THE ELECT: THE THREAT TO A PROGRESSIVE AMERICA FROM ANTI-BLACK ANTIRACISTS
Serial excerpt No. 7: Why do so many kind, intelligent people join something so illogical and punitive?
(Folks, this excerpt is on the long side. There isn’t really a place to stop until the next time. I promise no other post will be quite this long.)
From a certain distance it looks like we are dealing with people who “went crazy.” But that won’t do. How many people can we realistically tar as insane? In which human society have a critical mass of people become mentally deficient? Yet we want to know just why this new religion arose.
A religion soothes. It helps people make sense of things. The question is why this particular religion, promulgated so often with such sneering contempt, soothes so many.
CRITICAL RACE THEORY SAYS WHAT?
Its current grip on America as a whole starts with developments among a certain group of legal scholars a few decades ago. No one was chanting their names in protests about George Floyd, or while deep-sixing someone for tenure in an academic department, or while suspending someone from a newspaper, or while excommunicating someone for “problematic” – i.e. blasphemous – views. But the difference between good old-fashioned left and modern Elect starts with, for example, legal scholar Richard Delgado teaching nonwhites to base their complaints about injustice not on something so “rigid” as objective truth, but upon the “broad story of dashed hopes and centuries-long mistreatment that afflicts an entire people and forms the historical and cultural background of your complaint.”
This kind of argument was the source for the one now so familiar, that if a brown person says they have encountered racism, then it is automatically indisputable that they did, and if you don’t agree it makes you “problematic.” Or, the left of 1980 transmogrified into the left of 2020 on the basis of ideas such as this one by legal scholar Regina Austin, urging:
“a new politics of identification, fueled by critically confronting the question of the positive significance of black lawbreaking, might restore some vitality to what has become a mere figure of speech … drawing on lawbreaker culture would add a bit of toughness, resilience, bluntness, and defiance to contemporary mainstream black political discourse, which evidences a marked preoccupation with civility, respectability, sentimentality, and decorum.”
In other words, politics needs a jolt of some gott-damned street!! Yes, this was from a scholar of jurisprudence, and its like was the fount of the idea that for brown people, the old rules don’t matter. Forget (fuck?) civility or even logic (see Delgado above) – it’s all about how you feel, and specifically about how you hate the reigning order. Critical Race Theory tells you that everything is about hierarchy, power, their abuses, and how to not be Caucasian in America is to be akin to the captive oarsman slave straining belowdecks in chains.
Almost anyone sees what a reductive view this is of modern society, even having read their Rousseau or Rawls. We must not be taken in by the fact that this is called “critical,” that it’s about race and that it’s titled a “theory.” It is a fragile, performative ideology, which goes beyond the passages above to explicitly reject linear reasoning, traditional legal theorizing, and even Enlightenment rationalism. We are to favor an idea that an oppressed race’s “story” constitutes truth, in an overarching sense, apart from mere matters of empirical or individual detail.
If it seems odd that adults would ever have taken this seriously, it felt less fantastical in growing out of deconstructionism in literary studies. This new way of reading – and by extension, thinking – claimed that a text cannot convey any single truth, and that rather, a text inevitably contains contradictions to its own claims, such that the nature of a text is the infinite messages that we draw from it as disparate readers. No text can firmly state anything.
All of this begins as an interesting challenge to what we think of as truth and even reality, requiring close reasoning, intelligent imagination, and even a sense of sociohistorical progressivism. The problem is that in real life, it has diluted into things like the senseless self-contradictory catechism on race we saw in the first entry of this series,“ presented as enlightenment.
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories authoritatively explores the origin of Critical Race Theory in this point of view and how it then morphed into today’s Elect positions. I shall not restate their teachings here, but recommend their book to those interested. For our purposes, “CRT” is the root of the idea today, seemingly so senselessly manipulative from the outside, that any claim of racism a black person makes must qualify automatically as valid because … they are black and speaking from “their experience.”
