There was one major reason why I dropped out of a prestigious grad school this past fall. It wasn’t the economic insecurity, the poor wages, or the need for geographical flexibility: Journalism isn’t much better. The simple fact I learned after half a semester studying sociology is that the discipline isn’t very tolerant.
Americans were reminded of this when sociology professor Sam Richards of Penn State University picked an “average white guy” and treated him like a dissected biology specimen in a packed lecture hall. “I just take the average white guy in class, whoever it is, it doesn’t really matter. Dude, this guy here. Stand up, bro. What’s your name, bro?” the middle-aged, and evidently hip, Richards asks. The bewildered freshman, Russell, stands at attention to make the visual experience easier for the gawking crowd. “Look at Russell, right here, it doesn’t matter what he does. If I match him up with [an identical] a black guy in class . . . and we send them into the same jobs, Russell has a benefit of having white skin,” Richards says.
In another clip, Richards points to a projected slideshow referencing a study in which job applicants are segmented by race and criminal record. The paper found that even whites with a criminal record were more likely to get call-backs than blacks without one. Richards then turns to the white student. “Bro, how does it feel knowing that push comes to shove your skin’s kind of nice?” Richards prods. “I don’t know, it makes me feel like sad cause like, God knows, I don’t deserve it. You know what I mean? Like, I didn’t choose to be white,” the student rambles.
What is edifying about Richards cornering a student, based on skin color, in front of hundreds of classmates? The show trial offered no academic value apart from humiliation. In an act of poetic blindness, Richards, who prides himself on having a viral TED talk entitled “A Radical Experiment with Empathy,” demonstrated a magnificent lack of empathy throughout the incident. Nor were university administrators all that bothered. Defending Richards’s conduct, the university released a statement that Richards and his colleagues “take time to discuss opinions from many perspectives — from liberal to conservative — and the classroom conversation is framed in a thoughtful way,” a spokesman noted.
The flavor of Richards’s lecture, described by the school as “an introductory class on race and culture,” as well as the administration’s equivocation, struck me as eerily similar to my own latest academic stint. Had I been sitting in the lecture, Richards could easily have pointed at me as the epitome of white privilege, although I identify as Jewish. Richards certainly would never have scoured the room for Chinese, Korean, Iranian, or Indian students, even though members of such groups come from wealthier and, on average, better-educated backgrounds.
When all you have is a hammer, all the world is a nail; so, too, when one is devoutly anti-racist, all the world is racist.
This kind of treatment has become increasingly standard fare for students, particularly at elite universities. Following the murder of George Floyd and nationwide Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests last year, educational spaces are now confronting calls for a “racial reckoning” with the past. These “History Wars” have thrust once-esoteric academic debates into the public square. The stickiest of these is “critical race theory” (CRT), which views white supremacy as inextricably baked into the American pie.
Originated among legal scholars in the 1990s, CRT has become a catch-all term into which anti-racism, intersectionality, whiteness studies, and other progressive shibboleths have been thrown. It was brought to the mainstream’s attention by Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, and many on the left lay the blame at his feet for setting off a racial powder keg: “The proof lies offline in the new moral panic he helped instigate,” Sarah Jones of New York magazine writes. Critics view Rufo’s initiative as a crude crowbarring of various distinct theories under the CRT umbrella, but he has firmly countered such claims.
Regardless of what term one wishes to use, there has been a tangible shift, with CRT bleeding out of academic and cultural arenas and now corroding everyday discourse. “There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist,’” anti-racist luminary Ibram X. Kendi writes. “The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.” Accordingly, if you disagree with Kendi’s assessment of America or race relations, what does that make you?
The corollary of such thinking is that once the world is neatly divided into racists and anti-racists, it’s time to get the ball rolling. After all, those who are skeptical of such theorizing today are compared with anti-abolitionists and segregationists of yore. “In the 1950s and ’60s, the conservators of racism organized to keep Black kids out of all-white schools. Today, they are trying to get critical race theory out of American schools,” Kendi recently argued in The Atlantic.
Proponents of the unstoppable-march-of-history approach view opposition — dare I say skepticism? — as unmistakably standing athwart progress. Speaking before a gathering, Michelle Leete, a communications staffer for the Virginia Parent-Teacher Association, condemned opponents of CRT:
Let’s deny this off-key band of people that are anti-education, anti-teacher, anti-equity, anti-history, anti-racial reckoning, anti-opportunities, anti-help people, anti-diversity, anti-platform, anti-science, anti-change agent, anti-social justice, anti-health care, anti-worker, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-children, anti-health care, anti-worker, anti-environment, anti-admissions policy change, anti-inclusion, anti-live-and-let live people. Let them die.
As with Kendi, if one resists Leete’s perspective, one is seemingly anti-everything — in other words, part of the problem. More specifically, such dissidents require retraining to teach them and their children how to think properly.
Teacher Dana Stangel-Plowe publicly announced her resignation from a New Jersey private school in June on YouTube because of such initiatives. The school had embraced an ideology that “requires students to see themselves not as individuals, but as representatives of either an oppressor or oppressed group.” According to Stangel-Plowe, students self-censored, approaching assigned texts “in search of the oppressor.” Teachers at a February faculty meeting were even “segregated by skin color.”
In Illinois’s Evanston-Skokie School District 65, another teacher, Stacy Deemar, felt compelled to formally file suit in federal court earlier this month against the anti-racist encroachment within school life. Teachers in the district were also separated by race and mandated to participate in “privilege walks,” which the suit’s general counsel described as conditioning teachers “to see one another’s skin color first and foremost.” Such thinking, understandably, flowed downstream to students. Lessons distributed to eighth-graders in the district included assertions that “white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they should do about it.”
Simplistic binaries suffocate thoughtfulness in our already nuance-starved times. Understanding complexity requires an expansive view of the world that is incompatible with fetishizing race to the exclusion of all other variables. The much-touted white–black racial wealth gap is largely skewed by top earners, but that’s lost when class is disregarded. Similarly, the World Socialist Web Site, alongside leading U.S. historians, tore apart the anti-racist foundations of The 1619 Project for overlooking immigration and class. Despite these bipartisan criticisms, the project won a Pulitzer Prize, and now certain schools are seeking to incorporate its approach within their curricula.
However, such intellectual uncertainty is elided or swept entirely under the rug of the malfunctioning intellectual Mad Libs we find ourselves in today. An imperceptible and hegemonic white supremacy will suffice for every blank. The truth requires no further investigation; no more stones need turning.
Counter to the aphorism that reminds us, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it,” today we are encouraged not to strain ourselves with all that excessive thinking. Inquiry, thought, and dissent are castigated as “white fragility” by prominent anti-racist scholar Robin DiAngelo. Unfortunately, when we are encouraged to differentiate the world solely based on skin color, viewing strangers through the rudimentary prism of racial categories, intricacy is lost. Complexity requires heterodoxy, not the Orwellian groupthink found in Richards’s classroom.
Thank God I left academia.