My guest today, John McWhorter, likes to stir things up.
MCWHORTER: Somehow, I seem not to be a stranger to controversy, and so, I have to speak what I think of as the truth.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
He’s a linguistics professor at Columbia University, author of more than a dozen books, and has emerged as one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals. He’s an opinionated centrist, and chances are, whatever your politics, you’ll love his views on some issues and despise his stance on others.
Steve LEVITT: In your day job, you are a linguist at Columbia University and you also moonlight as a commentator on American society, especially around issues of race. But I’d like to talk first about linguistics, because I suspect if we start on race, we’ll never make our way back to linguistics.
John MCWHORTER: That is probably true. Yes.
LEVITT: So, one of your specialties within linguistics is Creole languages. What’s the definition of a Creole language?
MCWHORTER: A Creole language is just when language is mixed together. But the thing is that every one of the world’s 7,000 languages is mixed with other ones to some degree because languages coexist. Creoles are what happens when adults — who are past the age when they’re likely to learn a new language completely — are exposed to some language and learn it partially. You’ve got maybe hundreds of words. You’ve got about half of how the words are put together — the grammar. But then you need to use this fragmentary version of the language for the rest of your life. And there are various reasons that peculiar thing would happen. One of them, as you might imagine, was plantation slavery. And what happens when people are in that situation, is not that they’re just inarticulate for the rest of their lives. What happens is you take what you’ve got, and you expand it into a brand-new language, using aspects of the language that you grew up speaking, not to mention getting very creative with what you’ve got from the new language. So, Creoles are interesting in that they’re a kind of new language that’s born from what you can think of as linguistic adversity. And so, there are dozens of Creole languages around the world based on people who were learning English and French and Spanish. And there are also Creole Arabics. And they have fascinated me for a long time. What happens when language begins anew?
LEVITT: So, any of the major spoken languages today — they were Creole at some point? Was English once a Creole language? Or never?
MCWHORTER: See, that’s one of those things — this kind of language being born from what starts as not learning it — it’s a continuum phenomenon. And so, it can be that you learn a few hundred words and some fragments of grammar and you build that into a new language. It can be that adults learn the language pretty well, but they give the language a close shave because they don’t learn the persnickety little details. So, it’s like most of us in America. If we take Spanish for four years, there are things we’re probably never quite going to get, unless we end up living in the language and truly getting a hundred percent of it. And so, a great many languages of the world that have been used as much by adults, past that stage when you learn a language fully, as by people learning them natively, show it in that they are a little easier, a little more user-friendly than the languages that are related to them. So, English was never a Creole, but English is a lot more streamlined in the way it’s put together than it would be if Vikings hadn’t beaten it up, starting in 787 A.D. Mandarin is the easy Chinese. Swahili is the easy Bantu language. Indonesian is the easy Austronesian language. So, they’re not Creoles, but there’s a continuum phenomenon and they fall along that line.
LEVITT: So, John, you’re saying Mandarin is easier than Cantonese because of the Mongol invaders or something came in and simplified it?
MCWHORTER: That would be the better story for like a movie — I wish we could say it was the Mongol invaders. It was more obscure than that. It was actually that the Han took in a lot of slaves and servants from other places a good long time ago. And those people often married Mandarin speakers. And the result was that, yes — I mean, for English speakers, Mandarin is so different that it’s hard enough — but Mandarin is a lot easier in many ways than Cantonese, or any of the other Chinese languages, because of that particular imperial history.
LEVITT: I suspect these Creole languages are mostly not written down. They’re mostly spoken. And it seems to me in this internet age, languages that are only spoken would seem to be in a very precarious situation.
MCWHORTER: Yeah, and that is true of most Creole languages. That’s true of most languages. And so, if there are 7,000 languages, it’s really only a couple hundred, maybe 300, that are written in any real way. So, of course, maybe there’s a Bible, maybe you see them on signs occasionally, but in terms of having anything like a strong written tradition that continues into the present day, that’s only a few languages. And if a language is only talked, it means that it only lives as it’s being passed on to children. And we are in an era where linguistic diversity is almost certainly going to seriously shrink. And so, that’s why many linguists are very concerned with documenting what’s still here.
LEVITT: So, what are the predictable features then of Creole languages? There must be some shared characteristics, and do those teach us some broader lessons about language more generally?
