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Critical Race Theory: On the New Ideology of Race

Ralph Richard Banks Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law, Stanford Law School; Co-Founder & Faculty Director, Stanford Center for Racial Justice
Randall Kennedy Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
John H McWhorter Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
Jason L. Riley Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute
Christopher F. Rufo Contributing Editor, City Journal
Wed, Dec 16, 2020 EVENTCAST

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Critical Race Theory: On the New Ideology of Race

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Critical Race Theory: On the New Ideology of Race

Ralph Richard Banks Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law, Stanford Law School; Co-Founder & Faculty Director, Stanford Center for Racial Justice
Randall Kennedy Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
John H McWhorter Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
Jason L. Riley Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute Christopher F. Rufo Contributing Editor, City Journal EVENTCAST 01:00pm—02:45pm
Wednesday December 16
Wednesday December 16 2020
PAST EVENT Wednesday December 16 2020

Critical race theory, as both an analytical framework and a movement, is pulling hard at the strands of racism that are supposedly woven into the very fabric of America. For critical race theorists, injustices are ubiquitous, entrenched in every corner of American society.  

Books such as Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility became bestsellers over the summer, and their concepts are fast entering the American vernacular. But is critical race theory reality? 

Join Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jason Riley for this important discussion on critical race theory’s language, origins, and growing mainstream influence. 

Event Transcript

Michael Hendrix:

Welcome to the Manhattan Institute's event on Critical Race Theory. I'm Michael Hendrix, Director of state and local policy, and I'm here to welcome you and our host for this conversation, my colleague, Jason Riley.

Michael Hendrix:

But first as a bit of a introduction, please enter your questions throughout this program, both our initial conversation and our panel, and we'll incorporate them into the discussion. And without further ado then, I'll welcome Jason Riley. Jason Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at the Wall Street Journal, and a commentator at Fox News. His much anticipated next book is called Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, which will be available in May 2021. He is a recipient of the 2018 Bradley Prize. And after joining the Journal in 1994, he was named a senior editorial writer in 2000 and a member of the editorial board in 2005. He also speaks frequently on ABC, CNN, PBS, and NPR. Jason is the author of several books, including Please Stop Helping Us and False Black Power in 2017. And he's also worked for USA Today and Buffalo News. Jason holds a BA in English from SUNY Buffalo, and he's also a great colleague. Jason, thank you so much for leading this discussion and over to you.

Jason Riley:

Well, thank you very much for that introduction, Michael, and I want to welcome everyone to today's event. A critical race theory used to be confined by and large to academia, to college campuses. But that seems to have changed in recent years. These days, it seems everywhere. It's taught to children in our public schools, it shows up at work through anti-biased training, proponents like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi have written books that have climbed the bestseller list. It's informing our debates about everything from policing and mass incarceration to standardized testing, the Black Lives Matter movement, slavery reparations, the 1619 Project and so forth.

Jason Riley:

So what's going on here? How did all this get started, and why has it gained such traction and popularity recently? Is it a productive way to address racial inequality? And what's the end game? Well, we've gathered a very distinguished panel to discuss all of this. And I want to start that discussion by talking to John McWhorter. Professor McWhorter teaches linguistics and music at Columbia University. He's the host of Slate's Lexicon Valley, he's a contributing editor at the Atlantic, and he has two books in the works.

Jason Riley:

The first is Nine Nasty Words, which is about profanity. And the second is titled, The Elect, which is about our topic today. Critical race theory. So welcome, John.

John H McWhorter:

Thank you, Jason. Good to see you.

Jason Riley:

So John, we've known each other a long time, couple of decades, and have been following these debates for some time. And the first question I had for you is, why are we still talking about this stuff? Wasn't critical race theory hashed out 30 years ago? Didn't we already debate slavery reparations in 1980s? What happened? Why are we going through all of this again?

John H McWhorter:

Well, I think what we have to understand is that there is a basic assumption that cuts through all of what we're being taught lately. That like many basic assumptions, isn't often spelled out and it's at the point where a lot of the practitioners themselves would be hard placed to spell out this basic assumption. It's all gone from the concrete to the abstract. But the heart of critical race theory is an idea that all intellectual and moral endeavor must be filtered through a commitment to overturning power differentials.

John H McWhorter:

Now, if I say power differential, frankly, that sounds a little boring, but what power differential mainly means is getting rid of race-based disparities. It's also about sexism. It's also about classism. But what really motivated this whole thing was a concern with race. And where it gets thorny is that there is an even more tacit assumption underlying critical race theory, which is that where facts and efficacy and pragmatism conflict with the idea that you are questioning, maybe not even overturning, but questioning power differentials, then the facts have to lose.