For anyone who perceives that this makes no sense at all because any human’s take on something might be erroneous, they are unlikely to get a genuine explanation from people espousing it. The black person has usually internalized the assumption subconsciously and embraced it as almost any human would, as a tool that keeps people from disagreeing with you – who wouldn’t find something like that at least preliminarily attractive? The white person embraces it as a way of showing how thoroughly they understand that racism exists (and, I suspect, often out of a quiet sense that if black people insist on this they must, deep down, be somewhat cognitively deficient and that therefore the most humane strategy is to just placate).
Predictably, the typical law professor leaves CRT alone and hopes no one espousing it comes for them, as most people have better things to do than get called dirty names over something they only care so much about anyway. That its signature proponents have usually been people of color makes critiquing the “theory” especially forbidding to most. Those who deign to take on CRT beyond polite quibbles, if they do it where people will really hear it, are dismissed as racists or, if of color, just plain broken, as was black Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy in the wake of a 1989 article.
As such, its tenets have been free to trickle down into real life, to a point that most Elect have never even heard of the theoretical work itself, anymore than those who espouse “rights” of various kinds can usually recite their Locke. CRT ideals now come baked into the hard left. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, for example, reads in the present tense like a bizarre exercise in mind control created by someone bent on manipulation and getting paid. That’s a misinterpretation: it is a workbook based on principles foundational in seminars of Critical Race Theory, which its author sincerely believes in, promoting it out of a sense of benevolent mission.
Or: amidst nationwide anti-cop protests, National Public Radio interviewed the author of a book called In Defense of Looting (no, not an Onion parody!). The book “attacks some of the core beliefs and structures of cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalist society” and argues that ownership rights are “not natural facts, but social constructs benefiting a few at the expense of the many, upheld by ideology, economy and state violence.” So burn, baby, burn is progress? This way of looking at things traces directly to the kind of things we saw Regina Austin putting forth a page ago.
There is no better illustration of this legacy than proceedings of a New York City school board meeting in 2020, viewable on line, in which perfectly sane people spout in all earnestness rhetoric straight out of the Elect playbook, singing of White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist as if they were written by St. Augustine, telling people to read them but unable to explain their tenets themselves (i.e. “All I know is it’s in the Bible!!!”), incapable of engaging in meaningful activity out of their unreachable intolerance of anyone who doesn’t think the way they do.
The highlight of this session is a white Elect who waxes indignant when a white man has a black child on his knee at the meeting, claiming that such sights hurt “them” (i.e. us poor black people for whom seeing that is like watching our children dandled by David Duke). Never mind that it turned out that this man was good friends with the child’s mother and that their children were growing up together. On line these Elect look, frankly, like self-satisfied idiots. However, they are ultimately innocent descendants of graduate students circa 1997 carrying their copies of Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller & Thomas (one of the signature early CRT anthologies).
WHY DO WHITES BECOME ELECTS?
Thus an obscure legal theory now feeds directly into a modus operandi that leads to indefensible suspensions, firings and shamings nationwide, with its supporters seeing this, in all sincerity, as justice done in preparation for a brave new world.
But why would this way of thinking spread from law seminars into the rest of the world? What have people found so attractive about this way of thinking that they not only adopt it as their life’s creed, but are even comfortable insulting, abusing, and destroying people on the basis of it?
This is an especially urgent question in that Critical Race Theory reads especially “crazy” from the outside. I can think of few intellectual constructs that seem, on their face, less likely to seep into America’s kitchens and living rooms (other than deconstruction, which didn’t!). Critical Race Theory makes Marxism look like beef stew. But here we are with ordinary people channeling Critical Race Theory tenets barefooted. And maybe playing the ukulele! Why?
The answer differs according to whether one is white or, to use the term of the moment, BIPOC.
With whites, to be Elect is a natural outcome of the transformation of the left from what philosopher Richard Rorty termed a Reformist left to a Cultural left after the 1960s. This begins with a proposition that the American system is too rotten to merit reform, and that true justice will require our entire set of cultural values to change. As with literary deconstruction, this in itself is an interesting idea that belongs “at the table.” However, an almost inevitable outgrowth of it is an inward turn in its adherents, wherein one’s commitment is driven more by how it feels to be someone with the message rather than the message alone.
