The Excesses of Antiracist Education
In my last column I tried to describe part of the current controversy over race and K-12 education — the part that turns on whether it’s possible to tell a fuller historical story about slavery and segregation while also retaining a broadly patriotic understanding of America’s founding and development.
In this column I will try to describe the part of the controversy that concerns how we teach about racism today. It’s probably the more intense debate, driving both progressive zeal and conservative backlash.
Again, I want to start with what the new progressivism is interested in changing. One change involves increasingly familiar terms like “structural” and “systemic” racism, and the attempt to teach about race in a way that emphasizes not just explicitly racist laws and attitudes, but also how America’s racist past still influences inequalities today.
In theory, this shift is supposed to enable debates that avoid using “racist” as a personal accusation — since the point is that a culture can sustain persistent racial inequalities even if most white people aren’t bigoted or biased.
Still, this kind of vision would, on its own, face inevitable conservative resistance on several grounds: that it overstates the challenges facing minorities in America today; that it seems to de-emphasize personal responsibility; that it implies policy responses (racial quotas, reparations) that are racially discriminatory, arguably unconstitutional and definitely threatening to the white middle class.
But the basic claim that structural racism exists has strong evidence behind it, and the idea that schools should teach about it in some way is probably a winning argument for progressives. (Almost half of college Republicans, in a recent poll, supported teaching about how “patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other institutions.”) Especially since not every application of the structural-racist diagnosis implies left-wing policy conclusions: The pro-life and school choice movements, for instance, regularly invoke the impact of past progressive racism on disproportionately high African-American abortion rates and underperforming public schools.
What’s really inflaming today’s fights, though, is that the structural-racist diagnosis isn’t being offered on its own. Instead it’s yoked to two sweeping theories about how to fight the problem it describes.
First, there is a novel theory of moral education, according to which the best way to deal with systemic inequality is to confront its white beneficiaries with their privileges and encourage them to wrestle with their sins.
Second, there is a Manichaean vision of public policy, in which all policymaking is either racist or antiracist, all racial disparities are the result of racism — and the measurement of any outcome short of perfect “equity” may be a form of structural racism itself.
The first idea is associated with Robin DiAngelo, the second with Ibram X. Kendi, and they converge in places like the work of Tema Okun, whose presentations train educators to see “white-supremacy culture” at work in traditional measures of academic attainment.
The impulses these ideas encourage take different forms in different institutions, but they usually circle around to similar goals. First, the attempt to use racial-education programs to construct a stronger sense of shared white identity, on the apparent theory that making Americans of European ancestry think of themselves as defined by a toxic “whiteness” will lead to its purgation. Second, the deconstruction of standards that manifest racial disparities, on the apparent theory that if we stop using gifted courses or standardized tests, the inequities they reveal will cease to matter.
These goals, it should be stressed, don’t follow necessarily from the theory of structural racism. The first idea arguably betrays the theory’s key insight, that you can have “racism without racists,” by deliberately trying to increase individual racial guilt. The second extends structural analysis beyond what it can reasonably bear, into territory where white supremacy supposedly explains Asian American success on the SAT.
But precisely because they don’t follow from modest and defensible conceptions of systemic racism, smart progressives in the media often retreat to those modest conceptions when challenged by conservatives — without acknowledging that the dubious conceptions are a big part of what’s been amplifying controversy, and conjuring up dubious Republican legislation in response.
Here one could say that figures like Kendi and DiAngelo, and the complex of foundations and bureaucracies that have embraced the new antiracism, increasingly play a similar role to talk radio in the Republican coalition. They represent an ideological extremism that embarrasses clever liberals, as the spirit of Limbaugh often embarrassed right-wing intellectuals. But this embarrassment encourages a pretense that their influence is modest, their excesses forgivable, and the real problem is always the evils of the other side.
That pretense worked out badly for the right, whose intelligentsia awoke in 2016 to discover that they no longer recognized their own coalition. It would be helpful if liberals currently dismissing anxiety over Kendian or DiAngelan ideas as just a “moral panic” experienced a similar awakening now — before progressivism simply becomes its excesses, and the way back to sanity is closed.
Did Trump Make Everything Progressive?
The latest transfixing document for our time is a public-relations video for the Central Intelligence Agency. It features an unidentified 36-year-old Latina officer who speaks of her ascent through the ranks of the Company in a hybrid language, partly the traditional American narrative of immigrant success, partly something more contemporary and ideological: “I’m a woman of color. … I’m a cisgender millennial who’s been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I am intersectional, but my existence is not a box-checking exercise. … I refuse to internalize misguided patriarchal ideas of what a woman can or should be.”
Thus is a career in service to the American imperium, at an institution dedicated to spycraft, drone strikes and the occasional coup d’état, now packaged as the fulfillment of a certain kind of cultural leftism and sold with buzzwords that almost nobody outside the academy would have recognized in the first term of Barack Obama. Whatever this change ultimately means for left-wing politics — the death of the antiwar left? the completion of progressivism’s march through the institutions? just the usual C.I.A. tricks? — it’s pretty remarkable to watch.
In my weekend column I wrote about the political challenges that the rise of so-called wokeness poses for the Democratic Party: the surmountable challenge created by its academic style of rhetoric, and the more substantial challenge should the new progressivism preside over policy disasters in the cities where it rules.
