Extremist political cycles seem to have a natural lifespan, but it requires real political will to overcome them.
November’s off year elections revealed that the rollback of wokeness, if not imminent, may be nearer than many had hoped. Voters rejected decisively two of wokeness’s core policy components: Defunding the police lost badly in heavily Democratic cities from Seattle to Minneapolis to Buffalo, while Republican Glenn Youngkin’s vow to curb critical race theory in Virginia schools was central to his surprise win in the blue state.
Extremist political cycles seem to have a natural lifespan. Five years passed between the storming of the Bastille and Thermidor—the arrest of Robespierre by his fellow revolutionaries, fearful that the guillotine would touch them next; another five and a national equilibrium of sorts was restored to France. A similar ten years ensued between years between Mao’s launching of the Cultural Revolution and the arrest and imprisonment of its major backers by their rivals within China’s ruling hierarchy. Neither country had meaningful elections, but they did have public opinions, which eventually shifted enough to embolden those in position to challenge the radical wave to step up and assume the risks. If one dates the onset of wokeness from 2014, which saw the sudden explosion of phrases about race, equity, and white supremacy in the prestige media, we are seven years in.
The United States has free elections, a First Amendment, and political norms which remain more or less intact, and wokeness is an ideological movement which has managed to humiliate its victims and get them fired from their jobs, not to kill them. But it is not a stretch to see in it parallels to the totalitarian movements of the past century: the preening self-righteousness of its enforcers; their seeking of forced confessions, depicted as apologies from their victims; the attempted politicization of every aspect of social life, including language; the insistence that the traditional mores of their own country are utterly debased. Never in American history has so much energy been devoted to getting people fired for expressing an opinion.
Wokeness may well advance to the point where many of its goals become as institutionalized and naturally accepted as the abolition of slavery. (Some of the woke elect left style themselves as abolitionists). More likely it will be rolled back, its practitioners and cultural preferences first widely mocked and then ignored, its victims rehabilitated and in some cases honored. November 2 marked the first hint of a real electoral pushback against wokeness; hopefully it will prove as pivotal as the battle of Midway.
The origins and nature of the woke revolution have been described extensively if not yet definitively. Yes, it has elements of a new religion; yes, it was made possible by social media, with the potential to organize quickly a Twitter mob; yes, the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath pulled the rug out from a generation of debt-ridden recent college graduates while giving business elites incentive to welcome diversions from a more class based leftism.
Within less than a decade a fringe and not especially popular way of thinking and speaking, spawned in the humanities departments of prestigious universities, had become the dominant discourse in all non-explicitly conservative media and, seemingly, the regnant ideology of the nation’s largest political party. This takeover occurred with stunning speed, while the initial popular resistance to it—chiefly the 2016 election of Donald Trump—served more as an accelerant than a brake. At this writing, wokeness seems entrenched in the media, liberal foundations, and universities, but also in institutions thought of as mainstream and non-political. A top navy admiral touts the work of Ibram Kendi; the American Medical Association officially calls for doctors to work absurd woke phraseology into regular communications with their patients.
The core idea of wokeness is that America and the West are essentially defined by interlocking systems of oppression, the main pillar of which is white supremacy, while secondary but important ones are the privileging of heterosexuality and of men over women. To be woke is to believe that all social life is permeated by these dominations, and that overturning them is a moral imperative. Radical leftists have held views proximate to this for over a century, but their nominal embrace by much of the establishment is a new thing.
For the woke, America’s history of slavery and segregation are at its core, more important than virtually everything else. Wokeness portrays itself as a struggle against whiteness, or white supremacy, rather than against white people themselves, a rhetorical evasion which allows white people to become the main practitioners of woke politics.
With black activism, wokeness has a somewhat contradictory relationship.
On one side it is given to displays of performative submissiveness. While fires from the George Floyd riots were still smoldering, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer led Democratic members of the House and Senate to the halls outside the congressional visitor’s gallery, where they donned kente cloth and knelt before the cameras; similar, if less striking, quasi-religious enactments continued throughout the summer. A few weeks later the New York Times announced it would henceforth capitalize black when it referred to race (white would remain lowercase) as its standard style, inevitably evoking the Bible’s capitalization of pronouns referring to the deity. Virtually every national news organization followed suit.
