“To suggest, as the critical race theorists do, that equality must precede liberty is simply to jettison the latter without securing the former.”
— Henry Louis Gates Jr., director, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, writing in the New Republic, 1993
A major effort to attack critical race theory is gaining steam at the policy level, in local school boards, in the regulation of the military by Congress, and in state legislatures mooting bills that would, in some cases, restrict teaching in institutions of higher learning. It is no longer tenable for people who care about the substance of this fight over ideas to pretend it is an argument over what to call them, or to pretend coyly not to know approximately what is being discussed when people refer to wokeness. Cultural and policy changes are moving fast.
“Wokeism” is a useful umbrella term for the more popular and less scholarly forms critical race theorists’ ideas have taken as the broader public has become far more aware of them than anyone might have predicted. The terms of the debate had been around for a long time before their zero-to-60 entry into the culture wars.
It is difficult to place the birth of wokeism in time. The word “woke” in its Black American vernacular slang sense, meaning “conscious of a salient social truth most people are blind to,” goes back at least to a Lead Belly lyric from the 1930s, and likely before. Meanwhile, the cultural movement that has now seized many of America’s schools, most of its colleges and universities, its formerly venerable and now merely vestigially prestigious magazines and newspapers, its publishing houses, and many corridors of official Democratic Party power was not originally termed “woke.”
In the 1990s, an earlier version reared its head under the name of “political correctness.” Jonathan Rauch wrote a book explaining and opposing this proto-wokeism and its quarrels with liberalism, “Kindly Inquisitors.” As everyone who has read it in recent years can (and usually does) attest, it still resonates when Rauch observes ominously that “those who claim to be hurt by words must be led to expect nothing as compensation. Otherwise, once they learn they can get something by claiming to be hurt, they will go into the business of being offended.”
Some argue the presence of a prior iteration of wokeism is evidence that the current version will go away of its accord. This is wrong for two reasons. First, the 2020s version and the 1990s version are ideologically different if related. Second, and more importantly, the 2020s version simply has far broader institutional and cultural purchase, having attached itself to the political and ideological left at a moment when Donald Trump made affiliating with the political right an even-more-than-usually unthinkable alternative in these institutions.
And anyway, the American cultural turn away from the 1990s version of political correctness was achieved through effort. Comedians and artists and writers like Rauch made cultural products debating and mocking political correctness. They exposed overreach in institutions that had implemented speech codes or attempted to view individual people primarily through the lens of identity, which worked to turn public opinion against political correctness and anathematized the very phrase.
The dynamic that allowed anti-PC sentiment to win out in the broader culture was that people already believed that it was bad, and they were freed to declare out loud that it was also destructive and broadly unpopular. A repeat is possible now: The 2020 Democratic Party autopsy of its own unjustifiably slim winning margin, organized and presented to the caucus by New York Rep. Sean Maloney in May, observed that even nonwhite registered Democrats find the 2020s version of wokeism to be off-putting.
While wokeism has become a bogeyman and political hobbyhorse for the activist right, there is no reason to see it in primarily partisan political terms. A recent NBC report spuriously characterizes the strength of the reaction against wokeness as a function of conservative media agitation. But it is more accurate to understand it as a function of the unpalatable features of wokeness in the judgment of the great majority of the public from all sides.
The best available research has found that woke activists simply do not speak for the beliefs and priorities of the constituencies they claim to represent.
Here’s Obama campaign veteran and political data analyst David Shor: “White liberals are more left-wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue: taxes, health care, policing, and even on racial issues or various measures of ‘racial resentment.’ So, as white liberals increasingly define the party’s image and messaging, that’s going to turn off nonwhite conservative Democrats and push them against us.” Here’s Clinton political strategy guru James Carville: “Wokeness is a problem, and we all know it.”
The disputes of political theory and of sensibility raised by wokeism are, similarly, much older than the 1990s. Liberalism’s elevation of toleration to a value or principle comes from the Enlightenment-era search for a civic ethic that would at least keep disputes between religious groups with irreconcilably different views and interests from becoming violent. Thus, the goal was, first, to make sure state power didn’t enshrine any one of the irreconcilable views as the sole winner of the dispute, which would cause all the losers to have to choose between obedience and conscientious rebellion. And, second, to cultivate in every ordinary citizen the sense that it’s OK that people disagree and hold and even preach abhorrent beliefs. This is not merely a disagreement about where the line between civil and uncivil discourse lies. Rather, it is a disagreement about whether cultural values and legal authority should affirm that even uncivil discourse has a place — perhaps even that it can be a positive good.
