If you thought your fiery but mostly peaceful summer was finally reducing from a boil to a simmer this fall, you have got another thing coming. As Philip Wegmann writing at RealClearPolitics put it, “the White House has opened another front in the culture war.” And it’s sure to keep things hot for at least a few more weeks.
On the first Friday of September, at the direction of President Trump, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued an executive order calling on all federal agencies to “cease and desist” any employee training programs that feature references to “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” or that teach that “the United States is an inherently racist or evil country,” or that “any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”
The memo, authored by OMB Director Russ Vought, explained that “It has come to the President’s attention that Executive Branch agencies have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to date ‘training’ government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda.” Vought cited reports alleging that federal employees “have been required to attend trainings where they are told that ‘virtually all White people contribute to racism’ or where they are required to say that they ‘benefit from racism.’”Trump has since extended his initial order to include federal contractors.
Along the same lines, Trump has also threatened to cut federal funding for California schools using curriculum materials based on the historically inaccurate and discredited New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which won Nikole Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer this year and, with the help of the Pulitzer Center, has been integrated into primary school lesson plans across the country. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) recently introduced legislation that would prohibit federal funding of said lesson plans in elementary schools. As Michael Stratford at Politico noted, however, “It is not clear how the Trump administration could make good on such a threat since longstanding federal law [i.e. 20 U.S.C. §1232a] prohibits the Education Department from exercising ‘any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum of the nation’s schools.”
A few days after the OMB memo was circulated, the Department of Education (ED) followed suit with their own memo, disseminated internally via email but obtained by Politico, which largely echoes its precursor. However, per Politico‘s report on the ED email,
Department officials, according to the email, have already concluded that at least some of its training activities—including a program called ‘Unconscious Bias and Conversations in the Midst of Change’—would be allowed to continue because they do not include any of the topics prohibited by the OMB memo. The email said department officials have similarly determined that all diversity and inclusion training offered by the agency’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Services complies with the new OMB policy.
The fact that certain unconscious bias training has already been deemed likely to survive the OMB order points to a problem with the Trump Administration’s recent efforts. National Review recently reported that the CDC is moving forward with CRT-based training in defiance of the Trump administration’s new policy. Per a report at the Hill, the Pentagon has proven resistant as well. The OMB memo and its interdepartmental progeny may have been necessary to raise awareness but by themselves they will prove insufficient to effect their desired ends.
Thus far, the orders lean heavily on the use of buzzwords and some vague conception of “Anti-American propaganda.” The OMB memo runs only a little over a single page. This will not do. Trump and Vought are right to recognize that the ideologies of critical social theories, specifically critical race theory (CRT), are a threat to American democracy and the cultural values that are indispensable thereto. But what is needed is a more robust treatment of the theory currently, per the courageous reporting of Christopher Rufo, undergirding a significant amount of federal employment training. And, presumably, racial “awareness,” “sensitivity,” or “diversity” training cannot be banned completely. It is not clear that such a thing would even be desirable. Studies have shown, however, that even measured against the standards of their own purported goals, such training is largely inept. Perhaps more scandalous is the fact that it is rarely evaluated in this regard at all. But as scientifically dubious as diversity training generally may be, those programs predicated on the ideological commitments of CRT are even more counterproductive.
The Pius Option
What is needed, then, is federal legislation that goes beyond buzzwords and ill-defined appeals to patriotism, as laudable as the latter might be. Federal legislation should approach the matter in something stylistically akin to Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864) which was issued to help explain his rather terse Quanta cura. It is, obviously, not the content of the Syllabus that should be imitated. Rather, the form and approach can prove instructive for contemporary lawmakers. In short, we need a Syllabus to Trump’s Quanta cura.
The plan of attack against CRT-based training programs should imitate the Syllabus’ approach. This would have the benefit of not being hampered by terminological sleight of hand. Instead, it would enable oversight of federal training on a more robust, conceptual basis. It would not stoop to the level of simple vocabulary policing, a hurdle that would prove to be a nuisance to CRT-minded trainers but would ultimately be easily cleared.