As Rorty put it in Achieving Our Country, one comes to feel that self-expression is, in itself, a kind of persuasion, in that since you have the “proper” ideals, how you feel must, by itself, carry a certain moral and even logical authority. No human being can sit and review basic principles and their validity on a daily basis, and thus after a while, this Cultural Leftist has come to suppose that their sentiments are a kind of political manifesto in themselves.
The result is what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have called “folk politics,” under which a prime attraction, embodied partly in the idea that to vent is to reason, is that we can “reduce complexity down to a human scale.” Electism is presented as complex – i.e. in requiring the “work” we are told is necessary – but it is also, in being motivated by a simple quest to show that one is not a racist, rather easy. Easy is always attractive to all of us: Electism is a kind of politics hack.
Poet Czeslav Miłosz captured that conformity lends an outright sense of pleasure and relief. Who among us doesn’t enjoy a sense of having it all figured out? That rush of joy from solving an algebra problem, that sense of peace from figuring out the overriding reason that a romantic relationship went bust, or even the soothing feeling you get when first noticing that the app you download onto your phone will also pop up on your iPad so that you don’t have to do it twice – to have a sense that all you have to do is push a button and everything falls into place can be a gorgeous thing.
Electism is one more in an endless succession of political philosophies offering this sense of coherence. It can exert even more of a siren call than many, such as Marxism, in its more immediate object of attention. The Marxist works for an abstract proletariat often difficult to motivate or even quite identify in real life. The Elect works for, as it were, George Floyd – he was no abstraction.
To be sure, to be a proper Elect is to embrace a self-flagellational guilt for things you did not do. Yet even this, oddly, feels good. It is a brand of the “Western masochism” that philosopher Pascal Bruckner has taught us about. Pundit Douglas Murray nails it on this: “People imbibe because they like it,” he tartly puts it. “It lifts them up and exalts them. Rather than being people responsible for themselves and answerable to those they know, they become the self-appointed representatives of the living and the dead, the bearers of a terrible history as well as the self-appointed redeemers of mankind. From being nobody one becomes somebody." Murray was referring to the left’s take on Islam, but the analysis applies just as well to today’s Elect take on black people.
Hence what Émile Durkheim called a “collective effervescence,” amidst which we find the explanation for the awkwardness of Elect whites being woker than most black people. Polls have shown this, and it is reflected in episodes such as a call in the Scrabble championship world in 2020 to disallow the N-word and other slurs. This was a delicate issue lending itself to many views, but it was indicative that black Scrabble players were less interested in expunging these slurs than white ones.
Repeatedly The Elect verge on telling black people – the supposed object of their veneration and eternal moral commitment – that they don’t know what’s good for them. For example, black people in tough neighborhoods commonly revile the idea that we ought “defund” the police because of what happened to George Floyd and so many others. However, The Elect narrative – promoted heavily by mainstream media sources -- sidelines this resistance as something that merely merits “consideration” (and of a kind the qualifies largely as dismissal). The condescension here is brutal, and what drives this squaring of the circle is religious fervor, complete with the sense of personal pleasure that it lends. The joy of finding order and of feeling important overrides how black people actually feel.
It is this kind of thing that leads so many to think The Elect are “crazy,” but it has often been argued that Electism simply fills a hole left after the secular shift among thinking Americans especially after the 1960s. Under this analysis, it is human to need religious thought for a basic sense of succor, such that if institutional religion no longer grounds one’s thought, then some similarly themed ideology will come in to serve in its place.
I will leave it to philosophers and theologians to explore that possibility in depth. However, it is hard not to see prescience in predictions such as Sigmund Freud’s – which he meant in warning, not celebration, that:
“If you wish to expel religion from our European civilization you can only do it through another system of doctrines, and from the outset this would take over all the psychological characteristics of religion, the same sanctity, rigidity and intolerance, the same prohibition of thought in self-defence.”
Here is an Austrian psychoanalyst in 1927 writing in German about, precisely, what would manifest itself in America a hundred years later as a book like White Fragility being brandished at PTA meetings, and organizations paying Ibram Kendi $20,000 for a 45-minute interview on Zoom. We don’t use the word religion to describe these modern peculiarities, but note how perfectly normal they seem when we do.