“Wokeism” has stubbornly resisted attempts to affix it with a stable public definition. Primarily, this is because every crisp or evocative term for it is discredited as unfashionable to utter. But it is not hard to define. Wokeism is the belief that in a good society, we should allocate our private sympathies and our public goods in some large part on the basis of “ascriptive” characteristics — that is, born characteristics that are beyond our control. Wokeists intend to install this as the dominant ideology over what they term “colorblindness theory”: the idea that in a good society, we should allocate our private sympathies and our public goods primarily on the basis of the behavior and character people display.
This was once seen as progressive, but now, it is seen as an obstacle. It is no longer considered righteous law to forbid discriminating “on the basis of sex” (as a recent biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was titled) or race. Equal protection for individuals under the 14th Amendment and the content-neutral speech protections guaranteed by 20th-century First Amendment jurisprudence are precisely what the original and most prominent critical race theorists from the legal theory field have trained their fire on. It’s legitimately worrying that their ideas have filtered down to less rarefied areas of American life.
Another word for the system under question by critical legal theorists and their political allies is “meritocracy,” and no doubt, there are legitimate critiques to be made of the supposedly equal-opportunity meritocracy colorblindness theorists allegedly argue has been in place. If the meritocratic system really were in place, it should in theory only take one generation of competition to shake observed aggregate population-level differences out of American life. And that hasn’t happened.
The wokeist turn against meritocracy, or judging what opportunities specific people deserve on the basis of individual performance rather than group ascriptive identity characteristics, is what has made educational admissions such a point of contention. Not even a theoretically perfectly fair Scholastic Aptitude Test can satisfy people whose ideology rejects the idea that individual aptitude is the germane question in determining which student should go to which school.
Critics of blindness-as-justice tend to look at American society and its actually-existing social mobility as though it is currently the 1970s, and it is not. The available empirical data show that when colorblindness was dominant, real progress was achieved. Over the period between the establishment of the 1967 Philadelphia Plan, allowing a very clearly delineated and reluctant exception to the 14th Amendment to create affirmative action in government hiring, and the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic in 2014 — in other words, during the period when colorblindness theory was dominant among the American elite — things got better at a historically aberrant and welcome pace. Every measure of personal prejudice shows that outward discrimination went from a wedge issue to socially unacceptable. Racism and sexism are down (not gone, down). Police abuse is down (not gone, down).
Yet today, in American institutions, and especially in educational ones, the critiques of liberal individualism as the principle underlying how we should arrange institutions have largely won out. Coates’ piece makes a compelling argument for recompense but does little to grapple with the troubling logistical questions raised by the moral metaphysics of reparations: Who owes whom what? And, is a bureaucracy equipped to figure out who “counts” as a debtor and a creditor? And, what will the political reaction be?
This bespeaks a blithe sense that questions about ascriptive group identity are, if not simple, solvable. We just need a detailed enough guide to racial categorization. That’s because, as we saw, wokeists believe that ascriptive group identity categories are real, that members of a race are really understandable as a community, not a mass of millions of individuals, and therefore that a good society can allocate private sympathy and public goods to them as a whole. By studying the difference in outcomes between groups, we can do the algebra on what is owed corporately.
This brings us to the contemporary fight over critical race theory. What was an obscure cluster of legal scholarship systematically demolished by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the New Republic in 1993 is now a major political fight prominent enough to have gotten people acronymizing it to “CRT.”
It is imperative to avoid letting this debate devolve into a fight over word choice. As John McWhorter put it, “Quibbles and cavils and performance art over what we call what’s happening in our schools are just that. The urgent thing is not what we call these developments.”
The fact is, while many ordinary people and activists have welcomed the advent of wokeism, many more people have not. This is the core reason why critical race theory-inspired curricula and professional trainings have faced a backlash. As noted, the Democratic Party autopsy of the 2020 election found that woke activists generated policy prescriptions and slogans that were broadly unappealing to the median Democratic voter, including the median nonwhite Democratic voter. Their ideas are even less beloved by right-wingers. Some anti-CRT operatives, such as Chris Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, are betting that parents will balk at the reality of what is now being taught to children, and they are trying to raise awareness among parents and legislators who can put a stop to it.
