How this pernicious ideology rejects rational inquiry and objective truth.
On September 22, 2020, President Trump issued Executive Order 13950, “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping.” The order contained the kind of emotionally charged language about critical race theory that is seldom seen in these legalistic documents: “This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.”
The order quoted from training materials being used by government agencies and from statements of the agencies themselves, such as this from the Treasury Department: “Virtually all White people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism.” The department, according to the order, “instructed small group leaders to encourage employees to avoid ‘narratives’ that Americans should ‘be more color-blind’ or ‘let people’s skills and personalities be what differentiates them.’” Trump’s order was revoked by President Biden on his first day in office.
By this time, however, the ideas that had prompted Trump’s concerns had already begun to disturb the lives of the American people who encountered them. In a suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada on December 20, 2020, Gabrielle Clark, the mother of William Clark, a twelfth-grader in a Nevada charter school, complained about the school’s refusal to accept her son’s objection to what was being taught in a recently revised civics course. Ms. Clark, a widow, is black. Her son’s father, however, was white, and her son was light-skinned enough to be considered white.
In her complaint, Clark stated that a new curriculum at William’s school “inserted consciousness raising and conditioning exercises under the banner of ‘Intersectionality’ and ‘Critical Race Theory.’” “The lesson categorized certain racial and religious identities as inherently ‘oppressive,’ . . . and instructed pupils including William Clark who fell into these categories to accept the label ‘oppressor.’”
Despite Clark’s and her son’s objections to what he was being required to admit about himself and his racial heritage, the school insisted that he take this course and gave him a failing grade — imperiling his chances for college admission — because of his refusal to admit that he harbored the views that were being pressed upon the class.
The remarkable thing about the school’s attitude was its refusal to recognize a student’s objection to the characterization of his personal views. As we will see, this is an insignia of what is now called critical race theory (CRT), which for reasons outlined below will not — actually cannot — accept any white person’s view that he or she is not a racist or oppressor.
Bari Weiss is a former employee of the New York Times, a highly educated and successful writer, who resigned from the staff of the Times in July 2020, with a letter to the publisher complaining of the development within the paper’s staff of a “consensus” that “truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job it is to inform everyone else.” Although Weiss has never publicly identified the “orthodoxy” she described in the letter, it is clear from her actions later that it is the same “divisive concepts” identified by Trump in his executive order and described in Gabrielle Clark’s complaint.
Since then, Weiss has taken up the cause of showing how widespread and dangerous these ideas have become. In a memorandum to her mailing list on March 10 this year, Weiss described the predicament of affluent parents in Los Angeles who see their children being indoctrinated with ideas about critical race theory but don’t protest, for fear of being called racists themselves.
In its way, this is as extraordinary as Trump’s executive order and the refusal of William Clark’s school to accept his protest that he is not a racist. This Los Angeles parents’ group, Weiss wrote, “is one of many organizing quietly around the country to fight what it describes as an ideological movement that has taken over their schools. . . . They are all eager for their story to be told — but not a single one would let me use their name. They worry about losing their jobs or hurting their children if their opposition to this ideology were known.” Another said her son begged her not to talk to Weiss. “He wants to go to a great university, and he told me that one bad statement from me will ruin us. This is the United States of America. Are you freaking kidding me?”
In February 2021, Jodi Shaw, a white female employee of Smith College, resigned, accusing the school of creating a “racially hostile environment” for white people. The incident that produced this reaction occurred in 2018, when a black student was found eating her lunch in a room that was not supposed to be in use. The janitor and the security staff, both white, had advised her to leave and, according to all reports, had acted properly. They were dismissed by the school after the student’s complaint of racism. The school then began a series of initiatives that were intended to eliminate “systemic racism” on campus.
This was not the end of the matter. On March 22, 2021, an organization called “1776 Unites” also wrote a letter to Smith president Kathleen McCartney:
We, the undersigned, are writing as Black Americans to express our outrage at the treatment of the service workers of Smith College. . . . Before investigating the facts, Smith College assumed that every one of the people who prepare its food and clean its facilities was guilty of the vile sin of racism and forced them to publicly ‘cleanse’ themselves through a series of humiliating exercises in order to keep their jobs. Smith College offered no public apology to the falsely accused and merely doubled down on the shaming of its most vulnerable employees.”
