When actor Jussie Smollet lied about being attacked by racist, MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporters, Columbia University linguist John McWhorter actually interpreted it as a sign that "we have come further on race than we are often comfortable admitting."
"Only in an America in which matters of race are not as utterly irredeemable as we are often told," he wrote in The Atlantic, would someone "pretend to be tortured in this way…[because] playing a singer on television is not as glamorous as getting beaten up by white guys."
The unwillingness of both blacks and whites to acknowledge progress on racial equality is a long-running theme for McWhorter, who in 2000 published Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, which argued that "in most cases, [racism] is not an obstacle to people being the best that they can be."
In an influential 2015 essay, McWhorter argued that "Antiracism" had become a new secular religion in America, complete with "clergy, creed, and also even a conception of Original Sin."
"One is born marked by original sin," he wrote. "To be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege." Black people, he continued, "will express their grievances and whites will agree" that they are racist. On the right, McWhorter observed, there is a growing sense of hostility on racial issues and, according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who agree that black-white relations are good is at a 20-year low. And for the first time since the pollster has asked the question, a majority of blacks rate race relations as bad.
I sat down with the 53-year-old McWhorter—the author or editor of 20 books—to talk about his upbringing in a mixed-race part of Philadelphia, his academic focus on Creole language, and the unmistakable signs of racial progress that an increasing number of Americans seem unwilling to acknowledge.
Edited by Ian Keyser. Intro by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Jim Epstein and Kevin Alexander.
Photos by Jim Epstein.