MCWHORTER: Yes, there are traits of Creole languages, and it’s not that there are grammatical features that they have that no other language has. Why would that be? It’s that what we think of as normal in languages is accidental and excessive and Creole languages have less of that. So, for example, let’s say that in English I say, “He understands the word.” Now I have to put that “s” at the end of understands. And then I say the word. Now, if this is Spanish, I say el comprende la palabra, and “word” is feminine. If I say it in Chinese, well, it has to have tones. And so, I’m not even going to embarrass myself by doing that. Now, if I’m speaking the lingua franca in Suriname, which is a Creole language that began almost 400 years ago, then what I say is roughly, “a ferston na wortu.” He understands the word. Now, ferston is that way, whether you’re doing me, she, you, y’all, they, we, like in many languages. But there’s no “s.” Then I say, na wortu, and that means the word, and there’s no meaningless gender. So, na wortu is just “word” like in English. And there’s no tone. Some Creoles have some tone, but Sranan, this language does not have tone. There’s another trait, which is that something like the word “understand,” where if you think about it, you don’t know what you’re standing under. And in Sranan, it’s hard to find words where if you divide it up that way, it makes no sense. And that’s because Sranan has only been around for about 350 years. It takes millennia often for languages to gunk up with the sorts of things that we often think of as normal.
LEVITT: What I heard as you talked about these languages was a defensiveness about their simplicity, and that’s got to be because you’re a linguist. Because when I think about language complexity, I see it exclusively as a bad thing. And that’s probably because the only time I think about languages is when I try to learn a new one. Like when I failed 100 percent in my attempts to learn Mandarin. And right now I’m in the process of becoming a really bad German speaker. Is there an upside to complexity? I mean, I think it was implicit in what you said is, “Look, these languages aren’t very complex, but they’re complex enough to do the job.”
MCWHORTER: It’s funny, you put it that way and it’s always interesting to hear how somebody from the outside processes these things. No, there is nothing good about the needless complexity that I’m talking about in languages. For example, with Mandarin, I will probably never know it that well. I’ve been trying to climb that Mount Everest for about seven years. And I’m fascinated by how hard it is, but a language doesn’t need to have those things. Yet, within the linguistics community, we are interested in letting people know that there’s no such thing as a primitive language. Especially an unwritten language, or a language spoken by indigenous people where, because they don’t have tall buildings and psychoanalysis, some people will think that they’re quote unquote “primitive people.” If anything, the indigenous languages are the ones that tend to be more complex than the ones like English and German and Spanish that we’re more familiar with. But there is a tendency to suppose that if anybody says, “Well, some languages are more complex than others,” then that’s courting claiming that Creoles are not real languages and giving the public the kind of view that all linguists would rather the public didn’t have. So, you can imagine the nature of the controversy, but the basic idea that Creole languages are just what happens when one language meets another one, it isn’t true. Because, frankly, that’s all languages. And two, there are ways that Creole languages resemble one another. And so, I feel confident that I am talking about something empirically true.
LEVITT: My lived experience with English is that it’s in the process of getting simpler. And maybe I’m thinking more about written English than about spoken English. But, I think of texting and how it’s totally normal for me now to write the letters “R,” and “U,” where I previously would have written a-r-e, and the word “you.” Do you think English is on a simplifying trajectory? Or is that just an illusion?
MCWHORTER: It’s an illusion, but I know completely what you mean. Where English is going is there’s more and more room in public space for the informal language. And so, it can seem in writing that definitely things are simpler because what you put in writing in English in 1900 is very different from the sort of thing that you readily put in writing in 2022. So, you’ll see a truck where it’s from here in New York, and the slogan is: “On it!” And that’s how a person might talk. In 1940, you wouldn’t have had that. Somebody may have said it, but you wouldn’t have put it on the side of a truck. So, informality is in. But in terms of even informal language and how it’s spoken, one thing about being a linguist is you hear incipient complexity in what many people hear as just slang. My favorite example of this is the way “ass,” — if I may — is used if you say something like, “Oh, it was a gray-ass squirrel.” You don’t mean that it was a very gray squirrel. If somebody said, “Oh, look. It’s a gray-ass squirrel,” you would know that they come from somewhere where the squirrels happen to be black. You use the “ass” to be counter-intuitive. It’s a marker of that. That didn’t exist until roughly the early 20th century. Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t have understood what you meant by, “Oh, it was this red-ass piano,” or something like that. Now that is a complexification. It will be interesting to listen to a foreigner master that particular use of “ass,” where first they think it meant very, but then they’d realized no, not quite. And there’s a YouTube bit that I get sent practically every week by this funny — I think he’s Finnish — comedian who’s bemused by the way we use the word “ass.” And what he’s referring to is one, funny, and two, very complicated.
LEVITT: So, English is obviously emerging as something of a world language, and that’s mostly for accidental, historical, social, political reasons. And in my very first episode of this podcast, I had Steve Pinker, the Harvard linguist on. And I tried to get him to make a vote for what the best world language would be. I had no luck. He would not bite on that at all. Is that a question you’ll bite on?