BLACK PEOPLE SETTLE FOR ELECTISM TO FEEL WHOLE.
This brings us to why black people choose being Elect. It can’t be enjoying the pride in sticking up for another group, because they are the group. Black people certainly are not virtue signalling to one another. The condescension alone in Elect philosophy about black people alone would, under other conditions, leave Electism as white as Q-Anon, and it isn’t just about Scrabble or even the cops. We're so frail we can't bear watching a white person hold one of our kids on their knee?
Or, the idea that our main focus must ever be on smoking out remnant racist bias implies that this bias is a conclusive obstacle to black success. But no such argument has ever been made for any other group in the history of the human species. We, and only we, because of something peculiar to post-industrial conditions in one nation, can only truly look forward upon an upending of basic procedure. We, and only we, require a vast transformation in psychosocial and distributional procedure in what is, despite its flaws, a functioning democratic experiment in which open racism is prohibited to a degree unknown to human history before five decades ago, and to a degree that would have been considered science fiction as recently as just three decades ago.
This idea paints black people as mentally and spiritually deficient children, and yet legions of black people have learned to espouse it with tearful sincerity, today often eagerly subscribing to the Catechism of Contradictions. Why do so many black people settle for it?
It can be counterintuitive that a major reason is insecurity.
It will surprise no one that a people treated like animals for centuries, under slavery, Jim Crow, and then redlining, came out with a damaged racial self-image. There is no mother country to look back upon in any real way – a black woman from Atlanta is much more like a white one than she is like a woman from Senegal. Black Americans will never occupy a separate nation of any kind to start all over again. We are all we’ve got, and in the 1960s, something odd happened.
Segregation was outlawed, and outward racial attitudes began changing with unprecedented rapidity. In 1960 black America lived under pitiless Jim Crow and many whites, even educated ones, barely understood when they were accused of prejudice against black people. Think of how most of the Mad Men characters felt, if at all, about race. By 1970, Jim Crow was gone and educated whites, at least, were acutely aware of what racial prejudice meant, with new terms like systemic racism also now all but inescapable. Think of the endless ridicule of bigotry on Norman Lear sitcoms like All in the Family and Maude on television.
This was a wonder. It is underacknowledged today what a badge of honor this was, upon a nation we are now told is so morally irredeemable on race. However, it had an unexpected after-effect. Segregation was outlawed from on high, with Black Americans not having had to endure the long, slow clawing our way into self-sufficiency regardless of prevailing attitudes that other groups had dealt with. In the grand scheme of things, it was a moral advance for the country that a subordinate group did not have to simply make the best of the worst with no questions asked; none of us would want to rewind the tape and play things out again without the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
But still: this had an ironic by-product: it meant that black people could not have a basic pride in having come the whole way despite and amidst unreachable dismissal and pitiless, overt roadblocks that we slowly but ultimately just pawed past and over and beyond. Driving the Civil Rights movement? This we had done, and it worked. But it was about changing the rules, and in a way, this was less useful in fostering true, gut-level, no-questions-asked pride. We could not say that we clawed our way to where we got despite whites just staying the way they were.
Black people were never as utterly shattered and “hollowed out” as Randall Robinson argued, but the reason black children chose white dolls in the famous experiment of the 1950s was a damaged racial self-image. Even black kids had already been imprinted with a subliminal idea that white is better than them. A decade-plus later after the Civil Rights victories, the proud dissemination of slogans like Black is Beautiful were, in their way, a symptom of the same inferiority complex. What was notable was that the very concept of black being beautiful needed to be stressed at all.
Or, Black Power? If you went back in a time machine and talked to assorted black movers and shakers in about 1970 you’d find little agreement as to just what that term meant, other than as a rhetorically punchy variation on Black is Beautiful. It was a reminder that black people could be strong – but again, the reminder was necessary, and it also pointed to little that could actually be done. It left a hole still gaping.
