Roughly one year ago, a religious Reformation occurred.
Over the years, I and many other writers have compared left-wing political “wokeness” to a religion — noting the philosophy’s endless rules, supposed martyrs, sacred spaces, debates about heresy, and even vision of the fallen world after original sin (“the System”). But it seems fair to say that a more aggressive and missionary version of the faith took root last year, following the unfortunate and symbolic death of George Floyd. A national movement rapidly coalesced around the idea of largely or completely defunding the police, while elected officials up to and including the president mouthed critical catchphrases about “systemic racism” and “white supremacy.” American schools teaching full-on critical theory as part of the standard curriculum became a real possibility and the basis of a heated national debate. But crime statistics and other empirical data indicate that the promise of today’s new secular faith is a false one and that we should beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing when listening to its prophets.
Analogies between wokeness — Wokeism? — and conventional religion have been made many times, by authors ranging from John McWhorter on the political center-left over to Ann Coulter on the right. I myself wrote a well-received piece along these lines in The American Spectator last year. There are obviously more than a few similarities between faith of the old-timey variety and the modern idea that facially neutral “Systems” are all subtly structured to oppress minorities or the poor (“racism is the everyday”), and heroes are needed to fight this latent evil. The new ideology also boasts acclaimed martyrs such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, points of pure faith (such as the claim that racism must explain all performance gaps between groups), prophets ranging from Ibram X. Kendi to attorney Benjamin Crump, and a plentitude of holy places and “sacred spaces.” There is even a concept of original sin, which might be summed up as “privilege” — all people are born with a certain degree of advantage conferred on them by our corrupt systems, which the more fortunate must reject in order for moral purity to be possible.
While often made in fun, the wokeness-to-religion comparison holds up well and has been made for years. We have, however, witnessed a rapid and dramatic surge in the faith after the tragic police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Within the boundaries of the famous analogy, it seems fair to say Wokeism had a Judaism-to-Christianity or Catholicism-to-Protestantism-style Reformatory expansion following that day. Without being at all sarcastic, one can say that Floyd died in fairly classic fashion for a martyr, apparently being killed — however much other factors contributed to this outcome — under the knee of a modern-day centurion, a uniformed big-city police officer.
Not long after Floyd’s death, the area of Minneapolis where his arrest took place was made — in a fairly literal sense — into a holy place. Now known as “George Floyd Square,” several city blocks in center-city Minneapolis now exist as a police-free “autonomous zone,” home to murals, sculptures, and small shrines symbolic of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Christian Post religious resource notes that “a number of” religious groups now hold services and conduct baptisms at the exact “site where George Floyd died in Minneapolis.” More than a few people claim to have witnessed miracles there.
More broadly, during the past year (1 AF, or one year After Floyd?), fundamental changes to modern American society, extending far beyond one section of one city, have been proposed. Probably the most widely commented on of these has been the idea of defunding the police. Although progress toward actually enacting this ambitious agenda appears to have stalled, Minneapolis City Council members promised to dismantle the city’s entire police department and “create a public safety system” within two weeks of the day George Floyd “died under the knee of white police officer Derek Chauvin.” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey describes his council as having “made a pledge before the entire nation to abolish and defund the police department.” As at least a good-faith gesture toward this goal, it appears that roughly $8 million was shifted away from policing and toward ambiguous “violence prevention” in the latest Minneapolis budget.
As I noted in Quillette earlier this year, other cities said similar things and took more aggressive steps toward making them happen. In New York City, roughly $1 billion was slashed from the most recent annual police budget. While some of these cuts were future-focused, they also caused the cancellation of the 1,200-person class of officers scheduled to enter the New York Police Academy in August 2020. Similarly, in Los Angeles, the budget was slashed by $150 million, causing the dissolution — so far — of the Department’s Animal Cruelty Task Force and Sex Assault/Special Victims Unit. While some advocates of such large-scale defunding preferred to use euphemistic or ambiguous language, at least one major guest op-ed in the New York Times laid all cards on the table: published June 12, 2020, it was headlined “Yes — We Literally Mean Abolish the Police.”
Still more broadly, such once-fringe academic ideas such as “systemic racism” — basically the idea that all facially neutral systems (for example, IQ testing) encountered during everyday life are set up to subtly oppress — and slavery reparations suddenly became features of everyday conversation during 2020. Speaking to Congress following the conviction of ex-police officer Derek Chauvin, President Joe Biden identified widespread “systemic racism in our criminal justice system” as a national problem and called on Americans to “come together” to “root [it] out.” In another significant speech, he called out systemic racism and “white supremacy,” both of which the country’s top man apparently considers to be ongoing problems, vowing to change laws that “enable discrimination.”
The president and the at least equally passionate Vice President Kamala Harris hardly speak alone on this topic. A simple Google search for “systemic racism USA” turns up a variety of sometimes-entertaining results, ranging from Business Insider’s “26 simple charts to show friends and family who aren’t convinced racism is still a problem in America” to “7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism Is Real” from ice cream vendor Ben & Jerry’s. Even America’s schoolchildren have not been spared from this swift cultural swing leftward.
Think-tank researcher Chris Rufo, whom in the interest of full disclosure I’ll mention I know and like, has received a great deal of media exposure for documenting the recent expansion of previously niche critical theories into American primary and secondary education. His website, www.christopherrufo.com, contains a number of examples of this, ranging from the disturbing to the hilarious. To take a typical one, the superintendent of schools in the bucolic Portland suburb of Tigard, Oregon, just pledged to “dismantle systemic racism,” deploy formal “Equity Teams” within the schools, and establish racially segregated “Student Affinity Groups.” The district, which serves a city of perhaps 50,000 residents, where only 636 Black people live — both Rufo and I checked — has an official Department of Equity, which apparently aims at revamping the curriculum to align with the pedagogical theories of Marxist Brazilian writer Paulo Freire.