MCWHORTER: Hell yeah. I mean, in terms of just aesthetics and the random personal preferences, I certainly have favorite languages. That would have nothing to do with what would be good for the world. If all of the world were going to use a single language, it should be not English. I find English quite ugly. You know, it’s the only language I’ll ever truly speak, but it’s hideous. We’ve got “ah”, “uh,” “eh,” “ugh.” What you want is a language that has the fewest random bells and whistles as possible, so that people can learn it quickly. It’s not Esperanto because — God bless Esperanto as any language nerd did, when I was about 15 or 16, I taught myself Esperanto. And it’s wonderful, but it’s basically simplified Italian, which is very easy for somebody from Europe or somebody who speaks English or French or the like, but if you’re Chinese trying to learn Esperanto is not remotely intuitive. Really, the language of the world should be Indonesian. Not the way it’s written, but the way it’s typically spoken, where you have almost no suffixes, almost no prefixes. It’s not a tonal language. It’s very low on throwing you with things like, what does “pick up” mean? And you can pick up a disease. You can pick somebody up from school. Speed is about picking up speed. Why deal with that? There’s very little of that. And so, colloquial Indonesian, and even though most people who don’t speak Indonesian would find it hard to learn just the words themselves, because they’re not the shapes we’re used to, if you could pick up 500 of them, say 600 of them, well, that would be a task, but then the grammar would be very, very easy. You could make yourself understood. I would say it’s better. It’s easier for everybody — colloquial Indonesia would be the one.
Hey, it’s Morgan — the show’s producer. Just a quick note: This next segment contains a lot of profanity — I mean a lot. And while usually we bleep out swear words, this time we thought it would make the conversation hard to follow. So, you’ll hear the words uncensored. If you want to skip the worst of the profanity, you should go forward about 2 and a half minutes.
LEVITT: So, your playful side, comes out in a book that you wrote last year called Nine Nasty Words. And you talked about the history of various profane words from the pretty tame like damn and hell to the totally taboo in the form of the N-word. But my favorite discussion was around the term “motherfucker,” which if I remember correctly is a relatively recent addition to the English language. Could you just tell us a little bit about the word “motherfucker”?
MCWHORTER: Yeah. That is actually my favorite piece of profanity. I’m not sure why. And it doesn’t go as far back as you might think. It only pops up in the late 1800s, and at first it’s very strong and you can tell that people are taking it as really referring to what it seems to refer to. And it goes along into the 20th century. “Son of a bitch” occupies the space we might expect “motherfucker” to for a long time, but then it’s particularly taken up — and I think this is random — it’s taken up by Black America as a kind of totemic profanity that is embraced by us. And that starts in particular in the late ‘60s. And after a while, you have this word that not only means that you’re a bad person, but it can be used to mean just a generic individual. “How many motherfuckers were in there?” And next thing you know, it’s just mothafucker. And you think about it, and you realize after a while that there’s a relationship between fucker and motherfucker, that’s similar to the relationship between damn and Goddamn. Curses just need to refresh themselves. And so, “damn” is one thing. “Goddamn” is another. It reinforces it. “Shit” is one thing. “Bullshit” is stronger because shit gets a little weak, if I may. Then there’s “fucker” and we can say “fucker” these days, but not much. “Motherfucker” just gives it some weight. And the meaning of mother really has nothing to do with it. It just makes it longer, and therefore stronger. So, it’s a fascinating word because it begins with a literal and profane meaning — lots of languages have curse words and insults having to do with sex with, you know, your mother, but then it ends up meaning just person. And then after a while, it’s “fucker,” but made heavier.
LEVITT: I was so surprised reading your book, Nine Nasty Words, to learn the etymology of words I’ve always heard, but I never stopped to think about how strange they are. For example, “jeepers creepers.”
MCWHORTER: Mm-hmm. That’s Jesus Christ. because why would anybody say that otherwise? Or like, “Sheesh,” that’s Jesus. There are all sorts of ways of not saying Jesus: “gee,” “golly gee.” And if you’ve ever seen an old movie where a certain kind of person says, “Cheesus, the cops. Cheesus.” “Jesus, Jesus, the cops,” because otherwise when do we use the word cheese to mean to flee? So, there are all sorts of ways that people used to get around saying Jesus and we have their shards running around in the language now.
LEVITT: What about the word darn?
MCWHORTER: Darn is a lot of fun because “by the tarnel,” people used to say damnation.
LEVITT: “By the tarnel” was a way of getting around saying “eternal damnation”?
