Most of my engagement on racism have been trying to help people see the issue for what it is – a past and present reality. More and more, we see Califorians moving to Utah, so maybe we’ll see more of the “woke” side going forward – haha. Balance is a good thing.

  6. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Roy thank you for a thoughtful summary.

    First of all, the irony…you said, “The author argues that the results of this approach accomplish the opposite of what it intends.” and then you comment that McWhorter’s language likely will do the very thing he says this new religion is doing…..this made me chuckle.

    We have talked a lot about biases throughout our journey. How would you compare or contrast McWhorter’s biases you find in his thesis with the ones who are the elect?

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