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When Right Wingers Struggle with Defining "Woke" it Shows they Oppose Pursuing Equality

The conservative writer Bethany Mandel, a co-author of a new book attacking “wokeness” as “a new version of leftism that is aimed at your child,” recently froze up on a cable news program when asked by an interviewer how she defines woke, the term her book is about.

On the one hand, any of us with a public-facing job could have a similar moment of disassociation on live television. On the other hand, the moment and the debate it sparked revealed something important. Much of the utility of woke as a political epithet is tied to its ambiguity; it often allows its users to condemn something without making the grounds of their objection uncomfortably explicit.


Mandel herself later offered this definition of woke on Twitter: “A radical belief system suggesting that our institutions are built around discrimination, and claiming that all disparity is a result of that discrimination. It seeks a radical redefinition of society in which equality of group result is the endpoint, enforced by an angry mob.” The right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro offered a similar description.

I like Mandel’s definition because it makes the concept seem so reasonable that it requires a few modifiers and a straw man about mob enforcement to evoke the proper amount of dread in the reader. If you describe the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, you don’t need to add that it was “radical” to get most people to understand that it was bad. But the claim that “American institutions are built around discrimination” is just a straightforward account of history. And if few of the people who are caricatured as woke would argue that all disparities result from discrimination, most of them would agree that many key disparities along the axes of class, race, and gender do. But either the history, policy, and structure of the American economy matter or they don’t.

To claim the reverse, that people who are rich or white or male are just better than everyone else—to object to “equality of group result” as a goal, as if it’s absurd to believe that people from across the boundaries of the biological fiction of race could be equal—reveals a prejudice so overt that it practically affirms the “woke side of the argument. The “radical redefinition of society” that many of the so-called woke seek is simply that it lives up to its stated commitments. And one really could, I suppose, describe that as radical—the abolition of slavery, the ratification of women’s suffrage, and the end of Jim Crow were all once genuinely radical positions whose adoption redefined American society.

Those transitions were only possible because, as Mandel’s definition inadvertently concedes, the ideology she opposes is grounded in fact. The United States could not have been created without displacing the people who were already living here. Its Constitution preserved slavery, which remained an engine of the national economy well into the 19th century. Among the first pieces of federal legislation was a bill limiting naturalization to free white people. Yet not even all white men could vote at the nation’s founding—property requirements shut out many until around 1840—and universal white male suffrage (sometimes including noncitizens!) was paired with the explicit disenfranchisement of Black men, even in some northern states. The nation was nearly rent in two because the slave economy and the social hierarchy it created were precious enough, even to men who did not own slaves, that they took up arms to defend the institution of human bondage with their life. After the Civil War, the former Confederates reimposed white supremacy and subjected the emancipated to an apartheid regime in which they had few real rights, a regime my mother was born into and my grandparents fled. For most of the history of the United States, Black people could not vote and women could not vote; American immigration policy in the early 20th century was based on eugenics and an explicit desire to keep out those deemed nonwhite; the mid-century American prosperity unleashed by the New Deal that conservatives recall with such nostalgia was stratified by race.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. These things are real; they happened. To believe that the disadvantages of race, class, and gender imposed lawfully over centuries never occurred or entirely disappeared in just a few decades is genuinely “radical” in a negative way; to believe that creating those disadvantages was wrong and that they should be rectified is not. 

Read entire article at The Atlantic