On September 4, 2020, Russell Vought, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, sent a brief memo to the heads of the executive departments and agencies of the federal government. Its purpose was straightforward: to end the practice by any federal government agency of using training materials that promote “critical race theory” or “white privilege” or that “teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is either an inherently evil or racist country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” The memo advised that further guidance would be forthcoming but for the time being, agencies should cease spending taxpayer dollars on such “propaganda training sessions.”
They have a difficult challenge ahead of them. Critical race theory, often under the guise of bland “diversity training,” has led to such taxpayer-sponsored efforts as the U.S. Treasury Department’s June 2020 training seminar “Difficult Conversations About Race in Troubling Times.” Attendees learned that “virtually all White people contribute to racism,” and those who were white were told they needed to acknowledge their “unconscious bias, White privilege, and White fragility.” At Sandia National Laboratories, one of the nation’s premier nuclear-research facilities, the federal government paid a company called White Men as Full Diversity Partners to “train” white male employees at Sandia in the damaging effects of “white male culture.”
From the invaluable reporting of City Journal contributor Christopher Rufo, we’ve learned that at the Department of Homeland Security, diversity trainers gave employees handouts to teach them to identify “microaggressions” and “microinequities.” Among the examples of prohibited microaggressions were statements endorsing a color-blind standard of equality, including “America is a melting pot” and “There is one race, the human race.” The training also asked participants to take a quiz to “find the microaggressions” in everyday statements and encouraged them to confront any fellow employee who has committed a microaggression against them, regardless of intent.
Such training isn’t confined to federal government agencies. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May, and the protests and demonstrations that followed, many of the nation’s businesses, schools, and colleges embarked on a large-scale effort to reassess their commitments to racial equality and to ensure that their employees and students not only acknowledge the existence of racism, but also commit to pursuing new goals of “racial equity” (as opposed to equality) and “anti-racism” (as opposed to diversity).
Phrases such as “systemic racism,” once confined to the fringes of academic theory, are now mainstream, and its proponents assert, often without evidence, that the nation’s institutions are replete with deeply entrenched racial bias. In this new reality, one’s “lived experience” of race trumps statistical facts, and any effort to criticize the new acceptable wisdom on race is met with rebukes that this is evidence of “white fragility” or, worse, racism. Such semantic distinctions are purposefully abstract, sweeping, and often martial in tone. We can see this in “anti-racist” calls for “de-colonizing” higher education; in the use of phrases such as “black bodies” rather than “people” and “systemic racism” rather than “discrimination” or “bias”; “equity” rather than “equality”; and “allyship,” which demands action, vs. “tolerance.” All are examples of the way subtle shifts in language signal broader ideological change.
This summer’s culture of perpetual protest served as an accelerant, but proponents of these ideas have always had as their end goal the capture of institutions. For decades, conservatives have resisted the slow creep of what used to be called “political correctness” in education and training. Conservatives have pushed back against attempts to remove the teaching of the history of Western civilization and attacks on the literary canon with efforts meant to slow the tide of the most radical expressions of this movement. Their success has been mixed.
But until relatively recently, most ordinary Americans could largely avoid participating in these culture-war skirmishes. People could get through high-school or college without being exposed to the more extreme forms of identity politics masquerading as scholarship, particularly if they steered clear of more politicized fields in the humanities or specialized fields such as feminist theory or African-American studies. Efforts to impose strict speech codes on college campuses generally met healthy resistance from free-speech advocates, although some campuses succeeded in narrowing the terms of debate. In the workplace, diversity-training seminars lined the pockets of “diversity consultants” and robbed employees of valuable time, but rarely demanded more than attendance and, for the most part, didn’t threaten people’s jobs.
That time is over. We have moved beyond miseducation into an era of re-education. Schoolchildren across the country are taught not that diversity is the country’s great strength, but, through historically questionable curricula such as the New York Times’ 1619 Project, that their nation is irredeemably racist. Calls for diversity on campus have given way to claims that airing speech with which you disagree is tantamount to inflicting physical harm; speakers are de-platformed and faculty removed for failing to adhere to the new standards of correct thinking about race and sex. In the workplace, mandatory diversity training now requires not merely attendance, but expressions of agreement and obeisance to a set of ideologically radical ideas—that all white people are inherently racist and that the goal of the workplace should be racial “equity” rather than racial equality. These ideas undermine rather than reinforce the principles of freedom and equal opportunity.
