An Interview with John McWhorter about Politics and Protest

the crucial difference with today is the new idea that certain people aren’t to be just protested, but they absolutely aren’t to be heard; that their speech is to be shut down. And it’s not only directed against people who are openly arguing for concepts that most of us consider nauseous: outright white supremacy, and branding other races as troglodyte groups who are set to be exterminated or to fall behind. That’s one thing. But also just buttoned-up sorts of people saying things that could be taken as supporting X, Y and Z. Even people like this should not even be allowed to open their mouths.

.. I think that the fact that so many people who are New York Times or New Yorker readers, who listen to NPR, are having trouble with this new form of protest—it’s evident that this isn’t just the parents and the graduates who don’t like what’s going on with the kids.

.. But there’s a particular theatrical aspect to all of this in that I find it simply incoherent—it’s not believable—that a psychologically healthy person and one intelligent and ambitious enough to have gotten into a selective school, in particular, is somebody who is constitutionally unable to bear hearing somebody express views that they don’t agree with, or that they even find nauseous. It’s one thing to find views repugnant. It’s another thing to claim that—to hear them constitute a kind of injury that no reasonable person should be expected to stand up to. That’s theatrical because it’s not true. Nobody is hurt in that immediate, lasting and intolerable way by some words that a person stands up and addresses, in the abstract, to an audience at a microphone.

.. You are pretending—and that really is the only appropriate word—you’re pretending that something that you find unpleasant to behold is injurious. And I think that the theatricality of that kind in the argument is a response in part to the fact that to make your case otherwise—that somebody just shouldn’t be heard—is difficult. You have to pretend that it’s hurting you like a punch in the stomach, because otherwise it becomes a little inconveniently transparent that, really, you’re just insisting that you have your own way

.. because it’s in New York City, you have a lot of international students and you have this international community. So to a large degree, you do come up against people whose ideas are very different from yours, which is kind of different from being at a college like Middlebury or a college in a secluded location and perhaps that has something to do with it?

.. So in your classrooms you mentioned people throwing around the term “white supremacy” pretty liberally. Do you find that happening in your classrooms and class discussions? Do you find students or maybe other professors using the term “white supremacy” to describe any kind of racial bias?

.. The fact that Katherine Franke felt so comfortable using that word, saying that he was supporting white supremacy, is indicative. I don’t think 10 years ago she would have used that term.

.. It has been used as a synonym for racial bias. To some degree, I try to push back on it. To some degree I understand that limiting the definition of white supremacy solely to the KKK is also problematic because I think there is this tendency among certain white conservatives to think that America really is primarily for European immigrants and you can hear them talk about it. There’s this underlying sense that European immigrants are the ones who come here and work hard, and immigrants from elsewhere and African-Americans are collecting welfare checks, and it’s not tied to reality. But it’s the sense that they have. So do you think that’s an appropriate way to use the term “white supremacy”? To talk about people who think that America is essentially for European immigrants only?


White supremacy should not refer solely to the Ku Klux Klan. It should not refer solely to the views of people who are most prominent 100 years ago. Terms evolve.

However, I think that the way it’s being used today extends far beyond people like that to what just about 10 minutes ago was being called racist or institutional racism. White supremacy has come into use not because it referred to something new but as a punchier way of referring to racism in a climate where, perhaps, it has gotten to the point that just to say “racism” no longer makes as many people jump in their seat as it used to.

.. That there’s a point at which what’s being called racism is really either accidental or an issue of individual difference or an issue—this gets really complex—that racism can create cultural traits that outlast the racism itself, which is something that people have a really hard time with, and especially when it refers to blacks rather than white people. It’s interesting. Everybody finds the point readily comprehensible when it’s written about in Hillbilly Elegy which is about whites. But extending that same argument to black people is being somehow unjust.

.. the day after Donald Trump was elected and you came to your class and you felt like—well, some students were crying and everyone was very upset and you said—I’m quoting here—you said, “I said what we’re going to use this session for is talking about why these people voted this way. And we’re not going to call them racist, we’re going to figure out what led to them to voting for someone like this, and how we can keep it from happening again.

.. the students didn’t want the professor to do that sermon about how the country is full of racists. The students are aware that’s unnuanced, especially since a lot of them have relatives who were among the people who voted for Trump, and they know that their uncles and grandparents and maybe even parents are not terrible people.

.. I think that a lot of students then learned something and, of course, my point was that Trump is repulsive. I think that he is repulsive and inept and in the wrong place to a truly alarming degree.

That, of course, helps that discussion. Moreover, I was not saying I’m a Trump voter. I was not saying you need to not be upset about it. I’m saying yes, this is a catastrophe. But the point is that this is a catastrophe that we cannot analyze as having been created by white supremacists.

.. The question is whether or not a critical mass has the guts to allow ourselves to be called those names and to keep on. Because I can attest, in terms of the hills and the valleys that I’ve been through, that if you just let people yell like that, let them call you the names, and just stick to your guns, you’ll live.

.. So if you think you can stand being called names and then keep going to the grocery store, years will pass and ultimately those people end up just looking shrill and unless you are a white supremacist, in which case the truth will out, it’s better to hold your head up.

.. The nature of this is such that if I was to point them to somebody who they should read, it’s by definition not going to be somebody who is as famous as him, because I think that the establishment, the mainstream media establishment, of which I consider myself a part, is inclined to enshrine views on race to the left of what they genuinely believe

.. all of them are studying what they study, whether they are white, black or something else, out of a commitment to a leftist agenda. And I don’t mean that a leftist agenda is in itself bad. But the idea is you are advocating for people who have traditionally been downtrodden and dismissed, and what that means is that it definitely shapes your views. And I would say that most of these people are not ones who would be shouting down somebody who came to campus, by no means.

.. But on the other hand, none of them would contradict people like that too loudly.

.. they’re not too terribly upset to see a Charles Murray chased off of a campus.

.. these people are, unbeknownst to them, exactly what Galileo was up against. These people don’t understand that their behavior about these issues is identical to that of people who are burning heretics

.. These people are not as correct as they think they are, and to the extent that they’re proceeding from a measure of correctness, we need to be brave enough to tell them that they need to persuade, not eliminate. And that if they don’t understand that, then they are no better than people who engage in book burning, and chase heretics out of town, and burn them at the stake.

.. there was a case of a student at Wilfred Laurier in Canada who recorded a conversation with the authorities who were censuring here, and eventually the authorities apologized to her for treating her unfairly. So that might be a healthy development.