American history is, in many ways, a story of grand protests. They generally come in two types.
There are protest movements that, even in ferocious dissent, believe that the American system is ultimately geared to fulfill its inner promises — of equality, unalienable rights, the pursuit of happiness, e pluribus unum, a more perfect union. This is what Frederick Douglass had in mind when, in an otherwise scathing indictment of America’s hypocrisy, he called the Constitution a “glorious liberty document.”
And there are protest movements that have turned against the system, either because they don’t think the system can meet its promises, or because they never agreed with the promises in the first place. “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock,” Malcolm X said memorably. “The rock was landed on us.”
The experience of nearly 250 years is that the first type of movement generally succeeds: emancipation, suffrage, civil rights, marriage equality. They have aimed to build the country up, and bring Americans more closely together, on foundations already in place.
The second type — from the Confederacy to the white supremacy of the Jim Crow era to Black nationalism in the 1960s — always fails. These movements want to tear things down, divide Americans, reject and replace our national foundations.
The ideology-cum-protest movement loosely referred to as Wokeness belongs to the second type. This month, it had its first major encounter with electoral democracy, not only in the governor’s race in Virginia but also in a referendum on replacing the Police Department in Minneapolis and on law-and-order issues in Seattle. Wokeness got clobbered, and not for the last time.
What’s wrong with a movement that, on its narrowest terms, aims to make Americans more aware of racial injustices, past and present? Nothing. In cases like those of Eric Garner, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, non-Black America has had a long-overdue education about the fact that Black lives can still be subject to the same casual cruelties of a century ago.
But, like many movements that overspill their initial causes of action, Wokeness now connotes much more than an effort to reform the police or denounce racial injustice when it occurs. It is, instead, an allegation that racism is a defining feature, not a flaw, of nearly every aspect of American life, from its inception to its present, in the books we read, the language we speak, the heroes we venerate, the roads we drive, the way we do business, the way we select for merit and so on.
And it is a prescription, not for genuine dialogue and reform, but for indoctrination and extirpation, based on a relentless form of race consciousness that defies the modern American creed of judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
The problem with the allegation isn’t that it’s flatly wrong: America’s past is shot through with racism and, as Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But the allegation is also incomplete, distorted, ungenerous to former generations that advanced America’s promise, and untrue to the country most Americans know today.
Wokeness operates as if there had been no civil rights movement, and that white Americans hadn’t been an integral part of it. It operates as if 60 years of affirmative action never happened, and that an ever-growing percentage of Black Americans don’t belong to the middle and upper class (and that they are, incidentally, concentrated in the American South). It operates as if we didn’t twice elect a Black president and recently bury a Black general as an American icon.
It operates as if, in city after city, American police forces aren’t led by Black police chiefs and staffed by officers of diverse backgrounds. It operates as if white supremacy is still being systemically enforced, while ignoring the fact that a previously marginalized ethnic minority, namely Asian Americans, enjoys higher income levels than white Americans.
Above all, Wokeness pretends that incidents such as George Floyd’s murder, which are national scandals, are actually national norms. They aren’t, despite current injustices. Most Americans, I suspect, not only sense the falseness of the allegation. They are, increasingly, insulted by it.
The insult turns to injury when it comes to the solutions Wokeness prescribes, and in the way that it prescribes them. This doesn’t just mean efforts like “abolish the police” that are so baldly destructive that voters quickly sense their danger. It’s in subtler prescriptions, too.
A typical example: The American Medical Association recently published its “Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts,” which includes such recommendations as replacing the term “disadvantaged” with “historically and intentionally excluded,” “social problem” with “social injustice,” “vulnerable” with “oppressed,” and “blacklist” and “blackmail” with words that don’t suggest an association between the word “black” and “suspicion or disapproval.”
This isn’t silly. It’s Orwellian.
Ultimately, though, Americans are still free to reject the Woke ethos, even if they sometimes have to leave their institutions as a result. This is why Wokeness will fail. In the long run, Americans have always gotten behind protest movements that make the country more open, more decent, less divided. What today is called Woke does none of those things. It has no future in the home of the free.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times, where a longer version of this piece originally appeared.