Keeping the Republic

A National Association of Scholars Position Paper

Peter Wood

The 1619 Project. Black Lives Matter. Antiracism. Critical Race Theory. America’s institutions of higher education gave birth to these critiques, all of which present America as a self-perpetuating system of racial oppression. Radical activists now confront America with this host of radical critiques of who we are as a nation, accompanied by equally radical proposals to remake our basic institutions.

These critiques are false. America is exceptional not least because of its long traditions of antislavery, abolition, and dedication to a civic equality that transcends race. It is one of the least racist countries in the world and its citizens of all races have achieved extraordinary prosperity and liberty. The peoples of the world seek to become American because our nation offers opportunity to all. Radical activists must engage in hallucinatory defamation to erase these facts.

The activists who lead these movements have targeted America’s schools as the means by which to impose a revolutionary transformation on our country. These activists believe not only that our schools are the linchpin of our apparatus of racial injustice and oppression but also the means by which to force their so-called “liberation” on America. They will seize our children’s minds to seize America’s future.

These radical activists seek to transform the family, work, the marketplace, government, law, religion, entertainment, sports—all of American society. Their proposals to accomplish this are sweeping. They include a call to establish “equity” that requires a quasi-totalitarian imposition of job quotas and the suppression of all opposing speech. But every such proposal is ultimately a plan to change the way Americans think. They require a transformation of our schools from places that teach students to seek out truth to places that teach students to seek out power so as to revolutionize America. No free people would accept the radicals’ plans, so they wish to teach our children to embrace tyranny, by persuading them that tyranny is actually fairness or justice. They abuse the authority delegated to the schools to propagandize and coerce a captive audience, who must assent to indoctrination or risk all the damage to career prospects that follows from poor grades. They exploit the innocence and naiveté of the impressionable young Americans who are in no position to recognize the falsehoods and distortions embedded in these appeals. The proponents of neo-racism—to give this collection of radical critiques a unifying name—most of all wish to impose their theory as a curriculum. They intend to compel every person to study that curriculum, from early childhood education through high school, college, graduate study, vocational training, and on-the-job instruction.

The National Association of Scholars, founded in 1987, is an independent body of scholars and other concerned citizens who uphold the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship. That last phrase of our mission, to promote virtuous citizenship, has been part of our purpose from the start. We view education not solely as an end in itself, but as the basis for American liberty and self-government. Our republic cannot survive without an educated citizenry that both understands the republic’s principles and loves its foundational institutions. The NAS therefore opposes the neo-racists’ views, which promote ignorance and hatred of America.

We also oppose neo-racism because we uphold the value of human freedom. Freedom is an intellectual as well as a political virtue: the freedom to think for oneself and the freedom of a people to govern themselves are distinguishable but interdependent. Intellectual freedom allows us to pursue the truth, which entails encountering and weighing the validity of conflicting views. Political freedom is the attempt to frame laws and reach decisions through orderly and peaceful processes that give due weight to the many and often conflicting judgments of the governed. There can be no political freedom without intellectual freedom.

And yet this is exactly what neo-racism demands—the end of intellectual freedom. The proponents of so-called “Antiracism” state this most explicitly when they assert that anyone who dissents from their view that America is a systemically racist nation perpetuates racism and deserves to be silenced. Neo-racism’s proponents explicitly advocate for censorship. Their doctrines brook no disagreement, dissent, skepticism, or demand for evidence. Their position is that the only allowable intellectual position is enthusiastic assent to their dogma.

This sort of intellectual totalitarianism is not new. Neo-racism imitates the logic of Marxism, which uses opposition to its arguments to confirm them. Only a class traitor would doubt the necessity of the revolution. The same self-confirming circularity always accompanies movements that suppress intellectual and political freedom. Only witches would doubt the prevalence of witches, and therefore the witch-deniers must be condemned as witches. Neo-racism at its core is yet another of the witchcraft hysterias that chronically afflict society. America has never been immune to these disorders. We feel ashamed when we awake from them, but we forget our better selves while we are in the midst of them.