On the other side of wokeness is a kind of paternalism, which sees black Americans as people without much agency or control over their lives, defined by the past injuries of slavery and segregation and still burdened by chains of structural racism which are seldom specified but so pervasive that standards of achievement and conduct appropriate for other Americans must be suspended for them.
But despite its apparent dominance in corporate media and major institutions, wokeness increasingly resembles what ’60s era Maoists called a “paper tiger”; when confronted directly, as wokeness has seldom been in the past seven years, its popularity and power prove less than meets the eye.
The battle over “critical race theory” in the Virginia gubernatorial election was an early illustration. It’s difficult to discern how much critical race theory is being taught in Virginia schools: there are official Virginia state documents which call explicitly for “critical race theory” to be used in the training of teachers and the make-up of the curriculum; in some districts, CRT inspired consultants were hired to do mandatory teacher training. Materials deployed by these new “diversity” consultants are full of a bizarre racial essentialism, portraying white people as cruelly individualistic, people of color as warm communalists. Some Virginia parents in comfortable suburban districts were troubled enough by it to turn traditionally sleepy school board meetings into hotbeds of protest.
Curiously, the response by the Terry McAuliffe campaign—to charges by his opponent that Democrats were ignoring parents and teaching CRT in schools—was to claim that there was “no critical race theory” taught in Virginia schools, that the whole issue was a racist “dog whistle” cooked up by conservative activist Christopher Rufo and others. This denial was echoed repeatedly by nearly every mainstream media outlet covering the election.
This itself was an interesting tell. Liberals generally have no reluctance to defend their beliefs or policies, whether they be the right to have an abortion, higher taxes on corporations and the rich, or worker and environmental protection laws. But on CRT they mounted no defense, just denial and obfuscation. They would explain, as to a fifth grader, that critical race theory was a high brow discipline sometimes studied in law schools, and is absolutely not something taught to Virginia elementary and high school students. As if they assumed that people wouldn’t notice that programs and curricula explicitly grounded in CRT pedagogy, endorsed officially by the nation’s largest teacher’s union, was seeping into the schools.
Why did the sophisticated, consultant heavy, and poll savvy McAuliffe campaign lie? The most plausible answer is that it understood that the substance of a critical race theory pedagogy couldn’t be defended before voters in a campaign, knew it was extremely unpopular among people of all races, and knew also that it couldn’t be disavowed, because powerful constituencies within the Democratic party, especially the National Education Association, were too heavily invested in it. When push came to shove in a tight election, the establishment left wouldn’t stand up and fight for woke pedagogy.
Woke attitudes about law enforcement fared no better. The aptly named war on cops has been building for years, generating a narrative that most American police departments have been systematically oppressing black people. Its first major significant victory came in New York, with a series of court rulings against the NYPD’s policies of proactive policing, sometimes called “stop and frisk,” in 2013. Stop and frisk had proven enormously successful in getting illegal guns and the criminals wielding them off the street, but the tactic almost invariably targeted young black men.
This made sense to those who believed police should focus their efforts on those neighborhoods plagued by a disproportionate share of illegal gun crime. But by the end of the Bloomberg mayoralty, ending proactive policing had become a liberal cause célèbre. The next year, when a black man from Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown, was killed while resisting arrest, the anti-police narrative exploded nationally, with major voices in the mainstream media giving oxygen to the idea that the nation’s police were waging a “genocidal” war against black people, that calling 911 was an effort to get black people murdered.
It was a lie of course—the number of unarmed black Americans killed by the police is small, not disproportional to the number of white people killed by the police and infinitesimal in comparison to number of black people killed by black criminals. But the sheer enormity of the lie—repeated incessantly—made it a widely accepted fact, if not a true one. If the police were indeed racist murderers as frequently portrayed, defunding police departments made a great deal of sense.
By the summer of 2020, the topic of racist policing dominated the national conversation; and left-wing candidates calling for abolition of police departments began winning democratic primaries. A month after George Floyd’s murder, Minneapolis’s City Council voted by a 9-3 margin to dismantle the police department altogether, replacing it with a social worker agency.
