Brig, Soren Reidar – Are you a sucker? are you naive to your schoolteachers?
Well-meaning Americans are being suckered into an illiberal political cabal.
Days before the Fourth of July, the famed KIPP charter schools announced they’d be abandoning their longtime slogan: “Work Hard, Be Nice.” In a statement, KIPP’s leaders said they were dumping the decades-old slogan because “Working hard and being nice is not going to dismantle systemic racism.”
KIPP lamented that the mantra encourages students to be “compliant and submissive” and “supports the illusion of meritocracy.” The missive closed by declaring that the slogan was at odds with KIPP’s goal: “Schools that are actively anti-racist.”
Slogans change from time to time—that in itself is fairly unremarkable. But KIPP’s stated reasoning puzzled many. “I have interviewed hundreds of teachers, students and staffers at KIPP since 2001,” wrote education columnist Jay Matthews at the Washington Post. “This is the first time I have heard any of them criticize the slogan.” Indeed, one might question why a four-word mantra should be burdened with having to “dismantle systemic racism” or how the nation’s largest charter school network decided working hard and being nice were at odds with its educational vision.
The answer lies with KIPP’s stated desire to be “actively anti-racist.” This summer, the tragic legacy of American racism came to the fore. This has created propitious, historic opportunities to confront real societal challenges. Yet “anti-racism,” for all its high-minded claims and surface appeal, proves to be, on close examination, a farrago of reductive dogmatism, coercion, and anti-intellectual zealotry that’s remarkably unconcerned with either improving schooling or ameliorating prejudice.
There’s a tragic bait-and-switch at work. Americans who care passionately about equality and justice have been dragooned into advancing an incoherent, illiberal agenda. Aspiring anti-racists are mounting a misguided assault on the very mores and habits of mind that undergird liberty, equality, and healthy communities.
Reasonable readers may regard such assertions with skepticism. How can “anti-racist” education be anything but healthy? After all, it’s self-evident that we want students to reject racism. The simple answer is that the doctrine of “anti-racism” doesn’t offer what’s promised on the tin.
The label “anti-racism” is wildly deceiving — a crude bit of rhetorical flim-flammery, akin to when Jim Crow Southerners rechristened the American Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.” No, a more fitting sobriquet for the movement that marches under the banner of “anti-racist education” is “anti-educational authoritarianism.” This is a strong statement, but one we believe we can support.
The Reach of Anti-Racist Education
The racial turmoil and civil unrest that has swept the nation since the police killing of George Floyd in May has helped make a star out of Robin DiAngelo, author of the 2018 bestseller, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Aided along by gushing interviews on outlets such as the “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon and “CBS This Morning,” DiAngelo has become a must-have speaker for colleges, foundations, and corporate giants, pocketing five-figure fees for diversity seminars where she teaches that “White identity is inherently racist.” As DiAngelo, who is white, told a packed San Francisco crowd last July, “Internalized white superiority is seeping out of my pores.”
If this summer made a star of DiAngelo, it turned Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi into America’s race guru. Kendi, named one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People of 2020,” won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2016 for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. No one has done more to popularize “anti-racism” than Kendi, thanks largely to the success of two more recent works: Antiracist Baby, a 24-page picture book released in summer 2020, and 2019’s mega-hit, How To Be An Antiracist.
In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist became education’s Talmudic source on matters of race. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which bills itself as “the only national museum devoted exclusively” to educating the public on matters of race, features Kendi’s book on its “Talking about Race” resource page for teachers. Cornell, UC Berkeley, and a large complement of major universities featured it on their summer reading lists. It’s ubiquitous on the “suggested reading” lists shared by foundations, advocacy groups, and professional education organizations. Even the National Park Service offers materials to help high school teachers leadguided readings of How To Be An Antiracist. Kendi earns top dollar for more personal sessions: In August, Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools had Kendi headline their “Racial Truth and Reconciliation Week,” paying $20,000 for a 45-minute virtual presentation and a 15-minute Q&A.
