Critical race theory's rising hegemony

Below is an excerpt from a recent conversation I had with my friend John McWhorter, in which we discuss the troubling trend of American schools giving in to the demands of the adherents of the critical race theory. The full conversation is available on Youtube.

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MCWHORTER: You have me thinking also about the whole critical race theory aspect of things.

The Trump administration came out against that kind of educational approach and material, with their basis being that it tears the country apart, that it doesn't encourage a sense of pride in America, that it discourages there being any sense of American history as having anything to be proud of. And all of that has a "Make America Great Again," right-wing Republican zealot ring to it, which makes a lot of people feel, I think, that to be against this new current in education means that you are a right-wing zealot.

But that business of tarring by association gets very sloppy. And the truth is that, even if the Trump administration's motives for coming out against CRT in that way were what many of us would regard as not ours and perhaps even impure, that doesn't mean that there isn't something really alarming going on in a lot of educational entities these days.

And a lot of this is affecting children.

You and I, for example, are privy to what went on at the Dalton School here in New York City, where apparently the entire curriculum has been turned upside down into these endless indoctrination sessions about the nature of racial oppression in the United States, including role-playing games and separation of people by race. And all of this is being done by people who think themselves on the side of the angels. This is a school that's been running for a hundred years as one of the most innovative and effective educational institutions on earth. And because of the fear that these CRT types inspire in other people—the idea that if you don't agree with them, you're going to be called a racist in public—goodness gracious, that scares people. The whole school has possibly been ruined. 

Bryn Mawr was essentially taken over for weeks by students demanding that that kind of ideology be taught in all classrooms, to the point that some people have withdrawn their students from the school. The president or whatever the head of Bryn Mawr is called—and she should be called out, Kim Cassidy—actually gave in to these students and apologized for initially criticizing them for, for example, making most of the student body scared to their socks for not agreeing to this idea that education and the school needed to be completely hijacked.

This sort of thing is happening in various places. And in each case, CRT fans could say, "Well, that's extreme, but ..."

But the problem is, this has become a meme nationwide. And we only need think about the Princeton letter that we've talked about, which basically implies that Princeton ought to be run by a star chamber of people deciding what's racist and what isn't.

This whole dialogue is getting a little frightening. I write about it in my latest Atlantic piece and, I have to say, my latest Substack piece. This stuff is scary. This way of looking at things really is becoming overly influential. And the reason I'm saying it's overly influential is because it doesn't teach people how to think constructively, except about one very narrow thing. And it's not based on any coherent philosophy of education. It's a religion. This is religion being preached as some sort of higher truth by people, most of whom I doubt consider themselves very religious. 

So, okay. We're not going to have the White House prescribing against critical race theory in education.

But on the other hand, if there's going to be a racial reckoning under the Biden administration, we do need to have a conversation as to what that reckoning is going to be.

And if the reckoning is going to be that any Black person who decides to exert the performance art of saying that their institution is racist will have 90% of what they demand given to them—because everybody is peeing their pants, afraid that somebody is going to call them a bigot on Twitter—this country is in serious trouble.

And anybody who wants to tell me I shouldn't say that until there's no such thing as a right-wing militia zealot who might overtake the Capitol; anybody who says that we can't talk about that until we do something about the idiots on the right—well, you know what, frankly, I don't believe you.

I think that really the people who say that just don't want to hear what they know is the truth, because they're afraid that somebody is going to call them racist on Twitter if they don't bow down.

We've got to sit these people back down.

And notice, I'm not saying chase them out of the room. But the hyper-wokesters need to go back to the way it was 20 years ago, when they were one voice at the table.

And it does not make anybody a right-wing zealot to feel that what's happening at places like Dalton is deeply, deeply wrong. You can be somebody who's just a good old-fashioned liberal. 

LOURY: John, that was a rant. That was a rant in the spirit of Glenn.

That was kind of like you.

CRT, for anybody who doesn't know, is critical race theory. This is the intellectual scaffolding that undergirds a lot of this postmodern latter-day anti-racist zealotry. Diversity training, the things that are going on in workplaces and institutions and in educational institutions that John is talking about.

You agree with the Trump administration's antipathy toward that particular intellectual outlook, and you had no problem when the Trump administration attempted to use their executive authority to stamp it out, in terms of the human resource policy of federal employees. 

I didn't like their reasons, but I liked that there was a pushback. That was the one thing they did right. 

So another thing is this peeing pants metaphor that you've got, this image of this terrified, cowardly, spineless white person who is so fearful that they're going to be said to be out of step with the sensibility of racial justice advocacy that they sign on to or endure ridiculous humiliation and reeducation, which they probably loathe and can see transparently as being a power move by the racial justice advocates. But nevertheless, they endure it humbly because they can't bear being called racist. And you're saying that’s peeing their pants. I think that's very accurate. Very interesting.

This is your rant, but you have to imagine a person sitting in business clothes behind a desk, where if they came out from behind the desk, you'd see a suspicious stain. That is the way I actually think of all of these people, yes. Including individually. And I won't take it back. I believe in that metaphor strongly. Continue.

I'm not sure I know exactly what I want to say.

It's a catastrophe. It's like the cultural revolution—I mean, small-c, small-r.