But it did not take long for anti-cop wave to peak. In Minneapolis, as murders surged 50 percent and the number of downtown shootings doubled, city residents mobilized against the City Council’s anti-cop campaign. In Dallas, the City Council moved to hire more cops. In New York, progressives were stunned when a former black cop running on a law-and-order platform trounced progressives in the Democratic mayoral primary, while running up impressive margins in black and Latino working class districts. On election day last November, a defund-the-police socialist who had won the Democratic primary in Buffalo lost the general election even though she was the only person on the ballot. In Minneapolis, voters rejected an abolish the police department ballot measure decisively. In very liberal Seattle, an actual Republican won the city attorney race.
A restoration of the kind of policing that cut crime rates so successfully in the 1990s won’t come quickly—much legal damage had been done to inhibit effective policing, while in many cities left-wing district attorneys, elected late in the last decade in low turnout elections and committed to not putting criminals in jail, remain in office. But a 30 percent rise in murders in 2020—the largest since records have been kept, and a surge in violent crime in nearly every major city has made defunding the police a non-starter.
These political battles over education and policing plainly originate from America’s long standing racial divisions of black and white. But they are now contested on a very different demographic playing field. After 40 years of historically high levels of immigration, the United States has a far different racial makeup than it did when Martin Luther King was assassinated. An influx of immigrants from Mexico, Latin America, Asia and the Mideast has reduced the white share of the population from over 85 percent to under 65 percent; among school children, “Anglo” white kids make up less than half.
There may be no more broadly accepted assumption about demographics in American politics than that the reduction of the white share of the population favors the left. This was true in the 1960s, when one progressive intellectual famously labeled the white race the cancer of human history. It was central to Jesse Jackson’s two presidential bids during the ’80s, where he touted a “Rainbow Coalition” of black, Latino, and progressive white voters. It was a theme of Mike Davis’s much-admired-on-the-left 1986 (and recently reissued) book Prisoners of the American Dream which forecast a “black and Latino working class, 50 million strong” spearheading the triumph over American imperialism. It is true of contemporary left-wing authors enthusing triumphantly over demographic transformation, like Steve Phillips (Brown is the New White), and of liberals like Ruy Teixeira (The Optimistic Leftist). The woke neologism BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) arose to underscore the implicit solidarity of all non-whites, the soon to be demographic majority, against a declining group of conservative white Americans.
This analysis is intuitively persuasive. It was also prominent in paleoconservative circles in the early 1990s; Peter Brimelow at National Review published essays showing the GOP shrinking to national irrelevance by the early middle of this century. To some extent it has been vindicated: California, which launched the political careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, has become a reliably one-party state and other states are moving in the same direction. On many issues, the new immigration probably has shifted the United States towards the left; certainly any kind of “old fashioned” rooted-in-land-and-tradition conservatism, including anything associated with Dixie, now has a smaller demographic base to appeal to.
But this is not the case for the particular issues that emanate from wokeness. To state the obvious, most Asian, Latino, and other non-white immigrants and their children are not that invested in black-white history and the proper negotiation of the historic wrongs white Americans have done to black Americans. The vast majority of them have lived all their American lives in a post-civil rights revolution country, where racial discrimination is carefully monitored and illegal. Their ancestors didn’t own slaves, nor fight a war to end slavery. They can’t easily be made to feel guilty about the American past, and despite great efforts by university social science departments, it is not so easy to get them to feel aggrieved by it either.
An unforeseen aspect of the wokeness phenomenon is how many new immigrants, or children of new immigrants, are playing critical roles in pushing back against it. Optimistic “immigrants are socially conservative” arguments have bandied around pro-immigration Republicans for decades (I was never one of them), but no one predicted the polemical vitality and occasional brilliance that would emerge from newer Americans as wokeness pushed into the center of the national agenda. Any list of names will leave out dozens, but those paying attention know that writers and activists as distinct in style and ideology as Andy Ngo, Wesley Yang, Zaid Jilani, Harmeet Dhillon, Sohrab Ahmari, and Melissa Chen—to pick a half dozen at random—are not only important in the pushback against wokeness, but that their arrival at the battlefield was an absolutely necessary reinforcement. Of course one could point to comparable numbers of woke leftists of recent immigrant background, but compared to their conservative counterparts they don’t seem important or agenda setting to a movement emotionally centered on black and white Americans.