It’s safe to say that nothing in education today has the same cache as being, in the words of KIPP, “actively anti-racist.” Writing in Education Week this February, Bettina Love, professor at the University of Georgia, winner of the 2020 Society of Professors of Education Outstanding Book Award, former Hiphop Fellow at Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Research Institute, and co-founder of the Abolitionist Teaching Network, declared that “active anti-racism” is “the most important step” teachers can take. “Anti-racist teaching is not a teaching approach or method,” Love instructs, “it is a way of life.”
And it’s a pretty prescriptive way of life, to boot. Love, for instance, has called for the “replacement of watered-down and Eurocentric materials from educational publishers like Pearson, McGraw Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.” The superintendent of New York’s East Harlem Scholars Academies took to Education Week to instruct “white teachers” not to talk about the individual accomplishments of black Americans, because to do so is to “teach students that ‘really good, really successful’ Black folks are exempt from racist structures.”
Perhaps the best-known anti-racist curriculum was born from the New York Times Magazine’s factually challenged “1619 Project,” which has been skewered by a series of accomplished scholars for inaccuracies, omissions, and misrepresentations. The 1619 Project, launched in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center, spawned “The 1619 Project Curriculum,” which seeks “to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.” The curriculum has been embraced as a resource by states and major districts, with the Pulitzer Center reporting last year that the materials have already made their way into more than 3,500 classrooms.
A Poison, Not A Palliative
It’s easy to appreciate anti-racist education’s eager reception. Calls to reject racism, promote equality, and expand opportunity transcend ideological divides and resonate with Americans of all stripes. If there’s anything that should help bind together a fractured nation, it’s extending justice and providing opportunity to all of America’s youth. After all, what focused the nation’s concern in the first place was the fact that most Americans believe the police killing of George Floyd or the murder of Ahmaud Arbery to be part of a long line of tragedies with too many antecedents.
We should address America’s troubled legacy on race and the inequities of state violence. And schools and colleges obviously have a crucial role to play in helping students make sense of these thorny issues. Yet, for all this, much of what passes for anti-racist education is a poisonous exercise in caricature and rank bigotry, with troubling consequences for prosaic educational activities like teacher training, grading, and research.
Take, for instance, the anti-racist materials that schools are using to train their K-12 teachers. The materials used by the Denver Public Schools teach educators that “the belief that there is such a thing as being objective,” distinguishing between “good/bad” and “right/wrong,” and valuing an “emphasis on being polite” are all distinctive characteristics of white culture. The same is true of the “individualist” mindset that “if something is going to get done right, I have to do it.” In Loudoun County, Virginia, one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, the Dismantling Racism Workbook used to train teachers this summer highlighted “15 Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture,” including a weird admixture of positive and negative stereotypes, including “perfectionism,” “progress is bigger, more,” “right to comfort,” and “defensiveness.”
Anti-racists also want to end traditional grading practices, which they deem “profoundly discriminatory.” Cornelius Minor, a leading “Grading Equity Advocate,” is an author and speaker who has worked with Columbia Teachers College and the International Literacy Association. He seeks to dismantle “pernicious” grading practices, such as teachers reserving A’s for students who demonstrate understanding of the subject matter. This, he explains, is because one “cannot separate grading practices” from “the history of classism, sexism, racism, and ableism in the United States.” To Minor, a teacher’s inability to perceive a student’s knowledge is evidence of the teacher’s racism, not the student’s ignorance. While Minor is fuzzy regarding the remedies, he is sure that teachers must abandon problematic ideologies such as expecting that students “should know” things.
When it comes to facilitating tough discussions about race, a favored practice among anti-racist educators is, ironically, to sort students and staff by race. These “affinity groups” typically involve one group for black participants, a second for “non-black people of color,” and a third for white participants. Such racially determined groupings are regularly utilized at universities, by Teach For America, and even in high schools. Without a hint of irony, Teach For America makes this exercise in apartheid part of its “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” training for new teachers. Absent is any acknowledgment by these self-avowed anti-racists that they’re resurrecting practices that would’ve been applauded in the Jim Crow south.
As for higher education, by now it’s all too plain that colleges and universities are willing to let ideological zealots squelch free inquiry. This fall, the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education issued a “Joint Statement in Support of Anti-Racist Education,” endorsed by 16 scientific societies, which instructed that researchers “must stand against the notion that systemic racism does not exist.” Issue settled, discussion over. While the document left unsaid what should happen to a scholar inclined to question the decree, experience has taught that they can anticipate everything from public intimidation to formal investigation and discipline.