Now is the time to wake up before we do even graver damage—not only to ourselves individually but to our country as a whole. It is a bitter irony of our moment that those who want to drive us into this new hysteria often claim to be “woke.” There is no awakening in woke. It is the sleep of reason that produces monsters, and it poses a profound peril to our republic.

Let us consider the bestiary of the sleep of reason, the varieties of neo-racism.

The 1619 Project began as a special issue of the New York Times Magazine, published on August 14, 2019. The issue consisted of ten major essays and a collection of shorter pieces, all aimed at asserting that America was founded in the truest sense by the arrival of slaves in Jamestown, Virginia in August 1619. The Project’s thesis is that the arrival of those slaves was the beginning of racial oppression in what would become the United States and that every ideal about American freedom and equality was thus “false from the beginning.” America started out and has remained to this day a system of racial oppression. The instigators of the 1619 Project soon transformed this newspaper supplement into a school curriculum.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) started out as a hashtag in July 2013, connected to protest over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi formed the Black Lives Matter Network in 2013, which played a prominent role in street protests the next year. Black Lives Matter calumnies the police as indiscriminate, racist murderers, although reliable statistics reveal that police kill blacks and whites in similar circumstances at similar low rates. BLM became an organized group a year later when it helped to incite riots in Ferguson, Missouri. In the years since, the organization has received tens of millions of dollars in donations and has posted explicit calls for Marxist Revolution, yet has submerged its identity behind its sloganized name and the claim that it is a “movement” with no specific leadership or organization.

Antiracism is most strongly associated with Boston University Professor Ibram X. Kendi, whose 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist established much of the Antiracism movements’ current vocabulary. Kendi’s earlier book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016), set out the ideal of “antiracism” as distinct from both segregationist ideas and assimilationist ideals. Antiracism, in Kendi’s view, recognizes that racial differences in appearance, behavior, and culture are real and deep but that “Blacks and Whites are on the same level [and] are equal in all their divergences.” “Race and racism are power constructs of the modern world” and racism is analogous to a cancer, which must be removed. Those not engaged in removing it are abetting it and therefore are racists. There is no neutral ground, nor any institution in American society that isn’t part of the racist system.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an offshoot of an offshoot of Marxism. “Critical theory,” a branch of Marxism that originated in Germany in the late 1920s, differed from ordinary Marxism by focusing on ideological warfare that undermined bourgeois institutions’ legitimacy. In the 1970s, Harvard law professor Derrick Bell took the lead in adapting Marxist critical theory to civil rights and came up with “critical race theory.” He asserted that seemingly fair and open institutions had a hidden, racist component that blocked black progress. Originally an academic movement, CRT gained adherents who realized it could be an effective rhetorical tool applied to virtually every area of politics and society.

All four of these neo-racisms share a defensive structure that rejects criticism as illegitimate—which is to say they are the opposite of scientific theory, which must always be open to challenge and disproof. The neo-racisms are therefore not truly “theories.” They are merely collections of self-reinforcing assertions, which is what we would ordinarily call an ideology.

Are they valid? No.

The 1619 Project is built on a tissue of historical falsehoods. Slavery did not begin in America in 1619. It was here already, and it was far from an English invention. The American Revolution was not fought by the colonists because they were afraid the British would abolish slavery. American prosperity was not built on the capital created by the Southern plantation system. American capitalism was not a spin-off of slavery. Abraham Lincoln did not pursue the Civil War and Emancipation out of racist motives. Abolition and the Civil Rights Movement were not black-only undertakings. These and dozens of other falsehoods make up the text of the original 1619 Project and the curriculum based on it. Thousands of teachers already teach that curriculum’s falsehoods to hundreds of thousands of students—and students, parents, and state legislatures are only slowly becoming aware how neo-racists have hijacked the nation’s history classes and have substituted their propaganda for truth.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) thrives on ambiguity. Is it a slogan? A rallying cry? A retort? An assertion of common humanity? The name of an antagonistic movement? An organization that promotes certain policy goals? It is of course all these things, but which of them applies in any given context is often hard to say. Functionally, the words are mostly used as an equivalent to “shut up.” They are deployed to silence the expression of views that disagree with whatever policy the movement favors. This is most evident when it comes to policing and public order. BLM has taken the lead in calling for the defunding of police departments, the de-incarceration of convicted criminals, the non-arrest or non-prosecution of black offenders, the prosecution of police, and the non-enforcement of many laws—with the consequence that homicide and other violent crimes have skyrocketed in cities where BLM has mounted protests, with the worst consequences suffered by black Americans. The slogan is widely used on college campuses in protests that have no connection or only a fanciful one to racial issues. BLM, as a vaguely Marxist summons for “social justice,” turns out to be a plastic formula for rejecting intellectual and political freedom as instruments of the “racist regime.”

