Critical Race Theory in U.S. Schools
with John McWhorter
We need more Paul Rossis! I’m referring to the teacher at Grace Church High School in Manhattan who objected to his school’s enforcement of narrow-minded “antiracist” policies. Speaking out against the excesses of critical race theory, especially in the schools, is not easy. It took courage and integrity to do what Rossi did, and he seems to have paid a price—he’s no longer employed by Grace Church.
But the more people find the courage to speak out, the easier it will become to do so. In the conversation excerpted below, John McWhorter and I discuss Rossi’s case and the problem of CRT in the schools more broadly.
John also mentions that he gets a lot of email about similar incidents. I do, too, and I’ve set up an email address where you can get in touch about them and many other things: firstname.lastname@example.org. There are a few simple instructions for using it, which can be found here.
GLENN LOURY: You and I want to talk about critical race theory in the schools. It's everywhere. Paul Rossi—Grace Church Academy, private school in New York City, Manhattan—has become something of a figure for his public report about the inner workings of the administration of the school where he used to be a teacher.
I gather he's no longer teaching there, has been asked not to set foot on the premises without prior consultation with the authorities, engendered a fierce backlash to his public letter that Bari Weiss promoted where he says in effect it's way too woke over here. We need some fresh air. We need to give these kids a better kind of educational experience than we're giving them around these fundamental moral and political questions having to do with race.
And he's just one of many. He reports what we know, which is that a lot of people out there are chafing at the bit with respect to the mania around anti-racism that has influenced their institutions, especially educational institutions. But they are afraid to speak out. He has spoken out. And we thought we might talk about that a little bit now. So I'm opening up the conversation of critical race theory and American education, especially elite K-12 education.
JOHN MCWHORTER: We need more Paul Rossis, because frankly the only way that we can keep “the Elect,” as I call them, from permeating our institutions to a poisonous degree is by letting them know that calling you names on Twitter is not going to make you back down. Paul is a beginning, because he's just one person. But from what he says—and I believe him—there are many other teachers that he was working alongside who feel the same way, and a great deal many more students and parents.
And not everybody's up for being mauled. I completely understand that. But there needs to be more of him, because it's the only way that these things are going to change. What I find especially chilling about these sorts of things is that when somebody complains, when we get these things like the Dalton letter or this, or frankly what you and I are now seeing. It's at the point, Glenn, where now for me, it's like five or six a day. I feel bad because I can no longer even begin to answer everybody. There are people who probably think I'm kind of a cold fish because they write me these passionate accounts, and I'm sitting there thinking, “I have papers to grade!”
I get it. But you know, from what these people say, you realize that the schools never defend themselves. The schools simply excommunicate, and that's it. There's never any attempt at any kind of substantial explanation of, for example, saying, "In our history class, all we teach is this. We have not turned education upside down. We just say a few things like this, and basically it's the way it was two years ago," or something like that. It's just that, "Nope. You shut up. Out. These accusations are absurd."
For example, the response from the president at Smith after Jodi Shaw's clear accusations. Never anything in any particular detail. They don't feel the need to defend themselves. That's what's scary. I don't think it's that they're hiding anything. I don't think they're consciously thinking, "I can't defend this, so I'm not going to try." They don't even feel the need. That's how much power they've got at this point. They know that they don't need to go to the trouble of defending themselves and exposing themselves to more argument. I don't know if they realize that the arguments could be destructive to their very ideas, but they don't even need to bother. That's a serious thing in this society.
So we need more Pauls. We need people like this to realize that they really can't keep doing what they're doing without either explanation or, given that they would fail in that, without bending and going back to being part of a genuinely intellectual and artistic and moral society. So I say hooray for Paul, but we need more.
There's a paper that I wrote about on Substack, for some reason written as an academic article that ordinarily nobody would read in a journal of criminology. Go figure. But the head of Riverdale Country Day School, Tom Taylor, writes about how his school is going to be turned over to this kind of ideology, and if parents don't understand that, fuck them. Now of course, he puts it more gently than that. But his point is, for parents who don't understand this, we simply cannot listen because what we're doing is of paramount importance. There's no argument to be had. That kind of resistance is something that we simply cannot countenance. And so what he really means is the parents can take their kids elsewhere. That shows you the power of this at this point, that someone like him could feel confident spelling that out for the public. I'm not sure what public he was writing for there, but I'm sure he would say it in public, for the public to take in.
So we have some people to put back in their place, their place being the place that all the rest of us are in, where we are in a society where we are in endless contestation about what the good is. They think they found it, and they're not even close. I mean, you talk about people who are close? They're not even close.
Did you see the reaction to the parent at the Dalton School who had the public letter saying, in effect, the school had lost its way, that had very granular and specific objections to things that he thought were wrong with the pedagogy around race and racism that the school was following? You saw the, I gather, authorities at the school, or maybe a consortium of concerned parents on the other side of the debate? They blasted him, man. He was the original letter writer complaining and he—I'm sorry, I don't have his name in front of me—was basically characterized as a fascist. I don't think that word was used, but the tone of the rebuke was a moral condemnation for having raised the questions in the first place.
Which I think goes to your point, that people at the heights of these institutions don't feel the need to actually engage the arguments on a meritorious basis, to say, no, your criticism is wrong. Here's what we're doing. Here's why it's okay. Because they think it's a badge of fidelity to a moral position to have agreed with them—"Your complaint and your objections are evidence of your lack of fidelity to that position. You're a bad person for having so objected."—and therefore it becomes ad hominem, quite literally. It becomes about your character for having objected as opposed to being about the merits of your objection. All decent people agree with us about this, is the supposition here.
And the fact that this would be characteristic of educational institutions, where the goal presumably is to teach students how to think, not what to think, is all the more concerning. I mean, it, it really is very concerning. So we need more Paul Rossis.