MCWHORTER: because you don’t want to say that too much.. “By the tarnel damnation,” “by the tarnel.” And So, then you have this tarnel and you’re thinking about damnation, and then you figure there must be a word tar-nation. And then because you’re still thinking about damnation, it becomes “dar-nation.” And then since as a word “damn,” you figure there must be a word “darn.” And that’s where “darn” comes from. This gradual series of reinterpretations of original material. And you think, well, is it darning socks? Is it something somebody made up to not sound like damn? And yes, in a way, but it comes from this expression “by the tarnel,” which we never see anymore, but that, you know, Martin van Buren and Abraham Lincoln would have been very familiar with.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with linguist John McWhorter. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about John’s book Woke Racism.
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LEVEY: Hey, Steve.
LEVITT: Hey, Morgan.
LEVEY: So, our listener Arno wrote us an email about the high gas prices we’re currently seeing as a result of Russia’s war with Ukraine. He wanted to know if we should reframe how we think about the high gas prices as essentially a carbon tax. Now, clearly, a lot of people are not happy with paying higher prices at the pump, but Arno wonders if the governments should try to keep these prices permanent and try to force consumers to make different choices around gas and traveling.
LEVITT: So, I am a huge proponent of a carbon tax. And a carbon tax on gasoline would look exactly like what we’ve seen from the Russian invasion of Ukraine — it would mean higher gas prices. And so, I am a hundred percent with Arno. Anyone who is concerned about the environment should be applauding high gas prices.
LEVEY: So, Steve, I guess you’re not a fan of the U.S. government’s plan to release like a million barrels of oil a day from their reserves to combat the high gas prices. Certain states are even removing their gas tax to help consumers. You’re probably not a big fan of these ideas, are you?
LEVITT: You’re right, Morgan. I’m totally against the idea of releasing oil. And I find it so ironic that the Biden administration purports to be interested in fighting climate change, but at the same time are taking this incredibly short-sighted action. Look, if we want to fight climate change, there’s going to be pain. And to think that the right solution to high gas prices is to release oil, is just an unwillingness to tolerate pain. And I think it is just another example of why I’m so hopeless about real attempts to fight climate change.
LEVEY: So, Steve, what about the regressive nature of it? I mean, aren’t the high gas prices just hurting low-income people?
LEVITT: So, the regressive issue — that is a problem. People with lower incomes do tend to spend more of their money on gasoline than people with higher incomes. So, some states actually have come up with a really smart, simple solution. So, let’s take the California case. So, Gavin Newsom has proposed giving anyone who owns a car in California a $400 debit card. Now, that money can be spent on anything. And that’s the key. So, the $400 is compensation for the fact that gas will be more expensive, but it’s doing it in a way that still gives people an incentive, on the margin, not to drive so much. Every time you drive another mile, you still have to pay the high gas price.
LEVEY: Arno, thanks so much for writing, it was a great idea. If you have a question for us, our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s an acronym for our show. Steve and I read every email that’s sent, and we look forward to reading yours.
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Now, it’s time to talk about race. If there’s one position that John McWhorter staked out that has caused a firestorm of controversy, it’s his views on what he considers the excesses of the anti-racism movement. McWhorter’s arguments are highly nuanced, and they can be easily misunderstood. So, my suggestion is that you listen carefully and thoughtfully to what we talk about next.
LEVITT: Your book entitled Woke Racism was published last year, and the subtitle of that book is “How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.” So, how about we start with you defining the group or ideology or way of thinking that you’re reacting to in your book — the thing that you characterize as a new religion.
MCWHORTER: Well, what I mean is not that there’s something wrong with being woke. I have a problem with a way of thinking that is focused on an idea that battling differentials in power, especially ones having to do with race, should be at the very center of all of our intellectual endeavors, our moral endeavors, our artistic endeavors. Now, I am very interested in the idea of battling power differentials as one of many things that we do. But there’s a certain idea that battling power differentials should be the main meal. That if you’re not centrally committed to that, then it functions as a kind of immorality. You’re part of the problem. And it’s urgent to dismiss you from polite society, to marginalize you, and certainly to shame you mercilessly in the public square as somebody who is in support of keeping certain people subordinated and other people, especially white people, on top. Now nobody puts it that way, but there’s a certain kind of woke person who has always felt that way. And after the racial reckoning — because of a cocktail of factors in the spring of 2020 — that kind of person started being deferred to by what you might call “Blue America. And my problem with it is that to defer to that ideology, the way it’s often wielded, often hurts Black people in the name of helping us. And it worried me that this kind of person often calls themselves interested in social justice. And I believe that they are sincere in that. But, what they seem to be doing on a day to day basis is showing one another that systemic racism exists. So, the idea is less that you go out into the world and do the often mundane work of forging change than that you demonstrate that there’s something called systemic racism. And there is, but the idea that if someone doesn’t seem to know well enough, then they should be fired and shamed. That doesn’t help Black people. And often, it hurts Black people. So, Woke Racism was not a book meant to just complain about the woke. It’s not a book that Tucker Carlson would have written. What I was writing was that Black people are being hurt by people who call themselves helping us, and that we need to start being able to tell the difference.
