I also suspect I am hardly alone, when hearing the term “systemic racism,” in quietly wondering how useful it is to use the same word, racism, for both explicit bigotry and inequality, even if the latter is according to race. In his similarly best-selling “How to Be an Antiracist,” the Boston University professor Ibram Kendi begins by defining a “racist” as “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” He then defines an “antiracist” as “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”
His simplistic definitions declare a dichotomy between racism and antiracism with naught in between — quite a blunt instrument to apply to something as complex as the sociology and history of race in our nation. The looming implication that a system, a society, can be racist is not accidental: It tempts, in anthropomorphizing the complexities of race-based inequalities, how they emerge, and what to do about them.
A symptom of these less-reflective, too-reflexive approaches is the zeal for banishing apostates so common today, when it is accepted as appropriate and cutting-edge to tell those who dissent from the woke take on race to hit the road. Abbot was but one example, prevented from speaking to a broad audience at a university on a topic that has nothing to do with racial preferences, as if his opinions about racial preferences irrevocably taint his climate science work. As if his views on racial preferences themselves are unworthy of reasoned discussion.
Consider, also, cases in which some obviously non-malicious breach of woke liturgy results in some degree of shunning: The week before last, you’ll recall, I wrote about the University of Michigan professor Bright Sheng. We are back to the age of Galileo’s inquisitors.
This treatment of different opinions and approaches as heresies is one of many signs that a new religion is afoot. I’m not kidding. The Emory University philosophy professor Robert McCauley, for example, teaches that religion tends to anthropomorphize. He sees a major difference between religious belief and science as the tendency for the former to attribute agency and intentionality to things we may not be able to explain. I’m thinking of how one might say that a guardian angel facilitated good fortune, or even how a natural disaster may be seen as an “act of God.” In the new woke religion, society is described as “racist,” a term originally applied to people.
Note also the eerie parallel between the conceptions of original sin and white privilege as unremovable stains about which one is to maintain a lifelong concern and guilt. Religions don’t always have gods, but they usually need sins, which in the new religion is the whiteness that supposedly bestrides everything in our lives.
There is a pitchfork aspect to how this way of thinking is penetrating our institutions of enlightenment. With an unreachable pitilessness, a catechism couched in an elaborate jargon is being imposed almost as if sacred: privilege, decentering, hegemony, antiracism. Nonbelievers, sometimes even agnostics, are cast out, leaving a cowed polity pretending to agree. This is a regrettable kind of religion, aiming to run the state. That’s not how this American experiment was supposed to go.