The fight has been characterized in the press as over whether schools will “teach students about racism,” which is wildly disconnected from reality. The historian Timothy Snyder is typical of denialists that critical race theory-infused wokeism is something really distinct from liberalism, or that it even can be said to exist enough that one can actually bother to analyze and disagree with it: “Critical race theory is common sense with an awkward name.” Joy-Ann Reid, the MSNBC host, is more vividly deranged. She holds that critical race theory does not herald any actual change, but also that the radical change it represents is good:
“Open question to those who are afraid of “critical race theory” (which isn’t being taught in K-12 schools; it’s a course offering in law schools, but you clearly are conflating it with the #1619Project.) What do you WANT taught about U.S. slavery and racism? Nothing? Or what? Currently, most k-12 students already learn a kind of Confederate Race Theory, whereby the Daughters of the Confederacy long ago imposed a version of history wherein slavery was not so bad and had nothing to do with the civil war, and lynchings and violence never happened. Is this about continuing to teach Confederate Race Theory? And continuing to omit things like the founders owning slaves, or the facts about the mass extermination of the indigenous? Are you insisting that those things continue to be omitted?”
This is not based on observable reality about public discourse and education in the United States of America, and it presents a false choice.
Critical race theory is hardly the first or only drive to include these things in history curricula. In fact, I believe most (though not all) students are taught about these facts and that all literary professionals, academics, and intellectuals are exposed to left-wing readings of American history. Howard Zinn was among the bestselling American historians of the last 100 years, his outlook not some secret back-channel knowledge or samizdat. If this worldview is intellectually edgy, one wonders, the edge of what? A cocktail party?
The claim that critical race theory is just any history of America that mentions that America was born from brutality and sin and sordid power politics is specious. Many opponents of the theory would quite happily endorse history curricula that stress the Founders’ slave-owning, atrocities against Native Americans, red-lining under the New Deal, and other historical racist practices with still-extant effects. How do I know this? Because this is the content of most history education prior to the infusion of history with what’s being called “CRT,” and we are only seeing the backlash now that schools are separating students by racial “affinity group,” claiming that specific behavioral characteristics are attributable to particular races, and such practices.
Some curricula surely have weaknesses, but any that remotely resemble the caricature put forth by Reid above, for example, if they exist at all, are outliers. The common denominator among people who are repulsed by how “CRT” has been applied is not a desire to hide or recoil from the facts of historical racism; it is a rejection of racist practices right here and now.
Since the traditional defenders of liberalism against wokeism are especially sensitive to official censorship, the fight Rufo and others are waging raises concerns about whether removing critical race theory from curricula amounts to banning one legitimate set of concepts from students’ awareness in favor of another, more comfortable set, using state power. This concern is more applicable to higher education than K-12, since in the latter case, we acknowledge that decisions about curricula will be made by adults for children. The most troubling concerns are simply that the laws banning critical race theory will have the problems that all laws have: They might be poorly written, restrictive of rights and free expression, and they may require a regime of bureaucratic and political surveillance to enforce them.
As Greg Lukianoff et alia have written at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, many, if not all, of them seem to include straightforwardly censorious yet totally unspecific language illegalizing things such as endorsing “divisive concepts“ in classrooms across a whole state, which invites capricious punitive meddling by politicians. They often fail to distinguish between limiting content for courses in K-12 and in higher education, though legally, the situations are distinct. A reasonable citizen, no matter his political objectives, should be worried about the unintended consequences of any law.
Thus, things are complicated for those of us who think critical race theory really is an intellectually and civically bankrupt development that is achieving undue prominence in American life through institutional capture rather than through suasion but who want to defend the liberal idea of toleration of alternate ideas and principles such as academic freedom and free speech.