Indeed, if one wanted to design a movement explicitly to alienate Asian Americans, it would be hard to improve on the woke’s agenda on law enforcement and schools. Some consequences of the war on cops and so-called “over-incarceration” were predictable: Police would retreat from proactive policing, and crime would rise. But no one foresaw that this would produce a surge in crime against Asians. The mainstream media took great pains to obfuscate the most salient aspects of this trend. Stories about it invariably mentioned former President Trump’s depiction of Covid-19 as the “China virus” so as to imply without saying that the hate crime perpetrators were white Trump supporters. Always highlighted was the horrific case of the white man who murdered several Asian massage parlor workers and others of different races on a killing spree apparently prompted by feelings of sexual guilt. But the reality is that what is experienced by many as an open season on vulnerable Asian Americans in our cities is driven by the same group that commits most American street crime.
One must assume Asian Americans know this. Last summer’s New York Times Magazine story about the murder of a Thai grandfather in San Francisco quoted his son-in-law, who had begun attending anti-Asian-hate rallies in the Bay Area and asking how many people there had been pushed or spat on, and by whom. Yes, many, was the response, always by a black person. This Times piece acknowledged, with seeming reluctance, that hate crimes against Asians were “more likely” to be committed by non-white people. A former Oakland police captain relates that suspects in anti-Asian hate crimes are almost exclusively black. In New York City, black people are six times more likely to commits hate crimes than white people, and comprise half the suspects in anti-Asian attacks. In the all too common videos of such attacks that show up on social media, the perpetrators are almost always black.
The tensions between the groups have roots which have not been systematically explored, but were evident as early as the racially incendiary 1990 boycott of Korean grocery stores in Brooklyn and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Of course, all ethnic and racial groups suffer from rising crime, and those in black neighborhoods are numerically most victimized by it. But in the past year of racial reckoning, the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes does, to say the least, complicate the woke narrative of an ascendant Rainbow coalition struggling to overcome white supremacy.
Everyone opposes hate crimes, and it requires some deductive reasoning to connect liberal campaigns against proactive policing, bail reform to keep suspects out of incarceration, progressive district attorneys determined to reduce the number of black Americans jailed for “minor” offenses, and the broader war on cops, to the surge in criminal attacks on vulnerable citizens.
The education issue is far more direct. For years, progressive educators have railed against standardized tests as barriers to racial equity. They have won some stunning recent victories: The University of California has ceased using the SAT as means for sorting applicants, and hundreds of other colleges have followed suit.
The SAT has not been discredited as a metric for determining the likelihood of a student succeeding academically; for that it has no equal. Its problem is a political one: Standardized test results reveal with considerable precision how much of a leg up is given to black students in college admissions competition over white and especially Asian students. The frequent result is a mismatch between student and institution where black students have less developed academic skills than their classmates, with many pooling in the bottom of the class. Some of the most notorious instances of woke cancel culture deployed against truthful speech have occurred when professors who had noticed and lamented these facts were hunted down by leftist students and subsequently dismissed from their jobs.
But in terms of potential to spark a widespread disaffection, the five decades long dispute over affirmative action in college admissions will pale next to the battles over the use of standardized tests for granting admission to academically selective high schools and curricula. In the past year of racial reckoning, the use of student standardized test scores for admission has been dropped or rolled back in Lowell High School in San Francisco, the Boston Latin School, and Thomas Jefferson High school in northern Virginia. Outgoing New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio sought unsuccessfully to have the tests banned entirely for its top schools, the storied Stuyvesant and Bronx High School of Science, and is still maneuvering to reduce the percentage of students admitted to those schools by exam only. His rationale is that they aren’t sufficiently diverse—at this point more Asians pass the exams than other groups and black students do so at comparatively low rates.