John H McWhorter:

It's less about what actually is than about displaying your intention to battle and supposedly overturn, but mostly just to battle and to show that you don't like power differentials. And so that means that yes, Jason, of course you and I have been around long enough to know that reparations was buried, eloquently buried by people from both sides of the political spectrum after Randall Robinson's The Debt.

John H McWhorter:

To me, I guess I'm getting all that, feels like 10 minutes ago, that four years that we discussed reparations. Then all of a sudden in 2014, a certain someone writes an article in a magazine and it's being discussed as if it's the Salk vaccine. The reason was not because people didn't know on a concrete level that we had already talked about and dismissed reparations. It was that talking about reparations is a very handy way for a certain crowd to articulately question power differentials, such as the ones that relate to race.

John H McWhorter:

And for a great many people these days, the sense is that to be smart, and to be moral, to be enlightened is to show that you questioned those power differentials regardless of whether or not that discussion has been had before, regardless of whether you're talking about making anyone's life better. That's the problem here that the assumptions are tacit and at this point abstract. It makes it hard to have real discussions with people about these things, because what we think of, you and I, as a strange detour and as often just an obstacle to Black wellbeing, they think of as the only way to possibly be a good person.

Jason Riley:

Well, you alluded to people like Ta-Nehisi Coates. I mentioned Ibram Kendi. They're a little bit younger. Is this about indulging a younger generation that hasn't read Randall Robinson, or doesn't know who Derrick Bell was, and this needs to be spelled out for them? Or are the arguments that were made 34 years ago, once again relevant for some reason? I mean, have things changed in society that have us discussing these things again, and because the circumstances, demand it? I mean, what do you think is the driving force for a return to these discussions?

John H McWhorter:

Yeah, if he Ibram Kendi is a youngin' and he doesn't know. But I think that he probably does know. If he's anything, it's that he at least puts books into his hands. He knows who Derrick Bell is, et cetera. What's different now is not something that's happened with youth, it's social media, which changes so many things. To me, when I think of CRT, when I think of this, frankly, rather anti-empirical and ultimately religious ideology, I think of somebody with gray hair. And that's because, as you know, until 2002, I taught at UC Berkeley. UC Berkeley was full of people who thought this way, and most of them were not especially young. The difference back then was that this was mostly limited to cafes on college campuses and certain fringe. There used to be something called a magazine, et cetera.

John H McWhorter:

What happened is that social media focused people who thought this way in such a way that they could affect other generations and also just whip up sentiment among themselves. And so that's why, it's around 2013 that suddenly these things that sound so retrograde and done before and 15 minutes ago to us, were being treated as brand new insights. And then in the year 2020, oh, the historians are going to have fun with this particular year.

John H McWhorter:

In 2020, what happens is that there's a pandemic and everybody is deeply bored and alienated having to spend so much time alone and inside. Then there's a particularly egregious cop murder of a Black man. And people basically coalesce around the symbolism of that man's murder and take it as an opportunity. And no one was thinking this consciously, I don't think this was cynical. But it became, since it was May, a handy opportunity for people to get outside of their houses and spend time with other people and enjoy fellow feeling.

John H McWhorter:

If there had been no pandemic, Robin DiAngelo's books and Ibram Kendi's new fame, would not have jumped out the way they had. And that's just because of chance. A lot of social history is chance. I am not saying that anybody deliberately took advantage of anything. But the real turning point is that social media had made it so that Twitter was everything to a certain class by the early teens. And so really all of this traces back to a certain sea change that you started to feel as a college professor in specifically 2013. I remember it. I was remarking upon it then at that time, thinking, "What in the world happened in the Fall of last year," I was saying in 2014. And now we're seeing the fruits of it because of what happened with George Floyd and how the pandemic would make any sane human being feel well.

Jason Riley:

Something else seems to have happened since the last time we were talking about this too. And I want to get your thoughts on this. And it has to do with the nature of debate on the left. I mean, when Derrick Bell was writing about this stuff, Kimberle Crenshaw, people like that, they were taken on by other liberals, John. I mean, yes, conservatives were critical. But this stuff was being hashed out among liberals in the pages of the New Republic or the New York Times. There seems to be quite a bit of deference now on the left to the Ibram Kendis and the Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Jason Riley:

And the second, as this stuff has come back into the mainstream, and I'm wondering how much cancel culture has to do with this. I know you've been touched by that. There's no longer, it seems to be, a place for these ideas to be debated vigorously on the left, the way they used to. I mean, we lost Stanley Crouch this year. And I remember reading Stanley Crouch, who would go after people on the left all the time and call them out by name. He did not hesitate to do that. But it doesn't seem like there's a lot of room for that type of person or for someone like you, or for someone like Steven Pinker or an Andrew Sullivan to take on some of these ideas. They want muzzle you and not debate you the way they used to. Have you noticed that that sort of evolution?