A people seek a substitute sense of pride and positive identity in circumstances like this. An available “hack,” as we might put it today, was the status of noble victim. To all but the very most smitten fellow travelers with black people, it has always been quietly clear that much of our discourse on race entails a certain exaggeration of just how bigoted most whites are, of just how set against black achievement society has been since about 1970. Racism, in all of its facets, is real, but since the late 1960s, a contingent of black thinkers have tended to insist that things were as bad as they were in 1940, leaving even many black people who actually experienced Jim Crow a tad perplexed and even put off.
There is a reason for this exaggeration. If you lack an internally generated sense of what makes you legitimate, what makes you special, then a handy substitute is the idea of yourself as a survivor. If you are insecure, a handy strategy is to point out the bad thing someone else is doing – we all remember that type from our school days – and especially if the idea is that they are doing it to you.
Before the late 1960s, too few white Americans would have even felt it necessary to hear black people out on this perspective. Once a critical mass of whites were, the stage was set for a sea change in what was considered “authentic” black thought. Whites – or at least, a critical mass of them -- now eagerly took on assuaging black grievance as a mission. This allowed a black person, if they chose, to build an identity on pointing constantly to a racism “in the air,” even if the stark reality of old-school bigotry was receding quickly into the past.
What I have just outlined is couched perfectly by Shelby Steele, my first inspiration on race issues. Those who want to fully understand how so much of what frustrates us in our race dialogue is driven by insecurity can do no better than consult his The Content of Our Character. It’s getting old now, but only in the way that wine does.
“THE RACE THING” MAKES SENSE AS A RELIGIOUS FAITH
Only in understanding this insecurity at the heart of modern black identity does the black embrace of Electism make sense from the outside. Twenty years ago a black rapper actually came out and admitted “I’m valid when I’m disrespected” in justifying the violence in his lyrics in an interview with a white reporter. That is an odd thing for any human being to say, on its face. But for many black people, pointing to being disrespected is a prime driver of their sense of purpose and self.
In 2020 after George Floyd’s murder, for a while there were self-cancelling strains of tweet and editorial. Some were from black people annoyed that whites were writing them in solidarity rather than taking to the streets (“I Don’t Need ‘Love’ Texts from My White Friends”). Some were from black people annoyed that white people were not writing in sympathy on social media (“Why Not Saying Anything is Actually Saying a Lot”). The former sorts would say they wanted the people to use their feet instead of their fingers, but then the latter sorts were quite happy with just the finger support.
A white person could be pardoned in having no idea what to do here, as onlookers joyously “Liked” both strains of accusation. Some see this kind of thing as black people deliberately throwing up smokescreens, but nothing so targeted was happening. Rather, unconnected people were happening upon separate ways of fulfilling the single Elect imperative: of having something to accuse white people of as an ersatz kind of pride. That the charges made no sense together was of no importance (more of our Catechism).
One of the people who got the woman fired who attended a Washington Post party in blackface said that she only started pursuing this woman’s ouster afterward rather than at the party itself because she felt “unsafe” doing so there. However, at this party, we can be quite sure that most of the attendees were in varying degrees of sympathy with her discomfort with the face paint, and for the record this person is also 6’1”. It is hard to believe that she felt genuinely unsafe either physically or even socially; we frankly dishonor her by pretending she could have. She claimed so because to her, the claim of victimhood lends a sense of significance. It can feel like it is the essence of what makes a black person matter.
Many readers will recall times when they have seen a black person attesting to the racism they encounter doing so with a smile on their face. One forgets how odd this is. A black teen at the Black Lives Matter protest site in Seattle in 2020 had himself recorded telling whites that black people are ”holier” because of the victimhood we suffer, and smiling as if he was talking about how good his lunch was. It’s because if noble victimhood founds your sense of self, talking of the racism you have encountered is pro-active self-presentation, of a kind almost anyone would engage in with a basic life force, an enjoyment in activity, interaction, and sharing.
