Criticism of American society for its inequitable treatment of blacks and other minority groups has become a focal point of American education at every level of instruction. Sometimes this criticism is historically well-grounded and tempered by recognition of social, political, and economic complexity. But more often this criticism veers into simplistic claims and fictions presented as fact. The latter sort of critique has become conspicuous in many of the nation’s public schools and has aroused opposition from esteemed historians and parents of all races and ethnicities who object to curricula and teaching practices that treat American society as fundamentally racist and therefore illegitimate. Similar complaints have been leveled at colleges and universities, including graduate schools of law, education, and medicine. But objections to the so-called “anti-racist” agenda in post-secondary education have not drawn nearly as much attention as they have in K-12 schools. In this essay I intend to address the critique of America on racial grounds mainly at the college and university level, but problems in K-12 schools will necessarily come into the picture.
America’s racial critics often disarm their opponents by using a vocabulary whose unassuming or technical demeanor hides radical meanings. Because many of these words and phrases are ambiguous, I will start by setting out these terms as I shall use them.
Anti-racism is a word contrived by Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi. It looks as if it means ‘opposed to racism,’ but Kendi and his followers use it to mean racial favoritism toward blacks, deliberate discrimination against whites aimed at compensating for “systemic” racial injustice, and the suppression of all speech and action opposed to their preferred policies.
Systemic racism refers to the supposedly omnipresent racially disparate treatment built into institutions such as law, the real estate market, medical practice, and education. Proponents of the concept of systemic racism argue that it generally operates outside the awareness of white people or other beneficiaries of the privileges it confers on one group at the expense of another. Even individuals who decry racism and are free from any personal racial animus are thus part of systemically racist institutions.
Critical Race Theory (“CRT”) is a branch of neo-Marxist social analysis formulated by Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell in the late 1970s and further developed by his colleague, Kimberlé Crenshaw. Bell and Crenshaw argued that the Civil Rights Movement had failed to reform American society in any fundamental way and that, rightly seen, all American institutions are systemically racist. CRT found a niche in academe among social theorists who hold that participants in a society seldom understand how the social order is actually structured and why it is that way. Most consequentially, CRT achieved substantial influence among scholars focusing on education, and in the curricula of education schools. Proponents of CRT see themselves as liberating people from their illusions by showing them that American institutions are built on and continue to perpetuate racial oppression. They also believe they have a duty to subordinate all activities of life, and especially education, to CRT’s dis-illusioning project.
Diversity was a doctrine first articulated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in a 1978 decision. Powell argued that colleges and universities might engage in some racial favoritism toward black students if the schools could show that this would advance the “intellectual diversity” of college classes and thus benefit all students regardless of race. Powell’s opinion was not supported by any other Justice at the time and thus lacked the force of law, but colleges and universities soon began to justify racial preferences in admissions by citing diversity. In time, the idea that racial “diversity” was a means to achieve “intellectual diversity” gave way to the widespread assumption that racial diversity is an end in itself. In 2003, the Supreme Court in a majority decision in the case of Grutter v. Bollinger agreed that “diversity” was an acceptable reason for racial preferences in college admissions, provided that the use of preferences was somewhat disguised.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (“DEI”) is the contemporary expansion of the diversity doctrine. “Equity” replaces the older idea of individual equality under the law with the idea that all social goods should be distributed in proportion to each ethnic group’s size relative to the total population. “Inclusion,” which violates the principles of freedom of association and individual merit, requires the extension of group-identity quotas to every part of society, public and private. This fixation on group-identity extends beyond race, as the proponents of DEI increasingly write “gender identity” into institutional policy. DEI ideologues share with their “anti-racist” peers the habit of suppressing their critics rather than answering their criticisms.
The 1619 Project refers to The 1619 Project, a publication of the New York Times and now a stand-alone book purporting to trace the origin of the United States to the arrival of slaves in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. The date has become a condensed way of referring to America as systemically racist in its very origins and of justifying acts of violence against Americans and their property. The 2020 riots following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis were called the “1619 Riots” by some sympathetic observers and by some rioters themselves.