In 2017, for example, Duke Divinity School professor Paul Griffiths resigned after facing university punishment for criticizing university-sponsored racial-sensitivity training. In 2018, Portland State University professor Bruce Gilley spent months being secretly investigated by his university’s diversity office for publishing a peer-reviewed scholarly article positing that colonialism had positive consequences as well as negative ones. This July, hundreds of members of the Princeton community signed a faculty statement demanding that the university create an “internal committee” of the “actively anti-racist” to supervise teaching, research, hiring, and university practices. One classics professor, Joshua Katz, wrote of his refusal to sign the letter, only to be immediately denounced by his department and the university president.
Education as Reeducation
In short, KIPP’s bizarre decision to abandon its “Work Hard, Be Nice” motto is part and parcel of the broad push for anti-racist education. Implicit in all of this is the cartoonish conviction that values such as hard work, niceness, or subject knowledge can somehow be racially proprietary. It’s as insipid as it is insulting when anti-racist Glenn Singleton, president of the racial-sensitivity training outfit Courageous Conversation, tells the New York Times Magazine that “scientific, linear thinking” and “cause and effect” are among the “hallmark[s] of whiteness.” Across Africa and Asia, air-traffic controllers and cardiovascular surgeons put a lot of faith in things such as “linear thinking” and “cause and effect.” When they do so, are they practicing “whiteness”?
Anti-racist caricatures only make sense if one sticks to generalizations and abstractions. In the real world, for instance, surveys show that black parents in the U.S. are a bit more likely than white parents to think it’s important to teach their kids traits such as “hard work” and “persistence.” The truth is, any drawling Mississippi legislator who suggested that there was something uniquely “white” about objectivity or hard work would be rightly condemned as a racist anachronism. It’s a remarkable notion of anti-racism that assigns widely admired human characteristics to a single race—and then suggests that those who disagree are the bigots!
In service of this troubling doctrine, anti-racists have developed an equally troubling vision of education that unabashedly regards schools as places of ideological conditioning. Take Bettina Love, who asserts, “We need therapists who specialize in the healing of teachers and the undoing of Whiteness in education.” If any teachers are reluctant to be “healed,” Love tells her acolytes to make sure they’re “boycotting” and “calling out” those who resist. Among the many reforms that the KIPP charter schools adopted this summer was requiring that hires pledge their “commitment to anti-racism” as “a condition of employment.” Boycotts, “calling out,” loyalty oaths: These are the norms not of liberal education, but of bare-knuckle political activism.
Students have embraced this spirit of cultural revolution. As The New York Times approvingly reported this summer, students have “repurposed large meme accounts, set up Google Docs and anonymous pages on Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, and wielded their personal followings to hold friends and classmates accountable” for wrongthink. Similarly, “Black At” Instagram accounts have become a popular forum for allegations of campus racism. Purportedly “racist” acts include complaints that a “professor didn’t remember my name,” that classmates didn’t connect with a student on LinkedIn, that a professor nominated the student for an “activism” award, and that a student failed to use the term “white supremacy” in a law school discussion of Loving v. Virginia.
Since anti-racist dogma holds that anything and everything can be racist, it frequently exhibits a penchant for labeling both sides of an issue “racist,” leaving aspiring anti-racists without recourse to a reliable moral compass. For instance, while high academic expectations represent the racist imposition of “white” values, anti-racists also point out that low expectations constitute a racist refusal to believe in black students. As one former Teach For America corps member explains, TFA training taught that teachers couldn’t expect families to provide school resources for their (mostly low-income) students, that such an expectation was a matter of imposing privileged “white” norms. However, when she mentioned how disruptive it was to have to continually hand paper and pencils out to students, she was upbraided for not expecting more of students of color. Being strict was racist; so was being lax.
