The dogma of “anti-racism” began with an incontrovertible reality: For centuries, black Americans have been the victims of structural and often violent discrimination — slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and attitudes and norms that, to this day, exacerbate poverty and racial disparity. Where anti-racism made its radical departure was in its view about how to fix this knotty problem.
The proposed solution was no longer what Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall taught: that all human beings are created equal and therefore any kind of discrimination is evil. Instead, it was, explicitly, to embrace discrimination, but this time as a tool of “equity.” In practice, this meant racial discrimination against white and Asian people.
This vision of anti-racism, as imagined by Ibram X. Kendi and others, is no longer confined to universities and academic journals. It has long since escaped the confines of the quad and has seeped into so many corners of American life. And rather than eradicating racism, it has re-racialized the people and the places it has touched.
Across the country, there are a series of low-level battles unfolding — on campus, in the classroom, in the courtroom, in the boardroom and at the city council. But also: in farms in the Upper Midwest and the South, in bars and restaurants, in our major urban police forces.
The point is this: In late 2021, these ideas aren’t just ideas. Nor are they confined to elite institutions.They are affecting countless, less visible, ordinary Americans — and they are stoking a backlash that, I fear, we are only seeing the beginning of.
Here’s just some of what’s happening:
Farmers Versus Farmers
In March, President Biden signed the Rescue Plan Act, which was meant to help Americans still reeling from Covid-19. The bill set aside $4 billion just for farmers of color — who have been losing ground for years and now comprise just 2 percent of all American farmers. This was, supporters claimed, restorative justice, given that they had been especially hard hit by generations of systemic racism that stretched back to colonial times.
Today, the average farmer makes just south of $45,000 annually. The vast majority of farmers — of all races — are drowning in debt. (More important than race is geography when it comes to income. Farmers in, say, the northeast tend to make much more than those elsewhere.)
So, a group in Milwaukee called the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, filed suit against the federal government. A court injunction, handed down in June, put a stop to what amounted to widespread discrimination.
Daniel Lennington, one of the attorneys behind the suit, told me. “I’ve talked to white chicken farmers in Arkansas whose neighbors came from India and who also raise chickens. Are they victims of historic systemic racism?”
(The lawsuit follows another successful suit filed by the same organization that stopped the Biden administration from discriminating against white-owned bars and restaurants.)
The Art Institute of Chicago: The End of the White Lady Docents
Last month, the Art Institute of Chicago fired its unpaid docents for being too white and too well-off. The 122 volunteers had given, on average, 15 years of their lives to the museum, and they had a deep knowledge of its more than 300,000 artworks. They’d given tours to millions, including more than 100,000 schoolchildren each year, many from the city’s mostly poor, black South Side. They had even created a “bus fund” enabling thousands of kids unable to visit the museum to do just that. This was all done on a totally voluntary basis.
“We all felt a great deal of sadness,” Penny Fisher, a terminated docent, told me. “So much love, devotion, time and effort had been put into this program over sixty years.”
In pre-pandemic times, Mandy Guzman, who has taught in Chicago public schools for 20 years, would take her students, who were overwhelmingly Latino, to the museum to see works by artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
“A lot of kids had never been to a museum before,” Guzman told me. “The docents made this inaccessible space accessible. I don’t think it even registered with my students that they were white. What mattered is that they connected with them, and showed them their culture was important enough to be in a museum."
On September 13, the docents sent a letter to the museum’s president, James Rondeau. It reads like a letter written by liberal, civic-minded people who do not fully grasp how fundamentally the world has changed: “We applaud the AIC’s recognition that it needs to better embrace diversity, equity, inclusion, and access,” the letter states. “We agree that the museum, from top to bottom, must better reflect the Chicago area community that it serves. We also believe that our knowledge, enthusiasm, and commitment can contribute to achieving our mutual goal — the museum’s and ours — of making the museum a more welcome place for all.”
Meantime, Robert Levy, the chair of the AIC’s Board of Trustees, wrote in a recent Chicago Tribune op-ed that “critical self-reflection and participatory, recuperative action is required if we are to remain relevant to the changing audiences seeking connection to art.”
Making Sure Professors Never Commit Wrongthink
Recently, through a public records request, I obtained an internal document entitled “A Four-Year Plan to Advance Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity in Sociology: A proposal to the Berkeley Graduate Division from the Faculty of the Department of Sociology and Sociologists of Color and Allies (SoCA)”. The plan was drafted in August 2020 by the Anti-Racist Working Group, which includes faculty and graduate students, and it was meant to be a roadmap for making the department, from which I obtained my master’s in 2006, more anti-racist.
Part of the plan involves paying graduate students to make sure their professors think right. “Graduate students will be paid to begin refining course syllabi to incorporate scholars of color, particularly Black scholars, throughout the curriculum,” the plan states. “They will begin by reviewing syllabi to identify instructors who have already revised their curricula to better incorporate scholars of color and actively confront the legacies of racism within sociology.”