John H McWhorter:

Yeah. The defining trait of these days is that people on the left who don't believe in this, pretend to or just shutter in the corner instead of speaking their minds. And again, and I know this isn't a very exciting analysis, but I'm not trying to be facile. It's Twitter, it's social media. And so, for example, you talk about how we're getting old. I go far enough back that I once debated Kimberle Crenshaw. You can find it online. It was an intelligence squared debate. Not online because it was too long ago. I ran up against June Jordan, for example, or Ta-Nehisi Coates. Ta-Nehisi Coates, frankly, I think it's accurate to say that he thinks people like you and me are just pond scum. He really wishes that we were not listened to by anybody, can't even be bothered.

John H McWhorter:

But this is the difference. The difference is that people like that thought that way back then, and then they just have to take it home and share it on the phone with their friends. Once it gets to the point that people like that can express that kind of view. And I'm not calling out any of those people specifically for doing it. Although there are people today who do, a lot of their heirs. Once people can call you out on social media as a bigot, that scares a lot of people to their socks. It used to be that those sorts of people would send you an intemperate email, or maybe they had a blog or something like that. But time passed.

John H McWhorter:

Like, here I go with Coates again, I'm taking a page from Glenn Lowry, but he's useful. Ta-Nehisi Coates used to say some pretty mean stuff about me in The Atlantic. But it would just be there and it was only people who happened to read that. It wasn't on Twitter. Once that sort of thing becomes on social media, most people who aren't up for a fight, and most people, for some reason, don't like arguing and being hated. Most people will just fold. And so we're in a situation where somebody can say systemic racism, somebody can say Black body, somebody can say, aren't you an ally, and 99 out of a 100 people who are liberal, but not leftist, will just go home and be quiet because they don't want to be mauled, which is perfectly understandable.

John H McWhorter:

Unfortunately, though, that has made it so that people who think with this CRT religion are falling under the impression that they're preternaturally, indisputably correct. Because they're taken on so seldom, that it's possible for them to reject the few people who do take them on as somehow transmogrified, sinister, weird people. Because most of what people like that hear is hosannas. So we're in a nasty situation, which is created by the fact that the world has become a village because of this blasted and yet marvelous social media.

Jason Riley:

You're a linguist by training, and I wanted to ask you, as a linguist, how much of this CRT debate is semantic wordplay? Anti-racist, implicit bias, structural racism, white privilege. Robin DiAngelo says Blacks can't be racist. But John, that can only be true if she is defining racism in a way that is utterly unrecognizable to most people, right?

John H McWhorter:

Yeah. There is a thing about language in general, and this is an obscure linguist's theory. This is just life, which is that there's always a slit between what words are supposed to mean in the dictionary and the way we actually use them. And so the perfect example of what you're saying is social justice. Very often you'll hear from people like this. This person is not in favor of social justice because we disagree with them. And then you're thinking, "But social justice can be many things." They have adopted this one sense of it.

John H McWhorter:

And you know what Jason? Lately I get the feeling people are beginning to process me as a little mean. And it's not that I'm mean, it's just what I'm getting old enough that I know I can say things without being called too young. It used to be, "He's a whippersnapper, he has to respect his elders." Well, now I'm goddamn 55. I can say what I feel like I want to say.

John H McWhorter:

Frankly, I think that a lot of people who fall for the CRT thing, not all of them, but a lot of them, it's a rather easy theory. Really, the tenants are rather elementary, they sit very easily in the brain. And so many of the people who are fighting hardest for this stuff have not been challenged much and they're not used to making an argument. So when they say, "Aren't you in favor of social justice?" I would say that most of them really don't know what a milky thing that is to say. They don't realize that social justice takes on many, many different forms. They've never been asked to think about it. And if you ask them to think about it, all they have to say is that you're a racist.

John H McWhorter:

So I want to make sure that we don't demonize these people. The idea is to try to get into their heads. And I know that's what you're trying to do. But yes, they do exploit language, but they don't know it. They're not thinking about that. And remember, especially if you're under a certain age, you don't remember when racism meant prejudice. A lot of these people didn't grow up watching Maude and All in the Family. They don't know that racism is supposed to mean Archie Bunker. And that's because it doesn't anymore. The idea that what racism means is this very abstract notion of systemic racism or institutional racism or white supremacy. If you're 40, you don't remember when the word wasn't used that way by educated people. So you're not deliberately misusing language. You really don't know that it used to be another way. People aren't historians, only a very few people are.

Jason Riley:

Yeah. Let's talk about some of the tenets then of critical race theory. And one, you mentioned Glen Lowery and I know you do a blogging internet program with him that I like-

John H McWhorter:

It would be nice if we were on TV.

