The Academic Left Holds Us All Back by Playing Identity Politics

Student protesters disrupt a speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Harvard University, September 28, 2017. (Mary Schwalm/Reuters)
Instead of embracing Americans’ common humanity, campus radicals seek to divide us.

When my father was a college student, he travelled to Georgia to volunteer at a Bible school. He was shocked to see many black children enviously watching the white kids skip off to church. It deeply bothered him that the black children were not invited. How could Christians claim to be teaching some children the love of Christ while so clearly excluding others? My parents would later serve as foreign missionaries in West Africa (I was born there), bringing the Christian faith to folks who would have been or felt unwelcome in many churches in America because of the color of their skin.

David French recently wrote an excellent article on the Old South vs. the New South, in which he described Roy Moore’s failed Alabama Senate campaign as one of many hopeful signs that the Old South of racial bigotry is dying, giving way to a New South that values diversity and opportunity for all. While recognizing there is still work to be done, French identified a number of very encouraging trends. Racism remains a real part of American life. A small group of white nationalists has appeared emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, and that is worrisome. But I am encouraged that most people on both the left and right condemn these racists, and that our communities and institutions continue to work toward a more perfect union.

Well, most of our institutions continue to work toward that noble goal, anyway. The obvious outlier is American academia. Ideologically driven professors, administrators, and students are working to ensure that on many campuses Martin Luther King’s vision of a future “when people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” never comes to pass. They’d prefer that skin color, gender, and other markers of identity be treated as diagnostic of the content of one’s character. And increasingly, their efforts are succeeding.

Both psychologists who study intergroup relations and successful civil-rights leaders have long understood that when people perceive themselves as sharing a common humanity, they are best able to treat others with respect and dignity, and to judge them by their actions rather than their racial, ethnic, sexual, or gender identity. And yet, many colleges encourage students to view the world through the lens of these identities. Privilege must be checked, cultural appropriation policed, and microaggressions reported. All of this undermines students’ ability to learn how to navigate a diverse social world and connect with people of various other backgrounds and beliefs. Indeed, surveys show that many college students are afraid to openly and honesty express their opinions on social issues, particular if they believe their views conflict with those of their professors or classmates.

Consider the growing boldness of anti-white campus activism. A recently published op-ed in a Texas student newspaper informed white students that their “DNA is an abomination.” Many on the left are quick to dismiss such outlandishness as a fringe concern. They assert that it represents just a small group of student activists, and they’re not wrong. But it is important to ask where that small group of students gets its ideas. Follow the breadcrumbs and they will lead you back to departments in the social sciences and humanities that have anti-white racism (and anti-male sexism) baked into their most fashionable theories, some of which not only peddle trendy forms of prejudice but also declare reason and science to be tools of white supremacy.

Oh, the ease with which the words “white supremacist” roll off the tongues of activist professors, diversity administrators, and students at $60,000 a year colleges. Studies find that progressive identity-politics activism is most common at elite colleges. The single mother waiting tables to put herself through the local commuter college doesn’t have the privilege of trying to shut down and brand as white supremacist every campus speaker who does not perfectly conform to an ever-more-radical leftist ideology.

Of course, some professors don’t agree with the ideas being advocated by their more zealously ideological colleagues. But most of them stay quiet. As we have seen time and time again, professors who do question progressive orthodoxy are frequently punished by administrators, targeted by activists, and ostracized by colleagues, critical thinking be damned.

Of course, some professors don’t agree with the ideas being advocated by their more zealously ideological colleagues. But most of them stay quiet.

Yes, there are a few encouraging signs. Overwhelmed by data, some professors are at least acknowledging that research findings are inconsistent with a number of the ideas left-leaning academics find intuitively appealing. For instance, social psychologists are starting to publicly admit that the common view in academia and the progressive media that unconscious bias is significantly influencing human behavior is not actually empirically supported.

Unfortunately, many professors and administrators seem uninterested in the state of the science and continue to advocate for unconscious bias training and other interventions that are based more on ideology than on evidence. In fact, the more empirical data do not support a leftist narrative, the more activist scholars in the social sciences and humanities question the legitimacy of scientific inquiry and advocate for non-empirical approaches that privilege subjective experiences and feelings over objective facts.

To be clear, there is a lot of very rigorous research occurring in the social and behavioral sciences that has not been compromised by ideology. And as a new contributor to National Review Online, my goal going forward is to share this work with readers and consider its importance for understanding issues that matter to Americans. But I will not shy away from addressing the very real problems that exist in our institutions of higher learning, as well.

Liberals are more than happy to tell Republicans and Christian conservatives that they need to take seriously the racism still present in their communities and institutions. They’re right, and many conservatives have heard their call. But if academics want to be taken seriously on this and other social and cultural issues, they must confront the growing problems of ideological bias, groupthink, and intolerance that are holding their own institutions back while much of the rest of society tries to move forward.


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