Hillsdale College Did Nothing Wrong

Hillsdale College students are honest in word and deed. At least, they should be. Certain alumni, it seems, could use a reminder. This past week Liz Essley Whyte published an essay at The Bulwark demanding that her (and my) alma mater, Hillsdale College, “join the national reckoning on race.”

Her argument rests on two falsehoods—the first that America is a racist country and the second that Hillsdale College is complicit in this racism.

Whyte takes for granted that America has yet to reckon with “historical injustices” against blacks and that it continues to impose unjust “state violence on the descendants of black slaves.” Both claims are incorrect. As Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald pointed out in comments submitted to the House Judiciary Committee this past summer, only 25 percent of police shootings in 2019 involved blacks. Mac Donald notes that this is lower than expected because “in the 75 largest U.S. counties, which is where most of the population resides, blacks constituted around 60 percent of all robbery and murder defendants, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, even though blacks comprise only 15 percent of the population in those counties.”

Men likewise make up 90 percent of the victims of police shootings despite constituting just 50 percent of the population. This is also unsurprising—men commit more crimes and resist arrest more frequently than women. Therefore, they are more likely to die at the hands of police.

Disparate impact alone is not evidence of bias. In her essay, “The Decriminalization Delusion” Mac Donald breaks down the numbers on prison sentencing, drug arrests, and violent crime. She shows, over and over again, that the reason for disproportionate representation of blacks in the criminal justice system results from crime rates and not systemic police bias. 

Whyte is wrong about the injustice of the American legal system and she’s wrong to say we haven’t grappled with our history of slavery. Far from it. Over 600,000 dead in the Civil War was reckoning enough. 

America today boasts a massive anti-racism surveillance bureaucracy at the national level, widespread affirmative action programs in hiring and college admissions, and blacks at every level of cultural, economic, and political power. Pointing to unequal outcomes between blacks and whites in the aggregate despite these efforts is not proof that America has been unjust. The promise of American life is the protection of equal rights, not guarantees of equal outcomes or even equal opportunities. Casting disparate impact as evidence of bias breeds nothing but animosity, envy, and bitterness. It insults both the accused and the people it purports to defend.

Land of Opportunity

Despite the degradations of slavery, American citizenship has been a great boon to the descendants of the formerly enslaved. 

To take just one example, on the entire continent of Africa there are 144,000 millionaires total, of all races. In America, there are more than 900,000 black millionaires alone. This despite the fact there are over 28 times as many black Africans as black Americans. Indeed, if black America were its own country, it would be the 44th richest in the world with GDP adjusted by purchasing power parity. It would rank ahead of Russia, Hungary, Mexico, and China.

This is not to say that black America doesn’t have problems. For instance, roughly 75 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. The collapse of the black family in America has actually gotten worse since the end of segregation. White families have experienced a similar trend. Other causes, not racism, are at fault here. 

The second part of Whyte’s argument—that Hillsdale College has “a history of tangled, unexamined, internally competing racial views” that require it to join the “national reckoning” on race— likewise rests on false premises. It is unsurprising there are “tangled” and “competing” points of view at a serious institution of higher learning. Hillsdale is a liberal arts college, not an indoctrination center. A diversity of positions, arguments, and schools of thought among speakers and teachers are to be expected.

But Whyte insists that Hillsdale comb through the opinions of individuals associated with the college, often tangentially, in order to “lament” this “evil” in its past. Absurd. The Hillsdale of today is not responsible for the sins, real or imagined, of yesteryear. The current college administration must answer for itself alone. The wrongs of our ancestors are not our sins. Guilt isn’t passed through the bloodstream or institutional lineage.  

The goal of a college is to educate. Lamenting the past gets in the way of teaching it. We cannot think critically when we are busy casting heretics into the flames. None of the examples of wrongthink that Whyte details demand the institutional reckoning she recommends. 

For instance, she points to former Hillsdale College President George Roche’s cautionary view of central power, deference to federalism, and support for American noninterventionism towards South African Apartheid. None of those positions are intrinsically evil. Roche’s libertarianism and anti-imperialism were not illegitimate positions. Wrong maybe, but not reprehensible. Current college president Larry Arnn is certainly in no position to answer for them. 

Argumentum ad Hominem 

Whyte’s favored argument is guilt-by-association. She claims the college kept “odious company” by including a response from Ian Smith, then prime minister of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in a 1973 copy of Imprimis, the college newsletter and speech digest. The response in question was to an open letter to the Rhodesian prime minister by Dr. Arthur Shenfield, a visiting professor. Whyte alleges that this letter defends “minority white rule of Zimbabwe and private discrimination.” 