Jason Riley:

I like to tune in to. But I've heard you two discuss the tenants of critical race theory there. And I wanted you to talk a little bit about the difference between what civil rights activists and leaders of a previous era used to ask of Black people. They talked about personal responsibility. They talked about a lot of things that, today, are really dismissed as respectability politics. But it mattered to them and their cause how Blacks carried themselves. Critical race theory doesn't seem to ask a lot of Blacks. It doesn't seem to ask anything of Blacks, John. I find that odd and I find it a little disturbing.

John H McWhorter:

Jason, I know what you mean, but what you're saying makes no sense to those people. Power differentials. As far as they're concerned, what they've been taught is that Black people have no particular responsibility until the playing field is perfectly level. Whatever ails Black America in their view is due to white privilege. Coates has said that explicitly, Kendi's whole career is based on that proposition, and it makes perfect sense to them.

John H McWhorter:

And so, we're arguing past each other in expecting Black America to be asked to do something. Somebody who has fallen for this way of thinking, the old time civil rights leaders who called for Black people to do something, that was old fashioned, that was wrong. We are now in a different paradigm. We know something that they didn't. We're ahead. And then add to that, if you're white, you join this paradigm and there are things that you pretend to believe that means that you have checked off whether or not you're a moral person. It feels good. You are showing that you're goodly. You used to do that by going to church, now you do it by pretending to read Robin DiAngelo.

John H McWhorter:

If you're Black, then you settle for this sort of thing often, because it gives you a sense of warm group membership. And there's even some psychological research coming out lately that affirms something that many people, including me, have been saying for a long time, which is that if you are not truly concretely victimized, then feeling like you are a victim, harboring what we might call a noble victim complex, is endorphinic. It makes you feel good. It's a kind of euphoria. It gives you a sense of significance, and belonging, and worth. Add all that together and of course, the idea that you would ask Black people to do something as opposed to white people to do it all for us, just sounds like literally, sacrilege. And so I know what you mean, but for them, you're arguing from 1962 and you need to get with the higher wisdom.

Jason Riley:

It just seems so counterproductive in terms of a way to close racial gaps, to improve the situation of the Black poor, telling them, "It's not really up to you. You live in a systemically racist society and irredeemably racist society. And it really doesn't matter how hard you try, how you behave. None of that matters. The onus is entirely on white people. They are responsible for your situation and they are responsible for getting you out of your situation. You just need to sit tight until they get their act together first." I don't know that that is a recipe for uplifting any group, anywhere around the world, anytime in human history.

John H McWhorter:

Jason, this is the sad truth. The kind of person we're talking about would listen to what you just said, and they would deny that they don't think Black people have any responsibility. But then if you go through all of their writings and all of their speeches, they never have anything to say about it. And yeah, that's the thing. And it gets into the fact that once again, the reason people are preaching all of this is not because of anything pragmatic, it's because of how it makes them feel in the moment. And that doesn't mean that they're poverty pimps, that they're trying to make money on it. It's an emotional thing and it's easy to fall into because it's been so common since the sixties.

John H McWhorter:

But most people, as I said, aren't historians. And that's not me saying most people are dumb. Most human beings live in the present, that's how we're cognitively wired. If you're interested in what happened 50 years ago, you're kind of weird and you're probably going to get paid to do it. In the same way, most people aren't futurians. Most people aren't sitting and thinking, "This is going to create this situation in 20 or 25 years." The Manhattan influence turning intellect into influence, the idea being to look at results. One of the main tenants of the MI. That's not the way most people think.

John H McWhorter:

And so in my one plug. In the book that I'm writing, The Elect, one of my main points is that a lot of these CRT views are negative. They spell negative things for the Black future, and yet the people who espouse these things really don't think about that at all, which means that it's up to the rest of us to think about the pragmatism as opposed to the beautiful music that a lot of these people are committed to making.

Jason Riley:

You've likened CRT proponents to almost religious believers. You've likened it to a religion. What do you mean by that analogy?

John H McWhorter:

All I mean is that what you've got as a religion where you're basing an entire worldview, partly but significantly, on requiring suspensions of disbelief. That is a major part of this new form of anti-racism. And so if you tell somebody that all race-based disparities are due to unequal opportunity, frankly, any nine year old could figure out that that is not completely true. And yet you're expected to pretend that that makes sense. If someone like you or me says, "Yes, there is the occasional rogue or under-trained white cop who kills a Black guy in a poor Black community. But the black guy is of much ... He's much more in danger of being killed by somebody he knows from three blocks away." And you could argue that that's the bigger problem. That makes perfect sense. That is two plus two equals four. And yet you and I both know that in certain circles, if you say that, you get hunted out of the corral like Yosemite Sam, has a gun and he's shooting Bugs Bunny. You're just not allowed to say it.

John H McWhorter:

You have to suspend your disbelief, and that's religious. And then there are all sorts of other aspects of it. And so to be racist is your original sin. White privilege is the original sin. You have to always atone for it, but it's never going to go away. There is the end of days when America "comes to terms with racism", which is a phrase that has no ... Talk about linguistics. Has no meaning whatsoever. But people talk about it because this is a religion that has that particular kind of structure.

John H McWhorter:

There's the evangelism that one sees. There is the sense of going against its tenants as making you a bad person. So for example, Andrew Sullivan isn't allowed to work at New York magazine because a lot of the woke workers feel dangerous around him. Now consider that that happened during the pandemic. These people aren't even in a building together, and yet the idea is that, abstractly, they feel like they're in danger because of his writings. They're treating him as a heretic. So when you go against these CRT views, it's not just that you have a different view, it's that you are somebody who needs to be put in the stocks and flogged. All of it is ominously parallel to a certain fantasy version of devout Christianity.

John H McWhorter:

But the main part is the suspension of disbelief. As you and I know, so much of what we're told as enlightenment on racism, doesn't make any sense, and yet you're supposed to enter into a pact where you pretend it does, and hence the whole idea that race discussions are complicated, that it's deep, the race thing with the idea that it's somehow as complicated as quantum physics. All of that means white people and Black people in a pact. And this gets into Shelby Steele. Where white people are asked to pretend that two plus two doesn't equal four. And if they do that, then Black people will absolve them as being not racist. But that little dance, as Shelby has put it for so long, it doesn't make any Black person less poor and it doesn't get us one millimeter past race in any significant way.

Jason Riley:

Yeah, I think Kendi, in particular is very explicit about where he's coming from here and defining racism and its inequality, its disparities. Where he sees racial disparities, he sees racism, plain and simple. Nothing else can be responsible for racial disparities in society. And I think that's a little reductive.

Jason Riley:

You mentioned power several times and power structures, and I guess that's what gets critical race theory labeled as neo-Marxist or Marxist. In his origins, Marx, of course, dealing in power structures between labor and capital and the proletariat and the management and so forth. And the CRT folks dealing with racial power structures. What ...

PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:27:04]

Jason Riley:

... folks dealing with racial power structures. What I find interesting about that debate, though, is Black Americans today, particularly politically, seem to have quite a bit of power, John, at least in comparison to a previous generation. Put aside a twice-elected Black president, Black secretaries of state, Black mayors and governors, and senators, Black police chiefs and schools superintendents and school principals and police officers and judges. You can just go down the list of Blacks being in charge in many majority-Black cities. How do they get away with pretending Black people don't have any power in America?

John H McWhorter:

And the answer to that question is because it is more gratifying to situate yourself as eternally battling power differentials in America, past and present. And so this is exactly what I mean by the suspension of disbelief. What you said is so obviously true, the idea that Black people have no power. Black people had an awful lot to do with making Joe Biden the Democratic nominee, Black women in particular and now there's a Black woman vice president.

John H McWhorter:

And let's face it, she could, she has a better chance than many vice presidents of possibly ending up president and yet we're supposed to say that Black people have no power because George Floyd was killed by an under-trained and possibly mean white policeman one night last spring. And really, that is what the answer is supposed to be, or of course there will be brought up various statistics about, say, healthcare, about, say, earnings. Although those arguments get very, very sketchy.

John H McWhorter:

There are various gaps, certainly, but the idea that all of that is somehow more important than the fact that Black people have so much power, both politically and culturally in this country now that any old time Dixiecrat who was reanimated now would have to throw up beside the pavement to even look for five minutes at the way this world is.

John H McWhorter:

The reason anybody says that is not because they are some sort of cynical charlatan. It's because they are under the influence of a highly gratifying religious way of thinking. And I know I'm beginning to sound like I'm part of some cult in how much I insist on that. But I swear to you that it makes human sense of people who otherwise look so stupid and ridiculous. They're not. It's just that we are like Romans watching Christianity aborning. Jason, you and I in our lifetimes have witnessed the religion being born. I find it anthropologically interesting, but it can also be frustrating.

Jason Riley:

Well, racism still exists. I think you would agree. America has not rid itself of racism. I don't expect to live to see the day when it has done that. Sexism still exists, homophobia still exists. So you can't respond to these people by saying, "Stop talking about racism or stop talking about its role, the role that it plays in current racial disparities." But what is the argument that they're overemphasizing that? If you're going to concede that there are racist Americans and that past racism has led to certain disparities that persists today, why are you complaining that that's what they want to talk about?

John H McWhorter:

Yeah. And that's a legitimate issue. Racism is definitely there. Of course the issue is to what extent and how much of an obstacle is it? And it's very hard to present any crystal clear answers about that. My feeling is that there is a certain class of person with disproportionate influence on the printed page, so to speak, who exaggerate the effects of racism. And the main thing that I like to say in response to that is that if you look at what the problems are these days, and you say that what we need to do to solve them is eliminate racism, the question is how? How do you get into people's brains and make them not racist? And if the answer is to read a book like White Fragility, then I would ask many people to actually sit down and read that book and see how likely it is to create a real change in the feelings of more than a few very religious people.