The sharing part is key. To be a black Elect is to have a sense of belonging. This is attractive to the white Elect as well, but it can exert an especially powerful pull when one is black. Electness tilts educated, and many educated black people wrestle with a sense that they may be seen as having left their community behind, that they are not engaged in what used to be called The Struggle. One way to ease that sense of being a prodigal is to adopt an identity as a beleaguered black person, where you are united with all black people regardless of social class or educational level by the common experience of suffering discrimination.
But the theme here is that being Elect can be, for a black person, like a warm blanket. You belong to something. Anyone who questions how “black” you are because of your speech, appearance, interests, or upward mobility is likely to hush up if you’re on the barricades with them decrying the racism of your university – or later, your workplace, town, or country. Marx warned, in his Inaugural Address to the International Working Men’s Association in 1864, of a “solidarity of defeat,” where what energizes people’s sense of themselves as a group is obstacles forced on them from an enemy above. Marx thought of this as a holding pattern and urged true revolution; black America can seem oddly stuck in almost brandishing the defeat as a badge of pride. But this is understandable as a kind of therapy. Humans seek pride where they can get it.
It must be clear, then, that much of what can seem confusing about many black people’s take on racism is due not to manipulativeness but to filling a hole, in a way all humans seek to in assorted ways. Black people insisting that black America can do no better than okay until racist sentiments no longer exist, societal procedures are of a kind that will yield no racial disparities, and all Americans can perform a lengthy recitation on black social history are fixing themselves. Their alienation is therapeutic.
BLACK ELECTNESS IS OLD-SCHOOL.
The pathway is short, then, between Critical Race Theory's celebration of communal "narrative" over empirical truth and this modern black frame of mind in which a certain kind of exaggeration is allowed to pass as a kind of alternate form of honesty. In fact, in black America the seeds for it were planted even earlier.
Many readers may have noticed that the kind of ideology I am addressing hardly began in 2020, or even 2010 or 1990, and has been especially familiar from a certain segment of black people for a very long time. It was in the 1960s and 1970s that a fashion emerged among black intellectuals to seek not just the social but the psychological transformation of America, a fraught and largely fruitless mission whose results were less important than its affording an ongoing reason to wax pessimistic.
Here’s a bit of an actual encounter group session from about 1970, where a black psychiatrist squares off against a white woman:
Woman: I don’t relate towards you, towards color or anything else, I relate towards every single person here as an individual.
Psychiatrist: You’re lying, you’re lying, you’re lying!
Psychiatrist: If I would say “you look like a little boy to me, I just don’t see anything” you’d say I was crazy because you’re a woman. ... If I could neutralize you in some way this is exactly what white folks do to black folks.
Many will recognize this as what became precisely the “racial healing” in the sessions Robin DiAngelo espouses in White Fragility. The construct predated her by a long shot, and it was as performative and futile then as it is now.
Sessions like that illustrate that among black people, the Elect kind of thought has been established among many for a very long time. What distinguishes our era is how many white people have taken up the politics of black radicalism since about 2013, and especially since 2020. To wit: the essence of The Elect's new moment is a critical mass of white people coming to think like a charismatic hard-left contingent of black people have been thinking for decades.
Some black people’s response will be that America only listens to the truth when white people take it up. But that’s just it: what’s being taken up is not “truth.” The hard-left, endlessly pessimistic take on race among a certain gorgeously countercultural contingent of black people, who started with dashikis and now sit in faculty meetings demanding that their colleagues testify to their racism, has always been longer on showbiz than results. For all of the fascination it exerts, black America’s gains since the 1960s have happened in spite of, not because of, black radicalism. Whites are now taking up the same banner in our names – but who among us will say that whites’ participation proves that a black agenda is truth?
Thus when Representative Ayanna Pressley casually says “If you’re not prepared to come to the table and represent that voice, don’t come, because we don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice,” she probably isn’t thinking about Richard Delgado and Regina Austin. She’s saying something that legions of black people would have applauded long before Critical Race Theory even existed. She means a general idea that being oppressed by white racism defines the black American condition, experienced by all of us to a crushing degree, such that to deny or even downplay it can only be read as dishonest, and therefore inauthentic. Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver were as comfortable with that kind of view fifty years ago as Pressley is now. The difference today is that so many whites now think of this view not as defeatist oversimplification from certain black radicals, but as truth they are morally bound to evangelize.