The rise of the anti-racist, DEI, CRT agenda in American education had been decried by many on the grounds that it poses a peril to the nation. The specific perils named by critics vary. This essay accepts the general argument that DEI and its cousins injure our country, but I do not attempt to draw careful distinctions among the injuries and say which is most immediate, which is most dangerous in the long term, or which the critics may have exaggerated. All the criticisms have enough weight to bear consideration. Still, it may be useful to lay out the chief concerns of critics of DEI, etc. These are:
- Ethnic division and strife. DEI is an incitement to racial resentment, primarily of blacks against whites, and at another level of whites against blacks.
- Political opportunism. DEI in schools and colleges is aimed at recruiting students through emotional manipulation into durable loyalty to progressive political ideologies.
- Cultural impoverishment. DEI displaces from the curriculum and disparages study of the great achievements of western civilization and the American past. DEI imposes ruthless hostility toward Western values and falsely romantic views of other traditions.
- Historical amnesia. DEI amplifies accounts of injustices in American history and minimizes American accomplishments. Sometimes, as in The 1619 Project, it sets forth grossly inaccurate accounts of the American past as if they were true, and it provides students with no basis to recognize that there are other accounts better grounded in the facts.
- Professional incompetence. Because it lowers academic standards and diverts attention from well-established facts, DEI leaves graduates with an inferior education. The problem is compounded at the level of graduate and professional education, where individuals begin their careers with significant DEI-caused deficits in their professional knowledge.
- International competitiveness. Other nations are not handicapping generations of students by providing them with inferior DEI-inflected educations and false maps of the world in which we live. America’s international competitiveness is at risk from graduates who think they understand things of which they in fact have only superficial or mistaken knowledge.
- Destructive orientation. DEI is an essential piece of indoctrination in the social justice ideology that is now taking hold in the American economy as the “ESG” movement (Environmental, Social, and Governance investing). DEI prioritizes race in all contexts and subordinates all other principled considerations. Graduates carry this into the corporate world, where it has now been elaborated as ESG.
The perils posed by DEI no doubt vary from time to time and place to place. The factor on this list that is ubiquitous is ethnic division and strife. In all contexts, DEI fosters racial conflict.
The Problem with Our Schools
Some elected leaders have begun to heed rising parental complaints and to draft legislation aimed at curbing the abuse of classroom and school authority by those who would instill in students a false picture of the American past and present. The eagerness of elected leaders to correct such abuses is commendable, but the problem is proving difficult to remedy. That’s because:
- Teachers rightly enjoy a large degree of autonomy in their own classrooms. (This applies strongly to college faculty members; weakly to school teachers, whose pedagogical freedom is usually more constrained.)
- The topics entailed in these discussions are in many, or perhaps most cases, perfectly appropriate for instruction. The problem is not the topics themselves (e.g., slavery, racial discrimination, or ethnic identity), but the way they are presented.
- Teachers are in a better position to control what happens in their classes than are legislators.
- Academic freedom and First Amendment freedom are invoked by those who oppose legislative remedies. Whether or not these claims would hold up in American courts, they are rallying points for the defenders of CRT, DEI, and similar approaches.
- Anti-racist ideologies often enjoy strong support from teachers’ unions, school boards, and school administrators. At the college level, whole disciplines and accrediting bodies have thrown their weight behind such approaches.
Anti-racist teaching in schools, beginning as early as kindergarten, has ensured that most American college students arrive at college already steeped in CRT and DEI viewpoints, though few would recognize those terms. Anti-racist instruction has been infused in their education without being flagged as anything controversial or open to skeptical examination.
The proper goal for legislators who are looking to uproot anti-racist pedagogy in schools, then, is not just to curtail bad instruction but to replace it with better instruction.
The National Association of Scholars (NAS)
Since our founding in 1987, NAS has opposed the use of racial preferences in higher education. The men and women who came together to create NAS sought to mount an organized opposition to the rising tide of anti-intellectual authoritarianism in American colleges and universities. They adopted as the new organization’s motto, “For Reasoned Scholarship in a Free Society.” Diversity was at that point only one of many assault ladders raised against the fortress of reason, but it soon proved among the most successful. In 2003 I published Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, which examined how “diversity” had climbed from a relatively inconspicuous term in politics and biology to become the master concept of contemporary liberal or progressive thinking.
It was that book that led Steve Balch, the founder of NAS, to recruit me and to my eventually becoming his successor as NAS president. I mention this history by way of emphasizing that NAS has been deeply involved in these matters for many decades. During that time, we have warned ceaselessly that the academy was sowing seeds of racial division that would scatter far beyond the academy itself, such as through the mis-education of teachers in schools of education. Even more far-reaching, however, has been the inculcation in the future leaders of business, law, and all other professions of a worldview which elevates the principle of “diversity” over individuality, personal freedom, courtesy, fair-mindedness, and even equality.
NAS has involved itself in every major legal case challenging the racial preference regime in American higher education, and our amicus briefs in these cases testify to the consistency and depth of our concerns. This theme also runs through the dozens of case studies and monographs we have published in the last decade, including Neo-Segregation at Yale, Making Citizens, and Social Justice Education in America. Several of my own books, including Diversity Rules and 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, are likewise challenges to the preference regime.
In short, when we venture advice on the topic of how colleges should teach about race, we speak as an organization with a long history of well-informed concern.
Auditing the Academic Administrative State
What then do we advise?
First, we advise that lawmakers gather hard data on how CRT, DEI, and anti-racism are being incorporated into higher education. Some of this is directly through the classroom, but the classroom is the least troubling of the insertion points. The more powerful ones include:
- Pronouncements from on high. College presidents, deans, and other high-ranking officials issue encompassing statements, often in the form of confessions of systemic racism in the institution coupled with declarations that the leaders will pursue radical reformations and all-encompassing anti-racist agendas. These declarations always impose extensive financial commitments on their institutions.
- Mission statements. These are important not only for enunciating institutional mission but as the frameworks employed by accreditors. They are being rewritten in DEI language.
- Diversity action plans. Many institutions codify their commitment to DEI in the form of strategic plans, which offer a vast array of institutional policies devoted to increasing diversity and equity. Activists frequently call for such plans, and at times they are even recruited to help develop them. Often, various departments within universities will issue their own unit-level plans, compounding the number of DEI policies within a given university.
- Accreditation requirements. Higher education accreditors impose DEI requirements on colleges and universities, which they must follow if they wish to be eligible to receive federal student loans and grants. DEI ideologues within colleges and universities use the accreditation system to pretend to lawmakers and citizens that they are imposing DEI only because they must. This is a transparent subterfuge, since the colleges and universities are voluntary members of the accrediting organizations, and themselves authorize the accreditors to impose these requirements.
- Research incentives. Colleges and universities increasingly incentivize research that focuses on DEI. Often such research compounds DEI-policies by creating the perception that more DEI measures are needed.
- Expanding bureaucracy. Every college and university that is serious about CRT/DEI has already extensively employed specialized personnel in newly created offices. These officials are not faculty members, although they are sometimes disguised with faculty titles and inserted into departments in which they have no relevant qualifications.
- Diversity commitments. Applicants for faculty positions are increasingly required to submit statements in which they affirm their commitments to advancing DEI.
- Diversity reviews. Faculty members are increasingly required to submit annual statements explaining their recent contributions to DEI.
- Performance evaluations. Increasingly DEI criteria are added to the performance evaluations of all university faculty and staff.
- Tenure Criteria. More and more universities have added DEI criteria explicitly to the factors weighed in granting tenure to faculty members. A recent study by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported that 21.5 percent of all colleges and universities in a survey already have DEI criteria embedded in tenure standards, and another 38.9 percent have such criteria “under consideration.” At large universities the trend is even more pronounced, with 45.6 percent already imposing such standards and another 35.5 percent considering them—a total of 81.1 percent.1
- College bylaws. College and departmental bylaws are being rewritten to redefine faculty rank and performance expectations in light of DEI goals.
- DEI applicant set asides. These are illegal racial quotas, no matter how they are named. Faculty are told that they must achieve a certain percentage of minority hires in all areas of employment and regardless of qualifications.
- Learning outcomes. The success of teachers is often measured according to prescribed “learning outcomes,” and these are now evaluated through a DEI filter.