John H McWhorter:

And so how do you do that? And haven't people been trying to make people less racist since frankly, a good 1966, and it's happened to an extent, but the idea that we can truly vacuum out every instance and every inkling of bias in all non-Black heads is just, it's quixotic. It'll never happen. And more to the point, many people including me try to give arguments that you can make life better for people who are suffering from legacies of racism, without the idea that it requires putting the toothpaste back in the tube and eliminating the racism as if one, you can do that and two, as if when you did that, all of a sudden there would be no race-based disparities. Everybody in this situation has lost sight of what political activism is because of this psychological focus, which is forced by the effects of this new Christianity.

Jason Riley:

Last month.And on election day voters in California, where you taught at Berkeley and lived in California for a time, there was a ballot proposal that would have re-instituted affirmative action in college admissions in California and it was rejected. It was soundly rejected in the nation's largest state, which is majority minority. John. I find it interesting that while critical race theory is ascended the voters in California on the strength of a lot of minorities, Hispanics and Asians in particular voted for race neutrality. What's going on here?

John H McWhorter:

Well, what's going on is that most of California's voters are not members of this religion. We just don't know it because they're not as vocal on Twitter and they don't write for various media sources, but that's, talk about Berkeley and affirmative action. That's where I was introduced to these people. When I say I saw CRT operating among people who were already gray in the hairs, it was watching the debate over affirmative action out there, where for one thing, there was this insistence that the whole debate was over whether or not poor people should be admitted to elite universities.

John H McWhorter:

Everybody's talking about Black and poor as if they're the same thing, which of course in a different mood is considered an insult, but suddenly all the Black people at Berkeley, all the Black students come from these terrible neighborhoods in Oakland, which not only wasn't true, but it was visibly not true. Most of the black kids at Berkeley then were middle-class by any standard.

John H McWhorter:

And yet if you brought this up, it was as if you had started blowing on a tuba in the middle of a funeral. And in general, it was people speaking untruth. And that was considered okay. That was my first taste of the truth, the actual facts, even when they're standing right in front of you, don't matter here. And I'm watching these august people in their fifties and sixties, urgently tears rolling down their faces, arguing this as if we were just talking about poverty. So much of that kind of thing.

John H McWhorter:

And here we are today. And I remember when Prop 209 came down and I argued that this was a good thing and that we needed to focus on class rather than race. I remember indignant people saying, "By any means necessary," was the organization. I imagine they still exist. But the idea of being to make things back the way they were, there were people who told me there was no way this situation was going to stand. And here we are a generation later. There are people who have already made new children who weren't alive then. Generation later, the same crowd or their descendants are arguing that we need to undo what Ward Connerly did.

John H McWhorter:

Those people are always going to be there, but there is a real world out here and we need to look to that real world as a model for pushing back against this religion. America needs to, we've dealt with one thing this year, which is being inside and not being able to have Thanksgiving, et cetera. We need a little more, which is that Americans need to get used to being called dirty names on social media and standing their ground. We need more things like that vote, except that require a little bit more face-to-face bravery.

Jason Riley:

Well, how do you, well two things. How do you push back at critical race theorist? I mean, do you mock them? Do you dismiss them? Do you ignore them? Do you try and take on their arguments with logic and reason and data? What do you think is the best way to go?

John H McWhorter:

Very few people who are truly under the influence of this way of thinking are open to what we would call reason about these issues. There's no point in engaging. My strategy is once I hear certain buzzwords, I just, as politely as possible, disengaged change the subject. There's no discussion possible. You just have to resist the sorts of things that people like that require you to do or say.

John H McWhorter:

And unfortunately, what you have to do and say, you can call me anything you want. You can put it on Twitter, but I'm going to do what I'm doing. More school boards need to start doing this. More people need to start doing it in face-to-face interactions. You just say, "You can call me anything you want. It is not going to change my mind." Until that becomes a norm these people are going to one, think that they're right and two, keep on operating through a reign of terror, rather than suasion, where they are one of many factions at the table, which was fine.

John H McWhorter:

They will not sit back down unless people start telling them quite simply, "No, you can call me what you want," And we have to be able to watch them do it. They're going to call you a racist on Twitter and you have to keep chopping your potatoes and hunker down for a couple of weeks and move on. And then after a couple months, stand down another one, I think after about five years, we'd be back to the paradise of 2012.

