The lethal arrest of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May triggered widespread riots and a torrent of contempt for America from virtually every institution in the country. Businesses large and small, the education establishment, and the press rushed to condemn the country’s purportedly endemic racism, implicitly accusing the majority of Americans of destroying “black lives.” Banks and law firms pledged that hiring and promotions would now be even more race-conscious than before. Hundreds of millions of dollars poured forth from corporate coffers into activist groups; the corporate benefactors hoped to dismantle America’s white supremacy, they announced.
Colleges and universities also promised increased diversity spending, though in amounts dwarfed by those corporate outpourings. Nevertheless, the academic response to Floyd’s death and the ensuing violence will have the greatest impact on the nation’s future. Academia was the ideological seedbed for that violence and for its elite justifications; it will prove just as critical in the accelerated transformation of the country.
Fealty to “diversity” and denunciations of white privilege have been a unifying theme in academia for decades, of course. What’s different this time is the sheer venom of the denunciations. College presidents and deans competed for the most sweeping indictment of the American polity, rooted in the claim that blacks are everywhere and at all times under threat.
“We are again reminded that this country’s 400-year history of racism continues to produce clear and present danger to the bodies and lives of Black people in every part of the United States,” wrote Ted Ruger, dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school. Amherst College president Carolyn “Biddy” Martin announced that the “virulent anti-black racism in this country has never NOT been obvious, and yet there are those who continue to deny it.” Martin was making a plea, she said, “to white people in particular, to acknowledge the reality of anti-black racism, its long history, and its current force; to recognize how embedded it is in our institutional structures, social systems, and cultural norms; and to assume our responsibility for ending it.” UCLA chancellor Gene Block declared that “racism permeates every sector of our society, from education to employment, from housing to health care, from board rooms to court rooms.” It was not just name-brand colleges that pumped out sweeping accusations. Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, demanded that “our society, systems, and institutions” stop “treat[ing] black and brown Americans violently and perpetuat[ing] deep inequality.”
Some presidents hastily crafted a redo of their initial George Floyd statements after their first effort was deemed insufficiently damning of America. Middlebury College president Laurie Patton apologized for not focusing enough on the “root cause and specific harm” of the black community’s “profound pain” in her initial letter to the college. “I needed to name the specific and systemic violence experienced by Black people,” Patton said. “I now understand that members of our community needed to hear that.” Patton’s second effort took no chances. The Floyd death was the “result of centuries of entrenched racism in a nation built on and maintained by unjust and inequitable systems of power, including the policies and practices of law enforcement,” she wrote.
The self-abasement would have been welcome at any Communist show trial. Holy Cross’s president admitted that he had neglected, in his first missive, to “recognize that black women, girls, and boys are impacted” by the “same violence” experienced by black men. “I sincerely apologize,” Philip Burroughs wrote, “that my message caused members of our community to feel unseen.” The risk of insufficiency still lurked, however. Burroughs tried to ensure against further rebuke with a blanket coverage clause. While he was currently “reflecting both on the past racial history of our country and the continued struggles around racism and racial violence,” he said nervously, “I do not want to ignore many other diverse communities that have also been ostracized and dehumanized.”
Some presidents apologized even before their racial-injustice statements were found wanting. Duke University president Vincent Price announced: “I cannot as a white person begin to fully understand the daily fear and pain and oppression that is endemic to the Black experience.” Only a naïf would think that such sops to the mob would suffice to ward off future assaults. College leaders regularly accuse their own organizations of racism; Yale’s Peter Salovey has been a particularly enthusiastic practitioner of the genre. The George Floyd moment, however, brought out the competition. Duke’s Price insisted that his university must take “transformative action” to eliminate the “systems of racism and inequality that have shaped the lived experiences of too many members of the Duke community.” Middlebury’s Patton confessed with punctilious exactitude that racism “happens in our residence halls and in our classrooms, at the tables of our dining halls and in our locker rooms, on our sidewalks, within the offices where we work, and in our town.” Biddy Martin announced that Amherst already knew that the college had not done enough to ensure black students’ “freedom from racist bias, even racist acts, much less to ensure their sense of belonging and equal ownership of the culture and life of the College.” The work that lay ahead “begins, as it must,” she said, “with truthfulness when faced with the evidence of our shortcomings.”
All such institutional self-accusations by college presidents leave out the specifics. Which faculty members do not treat black students fairly? If that unjust treatment is so obvious, why weren’t those professors already removed? What is wrong with an admissions process that lets in thousands of student bigots? In other moments, college presidents brag about the quality of their student body and faculty. Are they lying? Shouldn’t they have disclosed to black applicants that they will face “racist acts” and “systems of inequality” should they attend?
Of course, the college presidents were not lying the first time around. American campuses today are the most tolerant organizations in human history (at least toward official victim groups). The claim that colleges are hotbeds of discrimination is a fantasy. Every university twists itself into knots to admit, hire, and promote as many black students and faculty as it possibly can, in light of the fierce bidding war among colleges for underrepresented minorities.
It has been taboo to hint at the reason that the millions of dollars already expended on campus diversity initiatives have yet to engineer exact proportional representation of blacks in the student body and on the faculty: the vast academic skills gap. Now this truth will be even more professionally lethal to anyone who dares mention it. The highest reaches of the university have declared as a matter of self-evident fact that systemic racism is the defining feature of American society, one that explains every inequality. Fighting against that racism has now officially become colleges’ reason for being.
Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, has ordered the school’s top faculty and administrators to submit plans on how they will “combat systemic racism within and beyond the University.” Every aspect of Princeton will be reexamined with a “bias toward action,” Eisgruber said. In June 2020, Eisgruber and the Princeton Board of Trustees set a model for such action by removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton’s famed public-policy school. The university had declined to make that change in 2016, in a reasoned analysis that balanced Wilson’s service to the university and to the country against Wilson’s views on racial segregation. None of the reasons to keep Wilson’s name had changed; the new development was Eisgruber’s desire to signal his “anti-racism.”
The dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, pronounced himself “absolutely dedicated” to turning the engineering school into an “anti-racist organization.” Doing so “crucially includes unconscious bias work we must do within ourselves,” he added. How that work will interact with research on nanoparticles and viral transmission, say, was unspecified.
The University of Pennsylvania will fund “impactful projects” by “diverse teams” of students and faculty to eradicate or reduce “systemic racism,” President Amy Gutmann has told the “Penn Community.”
Middlebury’s Patton asked the school’s “non-Black members” to develop “deeper knowledge about racism, inequality, and the way oppression operates within our culture, within our institutions, and within ourselves.” Cornell started offering Zoom sessions on “institutional racism.” It was the campus’s “collective responsibility” to engage in such conversations. Cornell’s bureaucrats also suggested that the Cornell “community” should collectively read How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, who recently proposed a constitutional amendment holding that any racial inequality is, by definition, the result of racism. Kendi would create a Department of Antiracism to enforce that amendment.
The chairman of the earth and planetary sciences department at the University of California at Davis announced an “anti-racist reading group” for faculty and students. The group’s purpose was to confront the “structural racism that pervades” the field of geology. Such structural racism in the study of igneous rocks is apparently so obvious that the chair did not bother to elaborate further. Failure to attend the reading group would undoubtedly count against any faculty member during his promotional review, as a sign of insufficient enthusiasm for “diversity.”
The American Mathematical Society declared that “equity, diversity and inclusion” are fundamental to its mission. Mathematicians had an “obligation” to “help create fundamental change,” according to the AMS. The American Astronomical Society held color-coded Zoom meetings, one for white astronomers to “discuss direct actions to support Black astronomers,” one for black astronomers to “talk, vent, connect, and hold space for each other,” and one for “non-Black people of color to discuss direct actions to support Black astronomers.”
An editorial in the journal Nature argued that the mission of science should be to “amplify marginalized voices,” in atonement for science’s complicity in “systemic racism.” Nothing was mentioned about the research qualifications of those “voices.”
The academy’s antiracist agenda requires different pedagogy. Geology instructors should “specifically confront, in the classroom, the history and relationship of racism and colonialism in Earth Science education, application, and research,” advised the UC Davis chair. The head of the political science department at the University of California at Berkeley called on his colleagues to reconsider their “curriculum and teaching agendas” in order to make progress toward “greater diversity and inclusion.”
The prevalence of systemic racism in the U.S. is far from an established fact, however. Other credible explanations exist for ongoing racial disparities, including family structure, cultural attitudes, and individual behavior. To declare from the highest reaches of the academy that racism is the defining and all-explaining feature of American society is to adopt a political position, not to state a scientific truth. That political position entails a host of unspoken assumptions about the world, themselves open to debate. In aligning itself with one particular political position, the academy is betraying what Max Weber saw as its mission: to stay assiduously neutral and to teach “inconvenient” facts about the world that undercut received assumptions across the political spectrum. Political action was antithetical to scholarship, Weber argued.
Even before the Floyd riots, universities were notoriously hostile to points of view that challenged the already-powerful campus orthodoxies. Students and professors erupted in sometimes violent rage toward outside speakers who brought nonconforming ideas onto campus. Those few courageous faculty members who dared dispute the racism thesis found themselves ostracized. University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax was denounced by her dean, the aforementioned Ted Ruger, and removed from teaching first-year classes, for mentioning the academic skills gap. Other dissidents from the diversity ideology, like Evergreen State College’s Bret Weinstein, were driven out of their jobs. Most freethinking students or professors simply kept quiet, terrified lest they become the next pariah.
Anyone who thought that the intellectual conformity on college campuses could not get worse lacked imagination. In the post-Floyd era, any prospective Ph.D. proposing to study the behavioral components of inequality will find it almost impossible to be admitted to a graduate program, much less to find a job afterward. A few reckless undergraduates may still push back against the received wisdom, but their numbers will shrink, and the social and professional toll from their obstinacy will be higher. Candidates for the federal bench during the Trump administration have already seen their nominations torpedoed because of undergraduate journalism mocking the pieties of multiculturalism. In the future, the costs of such heresies will rise, and the inhibitions on free thought and speech will grow more crushing.
Each diversity initiative, whether in academia or in business, requires pretending that it was not preceded by a long line of identical efforts. Instead, every new diversity campaign starts with penance for the alleged bias that leads schools and corporations to overlook some vast untapped pool of competitively qualified blacks and Hispanics. Now, the pressure to admit and hire on the basis of race will redouble in force, elevating even less skilled candidates to positions of power throughout society. American institutions will pay the price.
What if the racism explanation for ongoing disparities is wrong, however? What if racial economic and incarceration gaps cannot close without addressing personal responsibility and family culture—without a sea change in the attitudes that many inner-city black children bring with them to school regarding studying, paying attention in class, and respecting teachers, for example? What if the breakdown of the family is producing children with too little capacity to control their impulses and defer gratification? With the university now explicitly committed to the racism explanation for all self-defeating choices, there will be little chance of changing course and addressing the behaviors that lie behind many racial disparities. The persistence of inequality will then produce a new round of quotas and self-incrimination—as well as more violence and anger. And the graduates of these ideologically monolithic universities will proceed further to dismantle our civilization in conformity to a lie.
Photo: THOR SWIFT/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX