by William A. Jacobson
Free expression and open inquiry in higher education are under attack by ideologues seeking to impose neo-Marxist “critical” theories, most prominently critical race theory, which places race at the center of all political and social issues.
Critical race theory training, misleadingly characterized as “antiracism” training, has spread widely throughout higher education and is often compared to Maoist struggle sessions, where dissent incurs public shaming, job loss, and harassment. This training often turns into race-shaming and Kafka-trapping, using denial of racism as proof of racism. The result is self-imposed racial conflict and systemic retaliatory discrimination masquerading as “equity.”
Claims of “white privilege” and “white fragility” are used to bully people into submission. Columbia University Professor John McWhorter refers to this delusion as “neoracism,” which “teaches that racism is baked into the structure of society, so whites’ ‘complicity’ in living within it constitutes racism itself.”
Rather than lessening racism, these approaches adopt discriminatory racial practices and verbiage that in any other context would be rightfully deemed racist. Instead of focusing on inherent human worth without regard to skin color, race becomes the obsessive focus and measure.
The ubiquitous term “antiracist” thus is one of the greatest linguistic sleights of hand and deceptions of our time, yet it is unmistakably transforming education in America today. As the Manhattan Institute’s Coleman Hughes points out, “the modern antiracist movement is not against discrimination. It is against inequity, which in many cases makes it pro-discrimination.”
The foundational text for this corrosive philosophy is “How to Be an Antiracist” by Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi, who insists that “[t]he only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination” and foments a perpetual struggle session by artificially dividing people into “antiracists” and “racists.” According to Kendi, it is impossible to be “not racist.” Those who do not actively seek to dismantle systemic racism, including in one’s own psyche, are racist by this definition.
Perhaps worst of all is that the so-called antiracist movement sets up an interracial struggle that never can be absolved. Racial struggle is the entire point of so-called antiracist movement, around which a lucrative industry of authors, consultants, and administrators has been built. Too many people are making too much money from so-called antiracist training for a return to the colorblind ideals of the civil rights movement.
This corrosive ideology has swept American culture, especially on college campuses, where it threatens irreversible damage to academic freedom. Cornell University, where I have taught law since 2007, is approaching this abyss under an “antiracist” initiative launched after George Floyd’s death. Unfortunately, Cornell may become an example of how a desire to address racism can go horribly wrong.
In early June 2020, shortly after the death of George Floyd, Cornell President Martha Pollack designated Kendi’s antiracism book a “Community Book Read” to be the focus of virtual discussions over the summer, a move endorsed by the Faculty Senate. On July 16, 2020, President Pollack further declared that “we must embed anti-racism across” all aspects of campus life. Immediate mandates were placed on staff, including making “work on diversity, equity and inclusion part of the performance” reviews and mandating “equity and cultural competency” training.
This directive, with specifics to be developed by the Faculty Senate, also called for new requirements for students and faculty, including the “creation and implementation of a for-credit, educational requirement on racism, bias and equity for all Cornell students” and a “systematic review of the curriculum in each of our colleges and schools to ensure that courses reflect, represent and include the contributions of all people.” It also demanded “a new set of programs focusing on the history of race, racism and colonialism in the United States,” and “[a]ll faculty would be expected to participate in this programming and follow-on discussions.” Additionally, a new Anti-Racism Center and “an institution-wide, themed semester” focused on “racism in the U.S.” were on the agenda.
In early September 2020, multiple Cornell academic programs and several hundred faculty, students, and staff, including at least nine law professors, issued a Demand List calling for the campus antiracism initiative to include race-based hiring and promotion, the elimination of colorblind hiring and other race-based practices. Some of these proposed employment rules are illegal and in violation of Cornell’s non-discrimination policies. This manifesto lived up to Kendi’s call for “present discrimination.”
Regardless of how the Cornell administration may define “antiracism,” many of the campus faculty and student activists who will design, teach, direct, and implement any final initiatives view “antiracism” as Kendi sees it. It was startling to see prominent faculty join in such a call, and that ethos has carried into Faculty Senate draft proposals that could be voted on at the end of this month and then quickly go to the president for approval.
The latest draft proposal for students calls for mandatory curriculum created by various ethnic and gender studies department faculty, focusing on how America’s colonialization and globalization impacts race, ethnicity and indigeneity. Meanwhile, faculty will be responsible for “[e]mbedding antiracist content” across academic disciplines to address how such issues affect various professions and fields of study. This portends a breach of faculty academic freedom and the sort of interference — even in STEM — that has made headlines recently.
Faculty, meanwhile, would need to “dismantle racial and cultural barriers” and participate in educational programming possibly modeled on the training modules required of staff. There also is an enforcement mechanism that makes obtaining a promotion contingent upon reaching certain “diversity, equity and inclusion” benchmarks. Student course evaluations would now include assessing a professor’s antiracism compliance.
The cumulative effect of these initiatives is coercive not educational, tying academic and professional performance to a deceptive concept of “antiracism” that in reality is neo-racist and endangers free expression. Dissent will be silenced when grades, evaluations, continued employment and professional advancement are tied to meeting top-down mandates, creating an environment of compelled activism and compliance in which opposition is defined as inherently racist.
Cornell already ranks low in protecting student free expression. Like so many institutions of higher education, it is also now putting at risk its ability to protect academic freedom for its students and faculty. Hopefully, the Cornell senior administration will pull the campus back from this brink.
Racial struggle and conflict are not the answer in higher education or elsewhere in our society. As universities across America push neo-racist “antiracism” ideology, they are damaging themselves and our nation.
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William A. Jacobson is a clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School and president of the Legal Insurrection Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to free expression and academic freedom on campuses.