The University of Michigan’s ‘Center for Racial Justice’ Misunderstands the Concept of Justice

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Will a new campus academic center produce genuine scholarship, or just produce more divisive left-wing activism?

Just before welcoming students back to campus for an in-person semester, the University of Michigan, where I am entering my junior year, announced that it is starting a “Center for Racial Justice” in its Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Through a series of speaking events and classes for its students, the center will “expand knowledge about the complex intersections between race and public policy and create a community of leaders, scholars and students engaged in social justice work focused on racial equity,” according to an August 25 university press release.

But cut through the buzzwords and you’ll find that the new center seems geared toward incentivizing political activism in the people it teaches. It will host a “Masterclass in Activism” on October 6. The center is also launching a Racial Justice Student Initiative Fund. Through the fund, it will provide “financial support for student-led racial justice initiatives that advance a more critical understanding of the social and political conditions that impact Black, Native and Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American and Pacific Islander peoples.”

Michigan is no stranger to funding virtue-signaling projects that ultimately lead to more racial division. We have the most employees dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion of any major American university. Despite our huge staff, students of color are no happier than those at universities with much smaller DEI departments, according to a study from the Heritage Foundation. Unfortunately, the new Center for Racial Justice looks to be yet another university project that will divide students along political lines on issues of race.

When the center says it will produce research and inspire students to act on issues that are ostensibly political, using loaded terms such as “justice” and “equity,” it is important to understand how those charged with teaching students perceive these concepts. The best way to do so is to look at their public statements and previous research.

Celeste Watkins-Hayes, the center’s director, has been vocal about her public-policy positions. In a 2013 column for the New York Times, she criticized a proposal to create a government-controlled bank that would lend exclusively to historically underrepresented communities. Her issue with the proposal, however, was not the morality or the efficacy of the policy, but that it would be politically impractical, writing that it “unfortunately” would be “staunchly opposed as a ‘big government’ measure.” She recommended that lawmakers instead, for the time being, focus on more “achievable” goals. In a blog post, she encouraged those reading to be “servant-scholars,” those who work in research while also serving the communities they study. Being a servant-scholar is “the marriage of one’s passion for social justice with a deep and abiding commitment to rigorous scholarly inquiry,” she wrote.

Take a look as well at some of the guests lined up for the center’s inaugural speaker series, in which each talk will dwell on the supposed “racial foundations” of a given topic.

Trevon Logan of Ohio State University, the first guest, is particularly active on Twitter. He has criticized from a racial lens those who want to open schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the experts they have cited. “Bottom line: none of these experts actually care about Black children,” he tweeted. In his commentary on Texas’s six-week abortion ban, he has been uncharitable in his characterization of his opponents. “This is demoralizing,” he tweeted. “I’m so angry and upset for the women in Texas (and soon many other states, perhaps Ohio as well) who will no longer have reproductive freedom. Conservatives hate autonomy for any and everyone they wish to control. Women have a right to an abortion. Period.”

Also on the docket for the speaker series is William “Sandy” Darity of Duke University, an outspoken proponent of slavery reparations. His magnum opus is the book From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, in which he and fellow scholar A. Kirsten Mullen (who is not included in the speaker series) lay out a concrete plan for what a reparations program would look like. Under the plan, each black person who can trace his ancestry to slaves would be eligible to receive $280,000 in recompense, with families receiving $850,000. The total price tag of the program would be between $10 and $12 trillion. “The federal government is the one that has the capacity to meet the bill, but it also has the responsibility to meet the bill,” Darity said in a lecture he and Mullen gave to the Stanford University Ethics Department in March.

The professors involved are quite politically biased, but that fact in and of itself is not problematic. It can be a virtue to hear many different viewpoints and to learn to think critically about our political systems. The center’s use of its largely left-wing body of research, however, is cause for skepticism. Nowhere in the university’s promotion of the center is there an indication that students will be taught anything about the progress America has made in race relations and civil rights. There is no appreciation for America’s existence as a beacon of light for so many people — no matter their race — for centuries. It is focused only on combating the systems that do not perpetuate “equity.”

That word, “equity,” is a favorite of critical race theorists such as Ibram X. Kendi, who argue that, if a policy’s systemic structure results in disparate outcomes between people of different skin colors, it must be racist and should be torn down. The question of whether it was designed to yield such outcomes or puts actual barriers in front of people based on their race is irrelevant. If there is not 100 percent parity between black and white, the structure or policy that led to this outcome must be racist. Only when there is perfect uniformity will we achieve “justice.”

This belief is the basis for the policy prescriptions of those involved with the center: using government financial resources for racial ends, expanding abortion, instituting reparations for slavery, etc. America may not be perfect. But instead of teaching students about the greatness of this country, its capacity for self-improvement, and the real and genuine steps it has taken toward racial understanding, the academics involved with the center will instead teach their students to view America with contempt. There might be value in this center if its aim were to help produce educated thinkers able to balance multiple different perspectives on issues involving race. Instead, its goal seems to be to train activists animated by disdain for this country. Activists who would tear down the freedoms and institutions that make our country great — and capable of becoming greater — by empowering the central government at their expense, all in the name of a perverted view of equity and justice.

Charles Hilu is a junior studying political science at the University of Michigan. On campus, he is the chairman of his school's Young Americans for Freedom chapter, editor-in-chief of The Michigan Review, and a student reporter for The College Fix.


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