- DEI redefinitions. Under the heading of “inclusion,” DEI proponents often redefine key terms to expedite the success of minority candidates. Academic qualifications, for example, are redefined to include “lived experience.” Evidence is redefined to include “trauma-informed” opinions. Expository English prose is redefined for black students to include the grammar and vocabulary of a black dialect. The definition of academic “success” in every discipline is redefined to include mastery of the contributions of blacks and women, even when these are historically minimal.
- De-Testing. Colleges and universities are widely eliminating standardized tests and professional entry requirements that they judge to be barriers to minority advancement.
- De-ranking. This means not tracking student performance in any way that would allow comprehensive comparison of students’ relative accomplishments or academic success.
- Distributive funding. This means allocating resources for faculty hires, research, student financial aid, and other line items according to the race of the recipients rather than the importance or merit of their contributions.
As a result of these multiple insertion points of the CRT / DEI agenda, an individual faculty member may reject CRT or DEI but find himself in an institution that advances these ideologies at every turn.
Consequently, a ban on what a professor can teach about DEI, even if such a ban were legal, would have little to no effect on the college or university’s promotion of the DEI doctrine. The problem is the “institutional surround,” i.e., the administrative structures, staffing, norms, procedures, and resource allocations that create the environment in which faculty members must work and students must learn.
To that end, legislators who are determined to address the problem must start with independent institutional audits aimed at discovering how deeply and how firmly DEI has been embedded in a college or university. These audits will have to be conducted forensically, with the expectation that they will meet loud protests from the subject institutions. The perpetrators of DEI cannot be trusted to divulge willingly what they have done, especially in situations in which they know that governing bodies oppose their actions. CRT, after all, prepares the proponents of DEI to see themselves as virtuous champions of suppressed viewpoints. Deceiving others to advance their agenda is part of that agenda. Encouraging and protecting whistleblowers who reveal what’s really going on within institutions may be a necessary precursor to launching successful audits.
The Starting Place
Once a reliable audit has been performed, the next steps are to weed out these institutional impositions and to replace the individuals who put them in place. While this is not the place to present a detailed plan for this reformation, we have a general idea of what that would entail.
The DEI agenda entails violations of three Constitutional provisions: parts of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. DEI impositions involve coerced and prohibited speech in violation of First Amendment freedoms of speech; intrusion into matters of personal conviction that violate Fourth Amendment privacy protections; and racially discriminatory rules that violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. State legislatures have abundant authority over public colleges and universities in their states and considerable authority over private or independent colleges and universities as well that operate with state charters, public subsidies, and tax exemptions. There is no reason that legislatures could not responsibly exercise their existing powers to end the un-Constitutional and illegal actions colleges and universities have put in place to advance “anti-racism.”
Granted, colleges and universities are not accustomed to this sort of oversight and would doubtless complain that it is unwelcome and illegitimate. And doubtless some legislators would be intimidated by those claims. But the truth is that state legislatures are well within their rights to act. As one law professor recently put it, “The fight against Critical Race Theory is a fight for national survival.”2
To these ends, in addition to institutional audits, state legislatures should consider:
- Banning mandatory DEI training. This training imposes on faculty members and staff indoctrination on matters of personal belief. Often it is in violation of the conscience of individuals who must submit to falsehoods about their personal identities as well as misrepresentations of history and society. Seldom does such training bear in any constructive way on professional competence or job responsibilities that are appropriately part of the individual’s employment.
- Banning all forms of DEI evaluation. Evaluation tools embedding DEI ideology are a form of coerced conformity to doctrinal falsehoods.
- Requiring transparency. This should apply to all course syllabi, optional training sessions, and DEI committee meetings. Keeping DEI off the record or out of sight is a way that DEI advocates evade accountability.
- Creating a counter-bureaucracy. Institutional bureaucracies have been created as the enforcement arm of the DEI movement. Ideally, these positions should be abolished. The people holding them cannot be expected to assist in the dismantling of the DEI apparatus, to which they are beholden for their employment and which they fervently support. To weed out the DEI administrative state, a state legislature needs a counter-bureaucracy of appointees whose mandate comes from outside the control of the DEI establishment. That might entail the creation of a department of academic integrity charged with maintaining individual rights. It may require the appointment of an ombudsman on each campus with the power to suspend expenditures that inappropriately advance the antiracist agenda. The DEI bureaucracy must be met with a well-informed and equally determined body of people who are opposed to its agenda. This counter-bureaucracy should enforce the policies mentioned above and take whatever actions are needed to restore free speech, academic freedom, and due process in institutional settings where these have been compromised.
