Scholar John McWhorter Defends Mayor Pete, Disses ‘Woke Attack’

Written by Ann Brown
Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter doesn’t agree on the recent “woke” attack on presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a town hall meeting, Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Creston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Mayor Pete, as he is called, has been having a hard time connecting with Black voters so far during his presidential bid. And there are reasons why. Pete Buttigieg’s home base, South Bend, Indiana, has been in the news for recent racial unrest, especially after a police shooting of a Black resident in June. 

But Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter doesn’t agree on the recent “woke” attack on Buttigieg, particularly the one by The Root’s Michael Harriot. McWhorter, who teaches Languages of Africa and is an outspoken advocate of reparations, claimed that Harriot had misread the presidential candidate’s old comments on role models.

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The old comments at the center of the controversy were when in 2011 when Buttigieg said that inner-city Black kids are at a disadvantage from getting the education they need due to a lack of role models who promote education. “And there are a lot of kids—especially [in] the lower-income, minority neighborhoods—who literally just haven’t seen it work. There isn’t someone who they know personally who testifies to the value of education,” Buttigieg said at the time.

“Many will already wonder what was wrong here: After all, is it not a mantra of enlightened thought about race to bemoan the absence of role models for various beneficial behaviors? However, to Harriot, Buttigieg’s reference to this truism was ‘lying.’ The nut of the issue is that there are other reasons inner-city kids fail to graduate or go to college, such as funding disparities, unequal curriculum resources, and violence,” McWhorter wrote in The Atlantic.

He added: “All of those things are real. Unreal, however, is Harriot’s leap of logic: that in not mentioning those things, Buttigieg was inherently denying their existence, and that in noting the lack of role models, he was blaming Black people for their own problems. Buttigieg’s transgression seems to have been that he did not mention all of the reasons Black kids have trouble accessing education in underserved neighborhoods. A more elaborate answer would have been more sophisticated. But why would anyone read him as an “MF” for not ticking off the whole list?”

The woke movement, noted McWhorter, doesn’t mean some white people aren’t “woke.” “Civil-rights leaders of the recent past would be baffled by the pique here, as, I’m sure, would Americans who don’t spend most of their waking hours on social media. It’s been widely noted of late that ‘woke’ white people are ‘woker’ than most Black people. It is also true that “woke” Black people in academia and media are ‘woker’ than a great many Black people who don’t have the privilege of a byline. Harriot is assuming that Buttigieg must have meant that the lack of role models is due simply to some pathology among Black people, when actually, almost anyone who publicly talks of role models in this way intends, via implication, that the lack of role models is due to larger societal factors,” he wrote.

According to the professor, Harriot and others are reading Buttigieg’s old remarks as he believed Black people don’t care about school. “But sheer psychological plausibility rules out that this is what he meant. Let’s suppose that for some reason, this is what thoughtful, Millennial Buttigieg, who at the time was running for mayor of a town with a large Black population, actually believed. Let’s just suppose that. But: Would a sober, ambitious figure like Buttigieg sit in public casually assailing Black America as too lazy, stupid, or unfocused to present role models to its kids?” McWhorter explained. “Buttigieg was speaking out of informed sympathy, as anyone familiar with American sociopolitical discussion should have noticed.”