For one, Whyte’s imputations are simply wrong. Shenfield explicitly opposed those who insisted on “white rule” in Rhodesia. He instead favored slowly incorporating blacks into Rhodesia’s political structure through land requirements for voting. He said that the government of Rhodesia under such a requirement will “for a long time be white rule, but that is not its justification. Your [Ian Smith’s] purpose should also be to reconcile the races, to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Rhodesians, white and black; and it is for this purpose that you should declare your adherence to the limited franchise.”

Shenfield’s belief in a prudential and slow expansion of the franchise wasn’t evil or even obviously wrong. He prioritized the safety and stability of Rhodesia over immediate democratic reforms and that concern wasn’t unfounded. The eventual transformation of Rhodesia into Zimbabwe ended in tragedy.

Modern Zimbabwe’s economy is in tatters. Skilled workers, white and black alike, fled the country due to extraordinary government mismanagement and corruption. Robert Mugabe, the Marxist revolutionary who took over the country after Smith, was a brutal dictator responsible for the murder of thousands. In a genocidal crackdown against the people of Matabeleland alone his regime likely killed upwards of 20,000 innocent men, women, and children.

Zimbabwe under Mugabe was a racist and tyrannical regime. It expropriated land from white farmers, encouraged racial violence, and utilized torture against its opponents. Unsurprisingly, today Zimbabwe stands on the brink of mass starvation. Rhodesia, on the other hand, was a net food exporter. As hindsight so clearly shows, the questions regarding Rhodesia’s political existence and the prudential way forward did not have easy answers.

Allowing Prime Minister Ian Smith to write a response to an open letter in Imprimis was not, as Whyte claims, an instance of the college keeping “odious” company. Instead, it was an attempt to foster debate on a particularly difficult political problem between the college’s faculty and the leader of a foreign country. Whyte’s ideological crusading runs counter to the spirit of prudential debate in which Hillsdale was engaged. Ian Smith’s arguments deserved to be heard.

Yet More Guilt By Association

Whyte makes a number of similar guilt-by-association charges against the college. 

For instance, she castigates Hillsdale for inviting Jared Taylor, editor of the “white supremacist American Renaissance magazine” to speak at an event in 1995. Taylor is a fringe figure now, but that wasn’t always true. His 1994 book Paved With Good Intentions, an analysis of the breakdown in racial relations in America, received reviews in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Washington Times, and Human Events. Hillsdale asked him to speak on “Racial Relations and Welfare,” a topic connected to his book. This was an entirely legitimate offer. That Taylor’s wider views are so controversial now is irrelevant with respect to what happened in 1995. 

Of course, it is interesting to note who Whyte doesn’t fault the college for hosting. For instance, in 1994, 2003, and 2004 Hillsdale invited  Bill Kristol—an unrepentant cheerleader of the unjustified and disastrous Iraq war—to come speak. Jared Taylor’s views on race and IQ are deeply controversial, but on the question of whether America should invade foreign countries and kill people of color in the name of democracy, he was far more sane than Kristol ever was. 

Today, Taylor is a pariah. Kristol, on the other hand, has gone on to the heights of billionaire-funded NeverTrump ventures. In fact, he currently sits as editor-at-large for The Bulwark—the very publication where Whyte published her critique of Hillsdale.

Whyte, it seems, keeps her own “odious” company. Maybe she should start the “reckoning” by canceling herself. 

This assumes, of course, that guilt-by-association is the standard. It shouldn’t be. Whyte’s work stands or falls by her own arguments and not her editor’s. Whyte does not owe the world an apology for Kristol’s views on the Iraq War, just as Hillsdale does not owe an apology for Taylor’s opinions on race. 

Whyte’s argument culminates in her claim that Hillsdale’s lack of diversity is due to a self-imposed “special challenge” the college hasn’t done enough to “solve.” Not true. There is nothing wrong with Hillsdale’s racial composition. Hillsdale’s “whiteness” is not a problem—it’s just a fact.

Hillsdale long ago placed its educational mission above trying to create a certain ethnic mix among its students. That was the right decision and it shows. Hillsdale attracts serious students who wish to study serious ideas. That, and not racial composition, is what matters. Hillsdale has no need to flog itself over the beliefs of individual speakers, the skin color of its students, or the principles of limited government and personal liberty it champions. On these counts, Hillsdale owes no one an apology. 

About Josiah Lippincott

Josiah Lippincott is a former Marine officer and current Master's student at the Van Andel School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College.

Photo: Brother Atticus/Wikimedia Commons

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