The plan was funded by a $1.5 million Graduate Diversity Pilot Program at Berkeley.
“What they are trying to do here is what many schools try to accomplish with bias response teams: implement something that might just barely be technically legal, but that sends as powerful of a signal about ideological orthodoxy as can be sent,” Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said in an email. “If you take all of the various mechanisms the UC system has developed to nudge professors towards conformity, imposing yet another obstacle to overcome is, in my opinion, egregious. I suspect if professors outright rejected working with the students, they might soon be coming to FIRE to ask for help protecting their jobs.”
The Campaign Against Smart Asian Kids
In New York City, a few weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he was phasing out the city’s gifted and talented program.
The New York Times, aping opponents of the program, calls the program a “glaring symbol of segregation.” But the numbers tell a different story: Asian students comprise 40 percent of all those enrolled. They’re followed by white students (35 percent), Latino students (9 percent) and black students (7 percent).
“Segregation” conjures images of the Jim Crow South. How do you reconcile the Jim Crow South with a student body that’s 56 percent non-white? You do it by framing Asian students, many of them poor and working-class and children of immigrants, as inauthentic minorities or even as white-adjacent.
It’s unlikely, at least for now, that de Blasio will succeed. Last week, Eric Adams, who is almost certain to be New York’s next mayor, said he’d expand the program. But Richard Kahlenberg, a member of de Blasio’s gifted and talented program advisory committee, told me that Adams, who would be the city’s second black mayor, “should find better ways to identify talent that recognize not only a student’s paper credentials, but also what obstacles she has had to overcome.”
Bank of America Funds Race-Based Subsidies in Oakland
Last spring, Oakland implemented a supplemental basic income program for poor families that used race as a criterion for eligibility. By making it open to non-white families only, the program’s creators simply inverted an old racist distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. After a spate of bad publicity, the city was forced to quietly walk it back.
But three weeks ago, Oakland announced yet another race-based program to provide stipends and subsidized housing to non-white teachers. “Students of all races have more positive perceptions of their Black and Latinx teachers than they do of their white teachers,” the press release declares. The program is principally funded by Bank of America, which was one of the largest beneficiaries of the subprime mortgage market that trapped low-income people of color in predatory home loans and led to the 2008 financial collapse.
Across the bay, San Francisco instituted a similar program last year for “Black and Pacific Islander birthing people.” The foundation that underwrites San Francisco’s program has more than $107 million. Its president makes nearly $400,000 annually.
The Seattle City Council Pushes Its First Black Police Chief to Resign
Last year, when Seattle’s City Council pushed to defund the police by 50 percent, one City Council member explicitly called on Chief of Police Carmen Best to use a legal loophole to target her white officers for layoffs instead of the non-white ones. The chief dismissed the proposal as unproductive and illegal. The City Council responded by threatening to cut her pay and that of other command staff.
Best, who was Seattle’s first black police chief, ultimately resigned over the dispute. Almost 300 officers and detectives have followed suit.
So: what is really going on here?
The anti-racism movement was spearheaded by academics and incubated in the upper echelons of America’s cultural hierarchy: universities, legacy media, Hollywood, Silicon Valley.
It is funded by the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country. Last summer, in the wake of nationwide race riots, Jack Dorsey, the founder and CEO of Twitter, gave Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research, at Boston University, $10 million. MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos' ex-wife, gave away $4.2 billion in four months of 2020; the top line item she listed, in July 2020, was racial equity ($ 586,700,000) followed by LGBTQ+ Equity for a fraction of the amount: ($46,000,000). And so forth.
It has all the aesthetic trappings of “justice,” but race-based reforms aren’t really about that. They’re about protecting institutions that, in an age of rampant inequality and simmering populism, are rapidly losing their legitimacy. They’re meant to bring an aura of cosmetic righteousness to the American aristocracy — recasting that aristocracy as the vanquishers of the very hierarchy they preside over, and in so doing, preserving their waning moral authority. It is much easier to throw a few crumbs at social-media-savvy activists peddling anti-racism than it is to make big, structural reforms that might actually do something.
All of which is to say that the fight over anti-racism isn’t actually about race or black people or righting ancient wrongs. It’s about propping up the old, morally bankrupt order in an effort to keep out the new. It’s about resisting real progress — a progress that does something about the hollowing out of America and doesn’t attempt to distract us with a culture war that both major political parties benefit from.
It is a showdown between those at the top of the food chain, desperate to retain their status, and those who seek to build a truly equitable America, one in which the bottom 99 percent, of all colors and creeds, are not victims of systemic discrimination.
Leighton Woodhouse is a writer and documentary filmmaker in Oakland. You can find Leighton’s work on his Substack, Kerfuffle. He previously wrote for us about the debate over defunding the police in his hometown:
Meantime, over on Honestly, we spoke to the brilliant Ross Douthat about his new book “The Deep Places.” Listen here:
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