One of the movement’s most vocal supporters, How to Be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi, now heads a lavishly funded Antiracism Center at Boston University. He captures the contemporary mood in his center’s mission statement: “To produce knowledge for change’s sake.” For Kendi and his ilk, the pursuit of knowledge is not an end in itself (or even the purpose of an education). Education is merely a means to an end, a tool for ideological transformation and, specifically, the enthronement of anti-racism. As he says in his founder’s statement for the center, “help us build the world anew.”
A new world requires a new understanding of human nature, which is why re-education differs from miseducation in crucial ways.
It Is Compulsory
Although forms of diversity education and training have been a mandatory part of many workplaces and school curricula over the years, the new re-education on race requires that its participants not merely attend such trainings but actively parrot the arguments being presented to them. Participants who are white (or, in the case of Asian Americans, “white-adjacent”) are compelled to list all the ways they are complicit in the systemic racism described. Conversations must adhere to a designated vocabulary and participants are not allowed to question “core concepts” about race.
As the organization Racial Equity Tools, which creates curricula for businesses and educators, describes in its materials, such core concepts include “race, ethnicity, racism, white privilege and internalized racism.” Participants must be taught “how race is constructed, and to understand how racism works, how privilege is embedded in our systems, and how internalized racism and superiority are created and maintained.” Facilitators are urged to inculcate in attendees the importance of such core concepts, using tools such as an “Internalized Racism Inventory,” and to explore ideas such as “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.”
Resistance is discouraged, even on the margins. In 2017, in a harbinger of what was to come, Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College, was harassed and threatened and hounded out of his job for the sin of raising objections to the college’s “Day of Absence.” The Day of Absence required white students to stay off campus and attend race-education training while nonwhite students were allowed to remain. Weinstein was effectively driven off campus by students who were aided and abetted by administrators intent on seeing his supposedly racist views punished (Weinstein is a self-described liberal).
Just a few years later, people are losing their jobs for merely tweeting someone else’s scholarly work—if the work is perceived to be racist, that is. David Shor, a white data analyst for the progressive analytics firm Civis, was fired after tweeting a link to a study about peaceful vs. violent protests written by Omar Wasow (who is black) at Princeton. Shor was accused of being insensitive to the public mood in the wake of George Floyd’s death and upsetting people of color.
It Is Pervasive
Unlike previous miseducation efforts, contemporary race-reeducation efforts are designed to be (and might eventually become) pervasive, even in areas of life and in professional fields that had remained untouched from fashionable critical race theories in the past.
Such re-education is explicitly intended to be a cradle-to-grave process. Consider Kendi’s recently published Antiracist Baby, a board book aimed at infants and toddlers that has already become a bestseller. Sample text includes statements such as: “Antiracist Baby is bred not born. Antiracist Baby is raised to make society transform.” The book makes clear this is a battle where one must choose sides: “Babies are taught to be racist or antiracist—there’s no neutrality.”
The teacher’s guide that accompanies Kendi’s children’s book, written by “educators” from a group called #DistruptTexts, includes statements such as, “We know, both from current events and from long-standing social injustices, that racism has not gone away. It has only evolved. It’s the water we all swim in. Thus, we must do personal, internal work so that we stop perpetuating this system.”
The process starts young, according to anti-racism experts, and upends many principles of good behavior parents have taught children for millennia: “Learning to be antiracist is work that even our youngest of children can and must do. Antiracism goes beyond universal platitudes to ‘be kind.’ Being kind does not mean we avoid seeing race, but that we celebrate racial differences. Furthermore, although we might teach our children that ‘anyone can do anything,’ we must also teach them that racist barriers exist that stop us all from being truly free.”
As for who should be assigned the blame for our current morass? “Racism is a problem that was invented by White people, and it is the work of White people to dismantle it.”
Private companies are all in on the re-education effort as well. In August, the New York Times’ special Kids section of the newspaper was devoted to the issue of race and educating child readers about important terms such as “intersectionality,” “privilege,” and “microaggression.”
Businesses such as Microsoft issued statements vowing to double their number of minority hires and noting that, starting the next fiscal year, “our training on allyship, covering, and privilege in the workplace will be required for all employees, with additional new content on understanding the experience of the Black and African-American community.” Microsoft will also require executives at the company to attend “live sessions” of training “to ensure they better understand the lived experience of these specific communities.”