LEVITT: You used the term “third-wave anti-racism” in the book. Can you just tell me what the first two waves are? Because I can only think of one of them.
MCWHORTER: The first wave of anti-racism was the one that I think makes the most intuitive sense to all of us. That was battling formalized segregation, battling disenfranchisement. That was undone in the ‘60s by the Civil Rights Act of ’64 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65. Then there was a second wave, and nobody called it that, but it did parallel second-wave feminism in a way. It was during the ’70s and the ’80s that at least a lot of America learned that it’s bad to be a racist. That you might be a racist, even if you’re not calling people dirty names, that there are certain biases that you might have that you need to examine yourself for. And also, the idea that we haven’t solved all of the problems just because there are no more signs on the water fountains and there are more Black lawyers. That was another revolution to realize that racism can be a deeper problem than just the N-word and separate housing facilities.
LEVITT: One of the most interesting parts of your argument is: sure, there are racists and racists deserve to be pilloried. And then there are people who are seemingly with good intentions, trying not to be racist, but the rules of anti-racism are so complex that they just make mistakes and are punished heavily for it.
MCWHORTER: I would say that what’s going on is that you see people who, by the standards of 2019 would have been considered sufficiently anti-racist, but they do something or they say something that doesn’t fit the new idea. And as a result, you see people losing their jobs in ways that history will not be kind to. For example, I opened the book with cases such as a food writer at The New York Times who says some snarky things about Marie Kondo, who’s a Japanese national and the model, Chrissy Teigen, who’s half Thai. And the idea is that she’s a racist because she criticizes two women of color. She was suspended and doesn’t work there anymore. And I think most of us know from a distance that that simply wasn’t fair. Or one other example is a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who was talking about how they are going to pay more attention to artists who were not white, artists-of-color, in their curation, but — and the poor man had to append as a codicil — he’s not going to stop looking at work by whites because that would be “reverse racism.” Well, because he said that, he had to step down. He was fired because we’re supposed to now say there’s no such thing as reverse racism because you can’t be a racist, if the reason for your resentment is that you’re suffering the depredations of power. And I agree with that argument in itself, but he can’t even say that we’re not going to pay no attention to white artists and he loses his job? Again, that’s exotic. Nobody would have understood that as late as say, 2015, ‘16, possibly even 2019. That’s where there is something that looks like fanaticism, but I don’t want to call it that because the people involved aren’t fanatics, but there’s a sense that this particular power-differential-focused analysis, a hard-leftist analysis — this isn’t just woke. This is hyper-woke — that’s the way society is to operate. And I’m not sure that it should.
LEVITT: I was talking to a white friend of mine, someone who is deeply sympathetic to the anti-racist cause. And she said to me recently, “My daughter is friends with a Black girl in her nursery school class.” This is a white woman. “And I’d like to invite that Black girl over to my house for a play date, but I’m afraid to because I don’t know the appropriate way to acknowledge my white privilege to the girl’s parents. And I don’t want to insult them by not acknowledging it.” To me, what a disaster when kids can’t build friendships, because parents are so paralyzed by fear of not doing the right thing.
MCWHORTER: You know what? That woman is who I wrote Woke Racism for. That is exactly what I mean. That is somebody whose heart is very much in the right place, but she’s So, afraid of being called the dirtiest-name-other-than-pedophile in our current cultural vocabulary that she’s basically hamstrung. After a while, it might be that you end up avoiding Black people because you don’t want to take a wrong step. And then you get accused of being a racist. And where does that get us? To actually say, “What is the result of all this,” is seen as somehow beside the point. Rather what’s considered important is smart people stating that racism still exists; racism is systemic. Now what’s actually happening out on the ground, whether we’re improving Black lives by stating that, is considered subsidiary, that’s not the way it has to be. And yet, that’s the situation that I saw us slipping into starting after the hideous murder of George Floyd. I saw us dealing with a kind of semaphore, where we say things and we say things and we say things, and what we’re really doing is fostering a kind of general guilt and engaging in a kind of passion play, a kind of minuet. But the result is not anything that any civil rights leaders of the past would have recognized as meaningful. We need to get back to doing the real thing.