These kinds of catch-22’s can leave impassioned educators floundering. This July, the Washington Post presented the saga of Christine Tell, a Tulsa teacher, and her journey into anti-racism. When the preschool where she taught was accused of being a “whites only school” based on website photos, Tell suggested creating a scholarship program. Her anti-racist allies, who’d insisted something had to be done, quickly denounced the idea of such scholarships as racist. The story recounts Tell’s repeated offerings to anti-racism and the rejection of each, in turn, as more racism. In the end, asked if her efforts would “make life better for anyone in the black community,” Tell said she was unsure, allowing “she couldn’t be certain because she wasn’t certain of anything.” This, of course, is the point. If every act is racist, the only recourse is to stop asking questions and just pledge “allyship” to the endless, amorphous anti-racist agenda.
The eerie echoes of Orwell’s 1984 are hard to miss. In that novel’s closing moments, a shattered Winston, the rebellious protagonist who had once insisted that “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four,” is reduced to zealously asserting that 2 + 2 = 5 if the Ministry of Love says so. At times, anti-racist excess shades over into the literally Orwellian, such as when Brooklyn College professor of math education Laurie Rubel insists that declaring “2 + 2 = 4” is nothing more than “white supremacist patriarchy.”
Consider the case of poor Matthew Mayhew. This fall, Ohio State’s William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration penned a heartfelt paean cheering the return to college football as a much-needed salve for the stresses of COVID-19 and political division. Mayhew celebrated football’s “bipartisan” appeal, the ability of players to speak up for social change, and the way in which football’s civic rituals encourage Americans to “respect” one another.
Five days later, an anguished Mayhew recanted it all. He apologized for his “uninformed and disconnected whiteness,” for putting “the onus of responsibility for democratic healing on Black communities whose very lives are in danger every single day,” and for his belief that “the Black community” would “benefit from ideals they can’t access.” Like a broken victim in the bowels of the Ministry of Love, Mayhew closed by confessing that he can no longer trust his moral compass but will seek to develop one via an arduous course of “antiracist learning” that “center[s] the question: What can I do to unlearn patterns that hurt and harm Black communities and other communities of color?”
Anti-racist education isn’t educational in any sense that accords with the liberal scientific or philosophical tradition. That’s no great surprise, given that what anti-racists mean by “education” is something more typically understood as indoctrination. Schools and colleges are places where those who may have harbored divergent thoughts are intellectually hobbled and coerced into compliance.
A Truly Anti-Liberal Doctrine
Behind the fine-sounding platitudes that constitute anti-racism’s public face is a morass of incoherent toxicity that’s far more radical than is generally understood. There’s a duplicitous shell game at work: Well-meaning Americans who care about racial inequality and state violence may wind up embracing anti-racist education without realizing they’re endorsing a host of troubling claims about history, reality, logic, race, and individual motivations.
Seeing themselves as enlightened champions of justice, anti-racists have embraced a series of beliefs which are held to be sacred and unquestionable. There is no room for competing hypotheses or views. On the contrary, the simple failure to embrace anti-racist doctrine marks a person or an idea as, ipso facto, racist.
Ibram X. Kendi, for example, starts from the premise that racism is caused not by prejudice but by policy. “Racist policy,” in his phrasing, begets “racist ideas,” not the other way around. And, because racism is not caused by individual animus, it’s a matter of group outcomes: Any statistically measurable disparity between racial groups is always, without exception, the product of racism (except when it’s not, as in the case of professional sports).
Kendi adds to this his central contention that everything in the world—every action, idea, thought, and policy—is either “racist” or “anti-racist.” “There is no such thing as a not-racist idea,” he writes in How to Be an Antiracist. “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy.” Not only is racism all-encompassing, it also makes unceasing demands: All “racist” disparities demand an anti-racist response. Thus, Kendi’s “anti-racism” rejects the very idea that something can exist outside his racial frame. There is no opting out, only confession: “Only racists say they’re not racist,” he explains.
Robin DiAngelo, too, promotes an anti-racism that is both all-encompassing and infallible. “White identity is inherently racist,” she writes in White Fragility. “A positive white identity is an impossible goal.” She combines this charge with her concept of “white fragility” — her mendacious term for an individual’s impulse to defend his or her character from charges of racism. Since all white people are inherently racist, DiAngelo teaches that any effort to dispute that fact is evidence of “white fragility” and, thus, a reaffirmation of one’s innate racism.
