It is both stunning and appalling that critical race theory, a belief system that denies the values that have come down to us from the Enlightenment, can gain ground in 21st-century America. The pessimistic view is that societies, even those well-educated and culturally advanced, sometimes spin out of control over ideas that in retrospect seem lunatic. That happened in Germany in the last century. The support for unreason today in the academy, among university students, and in media such as the New York Times is a truly bad sign.
On September 22, 2020, President Trump issued Executive Order 13950, “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping.” The order contained the kind of emotionally charged language about critical race theory that is seldom seen in these legalistic documents: “This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.”
The order quoted from training materials being used by government agencies and from statements of the agencies themselves, such as this from the Treasury Department: “Virtually all White people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism.” The department, according to the order, “instructed small group leaders to encourage employees to avoid ‘narratives’ that Americans should ‘be more color-blind’ or ‘let people’s skills and personalities be what differentiates them.’” Trump’s order was revoked by President Biden on his first day in office.
By this time, however, the ideas that had prompted Trump’s concerns had already begun to disturb the lives of the American people who encountered them. In a suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada on December 20, 2020, Gabrielle Clark, the mother of William Clark, a twelfth-grader in a Nevada charter school, complained about the school’s refusal to accept her son’s objection to what was being taught in a recently revised civics course. Ms. Clark, a widow, is black. Her son’s father, however, was white, and her son was light-skinned enough to be considered white.
In her complaint, Clark stated that a new curriculum at William’s school “inserted consciousness raising and conditioning exercises under the banner of ‘Intersectionality’ and ‘Critical Race Theory.’” “The lesson categorized certain racial and religious identities as inherently ‘oppressive,’ . . . and instructed pupils including William Clark who fell into these categories to accept the label ‘oppressor.’”
Despite Clark’s and her son’s objections to what he was being required to admit about himself and his racial heritage, the school insisted that he take this course and gave him a failing grade — imperiling his chances for college admission — because of his refusal to admit that he harbored the views that were being pressed upon the class.
The remarkable thing about the school’s attitude was its refusal to recognize a student’s objection to the characterization of his personal views. As we will see, this is an insignia of what is now called critical race theory (CRT), which for reasons outlined below will not — actually cannot — accept any white person’s view that he or she is not a racist or oppressor.
Bari Weiss is a former employee of the New York Times, a highly educated and successful writer, who resigned from the staff of the Times in July 2020, with a letter to the publisher complaining of the development within the paper’s staff of a “consensus” that “truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job it is to inform everyone else.” Although Weiss has never publicly identified the “orthodoxy” she described in the letter, it is clear from her actions later that it is the same “divisive concepts” identified by Trump in his executive order and described in Gabrielle Clark’s complaint.
Since then, Weiss has taken up the cause of showing how widespread and dangerous these ideas have become. In a memorandum to her mailing list on March 10 this year, Weiss described the predicament of affluent parents in Los Angeles who see their children being indoctrinated with ideas about critical race theory but don’t protest, for fear of being called racists themselves.
In its way, this is as extraordinary as Trump’s executive order and the refusal of William Clark’s school to accept his protest that he is not a racist. This Los Angeles parents’ group, Weiss wrote, “is one of many organizing quietly around the country to fight what it describes as an ideological movement that has taken over their schools. . . . They are all eager for their story to be told — but not a single one would let me use their name. They worry about losing their jobs or hurting their children if their opposition to this ideology were known.” Another said her son begged her not to talk to Weiss. “He wants to go to a great university, and he told me that one bad statement from me will ruin us. This is the United States of America. Are you freaking kidding me?”
In February 2021, Jodi Shaw, a white female employee of Smith College, resigned, accusing the school of creating a “racially hostile environment” for white people. The incident that produced this reaction occurred in 2018, when a black student was found eating her lunch in a room that was not supposed to be in use. The janitor and the security staff, both white, had advised her to leave and, according to all reports, had acted properly. They were dismissed by the school after the student’s complaint of racism. The school then began a series of initiatives that were intended to eliminate “systemic racism” on campus.