he title of the piece, “Atonement as Activism,” was bound to catch my attention, as I cast about for topics for Tishrei, the month of repentance. And the author, John McWhorter, a black professor of linguistics at Columbia, has long been, in my opinion, one of America’s most consistently provocative, public intellectuals, particularly on matters of race.

McWhorter’s topic is the eagerness of white American progressives to confess their sins — not just the sin of racism, but the sin of whiteness itself, and the privileges it is said to convey. Such confessions are just one of numerous rituals of abasement necessary to be a properly “woke” white progressive today.

Other abasement rituals include reading and celebrating Ta-Nehisi Coates’ hectoring of white America for its endemic racism, a racism that he claims has little abated over the years, despite some pretty window dressing, such as twice electing a black man president. Coates writes of his indifference to the death of white firefighters killed in the Twin Towers on 9/11 trying to rescue people from the conflagration — just a group of crackers getting their just deserts, in his telling.

The white audiences for this kind of stuff have made Coates a wealthy man. That wealth and the departure from the ghetto that comes with it has left him worrying about the contamination that might be inflicted on his young son playing with white kids in the nearby park. And Coates is but the most talented of a band of mau-mauing hucksters playing on white guilt. McWhorter describes a middle-aged white man speaking at a public event about the “coach” who comes to his office each week to lecture him about white privilege.

McWhorter recognizes the Christian religious nature of this quest for absolution from the “original sin” of being born white. “Pastor” would have been a more accurate description than “coach,” he observes, for the lecturer on white privilege. “I have seen whites owning up to their white privilege using the hand-in-the-air-palms-out gesture typically associated with testifying in church,” he writes.

These confessions are pointless. Whiteness, after all, is “present at birth and ultimately ineradicable,” McWhorter notes. “I’m not sure that today’s educated whites quite understand how unattainable the absolution they are seeking is. . . . ‘G]etting it’ will not, for instance, make Ta-Nehisi Coates like them.”

But these rituals do little to help blacks either. The blurb beneath the article’s title at The American Interest website reads: “Today’s consciousness raising on race is less about helping black people than it is about white people seeking grace.” Coates, for instance, has nothing to offer about how to improve race relations other than demands for reparations, which in McWhorter’s views, are totally impracticable and a political nonstarter.

In addition, white people seeking grace by attributing everything about the black community to racism can distract from actually helping blacks. The Obama Department of Education assumed that only racism could explain the disproportional numbers of black children suspended from school. But abundant sociological studies show that those who grow up in poverty, regardless of race, are more likely to be aggressive in school and have a harder time concentrating. And the same is true of those who grow up in female-headed, single-parent households.

Thus, the disproportionate rates of black expulsion and school discipline are basically what one would expect given the socio-economic circumstances of the community, absent any racism on the part of school administrators (often black in any case). Therefore, punishing schools for disproportionate expulsion rates is just a form of killing the messenger, not a means of addressing the underlying problems. Yet anyone who made that suggestion in progressive company would be immediately labeled a “moral reprobate” and blatant racist, writes McWhorter.

A fair amount of the white confessionals are nothing more than virtue-signaling, which are all about the whites doing the signaling. Such gestures and the unearned feelings of virtue that go with them often create a feeling of entitlement and actually lead to worse behavior. They are the modern form of purchasing the indulgences once sold by the Church — “For every coin in this coffer rings another soul from purgatory springs.”

So many of those exposed by the #MeToo movement, from former president Clinton to Harvey Weinstein to disgraced former New York State Attorney-General Eric Schneiderman, were among the most vocal about their support of women. Christine Rosen describes in the May Commentary (The Slap in the Progressive Face), how Schneiderman’s reputation as a champion of women, in his public role at New York State Attorney-General, actually helped him attract victims and prevented those victims from coming forward on the grounds that he was “too valuable a politician for Democrats to lose.”

And finally, the obsession with white racism has led to racists of other hues being given a pass on both racism and virulent anti-Semitism. John Paul-Pagano has written several insightful analyses of why anti-Semitism is generally overlooked by those determined to uproot racism. According to the progressive left, he writes in a recent Atlantic, “Racism equals prejudice plus power.” Blacks lack power so they can’t be racists. Jews have power so they can’t be victims.

Tamika Mallory, one of the co-presidents of the Women’s March last February, had no problem, for instance, attending the Nation of Islam’s Savior’s Day, where Louis Farrakhan delivered one of his patented anti-Semitic screeds against the “Satanic Jew.” “When you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door,” Farrakhan lectured. Yet both Mallory, who is black, and her fellow march leader Linda Sarsour, who is Palestinian and has her own long record of slanders against Jews, refused to disassociate themselves from Farrakhan. As James Kirchik notes in “The Rise of Black Anti-Semitism” in the May Commentary, “It is hard to imagine that left-wing activists or Democratic politicians would keep their careers after associating with a figure who spouts hatred against any other minority group the way Farrakhan does with Jews.”


MCWHORTER NOTES SOMETHING else as well about the “self-flagellation [that] has become the new form of enlightenment on race issues”: It is at heart fundamentally mendacious. He doubts that most whites truly think racism “is so acridly pervasive and persistent” as Coates would have it. He describes a reading of a play about a black man traveling back in time and viewing plantation slavery. At the end of the reading, a white woman proclaimed herself shocked to know that slave families were often separated and slaves sometimes whipped to death.

Given her age, occupation, education, and socio-economic demographic, McWhorter concludes, she would have had to be asleep for at least 30 years to have avoided that knowledge. “In other words, she was, in all of her good intentions, lying.”

By the time this piece is read, we will have klopped al cheit ten times over in little more than 24 hours. We will do so with the knowledge that the only relevant audience for our words is HaKadosh Baruch Hu and that there is no point in dissembling to Him. He cannot be fooled. No point expressing our anguish if we feel no guilt about a particular transgression, though there might be a great deal to be gained from figuring out how our negative character traits are implicated in that particular sin.

But what most distinguishes our atonement from the faux rituals described by McWhorter is that ours aims at concrete change, at becoming different people, better Jews, in the year to come. Our al cheit cannot serve as a cheap way of feeling good about ourselves. Nor can it serve to signal our virtue. There are no prizes for just showing up.

But if our teshuvah is undertaken in sincerity, and preceded by real soul-searching about the roots of our inability to connect fully to Hashem and His mitzvos, with full awareness that we are addressing only Him, then we can savor as we rejoice in our succahs a new closeness to Him and an awareness of His enveloping love.

Chag samei’ach.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 728. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com