In this way anti-racism stacks the deck against those who would interrogate its premises with logic or evidence. Such efforts are deemed disqualifying, prima facie evidence of the disputant’s fragility and racism. It bears repeating: Any doctrine that treats disagreement as evidence of moral turpitude is more suitable to the gulag than to the schools and colleges of a free nation.
And yet anti-racists explicitly reject rational debate and persuasion. As Kendi explains in How to Be an Antiracist, “I had to forsake the suasionist bred into me, of researching and educating for the sake of changing minds.” Kendi concludes that, “Educational and moral suasion is not only a failed strategy” but “it is a suicidal strategy.” This is why, he writes, teachers must “literally teach their students antiracist ideas”—because anything else “is to effectively allow their students to be educated to be racist.”
Of course, abandoning persuasion and argument also enables anti-racists to ignore their own doctrinal inconsistencies. While anti-racists argue that statistical disparities between racial groups are proof of racism, for instance, they also preach that cause and effect, scientific thinking, and “Western” mathematics are the poisonous handmaidens of white supremacy. If numerical group disparities are the measure of racism, how can anti-racists rely on purportedly racist analytic tools and methods to reveal those disparities?
Similarly, anti-racists teach that there is one proper way to look at the world—that only anti-racism reveals the oppressive realities of American life—even as they declare “objectivity” a myth. “DiAngelo,” Daniel Bergner records in a lengthy profile for New York Times Magazine, “likes to ask, paraphrasing the philosopher Lorraine Code: ‘From whose subjectivity does the ideal of objectivity come?’” Kendi, too, declares objectivity “dead.” And in defending her factually challenged handiwork, Nikole Hannah-Jones, head of the 1619 Project explained, “The 1619 Project explicitly denies objectivity.”
Anti-racists go on to make a full-throated argument for cultural relativism. “To be an antiracist is to see all cultures in all their differences as on the same level, as equals,” writes Kendi. This is rank sophistry. If anti-racists really viewed all cultures as equally valid, and not subject to judgment “by the arbitrary standard of any single culture,” they’d have no basis for claiming that the U.S. is a “racist” nation or that apartheid South Africa or the Jim Crow-era South was any worse than any other, more tolerant culture. More to the point, if you “deny objectivity,” then what grounds have you to say that racism is indeed a thing that should be opposed? As Ravi Zacharias once put it: “In some cultures they love their neighbors; in other cultures, they eat them. Do you have any preference?” According to anti-racism, you cannot. There is no value, educational or otherwise, in a doctrine whose principles, when taken at face value, reject the very basis of its existence.
These incongruities may help explain why anti-racists take refuge in opacity. Indeed, the high priests of anti-racism concede they have trouble being clear about what they have in mind. In a staggeringly tone-deaf and ultimately quite revealing passage, Kendi admits that he, the patron saint of anti-racism, in the book he titled How to Be an Antiracist, has trouble explaining his doctrine to the unconverted:
I struggle to concretely explain what ‘institutional racism’ means to the Middle Eastern small businessman, the Black service worker, the White teacher, the Latinx nurse, the Asian factory worker, and the Native store clerk who do not take the courses on racism, do not read the books on racism, do not go to the lectures on racism, do not watch the specials on racism, do not listen to the podcasts on racism, do not attend the rallies against racism.
But the appeal of opacity becomes evident when anti-racists do stumble into moments of clarity. DiAngelo astonishingly asserts in chapter one of White Fragility, “I can get through graduate school without ever discussing racism. I can graduate from law school without ever discussing racism. I can get through a teacher-education program without ever discussing racism.” Each line of this is ludicrous. It’s more accurate to say that it’s virtually impossible to complete a single year of graduate school or teacher education without engaging in such discussions. (DiAngelo, a professor in an education school which offers 9 different classes on race and houses 17 faculty members specializing in “equity studies,” assuredly knows this.) Setting aside race-infused law school orientations, it’s unimaginable that a law student could avoid the 14th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act, Brown v. Board, or the vast archives of American law that address issues of race.