Jason Riley:

That sounds to me like the strategy to use when this was confined to academia, John, but the 1619 Project is going to be taught in school. I mean, you have school-aged kids. I have school-aged kids. Wondering what are you going to do when they come home talking about this stuff? It's in diversity training at work where people are being, you know, separated by race and giving instructions on confessing their sins white people and acknowledging white supremacy. It doesn't seem like ignoring it or something mocking it is going to get the job done. At this point. It seems to be spreading. I mean, it's ascendant.

John H McWhorter:

It might partly be a fashion. I hope so. But even if it isn't, for example, with the diversity seminars, it depends on, one, your job situation, two, the nature of your employers and three, how much you're up for a little bit of conflict and people will differ. One person alone might say, "I will not go through this. And if you fire me, I'm fired." Some people will be able to accommodate that. Some people won't.

John H McWhorter:

But if a person could do that, one, they probably won't get fired. And two, if they did, they should put that on Twitter and that sort of thing is seen around the country. More to the point, a person like that should try to get together roughly half of their colleagues to say, "None of us are going to do this. And if you want to fire all of us, you may."

John H McWhorter:

In most cases in most corporate circumstances like that, if half of the employee body says, "We're not doing this," they're not going to fire all those people. They're just going to say, "Well, okay." You're going to have to have a kind of strength in numbers. And then it builds after a critical mass of things like this happen and are publicized. The kinds of people who do this sort of thing will learn that they have to be more communitarian in spirit and companies will start realizing that they can move along without the cynicism of imposing this kind of nonsense on their employees.

John H McWhorter:

Because as you and I both know most often the corporations and bodies that are imposing that sort of thing on their employees, they don't really care about this stuff. They just learned that if they don't, they're going to get called racist. But if it turns out that after a while, even if somebody does call them racist, they keep on doing what they're doing, we move on.

Jason Riley:

Are you concerned about a backlash at some point, particularly a white backlash? I mean, Black people are still only 12 or 13% of the population, John. How long are they going to indulge at Ta-Nehisi Coates or Nicole Hannah Jones rewriting history, calling revered figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln calling for schools not to be named after them or their statues to be taken down and likening them to Stonewall Jackson.

Jason Riley:

I mean, how long are frankly, are white people going to put up with this before you get some backlash? And there's a certain element on the right that we'll put up with indefinitely, but I don't know if they represent most of white America. I mean, are you at all a little concerned about where this is all headed? I mean, we are a very polarized country right now. This isn't helping.

John H McWhorter:

No, two things could happen. It could be that person you're talking about, this person on the right, almost certainly male, and probably under 35, who does something really hideous because they're tired of seeing Abraham Lincoln's name taken off of things. That could happen.

John H McWhorter:

I wish that a more temperate and civil kind of white person would backlash against this sort of thing by saying, "No, we are going to continue to have this school named after Abraham Lincoln and you can call us whatever you want on Twitter," and seeing what happens. But equally problematic, Jason, is there's going to be somebody like this from the left. And I assume you didn't hear it from here first.

John H McWhorter:

Probably male, probably under 35, probably white is going to hurt somebody in some way and hopefully just one. If it has to happen, it might be many out of an idea that he is on the side of the angels, battling white supremacy as a white person. His name is probably going to be something like Jared. You know that's going to happen. I worry about that if we don't temper this stuff.

Jason Riley:

Okay. We'll leave it there, John,.thank you very much for this discussion.

John H McWhorter:

Thank you, Jason.

Jason Riley:

I appreciate your time. It was very enlightening. Take care.

Jason Riley:

So now we are going to move on to a panel discussion. And as I mentioned earlier, we have gathered a very distinguished panel here to discuss some of what I was just talking about with professor McWhorter and then some. And so let me introduce these panelists. And I want to start by introducing professor Randall Kennedy, who teaches at Harvard Law School. He attended Princeton University and received his legal education at Yale. He also clerked for Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. He's written several books. One of my favorites is Race Crime and the Law, and he's written a collection of essays called Say It Out Loud, which is due to be published in September of next year.

Jason Riley:

The second panelist is professor Richard Banks, who is the Jackson Eli Reynolds professor of law at Stanford University Law School. He is also co-founder and faculty director of the Stanford center for racial justice. He teaches and writes about family law, employment, discrimination law, and race and the law. And he is author of, Is Marriage For White People? How the African-American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone.

Jason Riley:

And finally joining us is Chris Rufo, who is a filmmaker, a writer, and a policy researcher. He's a contributing editor for the Manhattan Institute City Journal and director of the Discovery Institute's center on wealth and poverty. He's directed documentary films for PBS, Netflix and for international television.

Jason Riley:

So I want to welcome the panelists to the discussion. Everyone here? Okay. Why don't I start with you professor Kennedy. When I was putting this event together, you were one of the first people I thought of, and it's because of how long you've been following some of these debates.