But it would take more than just an electoral setback to reverse the ideological shifts that have given us the intersectional, anti-patriarchal, cisgender-and-all-genders Central Intelligence Agency video. Indeed, the striking thing about the new progressivism’s advance is that it was seemingly accelerated by electoral defeat — the shocking defeat of 2016, specifically, which by making Donald Trump president made a progressive revolution possible.
Or at least that’s the implication of an analysis that made the rounds a little while after the “woke C.I.A.” ad first appeared, in which Richard Hanania, who runs the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, tried to explain why “everything” — meaning institutions that used to be seen as neutral or conservative, from corporate America to the intelligence bureaucracy — has recently become so much more progressive in positioning and rhetoric.
Hanania argues that it’s not simply that the millennials and Gen Z are more liberal, or that the Democrats are the professional-class party and so liberalism dominates the professional spheres. These tilts are real, but there are still enough conservative-leaning consumers, enough young and wealthy and well-educated Republicans, to create incentives for institutions to be apolitical or politically neutral.
The key difference, he argues, isn’t sheer numbers but engagement, intensity and zeal. Liberals lately seem to just care a lot more about politics: They donate more, they protest more, they agitate more, in ways that change the incentives for public-facing institutions. Some of these gaps are longstanding, but others have opened only recently, with 2016 as the crucial turning point. That was the year when “the mobilization gap exploded,” creating irresistible pressure “from both within and outside corporations for them to take a stand on almost all hot button issues.”
Why 2016? Well, probably because of Donald Trump: In Hanania’s data, his nomination and election looks like the great accelerant, with anti-Trump backlash driving liberal hyper-investment in politics to new heights, enabling progressives to achieve “true mass mobilization in a way conservatives never have in the modern era.” That mobilization has consolidated progressive norms in almost every institution susceptible to pressure from activists (or activist-employees), and it’s pulled the entire American establishment leftward, so that conservatives are suddenly at war with Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola instead of just Harvard and the Ford Foundation, and the custodians of the national security state are eager to prove their enlightenment by speaking in the argot of the academic left.
To some extent this is an obvious point to anyone who watched the Trump era unfold, but, as a Trump-skeptical conservative, I like the sharpened emphasis in Hanania’s analysis because it seems to vindicate a point I made myself: that the many conservatives who hoped to find in Trump a bulwark against progressivism were fundamentally deceived.
Instead, his administration’s mix of haplessness and menace was a great gift to progressivism, inspiring an anti-conservative reaction that extended through every walk of elite life, turning centrists into liberals and remaking liberalism into exactly the kind of progressive orthodoxy that conservatives most fear. Republicans got control of the Supreme Court out of the bargain, but in almost every other institution that matters, from Langley to the corporate boardroom, their position got much worse.
And yet I also wonder if this narrative is a little bit too pat in its anti-Trumpism, and if it gives too little credit to the specific ideas currently showing up in C.I.A. public-relations videos. That the rise of wokeness was accelerated by Trump I have no doubt. But if you look at public opinion data, the liberal shift leftward, on social issues and especially race, begins midway through Obama’s second term, meaning that when Trump kicked off his campaign the Great Awokening was already taking shape.
So if the consolidation of the new progressivism was Trump-driven, its original appeal was not. Instead, you need to analyze that appeal on its own terms. Just as the reactionary turn among conservatives is understandable given the loss of things that the right was supposed to be conserving, the new progressivism is understandable as a response to previous trends in elite liberalism, to failures and successes both.
Thus the zeal of the new antiracism is a response to the longstanding failure of liberal policymaking to actually close racial gaps. The moralism of #MeToo feminism, the desire to rethink or redefine the contours of consent, reflects a sense that in championing sexual individualism liberalism had ended up enabling predation. The spiritualizing side of wokeness, from the martyrology of police-shooting victims to the confessions of privilege and the zealous witch hunts, seems like an attempt to restore a sense of the sacred that a secularized liberalism sorely lacks. And the progressive skepticism of old-fashioned liberal appeals to free speech and free debate, the sense that certain arguments (whether on immigration, race or gender identity) should be simply ended once an activist consensus is established, seems to treat the swift and sweeping success of the movement for same-sex marriage as a model for how to win on more controverted issues.
In many of these impulses, but especially the last one, there’s an embedded promise that progressive change can happen as a kind of moral awakening within elite institutions rather than through any kind of dramatic revolt against them. (Neither Harvard nor Coca-Cola nor the C.I.A. had to give up anything when Obergefell v. Hodges was handed down.) Which explains, in turn, why this cluster of ideas has advanced so fast within the key precincts of American power. Even though the new progressivism takes a dire view of our great institutions’ history, it also seems to promise that those same institutions can endure unchallenged in their power, if only they confess, repent and convert — and recruit their new members more intersectionally than before.
The tension between this institutionalism and the promised radical change may eventually be the new progressivism’s undoing. (Can Ibram X. Kendi permanently sustain his radical chic while being an academic recipient of Silicon Valley largess?) Or alternatively, as I suggested in my last column, the actual application of radical ideas outside the protected spaces of the elite, to issues of crime and policing especially, may lead to breakdowns that cost progressives not just an election but their commanding position within the establishment as well.
But for now, the story Hanania tells shouldn’t be seen as just a story of Trumpism radicalizing liberalism, as important as that story is. When an ideology carries all before it so successfully that the C.I.A. decides it’s time to start cribbing from its script, even its enemies should acknowledge that it’s winning, in some sense, on the merits: not just from good fortune or from backlash, but because its gospel persuades people to convert.