The Work of Cranks
The fundamental unseriousness of anti-racist education is not an accident; it is, too often, the product of unserious thought. For illustrative purposes, we’ll stick to Kendi, the avatar of the anti-racist movement. In his memoir, Kendi recounts different moments along his journey of intellectual self-discovery, including debates had with his college roommate, Clarence, at Florida A&M University. In one such passage, Kendi recounts a day in 2002 when he approached Clarence having “finally figured White people out.”:
“They are aliens,” I told Clarence, confidently resting on the doorframe, arms crossed. “I just saw this documentary that laid out the evidence. That’s why they are so intent on White supremacy. That’s why they seem to not have a conscience. They are aliens.”
Clarence listened, face expressionless. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’m dead serious. This explains slavery and colonization. This explains why the Bush family is so evil. This explains why Whites don’t give a damn. This explains why they hate us so damn much. They are aliens!”
In a nod to the obvious, Kendi describes his younger self as “intensely gullible, liable to believe anything, a believer more than a thinker.” A careful reader may wonder whether that continues to apply.
Kendi notes, for instance, that, at various times, he has endorsed Michael Bradley’s theory in The Iceman Inheritance (which posits “that the White race’s ruthlessness is the product of its upbringing in the Ice Age”) and Afrocentric psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing’s notion of biological determinism (which holds that, because whites are a global minority, they are filled with a “profound sense of numerical inadequacy and color inferiority” and an “uncontrollable sense of hostility and aggression”).
Kendi’s enthusiasm for crackpot musings has been undimmed by his rise to international acclaim. In a cover story for the September issue of The Atlantic, the tenured history professor wrote, “The motto of the United States is E pluribus unum—‘Out of many, one.’ The ‘one’ is the president.” Wrong on two counts. The national motto is, in fact, “In God we trust.” More importantly, the “one” is not the president but the union of thirteen colonies forming a single nation.
Kendi has recently argued for the adoption of an “antiracist amendment” to the U.S. Constitution that would make “racist ideas by public officials” unconstitutional. Of course, given that Kendi has flagged particular views on taxation, pot legalization, private healthcare, school testing, and more as “racist,” this would gut the First Amendment’s free speech protections (Kendi appears untroubled by this possibility). The fact that such a figure is regarded as anti-racist education’s oracle, and not a fringe mediocrity, is telling.
Where’s the Pushback?
Foundations and media outlets, which might be expected to provide some due diligence and scrutiny, have instead leapt aboard the anti-racism bandwagon. In June, Facebook committed “$10 million to anti-racism groups” while the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative issued “A Note to Our Grant Partners” pointing to the “systemic racism that is the defining fault line of our country” and making clear that grantees needed to “name and better address how racial injustice perpetuates disparities and inequities.” In August, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey gave Kendi $10 million to endow his new Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. In September, Andrew W. Mellon gave $15 million to Rutgers, whose English faculty had just declared an anti-racist war on “academic English,” for a new Institute on the Study of Global Racial Justice.
Chalkbeat, which bills itself as providing “essential education reporting across America,” committed in its “Pledge to Readers” to add “antiracism to the list of core values that guide our work.” Chalkbeat quoted Kendi’s doctrine that “it is not enough to be ‘not racist.’ We must be antiracist.” Wary readers were right to be dubious of the assurance that’s Chalkbeat “commitment to telling the truth without consideration of ideology or advocacy has not changed.”
The mainstream media has exhibited similar enthusiasm. The New York Times, of course, has invested enormous resources and reputation in the 1619 Project, which claims that the U.S. was founded as a “slavocracy,” and has heavily promoted its anti-racist “Nice White Parents” podcast. In reporting on this fall’s school closings, the Washington Post has compared pandemic pods to school segregation and cites pods as an example of “opportunity hoarding,” while the Times has judged that such efforts “perpetuate racial inequities rooted in white supremacy.”
Even if funders and the media are on the bandwagon, why has there been so little pushback from advocates, scholars, and public officials? There are several reasons.
For many years, skeptics just never took this stuff that seriously. It’s hard to blame them for that. When a movement’s iconic thinkers say they think white people are aliens, offer arguments that wouldn’t impress a high school debater, and openly preach reeducation and authoritarian dogma, it can all seem pretty risible. And even as this zealotry spread from little-observed corners of academe into Hollywood and the elite media, attempts to raise cautions were still generally regarded as hysterical overreactions.