Why don't we have more Paul Rossis? People are afraid. They are living in fear of social sanction. That's the nature of the environment that we find ourselves in. How is it that such an environment can persist for so long without it collapsing, if indeed the merits of the position that's being defended are so weak? But what position is being defended? That white supremacy, white privilege and so on, systemic racism, structural racism and so on permeate every aspect of American life in 2021 and account for where you see disparities. You don't see enough partners at a law firm, you don't see enough kids being inducted into the Bronx High School of Science, you see an imbalance in the kids who are going into a highly sought after college class, you see a wealth gap, you see a higher rate of incarceration, you see a disparity in mortality and morbidity occasioned by a global pandemic.
Every such instance of racial inequality has its root in structures of domination, of failure to credit the value of the Black body, of a perception of Black people as being less than fully human, of a reenactment of centuries-old American structures elaborated initially in order to facilitate and justify an institution of chattel slavery. We've not really made any progress. If the Senator from South Carolina, who happens to be Black and who gives a response to the president's joint session of Congress speech, utters the words, "America is not a racist society," and if the sitting vice-president, under pressure of question, responds to a question by affirming that America is not a racist society, then those people themselves have acted in immoral ways.
This is the thing against which the Paul Rossis of the world are pushing. I go on at length in order to make sure we know what we're talking about here. It does seem to be questionable. You can argue about it. I mean, you don't have to necessarily agree with Glenn Loury or John McWhorter about all of these matters. But that they are self-evidently a reflection of the deep structure of systemic racism and the inherent white privilege in the society? How did this way of looking at the world ever becomes so deeply ingrained that it would be taken for granted, then regarded as a badge of moral legitimacy to affirm it?
It's a way of thinking that I'm shocked to see acquiring this kind of influence. And I'm going to go to a delicate place here. About 15 years ago, I was talking to a Black reporter, and we were having the typical disagreement as to whether or not racism is as decisive a factor, as we're often told. She wasn't a fierce kind of person, but she clearly did not like me. She was being very polite about it, but she didn't like the kind of person who I am as a Black person who doesn't agree with the sorts of views she had. Very pacific kind of person.
So we were exchanging ideas without it getting nasty before we were recording. And she said, "So for example, in my neighborhood you can just see the racism." What she was referring to is that in her neighborhood, which is largely a somewhat depressed neighborhood, there is an elite school that you have to take a serious test to get into. In that off neighborhood, you see white and South Asian and Asian kids streaming into the doors in a neighborhood that otherwise is full of Black and Latino kids.
Now, she looks at that and she says, "You can just see the racism. How come none of the kids from the neighborhood are going to that school? Who are all these kids from other neighborhoods going there instead?" I remember her saying that, and I remember thinking, okay, this is the problem. It was a little earlier in my development, it was probably like '08. I thought, a person like her sees something like that and is applying a rather stringent standard.
I was wrapping my head around it and I was really thinking, is she right? If you see something like that, it's racism because the way it's supposed to work is that that neighborhood is full of the kids who live next door to that building, not these people who come from other neighborhoods. Why aren't there as many Black and brown kids there as are represented in the population of New York? If there isn't, then the reasoning is called “racism.”
And I couldn't help thinking, wow. If you look at that and you just knit your brow and say, "It's bigotry or some outgrowth of it. There's something about the society not being fair to Black and brown people. That's the only explanation for why all those Jewish and Asian kids are walking around in there," and you look at that and you think "racism." And “racism” to you is a word that hits you in the same place as it would if you were thinking about a white person stepping on a Black person's toe. The use of that word, there is a modern American peculiarity, but we're stuck with it. Racism.
This is what I mean by delicate. I thought at the time, I don't find that very insightful. I thought, I'm not sure that she is inclined to think about this a little harder. I don't mean that she's dumb. I think that she just had learned to think that way about race and just kind of kept going. Because the reason that the Black kids aren't going to that school is so many things. The reason is, the reasons are so many things. It has to do with the racist history of the United States, definitely. But it also has to do with, I hate to say, because of that racist history, certain cultural attitudes that Black people often don't have that get you into schools like that.
There's a whole notion that high class nerdiness is something other than being Black. And it's been authoritatively documented that that's a factor in the culture. It's not a matter of blame. It's just something that happened as the result of the racist past, for reasons that we can get into. But there are all sorts of reasons why the people in that neighborhood aren't going to that particular school, especially since the schools that those people go to in the neighborhood are run by Black and Brown people. It's not as if white people in those schools have been holding them down for generations, treating them as lesser beings. It's complicated. And yet this reporter's just looking there and thinking, "It's racism."
Now, that was just her then. And I remember thinking, this is something you get from often educated people, often people in the media, and thankfully it doesn't go too far beyond that. We're now stuck in a situation where people are running schools who think that way. So their idea is, if you have any kind of imbalance of that kind, then draconian measures are necessary to get rid of that white supremacy. What worries me in particular is that one way that we want to get rid of it now, apparently, is by excusing Black kids from what are called white standards, such as being precise and being on time and being objective and prizing the written word.
I genuinely want to know, to what extent are these supposed anti-racists actually teaching Black kids that they don't have to be on time, so to speak, in all of those ways? Is that something that's just being said to placate a certain kind of Black person who enjoys hearing it? Or are Black kids really being excused from getting the right answers? I don't have the answer to that question. Now, I know what these people say in their documents, but I'd be open to finding out that that never infects these curricula.
But the gauntlet is upon them. Because from their writings, I get the feeling that the way we're going to get rid of this racism is to make sure that Black kids don't have to try very hard. And I find that disgusting. And if they don't even feel the need to defend it, I find them disgusting.