Not surprisingly, Asian parents from New York to California have begun to mobilize politically and legally to combat what is quite plainly an effort to tilt a level playing field against their children. (In San Francisco their pressure has at least temporarily kept in place the exam as criterion for admission to Lowell.) In picking a fight against the exam high schools, Democratic politicians following the woke playbook have chosen to attack an institution vitally important to one of the country’s most dynamic and academically successful immigrant groups. For the first time since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, grassroots organizations of Asian parents are at odds with Democratic politicians.
Wai Wah Chin, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, observes (in an interview on Glenn Loury’s podcast) that De Blasio and other Democrats pitch their campaign against the high performance schools in the language of representation, claiming that the student bodies of Bronx Science and Stuyvesant are not “representative” of New York. (Former New York schools chancellor Richard Carranza had gone further, warning Asian parents to back down with the menacing formulation that “no ethnic group owns admission to these schools.”) In response, Chin makes the necessary point: The kids who pass the rigorous math and verbal exams are not “representing” anyone but themselves. They have studied as individuals and take the exam as individuals, representing not a community but their own efforts. She adds that the student’s family or community might feel pride in their accomplishment; one could add that all Americans might feel proud of these incredibly successful schools. Graduates of Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech have won an extraordinary 14 Nobel Prizes in the sciences, more than many countries. Wai Wah Chin’s assertion stands directly against the racial essentialism that lies at the core of wokeness.
The issue is broader than the select exam schools which admit the cream of the student crop. There is a nationwide movement to eliminate tracking of students by ability. California, following San Francisco’s lead, is eliminating the teaching of algebra to eighth graders, which means far fewer public school students will have the opportunity to take calculus in high school. This will narrow the pipeline of students who might go on to pursue STEM majors in college and in their careers. The rationale for such changes is always the woke watchword “equity,” followed by lamentations that white and Asian students are overrepresented in advanced math courses. But of course parents of bright students want their kids to be challenged in school, and inevitably America as a whole will suffer if they are not. As one California math teacher put it, “I feel so bad for these students. We are cutting the legs of the students to make them equal to those who are not doing well in math.”
But if recent social history shows anything, it is that parents will fight harder over the education of their children than almost any issue. All over the country, parent groups are mobilizing—Asian parent groups often in the lead. As school questions emerge as hot button political issues, it will become apparent that the woke project of dumbing down schools to promote equity will fare no better than defunding the police.
The most widely noted defection from the anti-whiteness coalition comes from Latinos, emerging as the second largest demographic group in the country. Long viewed as the bedrock of any leftist Rainbow Coalition, there were certainly enough visible left-wing Latinos in academia to give this a certain plausibility. But it’s not turning out that way. Latinos remain a largely Democratic constituency, voting roughly 60 percent for Biden over Donald Trump. But this is a 16 percent drop from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 levels, a remarkable shift.
Polling shows Hispanics lukewarm towards the Black Lives Matter movement, favoring it at lower rates than whites did (the question was posed at a time when support for BLM was assumed to be the only possible opinion for decent people). Latinos oppose reparations and defunding the police, core components of the woke agenda, by more than 2-1 margins. As Ruy Teixeira, a long time proponent of the view that Hispanic immigration was a key to solid Democratic majorities, recently put it, “clearly this constituency does not harbor particularly radical views on the nature of American society and its supposed intrinsic racism and white supremacy.” Others noted that Hispanics are now jailed at lower rates than white Americans, and are increasingly employed in law enforcement.
Few discern specific issues for the shift, though it is unlikely that woke efforts to neuter the Spanish language with terms like “Latinx” have attracted more Latinos and Latinas to the Democrats. Might the trend continue towards transforming Hispanics into a group politically analogous to Reagan Democrats—that is, a formerly Democratic working- and middle-class constituency that now votes GOP? It seems improbable, but no one predicted that a candidate could be as tough on border enforcement as Donald Trump and experience a dramatic gain in Latino votes.