More importantly, there just hasn’t been much incentive for those on the center-Left or center-Right to speak up. Legitimate issues of educational equity exist, and serious people don’t want to give the impression of dismissing them. But there is a darker undercurrent here, too. As John McWhorter has reported in the Atlantic, center-Left scholars report that they are “afraid to broach these topics,” are “too terrified to even like or retweet a tweet, lest it lead to some kind of disciplinary measure,” and fear colleagues who are “unspeakably mean and disingenuous once they have you in their sights.”
Meanwhile, even those educators and advocates concerned about anti-racist excesses have been all too conscious that speaking up can be a career-killer. Many were left cowed by events at Ascend Public Charter Schools in 2019, when longtime CEO Steven Wilson, a former Harvard instructor and champion of progressive discipline reform, was bizarrely attacked as a racist and forced from his post after writing that schools must seek to provide “all students the knowledge and faculties of mind that had once only been afforded the elite.” As Fordham Institute scholar Robert Pondiscio observed in 2016, “Reformers are routinely pilloried as racists and bigots if they deviate from narrowly cast views on race, gender, income inequality, and other elements of the social justice agenda.”
Forfeiting a Propitious Moment
This has been a particularly unfortunate time for the rise of toxic “anti-racist” dogma. It’s a moment when most Americans, regardless of race, are open to changes that would help low-income, black, and brown children. And, yet, this is the moment when the language of equality is being co-opted by those engaged in Orwellian crusades and mystic doublethink.
Anti-racism’s disdain for practical remedies seems geared to derail more serious efforts to improve education. That’s a tragedy. After all, there are real institutional forces restricting opportunity, especially for black and brown children, that must be addressed. Too many of these children attend schools that are chaotic, short on mentoring and support, characterized by low expectations, and home to too much mediocre instruction. Meanwhile, residential attendance zones can lock black and Latino families out of good schools and degree-based hiring locks many out of good jobs for which they might be otherwise qualified. Efforts to address these challenges are vital, but they’re impeded rather than aided by those calling for Maoist cultural revolution.
While much of 21st-century education reform has sought to address inequality, these efforts have not delivered on their promise. We must do better when it comes to exploring how to best revamp school-based policing, better prepare teachers, promote sound reading instruction, embrace high expectations for all students, provide all students with access to advanced courses and essential supports, and give every family the chance to choose a safe, effective school. We should ensure that school discipline treats all students fairly and that American history and civics tell our nation’s whole story. We should do away with “legacy admissions” at tax-exempt and public colleges and end those degree requirements that arbitrarily restrict access to good jobs.
And yet, this ambitious and intensely practical to-do list is tangential to the anti-racist agenda. In the end, instead, much of anti-racism’s educational project turns out to be a strange, sophomoric assault on civilization itself.
After all, it’s hardly the case that “white” culture is uniquely math-obsessed or analytic. Around the globe, air traffic controllers who supervise flying steel, surgeons who handle human hearts, or architects whose bridges resist gravity’s pull tend to value precision, objectivity, and rationality. This is true in Alabama and Angola, without regard to race, nationality, or cultural background. That such traits are more visible in the U.S. than in less developed nations is not racist; it’s an acknowledgment that modern economies value certain things more than do less advanced economies.
Unless the anti-racists want to reject the fruits of 21st-century transportation, health care, and food distribution, they really do need to explain how they would have us continue to enjoy the benefits of civilization while rejecting the habits of mind that make them possible.
There are real problems to solve. Unfortunately, anti-racist education doesn’t help address them. The truth is that “anti-racist” education isn’t interested in anything so small as educational improvement. The aim is cultural revolution in the name of an illiberal doctrine that poses a mortal threat to schools and colleges. Anti-racism’s hostility to reason, rejection of civilizational virtue, and labeling of skepticism as blasphemy represent an assault on the very soul of liberal education. Americans of goodwill must reject “anti-racist” education and its vision of anti-educational authoritarianism.
Frederick M. Hess and J. Grant Addison Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. J. Grant Addison is the deputy editor of the Washington Examiner Magazine.