Many school and college administrators spent the summer revamping their curricula and loudly avowing their commitment to anti-racism. Seattle public schools hosted a “Racial Equity & Anti-Racist Practices” seminar in which each day’s training began with a moment of silence “to remember and acknowledge those, specifically in the Black community, who were murdered at the hands of those upholding White supremacy, including the police.” Other materials taught in the seminar included question-and-answers such as, “Why center race when thinking of students’ intersectional identities?” The answer: “We live in a race-based white supremist society.” Still other lessons used the following quote by Saeed Jones as a writing prompt: “It’s time to bankrupt your privilege in acknowledgment of your thieved inheritance.” Participants were told to craft an “identity puzzle” to describe themselves and were repeatedly asked, “In what ways are you practicing anti-racist pedagogy?” Teachers were also told to “meet monthly” with “an accountability partner” in the school system with whom they should “discuss identity and intersectionality.”
When one teacher asked a skeptical question about the message of “Understanding and Dismantling the Racial Contract” during an online Q&A, the superintendent of public schools responded by sending out an email to all staff claiming the question “created an unsafe space in Seattle Public Schools” and claiming the teacher was “sharing racist ideas or rhetoric.” The superintendent inadvertently answered one of the questions in the anti-racism seminar: “With one or two of your identities in mind, what triggers you?”
Such bizarre rituals of re-education would be comical if they weren’t becoming so common.
As the Free Beacon reported, the Loudon County school district in Virginia hired Teaching Tolerance, a progressive group, to develop a social-justice curriculum for kindergartners. “Sugarcoating or ignoring slavery until later grades makes students more upset by or even resistant to true stories about American history,” the group advised. Likewise, elementary-school students at the Lower Merion school district in Pennsylvania will be assigned Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness and A Kid’s Book About Racism in the coming school year; they’ll also take “cultural proficiency lessons” that emphasize anti-racism.
At the college level, genuflection to the ideology of anti-racism is widespread. Duke University was typical in issuing a statement this summer committing to “incorporate anti-racism into our curricula and programs across the university, requiring that every Duke student—in undergraduate, graduate and professional programs—learns of the nature of structural racism and inequity, with special focus on our own regional and institutional legacies” and also requiring “anti-racism and anti-bias training for every member of our faculty, student body, and staff in an effort to foster a more inclusive environment for all members of the Duke community.” The message was hardly hopeful. It noted: “We cannot . . . bring news of true freedom—freedom from oppression, violence, and systemic racism. In many ways, even after a century and a half, that goal sadly remains elusive.” But it vowed to pursue “the mission of anti-racism.”
There are many such missionaries in higher education. Public universities such as the University of Florida issued plans to “require training of all current and new students, faculty and staff on racism, inclusion and bias” and decreed, “The 2020-21 academic year will focus on the Black experience, racism and inequity. Each of our colleges will feature speakers, seminars and courses. Led by faculty, we will also reevaluate and revise appropriate elements of our curriculum.”
The Rochester Institute of Technology’s Director of Diversity Education, Taj Smith, hatched a plan to make white male faculty and staff at the university publicly announce their commitment to anti-racism as part of a social-media campaign called #AntiRacismatRIT. As Smith explained: “Too often white men, as a group, aren’t involved in these critical conversations or attend trainings available to them. Too often, our young white men only have role models of hate rather than ones of accountability. . . . Where are the White people? Where are the ones that really need to be here? Are they doing this work?”
Smith intends to make sure they do: “The events of this spring and summer have shown it’s not enough for white people, especially white men, to just claim they are not racist,” he said. “To eradicate racism, we need to take a stand, to be actively antiracist. So the campaign is simple. We have reached out to people who we consider allies and asked them to publicly demonstrate that they are or plan to be antiracists.” He noted that those “who are sincere in their commitment can join the campaign.”
Even UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center announced a new “learning requirement” that applied only to one race: “We are requesting that all white-identified participants have been previously educated in or are actively engaging in undoing racism or other structural oppression awareness work.” Further, the Center requires “white-identified participants to check a box stating that you have either been involved in this work, agree to do so, or need help thinking about where you fit in.” They “request a minimum of 10 hours” of such awareness work for the requirement, which is almost certainly unconstitutional, to be met.