Antiracism does not pass critical examination any better than the 1619 Project. Kendi’s books that formulated Antiracism simply ignore pieces of history that do not fit the thesis of his “definitive history,” and he misstates many other things. The 1964 Civil Right Act did not set off a national backlash. Barry Goldwater did not oppose federal spending on the grounds that it would help black people. Nixon, who did more to expand affirmative action than any other president, did not promote segregationist policies. Mumia Abu Jamal is not a political prisoner, but a murderer convicted in a fair trial. Kendi takes any discrepancies between blacks and whites in wealth, possessions, or attainments in which whites as a whole are better positioned to be the result of racism. This makes it impossible to distinguish cases of actual racism from the many other factors that may play a part in such inequalities. Kendi is primarily responsible for the current rhetoric in which the concept of inequality is replaced by “inequity,” with the policy consequence that “redistribution” of wealth is promoted as the necessary and sufficient answer to all racial complaints. He calls for the imposition of an unelected, self-perpetuating Antiracism Board that would have unlimited power to impose Antiracist Policy, including by overruling the president, Congress, the courts, and state governments. Kendi’s Antiracism explicitly abrogates democracy.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is more a pedagogical weapon than a theory. Its purpose is to demoralize and demean white students by telling them that not only their views but also their very lives are illegitimate; and to flatter students of color by proclaiming that their vices and shortcomings are really to be celebrated as virtues and accomplishments when viewed through the prism of race. Critical Race Theory is a way of playing with the minds of vulnerable children who are in no position to assert their own critical independence. Applied in settings of older students or adult workers, Critical Race Theory is crude propaganda that demands, counter to all evidence of lived experience, that America is a land dominated and controlled by racial privilege. The evident reality that claiming victim status often does confer privilege or immunity from ordinary standards, through group identity preference programs, lowered disciplinary standards, and now the non-prosecution of violent BLM protesters, is treated as forbidden knowledge.

Many more forms of neo-racism afflict America. Notable examples include the ideas found in Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” American education these days is awash in books, articles, consultants, and speakers who advocate different forms of antiracism. All of them use “antiracism” to stymie genuine discussion of the issues. They imply that to oppose “antiracism” is to favor or to extenuate racism. Kendi is explicit on this point: that if you are not for his position, you are by definition against it. Those who favor integration, assimilation, equality of opportunity, and other such policy ideals are consigned to the category of “racist” as easily as hard-core segregationists—only worse, in Kendi’s view, because their implicit racism is harder to spot. Framing our national discussion in terms like this is a recipe for national division. It undermines the very possibility of coherent and just government in the United States.

Or worse. It sows a more fundamental division among people who have genuine common interests and common humanity. In the name of antiracism, it breeds a new racism of the sort that vitiates both intellectual and political freedom. Neo-racisms are the seeds of bitter, life-long, and irresolvable antagonisms, not of the sort that would bring a second Civil War, but of the sort that would impoverish the soul of a civilization. Seeing ourselves primarily as members of rival racial groups reduces Americans to shallow antagonists in a fruitless war, and makes us vulnerable to our real adversaries. The notion that white Americans will submit indefinitely to a false doctrine that blames them for imaginary racial animus will also fail the test of experience. No group, black or white, will long abide under such a psychological imposition. When the epoch of white self-accusation passes—as soon it will—the cost to America, in the form of new racial antagonism, is likely to be very large.

Schools that welcome and endorse these neo-racisms may believe they are advancing a noble goal. They’re not. Instead, they are sowing the seeds of misery for a whole generation of Americans.

Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

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