I'm talking about China. I'm talking about struggle sessions. I'm talking about people being led out with dunce caps on and being put in the corner and ridiculed because they're not with what the party says is the right ideological interpretation of whatever political economic development there is. They're too educated, they're too bourgeois, they're too property-centered, they're too inquisitive, they haven't got the spirit of the revolution.

This kind of thing is being carried on and careers are being ruined because of it, marriages are coming to an end because of it, children are turning on their parents because of it, institutions are being completely gutted in terms of their capacity to carry on their function because of it.

A kind of orgy of finger pointing and witch-huntery, burning the apostates at the stake, enduring a Twitter mob when you have a public relations-sensitive business profile.

That's not quite being burned at the stake, but it's definitely a bad thing to happen to you. 

And do you know the latest case of this? University of Illinois at Chicago.

Jason Kilborn is a law professor. He made an exam. One of the questions was about employment discrimination in real life. And he had the n-word and the word b-i-t-c-h expurgated but mentioned because it was part of the case. N-asterisk-asterisk-asterisk-asterisk-asterisk, and then the b-word.

A group of Black students pilloried him for this, one of them claiming that she experienced heart palpitations when she saw the expurgated n-word and b-word.

And there was one of these Black students who had an hours-long Zoom conversation with this professor, Jason Kilborn, where at one point, the professor, getting a little upset, said, “Well, I guess that such and such is going to think that I'm going to turn into some homicidal maniac.” Do you know that student then went and told the superiors that he really thought that Professor Kilborne might be a danger, physically, to Black students because of that flippant comment he made about homicidal maniac?

So his administrative duties have been stripped from him, he's no longer teaching the class, and he's physically barred from campus because of students adopting this kind of ideology.

And it actually had the power that some people behind desks urinated upon themselves and all but destroyed this man’s semester and probably interfered in general with his career.

And yet we're supposed to think that this isn't a problem because of the insurrection that happened at the Capitol. 

You mean that metaphorically. You don't mean literally that they urinated.

[laughing] I'm sure that they had basic control, but metaphorically …

The people behind the desk are the president or the vice president or the provost or whatever. 

The people who did this to him, yes. That's what's happening these days, and it's not an isolated story. I could go on, but I won't. I just think this idea that we can't talk about that because there was an insurrection at the Capitol is really craven. And I do think that we need to talk about this.

What I'm interested in is close reporting from the inside about the political and social psychology of these movements.

The student who can't bear being exposed to a string of digits that are representative of a concept of a word when, if you turn on the radio and tune to a hip hop channel, you hear the word endlessly. And I'll bet this very student has been at parties where the word is being screamed out by people in unison as they do that line dance thing that they do—or whatever it is that they do, I'm an old man, I don't know what they do anymore.

But I'm just saying, the spectacle of that kind of a move? That's a power move, man. That's a play for control. Control of the conversation, control of the institution. And it's patently absurd. At some remove, you read about it and you say, this is madness. This is like the Salem witch trials or something. 

What's going on in the psychology of that? Who are these people who are wetting their pants behind the desk? What was the process by which they arrived at this particular sensibility?

What are students saying to each other in their private gatherings when they concoct these schemes and reinforce the hysterical mood by compelling others in their number to conform or to be held in ill-repute.

"We got a movement." Do they really think they have a movement? Do they really think this is justice, or are they cynical about it? Do they see it for what it is, playing on the sensibilities of a fraught and insecure administrative structure?

I mean, I get these reports all the time. You've mentioned private knowledge that we had about what was going on at the Dalton School. I get it all the time. Somebody, at a university not to be named, where they have a theater arts program, was telling me about the 21-page demand letter—maybe it was only 18 pages—that the community ... 

You need to say where that was. That school needs to be called out, because there's something wrong with that school in particular. 

That school is Boston University, and the Ibram Kendi institute is at Boston University and probably had something to do with inspiring this.

I wasn't thinking about that, but we get so many reports from BU about this stuff. 

But here's my point. It had to have taken a committee weeks to just compose the list of demands. The list of demands went on forever. It had subheads and subheads under the subheads. They were going to restructure everything. And their posture was, we demand this, we demand that, we demand this. There had to have been a drafting committee. There must've been many meetings over coffee in the morning or late into the night in which people strategize about what to put under paragraph seven, subsection A, number one.

I mean, they must have been consumed by the effort, and they thought themselves fighting for justice. They saw themselves as heroic in the undertaking, which is about minute administrative detail over the racial composition of the staff, about how many hours are going to be spent on one or another, about bringing in outside consultants to reeducate people on behalf of the program.  And they demand, they demand. Where do they get off thinking that they can demand? How did that come about?

I want the inside story. 

There's so many people cowering in fear, afraid that to protest will leave them not just being called a racist, but ruined. Turned down at tenure time, not getting an extension of their contract, falling into disfavor with people who have power over their livelihood and their future.

Many of these administrators, I'll bet you, are sitting there thinking, "This is complete bullshit. But if I mishandle this, I'll never get the next step up in my career. I'll never get it because I'll be marked as a 'conservative,' as someone who 'doesn't share our values.'"

Or a racist.