When anyone questions this Manichaean take on racism in modern America, the Elect black person often responds with white-hot fury. That has been the case since about 1966, and leaves onlookers wondering why they are so impatient with differing views. This misses the essence of the matter. The fury is that of someone who feels one’s entire sense of purpose and legitimacy as a human being under interrogation and threat. This response is not confusing in the least when we perceive its religious nature.
OTHER WAYS OF BEING BLACK
If we seek an anthropological kind of analysis of where our society is at this point, we must understand that this Elect frame of mind is not universal among black people, or even dominant beyond the highly educated.
Especially these days, it will be difficult for many people to imagine that there is, or has ever been, a “black” way of thinking other than that of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ayanna Presley. It may seem to confer a certain legitimacy on the white Elect, the idea being that all black people except the occasional quisling have always thought this way, and whites are advanced in joining us at last.
But while Elect thought goes a ways back with black people, it has never been anything close to universal. A neat illustration is a 1971 episode of the sitcom All in the Family, created a time when one can be pardoned for supposing that all black thought paralleled that of Angela Davis and Amiri Baraka.
Two young black men break into Archie’s house, and “knee-jerk liberal” son-in-law Mike warmly tells them that he understands that they are doing this because of the hopeless conditions they grew up in. The burglars actually laugh at this and feel diminished by it, sensing themselves as more complex individuals than that. It bears mentioning that one of them is played by Cleavon Little, with the same serenely one-step-ahead-of-y'all demeanor he infused his signature Blazing Saddles role with a few years later. In other words, burglars' take is portrayed as the sophisticated one.
So much for the idea that black lawbreaking will teach white people a lesson and that the black condition is summed up by oppression. And this episode was written by whites who considered themselves enlightened about “the race thing,” something that the show’s creator Norman Lear considered a defining commitment. That this episode’s premise would feel like an alternate universe today in a Spike Lee movie is evidence that progressivism manifests itself differently according to era. We must contrast that All in the Family episode with a routine familiar to any New York subway rider today: black boys peddling candy and noting “We’re just trying to keep out of trouble,” as if it is inevitable that trouble would find them if they weren’t engaged in (illegal) commerce underground.
Okay, the All in the Family episode was created by whites; the burglars were fictional characters. But they reflected how many black people thought back in the day, in no way considering it cosmically inevitable and pardonable that black people underperform and commit crimes because the playing field isn’t level. In 1957, an epsiode of the television documentary series See It Now covered segregation and its damage to black lives. A black writer sent in a letter complaining that the show did not show “the many of our race who are on top.” To this person, the idea of keeping black success under wraps out of a quest to keep whites guilty made no sense – and anyone who wants to say that the letter writer was naïve must remember that they grew up in Jim Crow America.
Similarly, in the 1950s, black leaders criticized the minstrelesque television sitcom Amos ‘n Andy for not showing enough successful black people – as opposed to 15 years later when a new generation of black writers roasted the sitcom Julia, about a middle-class nurse, for not showing enough poverty and racism! These critics were the new black Elect. The ones who had protested Amos ‘n Andy had known an America where lynching was regular, and yet to the new bunch, the old guard’s interest in seeing black success on television was naïve.
In 1966, the Detroit branch of the National Urban League distributed little theatrical sketches, showing how inner-city kids could get jobs more easily. In one, “Mo,” who says “uh-huh” and “naw, man” and dresses how he wants to, doesn’t get the job; he gets one when he uses standard English with the interviewer and dresses professionally. Today, The Elect cringe at the idea of a black kid being made to conform to the ways of the oppressor, but in 1966 that would have been a back-of-the-room opinion held only by a few. Yet what would justify saying that the Elect take on “Mo” is an advance? What alternate employment strategies are they proposing?
