John McWhorter on the Black Detour

Martinn Luther King

“The Goal of the civil-rights movement was opportunity—not a post-racial society.” So John McWhorter reminds his readers in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Was WSJ a strategic placement?

To say that John McWhorter is outside the Black and White consensus is, to put it mildly, a gross understatement. But McWhorter is absolutely correct about his interpretation and commitment to a different minority objective than we’re currently dealing with.

John McWhorter, the well-known Columbia University professor in linguistics and American Studies writes for the New Republic, Time magazine and occasionally the NYTimes.  This being the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s I have a dream speech, McWhorter addresses the issue with phenomenal, even unique insight. Intriguingly, WSJ opens this article to any and all readers—without a subscription. I hope it’s read widely.

Following a brief discussion of the context, McWhorter sets up the article with unmistakable clarity, arguing that over the past 50 years black thinkers and leaders have taken up a “quixotic psycho-social experiment.” It is a detour all about moral sentiment rather than active engagement in helping people who need it. The distracting notion that America needs a “conversation” about race, argues McWhorter, is fundamentally “passive” because it “assumes that what black people need most is for white people to think better of them and more about them.” Indeed, “the only reason why ideas like “institutional racism” and a “conversation about race seem more compelling is because they are more morally dramatic. Drama (he insists) is not what will make a difference in black lives,” nor in the lives of any of the poverty stricken.

Neither Al Sharpton nor Clarence Thomas
If you read McWhorter closely—and I urge you to do that—you’ll notice that he is not on the left or the right, but taking an alternative stance. In short, how white people “feel” about blacks has nothing to do with the task at hand.

Reading McWhorter through King and my own biblical lens, he makes perfect sense. Neither the prophets nor Jesus defined righteousness or compassion through feelings or even morality. Indeed, you could say that the Old and New Testaments are not especially interested in personal or self-centered morality as we understand it today. They are interested instead in active compassion built upon righteousness and distributive justice, not in racism that can be “revealed only by psychological experiments and statistical studies.” 

Righteousness in the biblical texts is a behavior which identifies people who live generatively in the community both to sustain and enhance the community’s well-being. They are not greedy or self-sufficient, but show special attentiveness to the poor and needy. By their presence and their actions, they lend stability to the community. As the prophets use the term, it has both economic and political dimensions. Similarly, the biblical texts use the term justice, not in a punitive sense, but as distributive. So the bible talks about that justice in terms of the available quantities of goods, the actual process by which goods are to be distributed and the allocation of the goods to all members of the community. Thus being “compassionate,” as I noted above, is not about a psychological or feeling-based morality, but about distributive justice to the entire community. Just and righteous are about doing what is right. And when MLKing preached about letting “justice roll down,” he’s talking about distributive justice.

So as McWhorter concludes, “how white people feel about us has nothing to do with that task (compassion and distributive justice). Only by facing that reality will we truly honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.”

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