Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

The White-Guilt Cult

Protesters in Brooklyn, June 12 (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
A look at woke religiosity

Cary, n.c., June 7. Amidst nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, a black man and woman are seated on a park bench while a white woman wearing a sweatshirt that reads “LOVE” takes to her megaphone. “We repent on behalf of, uh, Caucasian people,” she says. A small crowd of white people comes to kneel before the two seated black folks, who are co-pastors of a local church. Some of the kneelers wash the feet of the black people. A white man with an English accent solemnly intones, “It’s our honor to stand here on behalf of all white people, . . . repenting, Lord, for our aggression, Lord, repenting for our pride, for thinking that we are better, that we are above.” Police officers join the ritual. Several people start audibly weeping, or keening, as the speaker continues. Roughly a dozen people join in the gesture and kneel before the black couple. “We have put our necks, put our hands, our knees, upon the necks of our African-American brothers and sisters, people of color, indigenous people,” says the English man. “Lord, where we as a church, a white church, have used you as a persecution towards black people, Lord, as we’ve burnt crosses, as we’ve burnt churches, . . . we’ve used it as a weapon against people of color.”

It’s been coming for some time, this transmutation of white guilt into a cult, a religion that borrows from and intersects with Christianity but substitutes its own liturgy. In the Nineties, liberal white Hollywood filmmakers began to nourish a fantasy that black people were imbued with magical powers, and they built stories around angelic or Christlike black redeemers who stood apart from and above this fallen race we call humanity. Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Cuba Gooding Jr. in What Dreams May Come, and Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile served as spiritual and/or actual caddies to troubled white men, guiding them toward salvation. 

Today those “magical negro” films, as Spike Lee dubbed them, get ridiculed by the critical intelligentsia, but the same impulse is visible in different form. White people continue to have difficulty perceiving blacks as individual human beings, instead conferring on blackness a holy quality. Fallen white people can get closer to the divine by showing due deference in any way they can. Books that promise to assist white people with the project of metaphorically scourging themselves — White Fragility, How to Be an Antiracist — bounded up the best-seller lists. Black Americans report, with more annoyance than appreciation, that white friends are calling them nervously, seeking absolution. 

The original sin in the White Guilt Cult, the New Church of Anti-Racism, is to be, “uh, Caucasian people.” Parker Gillian, a young black college graduate in Chicago who is in no need of financial support (she grew up in affluence, she told the Washington Post), says that someone from work texted out of nowhere to ask, “What’s your cash app?” and then pinged $20 into her account, unasked. “It is so exhausting being everybody’s one black friend right now,” tweeted a comedian named Sarah Cooper. Black people observing such displays by their white acquaintances can be forgiven for wondering: Is it really a friendship if one party is groveling, throwing money, and begging to wash the other party’s feet? If anything, the Great Awokening’s response to the George Floyd killing seems to be bolstering racial barriers rather than eradicating them. By making a religion of anti-racism, white people carry on with the longstanding project of “othering” black folks.

Anti-racism is the most critical element of a broader new Woke Orthodoxy whose other elements include environmental apocalypticism, feminism, and a severing of sexual identity from genetic indicators. Settling on a term for the new religion will take some time. Wesley Yang’s suggestion (seconded by Ross Douthat) of “the Successor Ideology” is clunky, anodyne, and a bit euphemistic given the righteous, roiling fervor and unnerving credulousness that define the cult. As Dmitri Solzhenitsyn writes in National Review Online, a YouTube prankster named “Smooth Sanchez” who walks the streets of New York demanding that white people kneel before him and declare their privilege receives surprising compliance, even as he signals his charlatanry by referring to George Floyd as “George Foreman.” 