LEVITT: One piece of your argument that I found really interesting is that you don’t say that third-wave anti-racism is like a religion. You say it is a religion. Would you characterize anti-racism as being based on faith rather than fact?
MCWHORTER: Third-wave anti-racism is based on a certain kind of willful suspension of disbelief — a sequestering of your cognition into one segment where you deal with rationality. And then another place where you feel that to use logic is somehow inappropriate — that there’s another kind of cognition that one uses. And with, for example, Christianity — that’s where you would put the idea that you simply must have faith. And that gives people great comfort. And there are people who intellectualize very articulately about it, but still, there’s a point at you just have to dot-dot-dot — that is part of many religions. And that’s also true of third-wave anti-racism in that where a certain tenet goes up against what, for example, poor Black people really need, no real answer is ever given. So, for example, in shorthand, “Defund the police.” The idea that there needs to be less policing in certain kinds of neighborhoods. Now, one understands where that idea comes from, especially when we think about racism among the cops. But then Black people in underserved neighborhoods quite often don’t want there to be less police. They want there to be more police. Now, to the extent that a conversation about defunding the police continues, despite the Black grandmother who says, “No, we actually need more cops,” there’s a suspension of disbelief here, where showing that that systemic racism exists and making a gesture along those lines is more important than thinking about what actual people need. I don’t think this is a willful heartlessness. But it means that you’re subconsciously putting a block upon engaging logically in a way that you would, if you were thinking about roughly anything else. That is a parallel, I think, with one aspect of religious thought.
LEVITT: As an economist, I often try to argue with fact and logic. And on occasion, I have found myself extremely unsuccessful with the hyper-woke group you’re referring to. And I think your explanation is it’s like trying to convince, an Evangelical Christian not to believe in Jesus. And so, it’s the wrong approach to trying to have a conversation in this area.
MCWHORTER: Yeah, and I know that many people hear that as me being very dismissive and it really is my attempt to grapple with what you’re talking about, which is that I’ve been dealing with people like that, in my academic work in particular, since roughly 1999. Where you find that appealing to the facts simply doesn’t work. And yet, the person that you’re dealing with is clearly highly intelligent and not crazy. I just found myself thinking, “Where does that strain of thought come from where all of a sudden, I feel like Galileo?” You reach a point where you realize we’re not dealing with logic. And actually, the seed of Woke Racism, was the article that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about reparations in The Atlantic. Now, it was an excellent article, but I remember noticing people on Twitter writing about how incredible this article was. And I have to tread lightly here. And I want people to know that I’m being sincere. It was an excellent article, but it was about a topic that, frankly, America talked about to death just 15 years before. A lot of people were writing as if the whole reparations argument was new, and it just wasn’t. And the truth is Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a great piece but didn’t have much to say about how reparations would work. I just found myself thinking, “Why is this being received as if it’s an 11th commandment?” And that’s when I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m approaching this the wrong way. People aren’t receiving it as a new argument. People are receiving this as scripture. They’re happy to see a battle against systemic racism phrased in this way. They think of it as an articulate exponents of a tenet, that in a way, is like church.” And that day, I remember I was sitting at my dining room table. I thought, “Wait, it isn’t logic. This is a religion. He’s preaching.” And I don’t think Ta-Nehisi Coates was thinking that consciously, but I thought they’re receiving this like a good sermon. Everything made sense to me after that day. And I guess I had had a rehearsal for it because I unadvisedly wrote a book about hip hop in the mid-aughts. And even with that, I noticed, “Hmm, the way people talk about this music, it’s not like people talking about Mozart. It’s not like people talking about swing in the ‘30s and ‘40s.” I thought, “This is a creed. It’s a religion”. And then I was noticing, “Okay, it’s the same thing here with where the race debate has gone roughly after Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.” And ever since then, I’ve thought, “I hope I can get other people to see, that these things do make sense, but you have to allow that sometimes what is a religion isn’t called that because of accidents of intellectual history and language.” But that really, you’re talking about a religion having been born. I see myself as having been privileged to, within my lifetime, have seen a religion being born. It fascinates me.
LEVITT: I don’t think you’re saying religion is bad, in general, but you think that this religion — this way of thinking — has betrayed Black America.
LEVITT: So, explain the betrayed part.