Disgruntled faculty members at places like Princeton University publicly scolded their universities for their perceived failures with regard to race: “Antiblackness is foundational to America,” faculty members wrote in a July letter to the university president. It listed demands such as “use admissions as a tool of antiracism,” require mandatory anti-racism training for all faculty and staff, and create a faculty committee that would “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.”
Political leaders on the left who embrace antiracist ideology are keen to see such views encoded in legislation. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley recently proposed a bill that would deem “structural racism” a public-health crisis and create a federally funded Center on Antiracism in Health.
Private life is not immune to the forces of re-education: A few years ago, law professor Ekow Yankah published a piece in the New York Times that asked, “Can My Children Be Friends with White People?” (His answer: “History has provided little reason for people of color to trust white people in this way.”) This summer, novelist Chad Sanders, who is black, wrote an essay in which he denounced the “Snuggie of white privilege” his friends lived in. His rage was triggered by their reaching out to him during the racial unrest in the country. He felt this was dehumanizing and, in lieu of reaching out, told them to send money to black organizations. Advice columns in left-leaning publications have seen an uptick in letter writers professing confusion about what to do about friends and relatives who won’t fall into line with anti-racist thinking. The advice is often to give them Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist or Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility, but, if that fails, to cut them off.
Religious organizations have also embraced the anti-racism message. The United Methodist Church launched a “30 Days of Anti-Racism” project for September, with church members urged to engage in an anti-racist activity every day of the month. Suggestions included: “Purchas[e] an anti-racism resource,” “participate in an anti-racism demonstration,” “pray about how God is calling you to be more antiracist” and “examine your implicit biases.”
A history professor even argued in the pages of the Washington Post that “autopsies can uphold white supremacy.” If, as Ta-Nehisi Coates once claimed, “there’s nothing wrong with black people that the complete and total elimination of white supremacy would not fix,” we seem to have reached the first phase of that eliminationist moment.
Because Re-Education Is a Radical and Revolutionary Goal, it Needs a Clear Enemy
Radical agendas require clear villains to motivate their believers to act. Alex Zamalin, author of Anti-Racism: An Introduction, claims to have identified our moment’s greatest villain: “the ordinary white American who has sometimes tepidly, conditionally, equivocally, or even shamefully agreed with the unmistakable racist.” A similar tone of unmasking hidden villains pervades projects such as the New York Times’ new podcast series about schools, Nice White Parents. In one episode, reporter Chana Joffe-Walt states, “I think the only way you equalize schools is by recognizing this fact and trying wherever possible to suppress the power of white parents.”
Once identified, white people are told they must “do the work” of ridding themselves of racist beliefs—even those beliefs they don’t know they have and so must be educated to see. But to make people—especially stubborn people—“do the work” sometimes requires threats of coercion, which is why anti-racism’s re-education efforts often flirt with authoritarian language and ideas while claiming little more than benevolent oversight of their presumably virtuous goal.
Writing in Politico, Kendi made this explicit: “To fix the original sin of racism, Americans should pass an anti-racist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding anti-racist principles: Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and the different racial groups are equals.” The amendment would make what Kendi calls “racist ideas by public officials” unconstitutional. It would also “establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees.”
This Orwellian-sounding institution “would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.”
In other words, whatever some anti-racism activists hope to achieve with their re-education efforts, there is a plan B for the most dedicated ideologues like Kendi: using the law to punish those not deemed appropriately anti-racist. As Kendi himself wrote: “Educational and moral suasion is not only a failed strategy. It is a suicidal strategy.” When that fails, the default is power.
You Cannot Declare Victory or Opt Out Because the Work Is Never Done
The non-falsifiability of anti-racism ideology is central to its effectiveness as a means of institutional capture. As Kendi argues in How to Be Antiracist: “The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.”
As well, standards of evidence for what is and is not racist are deliberately simplistic. Kendi writes, “The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist…. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
With such an expansive definition, it’s no wonder we are witnessing the rise of a new kind of opportunity: what Zach Goldberg in Tablet called the “racial consciousness industry” and others have dubbed the new race professionalism (less diplomatic observers might call it a remarkable cultural grift).