A more random example: I am deeply fond of comedian Cristela Alonzo. Her short-lived sitcom Cristela was a joy forever – I would have followed it for ten seasons. In her 2017 television comedy special she now and then recounts racist assumptions against Latinos, and has an expression that expresses “What the …???” Every time she flashes that expression it occurs to me that the Elect kind of black person is odder than they suppose in not being able to harbor that dismissive expression about casual racism. To them, their job is to shout to the heavens all minor matters of overgeneralizing and clumsiness as evidence of moral perversion requiring the excommunication of anyone who was responsible for it.
If Cristela can do it, why not us? She is being a psychologically healthy person; Elect catechism teaches us that we are ahead of the curve to be psychologically broken. The notion that real blackness means framing casual racism as close to physical abuse is a modern notion. It only feels right to people who, deep down, do not feel right at all.
IN TWO WEEKS:
WHAT A SERIOUS AND EFFECTIVE “ANTIRACISM” SHOULD BE.
What follows may be gratuitous. A book report, perhaps. It may also be of some general interest to those of us currently enjoying McWhorter’s installments on The Elect.
That is to say, McWhorter has been addressing questions such as these consistently, and for several decades; as a result, he has put out a formidable reading list. I count myself among the fans, at the same time I disagree with various of his positions. (For instance, he seems to regard teachers’ unions as largely malign; I am one of many whose life not just work has been made markedly better because of membership in teachers’ unions. For another, he takes a jaundiced view of sociology, particularly when it is conceived as merely theory for activist social work. Some sociologists do say some dumb and even deleterious things, sometimes. Yes: some; sometimes.) That said, I do think his stuff is well worth the time.
That formidable reading list takes some time. I am still reading. Whether recent articles in the Atlantic, or the path-breaking Losing the Race (2000), or the follow-ups Authentically Black (2003) and Winning the Race (2005) I find that not only am I likely to learn new stuff (some of it hiding in plain sight but nonetheless below the radar of the received wisdom, academic and journalistic alike) but I am likely also to encounter pithy conceptualization. (I can recommend specifically the essay ‘”We Don’t Learn our History!”’ in Authentically Black, and the analysis in Winning the Race of how welfare went from widows’ pensions to a full income program under the aegis of social-worky activists, particularly after 1966.)
(I might add, he has a seriously polymathic approach to a range of the relevant literature, sociology included.)
I don’t know if phrases like Dark Intellectual Web exactly apply but McWhorter consistently reports, and analyzes, material that one will find on CBS, MSNBC, NPR or in the Newspaper of Record, almost never. Alas in some cases one really doesn’t get this sort of take anywhere else.
One of his consistently points is that the kind of things about which we read here now on The Elect has been a long time brewing. CRT is but the latest installment of what McWhorter calls The Saga, and “therapeutic alienation.” Adversity is not new, certainly not to the descendants of chattel slaves; celebration of Thug Life is. Why? Good question. In the “History” essay he looks at thriving Black communities of the past -- and in Winning, has a very interesting (and strategically chosen) case study of Black life in Indianapolis across the 20th century. It seems to me this is a sound approach: ask the long-haul questions in order to understand 2020.
So I just wanted to note: if you’re enjoying The Elect but haven’t read the earlier stuff, then I so envy you; you have such a treat in store.
Dr. McWhorter, what a great chapter. Tough, hard-hitting, direct. I clipped nine highlight paragraphs. Your book really hit its stride with this one.
This passage particularly jumped out at me:
"The pathway is short, then, between Critical Race Theory's celebration of communal 'narrative' over empirical truth and this modern black frame of mind in which a certain kind of exaggeration is allowed to pass as a kind of alternate form of honesty."
Reading that caused me to flash back to the DOJ report on the Ferguson shooting where an alternate form of honesty was the rule for many, many of the witnesses -- shown clearly when they later recanted as their stories fell apart. Other witnesses -- who actually observed the incident -- were afraid to speak to authorities out of fear of the communal narrative.
A question: How much of a role does crass politics play? At first I didn't think this idea fit into your theme of the Elect as a religious cult, but then I thought about the local merchants who view church services in financial terms, not spiritual. Blacks reliably vote 90+ percent for Democrats. In terms of politics, that's monolithic. Whatever such a voting bloc wants to hear, they are going to be told.