What Is ‘Woke’? Here’s How To Define It

Demonstrators protest against racial inequality in New York City, June 11, 2020. (Idris Solomon/Reuters)

(National Review) Once more, for the people in the back.

It isn’t hard at all to define “wokeness.” I did it two years ago. The definition, widely shared online after an exchange with left-wing activist Nina Turner, became a meme.

This canard (“It can’t be done!”) is back in the public eye because one of the more likeable people on the political right, Bethany Mandel, just had a rare bad interview on The Rising, Briahna Joy Gray’s program. Apparently following some harsh off-camera comments about motherhood, Gray asked Mandel — a mother of six — to define the W-word. Mandel, after what were actually a few solid remarks about “hierarchies of oppression,” froze up for perhaps 20 seconds. This led to the usual internet feeding frenzy: Touré, to pick just one pundit at this level, argued that conservatives complaining about wokeness are doing nothing more than engaging in racist “dog-whistling.”

Quoth he: “The right has no real beef with ‘wokeness’ beyond a fear that it could make people change how they behave, and possibly overturn white male supremacy. [Using the word is] their new culture war tactic to stoke white fear.” Touché, Touré. In another tweet — one of something like 60 on this topic, by the by — he went on to argue that “woke” is a vague term meaning only “marginalized people saying we demand respect — anti-woke is white people saying no.” In response to all of this, even some mainstream right-wingers and centrists began edging away from the “contested” word, with my good buddy Angel Eduardo re-running a famous Quillette column titled “Don’t Use the W-Word,” and arguing that it has “lost all utility.”

All of this is frankly pretty silly. Many political terms (“fascism”) are as slippery as greased lobbyists, and this one is hardly the toughest to figure out. What is woke, then? The definition from the meme is actually rock-solid: a “woke” person, or “social-justice warrior,” is someone who believes that (1) the institutions of American society are currently and intentionally set up to oppress (minorities, women, the poor, fat people, etc.), (2) virtually all gaps in performance between large groups prove that this oppression exists, and (3) the solution to this is equity — which means proportional representation regardless of performance or qualifications.

Most other popular, coherent definitions are quite similar. To James Lindsay, a “woke” person is someone afflicted (infected?) with modern critical consciousness — which is itself the belief that society is set up to oppress you, and the only way out of the Matrix is critical theory. These summaries aren’t witty trolls from the center-Right, but instead reflect canonical statements from woke leftists themselves.

The claim that racism is “everyday,” “everywhere,” and that apparently neutral systems like standardized testing are actually structured primarily to benefit dominant groups, comes from Richard Delgado — one of the founders of critical race theory. The claim that virtually all group performance gaps indicate racist policy or subtle bias is the cornerstone argument of Ibram X. Kendi, probably the most famous “crit” alive today. Kendi has baldly stated, on several occasions, that the only two possible explanations for, say, an income or tested-IQ gap between major populations are actual inferiority on the part of one group or some form of bias — no matter how well-hidden and impossible to winkle out.

These authors and many others almost universally propose “equity” — in the sense I outline — as the solution to such gaps. Kendi himself favors a federal-level Department of Anti-racism, which would use government might to ensure proportional representation across every single field of American enterprise. Other prevalent, modern-day left-wing concepts such as “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” “intersectionality,” “environmental racism,” and even the Black Lives Matter take on the “disproportionate” policing of slum neighborhoods almost invariably spring from this tripartite trunk of assumptions.

It is worth pointing out that the core assumptions of what I sometimes call wokeism are wrong, and often stupid. To put this mildly, most important systems that exist in 2023 America — college admissions, prep-school admissions and lotteries, Fortune 500 hiring processes — are not designed to keep out qualified black people. Taking current mean-score differences on the exam as a guide, the affirmative-action edge for black and Latino scholars at any selective institution would logically be on the order of 150 SAT points. More broadly, most group gaps in performance have nothing to do with modern racism.

Simply put, large groups of people, which vary in terms of big important traits such as race and faith, also tend to vary in terms of literally dozens of cultural and situational and civilizational characteristics. Taking these into account generally eliminates the large first-order differences that are invariably attributed to prejudice by leftist partisans (and not infrequently attributed to genetics by the dissident Right). The much-vaunted black/white income gap, for example, nearly vanishes when we control for several basic traits such as age — the modal average age is 27 for blacks and 58 for Caucasians — test scores, and simply where people happen or choose to live (Mississippi or Manhattan?).

Much the same, incidentally, is true for men and women: PayScale recently pointed out that the gender wage gap falls to 1 percent (!) when adjustments are made for whether women are working at all, the jobs men and women freely choose, and the number of hours each employee spends daily at the ol’ desk. The same is true for gaps that disadvantage the white majority: In an empirical paper a few years back, the Brookings Institution hit upon my favorite statistical finding of all time — Asians destroy both whites and blacks on the standardized boards not because of genes or magic, but because they literally study twice as much. Who knew? Who dared to guess?

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