Radicals have always included activist training among their responsibilities. Moreover, the U.S. has long supported a thriving diversity and multicultural industry. Today, however, the message is more ideologized and radicalized.
The goal is no longer to supplement existing pedagogy or policy with new views on race and diversity; it’s to repeal and replace those policies with the new ideology of anti-racism. As critic Wesley Yang has noted, the power of this effort “rests in its capacity to define what it attempts to unseat as ‘white supremacy culture,’ winning by default over what has been morally anathematized.” And “white supremacy” has been applied with broad brushstrokes. In Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun include among their “characteristics of white supremacy culture” such things as “worship of the written word,” “individualism,” and “objectivity.”
This is being put into practice in many institutions in ways large and small already. In July, in response to the many Black Lives Matter protests across the nation, KIPP, the country’s largest public charter-school system, changed its slogan, “Work Hard. Be Nice” because, as the school’s equity programmer said in the announcement of the change, “the slogan passively supports ongoing efforts to pacify and control Black and Brown bodies in order to better condition them to be compliant and further reproduce current social norms that center whiteness and meritocracy as normal.” More than half of KIPP’s students are black, and 90 percent are from low-income families.
In San Francisco, Lowell High School, a public magnet school, had incoming students this year fill out a “preassesment” of their knowledge of antiracism that included questions such as: “What is an antiracism statement?” Possible answers included: (1) “I’m colorblind. I don’t care if you’re white, black, blue, or green.” (2) “Lowell’s dress code discriminates against Black students. I actually need to tell this to my Counsellor or Administration.” Or (3) “All lives matter!” One of the Yes or No questions was “Is being ‘Not Racist’ enough to improve our Lowell community?” The students’ answers were not anonymous.
In this, as in many ideological battles, the goal isn’t to get rid of every ideological opponent (an impossible task). Rather, it’s to change the terms of debate to make certain words and arguments verboten; to remove enough people so that a culture of self-censorship is created in response; to create a world where caution and self-censorship around certain issues is practiced by people as a matter of course.
To this end, the best weapon in the war is the people willing to do the ideologues’ work for them. In June, the New York Times reported on what it saw as an encouraging new trend: “As the Black Lives Matter movement has grown following outrage over the killing of George Floyd, high school students have leveraged every social media platform to call out their peers for racist behavior.” The practice is widespread, as the Times reports: “These pages are popping up left and right,’ said Ethan Ramirez, 18, a graduate of Bowie High School in Austin, Texas. ‘There’s ones that are region-specific, high school-specific and district-specific.’ Several large meme accounts have also now devoted themselves to exposing racist behavior.” One student, whose father is a police officer, was called racist and harassed online for posting a statement supportive of law enforcement.
School administrators often encourage this. “One of the assistant principals at my school, he’s in the Black Student Union,” a student told the Times. “He made it clear that if anyone at our school makes racist remarks or is enabling them we should let him know.” Teachers that run afoul of the new rules risk bringing trouble on themselves: A Whitesboro, N.Y., high-school teacher who said “all lives matter” during a virtual school ceremony in June was required to make an apology that reads like a forced public confession. It read, in part, “Over the last few days, I have been given the opportunity to review how the phrase ‘All lives matter’ has been used to discount the Black Lives Matter movement. Given the current state of affairs in our country, the use of this phrase is completely disrespectful. Although my intention was to tell students that they were important, and to show kindness to one another, these three words negated everything I said, leaving only a perception of racism and intolerance. For this, I am deeply sorry.”
As re-education campaigns go, this one is meeting very little resistance. You don’t need secret police if people are willing to report and denounce one another for being racist. You don’t have to burn books if a self-censoring majority is willing to replace any text that challenges the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. You don’t have to entertain the rare scholarly critic or cranky conservative once you’ve established a curriculum that has your ideological hobbyhorses baked into the cake.
The United States has a rich, profound, and proud tradition of liberal thought with regard to race. Over many generations, leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and many, many others carved a path whose bedrock was the unassailable claim to human dignity that all men and women possess. In their lives and their work, they reminded us that we are not divided if we can all view ourselves as part of the human race.
We now live in a world where even noting that inspiring history and those powerful ideas constitutes a racist microaggression. If education is the key to knowledge, and knowledge the path to wisdom, then re-education of the sort we are seeing now is nothing less than a one-way road to cultural destruction.