Compulsory Education at the University of Pittsburgh

Terrence L. Hormel

Imagine that you are currently a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. You have successfully navigated all the orientation and preparatory processes, even in this year of COVID-19. You are finally ready to begin your Pitt career.

When you receive your course assignment list, you see a curious entry. You have been signed up for a course numbered PITT 0210 and titled “Anti-Black Racism: History, Ideology, and Resistance.” One credit, remote learning, credit/no credit grading, and it very clearly states that this course is compulsory and cannot be dropped. It will consist of fourteen sections presented online with testing after each section. Also, there is a pre- and post-assessment that is mandatory. (Hint: make sure your assessment emphasizes what an enriching experience it was and that you are now ready for the “work” of anti-racism.)

PITT 0210 would have been more appropriately titled: Critical Race Theory 0210.

As an alumnus of Pitt, I had been prompted to follow the development of this course through various communications from the university. It was clear that this was a response to the summer of social justice protest. I was concerned because, from what I knew of Critical Race Theory (CRT), it is not an ideology that tempers the passion of racial conflict.

Then, I saw that the course had been approved and implemented outside the normal process of curriculum protocol—fast-tracked. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said: “It was kind of a perfect storm at a perfect time. It probably was surprising how quickly this moved ahead.” The chair of the committee that developed the course at warp speed said: “You know what, this is a priority, not just for our institution, but for our nation and really the world.” Wow, this course has a big job.

I contacted the school to voice some concerns about PITT 0210. I sent a list of questions, noting that the entire course seemed to be an introduction to CRT. I had a discussion with a representative of the University who had been involved in the development of the course. They assured me that CRT was not guiding the university’s model of race relations.

And yet, when we discussed the topics and lecturers for each of the PITT 0210 course modules, it was difficult to identify any material that was not saturated with Critical Race Theory. The course overview on the Provost’s website stresses that PITT 0210 will “call attention to the ongoing devaluation of Black lives in the U.S. and globally.” Among the stated objectives of the course is to “identify historical and current structures of power, privilege, and inequality that are rooted in Anti-Black racism”; to “articulate and critically examine personal beliefs and opinions about race, antiracism,(sic) and antiblackness (sic)”; and, of course, to “identify some of the many existing organizations that provide anti-racism programming and opportunities.” The stated outcomes for PITT 0210 include giving the student “an introduction to the Black radical tradition, resistance to Anti-Black racism, and strategies to be an anti-racist in everyday life.”

A student receives credit for the course once he can recite knowledge of concepts, terminology, and historical views or narratives that conform to CRT dogma. Since the course is remote and asynchronous, there is no opportunity for students to question the material. They must accept it as fact and commit it to memory or receive no credit.

In Week One, the student will learn that “Race is not a biological, it is a social convention, a ‘social fact’ (a fact by social agreement).”Required reading: Mathew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer’s, “What is racial domination?” In Week Three’s “Era of Enslavement,” the reading list includes “The 1619 Project.” So, of course, the student will learn that the United States was founded in 1619 when the first slaves landed in America. Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was a ploy perpetrated by white, and therefore “privileged,” slave owners to protect their economic interests from English intervention. And the Constitutional Convention was little more than a cabal of slaveholders and enablers that enshrined the subjugation of blacks in law. In Week Four, there is perhaps passing mention of the 620,000 American-white-male lives given in the struggle to end slavery. But the student will definitely learn that, during post-war Reconstruction, “the possibility of an equitable United States was quashed by white racial violence and political oppression.”

In Week Eleven, Pitt freshman will receive “an understanding of formal schooling as one of the most efficient conduits for delivering and recreating anti-Blackness. Throughout the lecture, you will be asked to consider how your schooling experiences have taught and mistaught (sic) you about the origins of this nation and who is worthy of being treated as fully human.” Just in case the student did not fully comprehend the lessons from “The 1619 Project.”

Finally, because true anti-racism requires “work” or “woke work,” the student will be lectured in Week Thirteen about “implicit bias, how we develop our biases, and how the biases manifest themselves. We will review microaggressions and their impact on the target.” Most importantly, “we will also discuss what it means to be anti-racist and strategies you can use to be anti-racist in your everyday life.” Recommended reading? You guessed it! “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi.

Week Fourteen concludes the course with the student’s choice among: Afro-Futurism; Heritage as Hate; Racism and Sporting Traditions; or Race and Technology.

So, this compulsory course, the only that is mandatory across the entire University, signals to the entering student that race relations at Pitt are understood in the context of Critical Race Theory: whites are oppressors and blacks are oppressed. Anti-black racism is systemic and implicit in the University. Resistance must continue. Every student must be an active, working anti-racist, or that student is a complicit racist (you get the point).

By definition, Pitt 0210 is exclusively about “Anti-Black Racism: History, Ideology, and Resistance.” No other ethnic minorities are considered. When asked why all other “minoritized” groups are ignored and only racism toward blacks is addressed, Dr. Yolanda Covington-Ward, the chair of the committee that developed the course, said: “anti-Black racism goes back to the United States’ original sin of slavery.” Every student who takes this compulsory course learns that the most prominent statement the University is making about race relations is that this “original sin” is the modus operandi. If you are a “minoritized” member of the Pitt community and your ancestors were not slaves, you are lower on the oppression ladder. Take a number. Get in line. Not quite a prime example of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

I am sure the committee worked diligently to develop PITT 0210, and it would seem to be an appropriate survey course in the Department of Africana Studies, perhaps Anti-Black Racism 101. This area of study is the subject of legitimate scholarship and should be available to students who choose to pursue knowledge in this area in depth and seriously. But these concepts are potent. Misunderstood and misused, they do nothing but inflame racial passions. It is a mistake to compel every entering student to take this course in the name of “social justice,” or for the purpose of virtue-signaling social justice.

In my opinion, Critical Race Theory is a barren and corrosive dogma. Barren because it removes humanity from the discussion of race relations. Everything is about institutions and power structures, not people. People are mere actors trapped in a skin that defines their role. Corrosive because CRT posits a zero-sum racial power struggle motivated by grievance and anger. It’s tough to see a world worth saving if that is your worldview.

That’s just my opinion, and it hasn’t changed the more I learn about PITT 0210. However, I do try to follow the advice of John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?


Terrence L. Hormel is Managing Partner at PennTown Properties and an alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh.

Image: Yisong Yue, Public Domain

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