Ben Shapiro notes astutely that the new woke religion rushes in to fill a “God-shaped hole” in secular hearts. Devotees immerse themselves in the sacred texts of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi (né Ibram Henry Rogers of Queens), books designed to make white wokesters writhe with a kind of ecstatic anguish. Indoctrination in early childhood is taken up as a parental duty (Kendi’s new board book for toddlers, Antiracist Baby, is a hot seller), parishioners engage in ritualistic incantation of sacred phrases (“Hands up, don’t shoot,” “I can’t breathe”), and there are mass displays of penitential self-abasement. All over the country, guilty white crowds have gathered to reenact the circumstances of George Floyd’s horrifying death. Scores, even hundreds, of parishioners in the new faith prostrate themselves on the ground, hands behind their back, repeating “Mama” and “I can’t breathe.” Sometimes police officers joined these displays, kneeling or prostrating themselves for the sanctified period of time: eight minutes, 46 seconds. Floyd’s death is a kind of new Crucifixion, his final words the new “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

The new clergy consists of black thought leaders (Coates, Kendi, Stacey Abrams) and those white people who loudly proclaim themselves allies and proselytize for the organizing dogma, which is that everything is racist. Those who question orthodoxy are kept at bay, derided as “conservatives” who are “arguing in bad faith” if not actual racists. “For example, one is not to ask ‘Why are black people so upset about one white cop killing a black man when black men are at much more danger of being killed by one another?’” wrote John McWhorter in his 2015 essay “Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion.” “The answers are flabby but further questions are unwelcome,” McWhorter added. The much-promised “conversation on race” consists of repeating points in the catechism to enhance their power — phrases such as “I must do better,” “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” “white supremacy,” “allyship.” 

“There is more dogmatism in this ideology than in most of contemporary American Catholicism,” writes the Catholic columnist Andrew Sullivan. “And more intolerance. Question any significant part of this, and your moral integrity as a human being is called into question.” As the fierceness of old religions fades, a corresponding desire for a new righteous fury rises. The fervor sweeping through the South (but not just the South) to pull down statues seen as blasphemous to the new faith loudly echoes the 16th-century rampage through the monasteries that burned icons and laid waste to stained glass. Each successive wave of iconoclasm will take more and more historical monuments until either the new Reformation ends or all blasphemous iconography has been destroyed, with the logical endpoint being Mount Rushmore, with its quintuple heresy: Washington and Jefferson held slaves, Teddy Roosevelt is damned as a racist, the land the monument sits on was seized from indigenous peoples, and the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, was friendly with the Ku Klux Klan.

My friend Kevin D. Williamson writes that “cancel culture is a game, the point of which is to impose unemployment on people as a form of recreation.” The line is amusing but, I think, not quite right: The impulse is more religious than recreational. How satisfying it must be to understand that one can send out a tweet and within hours destroy someone’s life for losing her temper for a minute while walking a dog in Central Park (former New York financial analyst Amy Cooper), for having posed as a Puerto Rican for a Halloween party 16 years ago (ousted Bon Appétit editor Adam Rapoport), or for having tweeted “Working out is so gay” more than a decade ago (Condé Nast’s no-longer head of lifestyle-video programming Matt Duckor). That last example recalls Sullivan’s remark that politically incorrect language has become the “equivalent of old swear words,” referring to formerly shocking words such as “goddamn” that have long since lost all potency. Take the principles of Woke in vain and you invite instantaneous ritual chastisement — the most thrilling, ecstatic element of the woke religion. The techno-narcissistic innovation of the Wokesters is that they have made themselves, as a collective, their own godhead, equipped with the authority to wield and unleash the thunderbolt of righteousness on blasphemers here and now, on their own authority. There is no need to be anxious about whether the right decisions will be made by the Deity in the hereafter; the new Social-Justice God is merciless and swift. Every day ending in “day” is now Judgment Day. 

So rigorous is the new religion that the unrighteous can be vaporized simply for not chanting the liturgy, or for not sounding off loudly enough. “White silence equals violence” is one new precept gaining currency. The president and the chairman of the Poetry Foundation were forced to resign for no other reason than that the nonprofit had published a disavowal of racism considered insufficiently robust. The two executives were denounced in an angry open letter as having been responsible for nothing but “watery vagaries” that added up to “ultimately, a violence.” How exciting it must be to upend the meanings of words in service of the greater cause of smiting one’s perceived enemies, or even whatever suspected counterrevolutionaries there may be among one’s sworn allies. No one dared to be the first to stop applauding a Stalin speech. 

Sullivan holds that “it is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.” The old liberal consensus built around prosaic proceduralism — fairness, equal treatment, dependence on the slow and imperfect operation of the machinery of justice — made for a frustratingly dull religion. All that stuff amounts to so many watery vagaries in the era of the Great Awokening. Declaiming, denouncing, and destroying — that is where transcendence lies.

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