The reason that a simplistic buzzword ban constitutes a rather neutered order, and that a Syllabus approach is to be preferred, is because critical theories can be, as a class, somewhat slippery, especially when it comes to the terminology of each insular discipline (e.g. critical legal studies, critical race theory, critical pedagogy, queer theory, and postcolonial theory). Of course, given that all these disciplines and more spring from a common intellectual ecosystem there is terminological and conceptual overlap. But shared themes and concepts are more easily found between disciplines than shared vocabulary. The same basic framework endures in a variety of contexts, focus areas, and terminological tweaks.
Plus, CRT and its cousins are always adapting. Ideas are never stagnant. For instance, intersectionality, a term that has now entered the popular lexicon, is of recent vintage. It was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in a 1989 law review article, and reinforced by another article in 1991, but it represents ideas that had been circulating in CRT and black feminist literature for decades under the “simultaneity of oppressions” or the “interrelatedness of racism, sexism, and classism.” The Combahee River Collective began pushing such ideas some 20 years before Crenshaw; Angela Davis was writing on the subject in the early 1980s.
The point is, the eradication of the word “intersectionality,” would not actually defeat the thinking behind it. The relevant theorists would simply find a new term. The same goes for the lingo singled out by the OMB. Just as banning certain words like “white privilege” or “white fragility” would prove ineffective, so too would disallowing “critical race theory” training. Indeed, none of the training programs reported on by Rufo seem to have been actually advertising themselves this way. Bestsellers like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist, or Renni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race rarely, if it all (as in the case of DiAngelo) explicitly mention “critical race theory.” Their indexes and bibliographies are scant, citing only a few relevant primary sources that would, after some digging, give you a clue as to their ideological presuppositions or the school of thought from which they are operating. But the ideas, unmistakably drawn from CRT, et al., are there. These characteristics are intentional and conducive to the new style common to the most popular texts on race: a blend of anecdotes, personal memoir, and political manifesto.
Peter Boghossian’s “idea laundering” thesis makes perfect sense of this dynamic. The vocabulary, framework, and concepts of CRT present in these mainstream works (sometimes covertly) have been laundered clean, and made palatable to the lay reader. Sometimes, in these popular-level representations of CRT, there are two or three degrees of separation between the original source of the idea—whether Derrick Bell, Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci, or Marx himself—and its contemporary representation.
For this reason, an Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”) approach will not work. The types of books currently enjoying popularity, like Kendi’s and DiAngelo’s, represent a burgeoning field. Any list of prohibited books for federal training programs would require constant revision. Even if such a list were limited to the more academic, foundational CRT texts it would be miles long. In any case, the idea would not play well. Further, critical theorists have a penchant for commandeering colloquial phrases and repurposing them for their own ends.
“Anti-racism” is the most obvious example. Per Kendi, anti-racism is not synonymous with being against racism. Who could disagree with that? Rather, within Kendi’s twisted paradigm, there is no neutrality. There is no “not racist” option. “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.” The practical result of this view is that “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy,” Kendi writes. “If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.”
As a threshold matter legislation should prohibit segregated—based on race, sex, or religion—seminars. Agencies should only be permitted to discriminate based on job title and function. Though, of course, it would be unreasonable and overbearing to enact legislation matching the Syllabus in length and breadth, legislation can nevertheless take its stylistic ques therefrom. Like Pius IX’s compilation, the point is to call attention to the prevailing errors of the day that should be rejected. For our purposes, the syllabus below will only include 10 erroneous propositions intricate to CRT and primarily having to do with the definition of racism.
The following propositions and definitions should not appear in or serve as the basis of any taxpayer-funded training programs for federal employees:
- Racism is prejudice plus systemic power. It does not simply refer to individual racial animus. Prejudice or bias is assumed of all people. The distinguishing factor is the possession of systemic power which, in western society, is only possessed by white people or those who have been “whitened.”