For purposes of this essay, the key element in the Smith episode is the failure of the college president to apologize publicly or privately to Jodi Shaw or the white service workers who lost their jobs without good reason. It reflects an uncompromising and unreasoning attitude that accompanies every example of how critical race theory is implemented. No quarter is given, as though no wrong was actually done. It’s as though the individuals involved are not of any importance — just the principle that “racial justice” be achieved. This is a characteristic of totalitarian ideas, and hostile to the concern for individuals that has always characterized classical liberal thinking in the United States.
Why This Is Different
What is happening in the U.S. today, however, is different from ordinary leftist bias. Even where the progressive Left is dominant, its members usually claim that open debate is a good thing. This is not the case with programs like critical race theory. There, as in the examples above, reason and compromise are abjured.
Where did this attitude come from?
It would not be surprising to find in this a link to Marxism, a belief system that does not depend on facts or evidence but asserts that capitalism is at the root of society’s evils, including racism. It’s likely that what we are seeing in the rise of critical race theory is a transmuted form of Marxism, characterized by the same rigidity of outlook but with an updated or modernized complaint about the society and social system it is attacking.
In Cynical Theories, a book on the rise of CRT, authors Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay lay the ultimate responsibility for the rigidity of CRT and related ideas at the door of an academic community that has become enthralled to a new philosophy called “postmodernism.”
A New Secular Religion Evolves
“Postmodernism first burst onto the intellectual scene in the late 1960s,” Pluckrose and Lindsay write, “and quickly became wildly fashionable among leftist and left-leaning academics.” In principle, it denied that truth was discoverable through reason and emphasized the importance of ideology. “The idea that we can come to know objective reality and that what we call ‘truth’ in some way corresponds to it were placed on the chopping block.”
This cynical view turned activist in the 1980s. Postmodernists tried to use this philosophy for “activism on behalf of women and LGBT and, in the United States, the Civil Rights movement . . . just as disillusionment with Marxism — until then, the main, longstanding leftist social-justice cause — was spreading through the political and cultural left. Given the catastrophic results of communism everywhere it had been put into practice, this disillusionment was well founded and radically altered the worldviews of leftist cultural elites.”
It is ironic that although American progressives have eschewed Marxism and its offshoots for well over a century, they should now have fallen in love with a successor to Marxism that is at least as radical and intractable. The difference is that critical race theory and related notions present themselves not as political theories but as purely social ideas.
Many things changed as postmodern theory turned to activism. Pluckrose and Lindsay write that
teaching became a political act. . . . In subjects ranging from gender studies to English literature, it is now perfectly acceptable to state a theoretical position and then use that lens to examine the material, without making any attempt to falsify one’s interpretation by including disconfirming evidence or alternative explanations. Now, scholars can openly declare themselves to be activists and teach activism in courses that require students to accept the ideological basis of Social Justice as true and produce work that supports it.
Obviously, where CRT is taught, it seals off all counterarguments and requires that whites accept the views of nonwhites about the realities of what nonwhites have experienced. No one, CRT proponents argue, who has not actually experienced racism as a black or brown person can claim not to be a racist, because no one who has not experienced racism can fully comprehend what it means.
This attitude inverts the truth, disrupts honest discussion between races, and denies any role for reason. In other words, the more a white person denounces racism and claims not to be a racist, the clearer it is, in critical race theory, that he or she is a racist. It should be obvious how this deceptive argument might be persuasive with young people in elementary school, high school, and even college who have not experienced much of the world and are taken in by this kind of argumentation from teachers or professors.
Wokeness and Reason
The denial of any role for reason or evidence appears to be at the very root of Marxism, postmodernism, CRT, and “wokeness.”
It is both stunning and appalling that critical race theory, a belief system that denies the values that have come down to us from the Enlightenment, can gain ground in 21st-century America. The pessimistic view is that societies, even those well-educated and culturally advanced, sometimes spin out of control over ideas that in retrospect seem lunatic. That happened in Germany in the last century. The support for unreason today in the academy, among university students, and in media such as the New York Times is a truly bad sign.
On the other hand, most Americans are not yet aware of what is happening among the elites and the threat it ultimately poses to democracy. When they realize what is being taught to their children, by large corporations to their staffs, or to the federal workforce, there could well be the kind of reaction that prompted Trump’s executive order. Until then, it remains a hope.