- Establishing vigilance. Universities that have embedded DEI in their admissions, hiring, evaluation, tenure, and curricular criteria are not stopping there. Some of the frontiers of expansion are the use of Title IX to evade due process restrictions on arbitrary punishments; the advancement of the transgender agenda; and the effort to alter the terms of bequests and restricted gifts. Legislatures should establish independent bodies to report on such developments. This is a responsivity that cannot be entrusted to the state’s educational boards or professional bodies that have long since proven their loyalty to the higher education establishment at the expense of the public interest.
- Encourage vocational schools and post-secondary education. One of the driving forces behind DEI is the overuse of the college degree as a credential for employment. Many individuals who lack the ability, the preparation, or the commitment to undertake rigorous college instruction pursue admission to college anyway out of the belief that the college credential is necessary for career success. Colleges then lower standards and dilute the substance of their programs to accommodate these students. Such accommodations are often masked as DEI initiatives or steps toward social justice. A better approach would be for states to enhance and promote vocational programs for students better suited to non-academic pursuits. Vocational schools are more resistant to CRT/DEI and provide higher value to students at a lower cost.
- Terminate funding to institutions that refuse to mend their ways. Higher education is in the midst of a large-scale transformation as the number of students who wish to attend college continues to decline. Another significant fraction of college-age students has chosen to pursue degrees through remote learning, further eroding the traditional base of colleges and universities. Faced with these realities, some colleges have already closed or merged, and competent observers predict more will follow. This situation relieves legislatures from much of the pressure to maintain financial support for colleges and universities that fail to excel according to state standards. In the past, withdrawing state financial support for such institutions often faced insurmountable political obstacles. Today, public support for marginal colleges is in steep decline. This makes it feasible for legislatures to draw a hard line on DEI. The institutions that defy legislatures by continuing their racist “anti-racist” programs or by disregarding demands for transparency should lose public funding, up to and including termination of all public support.
The National Association of Scholars has detailed recommendations and policy proposals along these lines and stands ready to share them with elected leaders who wish to pursue them.
American higher education ought to be liberal in spirit and conservative in application. It should be liberal in spirit by being open to all ideas and all arguments and committed to sorting out the better ideas and arguments through rigorous questioning and examination of evidence. The search for truth is a liberal enterprise in that it respects the capacity of free individuals to think for themselves.
But education is conservative in application because we know that truths are hard to achieve and easy to lose. We have to conserve what is best and what we know works.
Plainly, these principles are in tension if not in outright conflict. We should be free to question the merits of Shakespeare’s plays and to argue, if we wish, that Downton Abbey is just as good or better. But we should expect our universities to require students to read Shakespeare because the merits of his work are known, and knowledge of them ought to be conserved. Not so for Downton Abbey, at least not yet. The same applies to every subject that is or ought to be in the university curriculum. The discovery of new knowledge requires a liberal spirit; the preservation of old knowledge requires conservative discipline. Neither side can be allowed to prevail over the other.
But that is what has happened in the rush to impose CRT, DEI, and anti-racism over American higher education. A novel idea has been allowed to sweep away all before it. It is a novel idea spawned by an authoritarian religious cult offering a form of secular salvation.3 We will be absolved of our racist sins, past and present, only if we transform American higher education, and America as a whole.
Higher education cannot achieve that transformation, and trying to force it to do so threatens to ruin the many good things higher education can do. Among those good things is forming young men and women into responsible adults prepared to participate fully in our free and self-governing society. The anti-racist mania now running loose in academe does exactly the opposite. It prepares students to live in fear, resentment, and recrimination in a society dominated by a manipulative elite. We look to our elected leaders to stop these developments now, before the damage of so-called anti-racism becomes irreparable.
2 William A. Jacobson. “The Fight Against Critical Race Theory Is a Fight for National Survival.” Lecture. Raleigh, North Carolina. June 23, 2022.