- Racism is a system of (white) privilege that is ordinary, ubiquitous, permanent, and largely unconsciously proliferated. Accordingly, there is no neutral category of “not-racist.” One is either actively dismantling the system of white privilege as an “antiracist” or is complicit therein as a “racist.”
- In Western society, all white people possess white privilege, that is, an unearned, unacknowledged, and unquestioned benefit from being white in a white-dominated racial caste system.
- Through their privilege, white people are invested in, and benefit from, whiteness. That is, the social capital or property accrued by occupying a location and status of structural advantage in a white dominated society that is denied to others. Whiteness is intrinsically anti-black.
- Racism, systemically defined, does not require individual racists to exist and, therefore, need not be a consciously committed act of prejudice. Racism is primarily evidenced via racial disparities. Such disparities are always per se evidence of racist policy.
- All white people are complicit in the system of white dominance (i.e. white supremacy) and are, therefore, necessarily guilty of racism. All members of western society are socialized to participate in racism. White supremacy, then, does not refer to individual belief in the intrinsic superiority of ethnic Europeans but rather to a structurally instigated and secured pattern of social, economic, institutional, and cultural disparity.
- Race is a social and political construct invented by European whites for the sole purpose of distributing societal privilege along racial lines, subjugating people of color, and legitimizing white dominance.
- Racism should be assumed, at the outset, to be a factor in any given scenario. The question is not, “Did racism take place?” but rather, “How did racism manifest in that situation?” Racism is primarily proliferated hegemonically or culturally, ideologically, and institutionally via, inter alia, the predominant norms, narratives, and assumptions of society. Racism is deeply embedded in societal institutions.
- Racism can only be truly comprehended through critical consciousness, that is, the awareness of the relative power dynamics and one’s place therein. Critical consciousness is only gained through the lived experience of people of color who possess a “second sight” by way of their experience as the oppressed. People of color who lack critical consciousness (i.e. false consciousness), and/or do not act in accordance therewith, have internalized their oppression.
- Racism operates within an interlocking, mutually reinforcing system of oppressions (i.e. intersectionally) including but not limited to patriarchism, heteronormativity, cisgenderism, ethnocentricity, classism, and sexism.
Saving the American Way of Life
Certainly, more could be added to this syllabus. The inclusion of other core CRT ideas like interest convergence, aversive racism, colorblind racism, internalized racism, and white fragility would further bolster the strength of any relevant legislative proposal. It may also be worth noting that to CRT proponents, “equity”—a concept sure to come up in any CRT-based training— has been redefined more or less in terms equality of outcome while controlling for historical injustices (real or perceived) and adjusting shares of resources (economic and otherwise) accordingly—some amorphous equitable utopia, where all past wrongs have been accounted for, being the goal. Equality of opportunity (and meritocracy) is considered a white lie conjured up as cover for racial oppression, as are norms of procedural fairness like due process and the rule of law. As Gramsci held, the hegemony is fully in place when the oppressed themselves perceive the status quo as inevitable, natural, and commonsensical. Then their emancipatory imaginations are fully stifled. Along the same lines, racial disparities, to people like Kendi, constitute per se evidence of racism, no matter what intervening causes might be identified.
These potential additions notwithstanding, the above syllabus, stylistically inspired by Pius IX, demonstrates the superiority of a more substantive approach to the CRT-based federal training programs currently being addressed by the OMB and other executive federal agencies. Though not exhaustive—an impossible standard—the syllabus approach seeks to remove key tools from the CRT tool chest. At the same time, the rejection of certain errors is preferable to one that positively insists on certain content. Lawmakers would do well to style their restrictions in the way demonstrated here rather than resorting to simple buzzword bans and invocations of “anti-American propaganda.”
The Trump Administration is right, the errors endemic to CRT are incompatible with the American way of life and with any western democracy. Even liberal academics have recognized this for decades. Indeed, critical theorists themselves admit it. Their aim is to problematize, disrupt, and dismantle the cultural and structural status quo in order to change it wholesale. As happened with Pius IX, a Syllabus of Errors-style law will gain the authors no friends on the Left, but it is, at this juncture, absolutely necessary.