Certainly, the government and school boards have the right to set curricula in the schools they require children to attend and that citizens fund. And it is a worthwhile project simply to not lie about what is happening — to name it, and to acknowledge that a new and genuinely philosophically distinct ideology has supplanted the prior liberal conception in many precincts of American public life. Yet it is one thing to refuse to continue to fund an unpopular and illiberal ideology being taught to children in school without their parents’ understanding by teachers following a curriculum, or being trained into workers against their will by HR compliance specialists. It is quite another to use state power to punish or ban endorsing or even mentioning certain disfavored ideas in institutions of higher learning, corporations, and government bureaucracy. There must be limiting conditions so that the fight against wokeism does not itself become illiberal.
Yet navigating this obstacle course isn’t impossible. Here is how a liberal can stop the march through the institutions without losing his or her liberalism:
1. It is legitimate and desirable to ban completely from public K-12 curricula the inculcation of race essentialism. Curricula should be banned especially when some characteristic is imputed to particular children or when they encourage children to think about their own moral status according to ascriptive demographic characteristics rather than actions and traits they individually perform or express. This applies narrowly to race and not sex or national origin or sexual orientation or gender identity, though it is virtually always socially and civically inappropriate in practice to do so with regard to those as well. It shall not be regarded as legitimate to withhold state accreditation from K-12 private schools because they teach something that is banned in public schools.
2. It is not legitimate or desirable to surveil and punish teachers in case they do individually teach something that could be (rightly or wrongly) defined as race essentialist or as being an instance of critical race theory. There are legitimate limits to how teachers can speak and behave in the classroom, but one of them should not be mentioning things banned from the curriculum by virtue of the concerns expressed here. What we should oppose is simply that certain subjects or ideas be a curricular requirement.
3. It is preferable that local school boards, not state legislatures, institute these policies and recommendations. Opponents of establishment practice will have to readjust their focus at the ballot box.
4. None of the restrictions should apply to an elective class in a public K-12 school that fewer than 50% of students in a school take (more than 50% suggests social or official pressure to enroll in it). Racist, critical race theoretic, race-essentialist, or otherwise inappropriate elective classes determined by a private K-12 school or a school board to be appropriate shall not be restricted in any way, though as a matter of opinion, they should be discouraged.
5. None of the above applies to the course curricula in either public or private higher education for legal adults and the occasional minor. If colleges and universities want to teach destructive or bad things to the people who choose to go to colleges/universities in their academic course curricula, and the institutions that choose higher education funding want to give funding to departments that support “grievance studies”-type areas of scholarship, then that is nobody’s concern but the students’.
However, both public and accredited private higher education institutions can and should be barred from receiving federal funds and accreditation if they include in mandatory orientation briefing materials or student/faculty “safety” training a requirement to “learn” the institution’s view of the “socially just” or otherwise favored view about how to think about:
• issues surrounding the proper understanding and definition of ascriptive demographic group identity categories,
• group guilt,
• or the heritability of moral guilt and moral debts over multiple generations.
Listed academic coursework that a prospective student of an institution of higher learning can check in advance to see whether it will be assigned will not be construed as a training, whether mandatory or elective.
6. State institutions should not be allowed to provide funding for the paying of outside consultants to provide trainings in, for example, “implicit bias,” microaggression theory, and other pseudoscientific nonsense about the psychology and sociology of interactions between individuals from certain ascriptive group demographic identity characteristics. State institutions should submit written argumentation that any training they implement is based on the best available rigorous research (for example, from the fields of academic social science, such as psychology, sociology, etc.) before putting funds toward a training for either students or employees. If there is substance to it, let them show their work and subject it to cross-examination.
A legal category of “ideological harassment” should be created in federal workplace harassment law. Workers, contractors, volunteers, and customers can seek redress for ideological harassment only in the form of demanding evidence backing the efficacy of some training program and an end to the harassing behavior or policy whose usefulness is not based on good evidence, not in the form of compensation.
People who are induced to attend a training by the order of their professional superior in private institutions have legal standing to demand anonymously through a lawyer written argumentation that any training has some basis in the best available rigorous evidence from scientific or sociological research from any institution that institutes said training. Here, too, if more than 50% of an organization takes some training, it should be considered a training that members and employees of the organization are induced to attend by order of a professional superior. No damages other than legal fees should be recovered by people suing for ideological harassment.
It would be healthier for this debate in general if people acknowledged the truth, which is that there is less racism and other prejudice than there used to be, and that this is a good thing.
Nicholas Clairmont is an associate editor at Arc Digital and a regular contributor to the Washington Examiner.