Of course, the same sort of thing is hardly unknown in the big city. As I once noted in the pages of this august publication, Manhattan’s Fieldston School recently renamed Newton’s Laws of Physics “the three fundamental laws” in an effort to “decenter whiteness.” Another well-known New York City School, East Side Community High, sent the parents of every enrolled white student a home-addressed letter breaking down various supposed ways to exist in the USA as a white person and encouraging each of them to become a “white traitor” (if not a “white abolitionist”). At least one parent recently went internationally viral after opting to yank his daughter out of yet another New York City school — Brearley, which costs $54,000 per year — in the wake of a wave of similar Wokeism that he compared to “the Chinese Cultural Revolution” in a widely circulated letter.
One phenomenon associated with the current Wokist resurgence is quite classically religious — a Miraculous Multiplication of holy persons and objects. Both immediately before and right after the Chauvin verdict, it became extraordinarily apparent that mainstream mass media had no intention of moving on from the claim of epidemic police violence, whatever the decision in the officer’s case happened to be. Within literally two days of the verdict, the following headlines ran in major newspapers and other periodicals: “Six people were killed by police in the 24 hours after Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder” (Business Insider), “6 police killings occurred in the 24 hours after verdict in Chauvin trial” (Axios), “Police Officers Killed Six People in the 24 Hours After Chauvin Verdict” (Slate), “A verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, then 6 police killings across America in 24 hours” (Chicago Tribune), and “After Derek Chauvin verdict, 6 killed by police across America in 24 hours” (Oregon Live). Today, the names of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, and Ma’Khia Bryant are all nearly as well known as Floyd’s. In all senses of this word, the services continue.
This seems as good a time as any to point out that I myself am a rather lapsed Catholic, if not an agnostic, and I favor intense scrutiny of the pretty-sounding claims of all religious divines. While Floyd’s death was a tragedy, and I shed no tears for his incarcerated killer, it is important that thinking people unpack the rapidly developing creation myths of today’s radical and self-labeled “Second Civil Rights Movement” before these become nearly literal canon — set in stone and socially impossible to challenge.
First, it is important to remember that most BLM martyrs are not martyrs in truth — innocents murdered in cold blood by rampaging agents of the state. Daunte Wright, out on bail for illegal pistol possession and fleeing the police, was accidentally shot by an officer reaching for what she thought was her Taser — while he attempted to flee the police. Adam Toledo was an alleged Latin Kings gang member nicknamed “Lil’ Homicide,” who was shot after police responded to a report about shots being fired at moving vehicles — and apparently just seconds after dropping a gun. Perhaps most remarkably, Ma’Khia Bryant was holding a butcher’s knife and attempting to stab another young Black woman at the time of her shooting. While the death of a minor is always a sad event, it is simply not the case that all-white squadrons of racist cops are patrolling America’s streets, executing people at will. During the most recent year currently on record, the total number of unarmed Americans shot by police officers was well under 100. The number of unarmed Black Americans killed in this manner was exactly 18.
Many Wokist points of faith collapse similarly. The ambiguous idea of systemic racism provides perhaps the best example of this. In most cases, in mass media analyses or qualitative academic ones, systemic racism is illustrated simply by demonstrating a difference between two racial groups regarding some important outcome — for example, arrest rates or test scores. Kendi, a Wokist prophet if I have ever seen one, has argued eloquently that essentially all such group performance gaps must be due either to inherent inferiority on the part of one group or to racism, no matter how impossibly difficult such subtle (or nonexistent) bigotry might be to unearth.
But this claim is perilously close to being plain nonsense. As serious economists like Tom Sowell and June O’Neill have pointed out at some length, adjusting for cultural characteristics that obviously vary between large racial groups — such as median age, study time, test scores, and the region where folks choose to live — causes most group gaps in variables such as income to shrink to almost nothing. Unsurprisingly, in this light, seven or eight of the top 10 income-earning groups in the USA (depending on how you count South Africans) are hard-working minority populations composed largely of immigrants. Indian Americans currently hold the top U.S. spot financially, ranking roughly $136,000 per year on average, versus $65,000 or so for white Americans.
Absent the actual genocidal reality that might make them sadly necessary, many Wokist solutions are revealed to be overreactions likely to produce only chaos and harm. This is no mere conjecture. In 2020, there was probably the greatest one-year surge in murders in recent U.S. history, with killings rising from 15,020 in 2019 — by no means a remarkably peaceful year — to perhaps 20,000 last year (this is an estimate based on raw data; these figures will be released in September). Murder surged across virtually every major city and even across the seasons: the Quillette piece cited above notes that homicides were up 42 percent during the summer and 34 percent during the fall versus 2019. Such chaos, predictably, hit Black Americans and the poor the hardest. In my hometown of Chicago, 81.8 percent of those murdered during 2020 were Black, while about 4 percent were white. In long-suffering nearby Minneapolis, almost unbelievably, an attempted drive-by mass shooting took place in “George Floyd Square” on the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death.
Piety is a good thing, in measure. But it is a very good idea for tax-paying citizens to apply the same level of scrutiny to which we now subject our traditional religions to this new one — and, probably, to seek out an actual church or a synagogue rather than a “People’s Autonomous Zone” if they happen to want a spiritual moment.