The fundamental political error of wokeness lies in its judgement about how popular a movement based on anti-whiteness is likely to be in a nation increasingly less European in ancestry. Immigrants have come to America for many reasons, but a hatred of “white supremacy” is probably nowhere near the top for the vast majority. One could easily surmise that many of them are motivated by appreciation of the very qualities wokeness either deplores or works to undermine: law and order, careers open to talents, advanced levels of science and technology—and the legal and cultural structures that make those things possible.
A passage from David Reiff’s book on Los Angeles from more than three decades ago comes to mind: In the coda of one chapter, Rieff describes a billboard for a Mexican beer, then visible in nearly every Mexican town, which touts the product as “a high class blonde,” double meaning very much intended. It played on aspiration, the kind that prompted men from Mexican small towns to decamp for Mexico City, or ultimately to Los Angeles, “the greatest blonde of all.”
One of the more provocative interpretations of the origins of the relatively new movement to bring critical race theory into the teaching of elementary and high school students was suggested, almost as an aside, by Wesley Yang. Sometime in the late 2000s or early 2010s, the left looked at Latino immigration and realized that a considerable degree of assimilation was actually happening: that the Latino working class was not drinking in the vaguely Marxist ideologies incubating in university ethnic studies departments, and that there was actually a possibility—perceived by the left as a danger—that just as (according to ethnic studies phraseology popular on the left) Irish and Italian immigrants had been “allowed to become white,” the same thing was happening to non-European immigrants as well. Critical race theory thus developed as a kind of reaction, to indoctrinate school-aged children of the new immigration into a kind of racial essentialism, to deflect them from an assimilationist path.
Yang’s suggestion would correlate with Eric Kaufmann’s argument in Whiteshift, a detailed and comprehensive study of demographic transformations and evolving racial attitudes likely to occur in the West. Intermarriage rates between white Americans and new immigrants or their children are fairly high, and over time the boundaries of whiteness will expand—American and other Western majorities won’t be exclusively white any longer, but they will have some connection to white ancestry; they will acknowledge and feel cultural ties to the traditional heroes of their nations. This may be an overly optimistic view, but recent American elections do nothing to contradict it.
What does that mean for the trajectory of wokeness? If one is inclined towards optimism, one can see signs that the movement has already peaked. Clearly the national conversation is not where it was in the summer of 2020. Andrew Sullivan wrote recently how he was cheered by the HBO mini-series The White Lotus, in which the obvious villains were two highly privileged very woke college students. A similar point could be made about The Chair, a miniseries about an Asian-American woman (starring and co-produced by Sandra Oh) assuming the English department chairmanship of a Williams or Amherst type college; there too the villains are Red Guard type students who concoct spurious accusations of “Nazism” against an undisciplined professor, who is portrayed sympathetically. Would either have been aired last year? The New York Times, having last year pushed out Bari Weiss and James Bennet to appease woke staffers, suddenly found the will to give a small slot in its opinion page roster to John McWhorter, author of a brilliant book hostile to wokeness.
It can be notoriously difficult to read accurately the tenor of one’s own times. Historians can point to many private letters of learned people written well before the darkest nights of communism and Nazism, assuring one another that the worst was certainly over and things would soon improve. Still, it strikes me that America’s liberal elite is beginning to find wokeness a bit embarrassing. What does the president of Yale really think about his diversity deans publicly threatening a law student for sending an email that used the phrase “trap house”?
The actual number of the woke remains small—perhaps 6 percent of the population, according to Pew surveys of American political attitudes. It is educated, it is mostly white, it is heavily concentrated in the media and universities. But it isn’t powerful enough to control the country if majorities are mobilized to resist it.
Overcoming wokeness will require real political will and courage, as well as legislation. At some point there will need to be a successful legal challenge to the idea that disparate income and disproportionate racial outcomes by themselves constitute sufficient evidence of racial discrimination, but that too is in the realm of the possible. As voters from New York City to Buffalo to Seattle showed without ambiguity, when wokeness is on the ballot and opposed vigorously, it loses. In activism and voting patterns, America’s most rapidly growing demographic groups are largely showing themselves indifferent or actively hostile to woke policies. If the tide is indeed turning, in a few years wokeness will be more mocked than celebrated. If not, America’s long reign as a relatively successful country will end.