Aaron Sibarium is a writer and associate editor at the Washington Free Beacon, where his reporting has uncovered the inner workings of the diversity bureaucracy at colleges, elite prep schools, and cultural institutions. He recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about his latest story, which revealed how administrators at Yale Law School appeared to threaten a student with official sanction over an email he sent inviting students to a social event.
Many law professors, including some from Yale Law itself, have criticized the school’s handling of this case. Why do you think this episode has prompted such pushback?
I think it’s a couple of things. The published audio of the student’s meeting with Yale administrators makes it very difficult to deny the facts. Often in these sorts of cases people will debate what was really said, but in this case, you can hear it for yourself, eliminating much of the ambiguity that we’ve seen in other “cancel culture” cases.
The facts themselves are also damning. Whether or not the school literally meant to threaten the student’s admission to the bar, it’s clear that it overreacted to an anodyne email. It’s also clear that Yale has made the incident at least in part about the student’s membership in the Federalist Society. Here you have Yale diversity bureaucrats on tape essentially saying that the Federalist Society is racist.
Your latest update to the story notes that there’s been a backlash to the backlash at Yale Law, with an Asian-American student group issuing a statement denouncing as “offensively racist” Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus’s evocation of “Maoist reeducation camps” to criticize Yale Law’s response—this despite the fact that two other student groups issued statements about the incident approvingly citing Maoist intellectual Paulo Freire. Are we sure this isn’t satire?
It sounds too good to be true, but it really happened. Freire did call Mao’s Cultural Revolution “the most genial solution” to “oppressive pedagogy.” He was praising the Cultural Revolution as late as 1974, by which point it had killed millions in China. This is the guy that the Dred Scott Society and Marina Edwards, president of the Black Law Students Association, praised as an exemplary intellectual who shows us how to have “critical dialogue.”
You were a student and Yale Daily News staffer in 2015, when a group of undergraduates ignited a similar firestorm over Erika Christakis’s email suggesting that Yale’s diversity bureaucracy didn’t need to impose heavy-handed rules about appropriate Halloween costumes. How have things changed since then?
My sense is that things have gotten a bit worse, though as this incident indicates, probably more so at Yale Law than at other parts of the university. But 2015 was an inflection point. It’s hard to get much worse than encircling and arguably physically threatening a professor [Erika’s husband and fellow professor Nicholas Christakis] because he believes in free speech and doesn’t think that there needs to be an entire bureaucracy dedicated to policing Halloween costumes. The real change is that what happened at Yale in 2015 has now happened at many other elite institutions.
Why should we care what goes on within the confines of a private school’s diversity bureaucracy? How is this representative of broader trends?
Well, part of the reason why these incidents have spread is that the people who staff other elite institutions all come from places like Yale. The constellation of elite American civil society has become similar in its cultural mores to what Yale was in 2015.
Without giving away any scoops, what are you working on next?
I’m working on a broader structural analysis of what happened at Yale and how it was in part motivated by the diversity bureaucracy, which was itself spurred on by the logic of harassment law.
What are you reading?
Inventing Equal Opportunity, by Frank Dobbin, and The Ironies of Affirmative Action, by John David Skrentny. In different ways, both books look at the origins of civil rights policy and affirmative action policy in government and law and how they gradually expanded their ambit to become something quite different from what their framers intended, or at least what the public understood those intentions to be. Both books show how much of what we describe as cultural mania in fact has roots in concrete bureaucratic and legal structures, which suggests that simply complaining about “how crazy college kids are these days” isn’t enough. You have to change the underlying incentive structure that produces, with almost iron-clad certainty, those crazy college kids.
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