MCWHORTER: Where I see this ideology leaving Black people in the lurch, I’m angry. We have a group of people, and they are of all races telling us that, “We are going to save Black America. We’re going to redress the wrongs that have been going on since 1619.” And a lot of people are looking at this as some sort of life preserver that you grab onto. And the truth is, quite unintentionally, a great deal of this really has nothing to do with helping real people. So much of this business — for example, examining the nature of your original sin, except calling it white privilege, of reading articles and thinking of them as scripture — all of that would be something that would make people impatient, if this were really about helping people who need help. Go out and get the vote. Go out and change minds. Go out and create coalitions and organizations. Wouldn’t people be itching to go out and do that? Instead, a lot of it is too internally focused. It’s about gesture rather than action. And as a result, it betrays Black America.
LEVITT: It sounds like you’re saying you would like a shift from an emphasis on virtue signaling to people getting their hands dirty, trying to do things that will change the future prospects of young Black children.
MCWHORTER: You have said precisely what I believe. The idea is to get away from the virtue signaling because it serves no purpose and to, yeah, roll up the sleeves. It’s not always as exciting as holding your hands up in the air and saying that you understand systemic racism. The mundane work that people like Dr. King were familiar with, of getting out there and changing the world and understanding that it’s easier to think change doesn’t happen than to face the fact that it tends to happen slowly. So, it’s not going to be magic, but the idea is to work in a certain direction. And on race, we’ve been going in the right direction. Police issues notwithstanding. Yes, they’re there, but we’ve been going in the right direction since the 1960s. It’s just that these things happen slowly.
LEVITT: I’ve heard this phrase, “The soft bigotry of low expectations.” And it seems to me that’s the biggest risk associated with the woke worldview. I’ll give you an example. A few years back, a Black student came to me with some ideas. And honestly, they weren’t very good. I said to him, “Hey, I’m really sorry, but I don’t think you should spend your time on any of these ideas. And he said, “Professor, thank you for saying that. You’re the first person at the university who’s been willing to tell me my ideas were bad. And I had the feeling that my ideas were bad, but everyone else has been saying they’re good, So, I’ve just been going with them.” And we’ve had a strong bond. And I think that hits a little bit at the heart of what I see as the greatest risk of divorcing rhetoric from fact.
MCWHORTER: Yeah. The soft bigotry of low expectations is associated, unfortunately, with George W. Bush and there are certain issues of respect, and it was a disastrous presidency. And so, it’s beginning to sound like a kind of a boilerplate, but actually it was splendidly put. I think that there is a tendency to not expect enough out of Black people. And I think that a lot of people are largehearted enough to partly see that’s how they’re feeling and the way they assuage it is by falling into an idea that there is a white way of thinking that a Black person is authentic in avoiding. And so, a Black person doing something in a certain way that might be processed as not good enough, we’re going to think, “Well, no, they’re doing it the Black way and why should they have to adjust to white culture?” But unfortunately, what we’re being told is that it’s white to be precise. That it’s white to think constructively. That it’s white to be individualistic in coming up with your ideas. That it’s white to focus on the written as opposed to the oral. And the thing is that means that Black people are not going to be allowed to be good at probably most of what makes the modern world that all of us are enjoying. And, for example, you see that Black kids often aren’t as good at taking standardized tests as others. Instead of thinking, what are the cultural reasons for that and what can we do to cut through them and make Black kids better at the test? The anti-racist vision is to say, “Let’s get rid of the test because if Black kids aren’t as good at it, then it’s a racist test.” Now, that’s low expectations. We’ve got to get past this idea that if Black people aren’t good at something in the current time slice, then it’s either because Black people are deficient or somebody doesn’t want Black people to do it. That’s a roughly second-grade approach to how social history actually works. And we need to stop pretending that there’s anything adult about it.
LEVITT: Because you’re saying there’s the third path, which is, there’s been a history of racism and obstacles, which have led the current generation of Black school children to do worse on these tests — that we have to figure out how to remove those obstacles for the future.
MCWHORTER: Precisely. And there’s no reason that that view is somehow backward or unfeeling. It just doesn’t come up because that view doesn’t feel anti-racist. But that means that the anti-racist focus has become rather obsessive and often harmful.
LEVITT: So, towards the end of your book Woke Racism, you suggest a few ideas that you believe would actually make a positive impact on Black America. And I want to talk about one in particular, which is around teaching kids to read using phonics.
MCWHORTER: I’m not a specialist in education, but I know just enough to know that teaching kids how to read by sounding out the words is more effective — especially with kids from homes that don’t have many books in them — than teaching them how to read through a more holistic process where you teach them to recognize the outer contours of the words and surround the kids with content-rich material and give them a little bit of social-justice ideology along the lines of teaching empathy in educational schools. There’s an idea that that’s the way that you teach kids how to read — rather than the mundane task of teaching them “c-ah-t,” cat. But it’s been proven by serious long-term educational studies that — especially if you don’t come from a book-lined home — you need to be taught how to sound out the words. And it’s as simple as that. Now, you and me probably learned to read just kind of, you know, there are books in the house, it’s in the air. You don’t remember learning how to read. That’s not true of most people. And a lot of what makes school hard — especially for, say, a poor kid and therefore, a disproportionate number of Black kids — is that you weren’t taught to read properly. And if you don’t read well, then that’s school. You’re not going to do well in math. You can barely read the textbook. Next thing you know, you’re dropping out after 10th grade. And the idea that in a public school, in an already off neighborhood, kids aren’t being taught to read properly. Talk about social injustice. The kind of work that a person might want to do other than sitting around this and thinking about their white privilege is making it so, that in your school district, kids are taught to read through something called direct instruction and or phonics rather than the whole word method or something called balanced literacy. All of those things are great for affluent white kids, but in terms of how most kids from non-book-lined homes read, they need to be taught the old-fashioned way that somebody in a black and white movie would have recognized.
LEVITT: You’re making a really strong statement about the incompetence of our primary education system, if you’re saying phonics are at least as good for everybody, and yet inexplicably, most of the country is doing something that’s damaging kids greatly. That’s what you’re saying though, right?
MCWHORTER: I am saying everything, but the “most,” because I don’t have the figures, but it is quite common for school districts to either not use phonics or to mix phonics with other things, which frankly is not better than just using the phonics, which has also been shown by the science. If you’re surrounded by books, you’ll drink it in, but that’s only a few kids in the proportional sense. And for most kids, you need to be taught explicitly. That shouldn’t be a surprise, I’ve always thought.
LEVITT: I always ask my guests to give advice to my listeners. And I’m curious what advice you would give to young people trying to build a good life for themselves. And would you give the same advice to a young white person and a young Black person?
MCWHORTER: Hmm. You know, I would, um — at this point, in the way our national dialogue goes, I would say this to kids of any race: Distrust your impulse to suppose that people who don’t think like you are either naive or evil. It’s very easy to think that if they don’t think like you. It’s either they don’t have the facts that you have, or if they do have the facts that you have, there’s something sinister about them. They’ve got motives that they’re not quite letting onto. And the sad thing is that these days, young people are being taught to think that way by an awful lot of grown-ups. It’s an easy misimpression to fall into because we tend to be binary thinkers. But with any debate that’s uniquely challenging or frankly, interesting, chances are that disagreement is not just about facts, nor is it just about morality, its usually about differing priorities about which you might argue, but that’s different from decreeing that people are either stupid or bad. And that’s what a diverse and large society is all about. That’s what diversity of opinion is.
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Now, I suspect that many listeners will disagree with some of the things that John McWhorter’s argued in the second half of our conversation. And if so, you’ve most likely labeled him as stupid, evil, or both. But my suggestion is to heed his advice and sit with his argument. Debate it, talk about it. Now, I’m probably not qualified to weigh in on the question of good or evil, but I can say with certainty that John McWhorter is definitely not stupid. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.
People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. We had help on this episode from Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
MCWHORTER: Mothereffer. Mothereffer. Mothereffer!
LEVITT: Okay. Mothereffer. Mothereffer. Mothereffer. Mothereffer.
- John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Columbia University.
- Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, by John McWhorter (2021).
- Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever, by John McWhorter (2021).
- “We Know How to Teach Kids to Read,” by John McWhorter (The New York Times, 2021).
- “Early Reading Instruction: Results of a National Survey,” by Holly Kurtz, Sterling Lloyd, Alex Harwin, Victor Chen, and Yukiko Furuya (EdWeek Research Center, 2020).
- “Black Americans Want Police to Retain Local Presence,” by Lydia Saad (Gallup, 2020).
- “SFMOMA Senior Curator Gary Garrels Resigns After ‘Reverse Discrimination’ Comments,” by Sarah Hotchkiss (KQED, 2020).
- “What Alison Roman Wants,” by Dan Frommer (The New Consumer, 2020).
- “Stewed Awakening,” by Navneet Alang (Eater, 2020).
- Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It, by Mark Seidenberg (2017).
- “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic, 2014).
- “Ass Is The Most Complicated Word In The English Language,” by ISMO (Conan, 2018).
- “An Astronaut, a Catalan, and Two Linguists Walk Into a Bar…” by Freakonomics Radio (2018).
- “Why Learn Esperanto? (Earth 2.0 Series),” by Freakonomics Radio (2017).
- “What Would Be the Best Universal Language? (Earth 2.0 Series),” by Freakonomics Radio (2017).