Here is a question for parents who are upset when they learn about the critical race theory sessions their children have to undergo at school this year: Did you know that you’ve been paying for all this proselytizing, and have been doing so for decades?
I’m sure that most Americans are unaware of that sorry fact, but it’s been happening for a long, long time. This Woke Revolution, of which CRT is an essential part, has erupted into American public life with astonishing speed and fervor, but the genesis of it goes back much further than the death of George Floyd, the election of Donald Trump, and the founding of Black Lives Matter a few years before.
Instead, like so many leftist ideas in their current form, it stems from the 1960s, when the civil rights movement shifted from the liberal integrationist vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the aggressive identity politics of Black Power and the Panthers. That story has been told many times (see, for instance, this biography of Stokely Carmichael)—though many people today forget that hard leftists denounced MLK as weak and over-compromising in the last year of his life.
It’s an easy memory to lose because the militant racial protests dissipated over the course of the 1970s, by the end of which you heard few national voices speaking in CRT-like tones. Even Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaign for the presidency in 1984 favored a positive message of multicultural unity over the bilious talk of white supremacy.
“But He’s Not Doing Race!”
Here’s the thing, though: Militant identity politics didn’t go away. It took refuge in academia, where programs in Black Studies, Women’s Studies, etc. proceeded to carry out the militant vision in an academic mode.
Angela Davis ended up a distinguished professor at UC Santa Cruz, Bill Ayers at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Their ideas of systemic racism, white hegemony, “the Other,” intersectionality, and cultural imperialism were developed, refined, disseminated, and advocated in classrooms, conferences, scholarly presses, and journals. Affirmative action in the hiring of faculty and admission of students expanded into a frankly quota-like process until the Supreme Court in Bakke forced schools into the “diversity” rationale, which kept social engineering moving forward. Deans and provosts threw money at identity projects and events.
Everyone nodded approval, assuming that such energies were the natural extension of the civil rights movement, the moral standing of which was now higher than that of the founding itself.
The success of these “studies” fields spread the word widely across campus to humanities departments, schools of education, and the “softer” social sciences. When I was a graduate student in English at UCLA in the 1980s, the big shift in the field from Dead White Males to women and minorities was in full swing, both in existing personnel policies and in the materials to be studied. The trio “race-class-gender” was on everybody’s lips (though class got little serious consideration—too many leading scholars were Ivy League).
If you wanted to get ahead, you had to talk the talk. That’s what got you hired, published, and promoted. I remember one hiring committee meeting in the mid-’90s, our job being to find a 19th-century American literature specialist. But that wasn’t enough for a few people on the committee, one of them blurting at one point as we considered a candidate, “But he’s not doing race!”
This brings us to the point with which we started. The race politics these academics contrived through the years evolved precisely into the frighteningly illiberal vision of quotas, accusation, guilt, and reparations of the Woke who are pushing it in elementary schools, workplaces, and government—and we paid for it. Yes, the paychecks the professors collected for doing their identity politics came out of the taxpayers’ pockets. Most of the professors worked for public institutions. They were government employees, paid out of state budgets.
Most of the citizens in those states would have rejected the race talk of the professors had they the chance to hear it—and I include most 1990s liberals in the group of ordinary Americans who didn’t like such separatist attitudes—yet they were bankrolling it the whole time. In effect, they were paying the professors to describe an America that is racist, sexist, nativist, genocidal, and imperialistic. A small farmer in North Carolina whose father served in the Pacific helped a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill to travel to a conference and explain that Western Civilization was a colonialist enterprise that exploited, enslaved, robbed, and “Othered” peoples of color for centuries, and has lied about it ever since.
Let me be more specific. At research universities, professors are paid to teach, administer (service work such as assigning undergraduate course listings), and research. At leading schools, research counts the most, and in the humanities that means publication of books and articles and reviews. To get published, of course, one must submit to peer review, your manuscripts shown to experts in the field who judge it on methods (have you made valid arguments, etc.) and topic (is the subject matter a significant one at the present time).
Racial identity became a super hot topic in the 1970s throughout the humanities and has remained one up to the present. That pressured graduate students and various job/promotion seekers to draw race issues into their studies, and to treat it in the prevailing political fashion. To argue against affirmative action in admissions, for instance, wouldn’t get you published, and it certainly wouldn’t get you a job interview.
The result of this research productivity mandate was a large cohort of smart and ambitious young academics producing arguments, interpretations, theories, and narratives of systemic racism, white fragility, and the like. It has transpired for decades, and the overall research output has been prodigious. By the 2000s, for example, the Modern Language Association International Bibliography counted more than 70,000 items of scholarship published every year in all the fields of language and literature. Needless to say, a good portion of those pages pushed an extreme identity fixation.
We have, then, hyperproductive propaganda running in our universities, pushing bilious tribal conceptions of American society and paid for by citizens, very few of whom share the radical identity outlook of the professors. True, nearly all of those publications go into the library and are never read or made use of (as I documented in this 2011 report), but the outlooks they presumed have carried over to classrooms and influenced two generations of Americans, Millennials and now Gen Z as well, to regard their nation and their forefathers with a cynical, accusatory eye.
A Tired Brand of Decadence
As those kids have graduated and entered workplaces and the public square, they’ve brought the identity angle with them. Ask them specific questions about, say, the Jim Crow Era, ask them to name a single white supremacist figure from the turn of the century, and you’ll get a blank look in return. They don’t know anything about it—nothing concrete, that is—only the generalities of villains here and victims there, and that’s enough for them.
Just remember, it happened with your money. It happened, too, in states with Republican governors and legislatures—the University of Texas humanities departments are just as left-wing as Berkeley’s. It happened in plain sight, too. Everyone knew it by the time The Closing of the American Mind, Tenured Radicals, and Illiberal Education were published (1987, 1990, and 1991), and leading conservatives and Republicans did nothing to stop it.
Now, young Americans have no patriotism, mayors are incapable of defending their own cities, and liberal leaders are eager to show how conscious they are of the dirty truths about the country they propose to lead. This is supposed to count as higher wisdom, staunch and upright, but in truth, it’s a tired brand of decadence. When conservatives regret and decry what has occurred, however, they should be careful to remember that it couldn’t have taken place without the support of the people conservatives see in the mirror.