Jason Riley:

Back in the late eighties, 1989. I believe you wrote a Harvard Law review article that got quite a bit of attention about critical race theory, critical legal studies. And I just wanted to start by asking you, what motivated you to write that? What were you trying to get at in that article and how do you think the arguments hold up all these years later?

Randall Kennedy:

Well, thank you very much for including me in this discussion. The reason that I wrote that article many years ago is because I wanted to put out on the floor, certain ideas. I think that some of the people that you've been criticizing were making certain arguments with which I disagreed. There were two in particular. I thought that some of the people who now call themselves critical race theory people, I thought that they were making exaggerated claims of racial exclusion. That was one of my arguments.

Randall Kennedy:

Their argument was that the people in legal academia, minority people in legal academia, weren't getting their just due in terms of acknowledgement of their scholarly contributions. And I didn't think that they made that argument well, and I set forth my reasons. And then there was a second argument that was being made, which was that minority people had a sort of a special insight into certain areas of culture, certain areas of law.

Randall Kennedy:

And I pushed back against that because I think that in the area of culture in the intellectual realm, we shouldn't be putting up racial fences. So yes, I've been critical of certain expressions of critical race theory for a good long while. And in the decade since that article, you referred to I've criticized various people that have been mentioned. Professor Kendi, Mr. Coates, my colleague, long-time colleague, Derrick Bell. Criticized them all.

Randall Kennedy:

Let me go on to say however, and here, I guess I'm in considerable disagreement with yourself and professor McWhorter, you all spoke for a good 45 minutes as if the people who call themselves critical race theorists don't have anything to contribute. The fact of the matter is that one reason why critical race theory and the people who were behind it, and some of their ideas, one of the reasons why these ideas are prominent, why they are getting traction is because there's something to them.

Randall Kennedy:

There's a certain strength. One of the reasons why critical race theory has become prominent is because some of the backers of it are good, are in cultural terms, good entrepreneurs. They gave themselves a name, critical race theory. They branded themselves. They have been industrious, they'd been enthusiastic, they've been passionate. They pushed their points and they have had in certain instances good ideas. The central thing about critical race theory. And again, remember this is coming from a person who has been quite critical and I'm happy to be critical, but let's give credit where credit is due.

Randall Kennedy:

The critical race theory people at the heart of what they're saying is race and racism, and of course, racism can be defined in various ways, but I'll take your definition of it. I'll take a narrow definition. There's broader definitions, but however you define it, the race question has been important in American institutions and in particular American law and they have pushed that point over and over. And frankly, I think some of what they've been saying has been actually quite enlightening.

Randall Kennedy:

One of the points they've made is that the race question arises not only in public law, constitutional law, statutory law, but they talk about it in terms of the law of contracts, the law of torts, the race question has been quite central. You asked early on, "Why now?" I'll tell you one reason why. Have things changed? Yeah. Things had changed that have made some of the ideas of the critical race theory people, more pertinent, and to some people more attractive.

Randall Kennedy:

I'll give you two things. One, one, the major one, the presidency of Donald Trump not mentioned in the previous segment. Years ago, decade ago, I said in various writings that there would never be another major politician in American life, a national politician who would traffic openly in racial, resentment, racial division, call out racial animus against people of color. I thought that we had turned the page on that. I was wrong.

Randall Kennedy:

And on this one, the critical race theory people were right. Well, they're people who understand that. They're people who understand that. And so let's continue to talk, but let's not... Let's continue to talk, but let's understand that the critical race theory people do have a point to make in that there is some good with what they are bringing to the table.

Jason Riley:

Professor Banks. Do you agree with that, that the Trump presidency has been a major contribution to the rise of critical race theory? And one reason I would quibble with it I think is because I don't think people like Michelle Alexander or Ta-Nehisi Coates, or even professor Kendi gain provenance post-Trump. I mean, they were already doing this stuff prior to the election of Donald Trump. I saw the rise of this movement, pre-dating, pre-dating Trump. I don't deny that you might've contributed to it, but I don't know if he gets all the credit. What do you say?

Ralph Richard Banks:

Well, I agree in some ways that critical race theory has been prone to excess and in some ways it is horribly misguided and pernicious, except compared to the alternative frankly. And the alternative is that we are too often complacent about racial inequity. We tend to believe and want to believe that racial problems have been solved. We indulge judgments of blame and about African-Americans that we wouldn't apply to any other group while wanting to imagine that we're colorblind as a society or almost there.

Ralph Richard Banks:

So of course you can look at critical race theory and cite lots of problems. And there are many problems with many particular arguments and tenants and assumptions, and that's all real, but it's also the case that sometimes the alternative can be worse. And the alternative is a view in which we frankly refuse to see our society as it is.

Ralph Richard Banks:

You mentioned earlier that the 1619 Project, which again has some problems, but I also speak as a person who was taught from elementary school on that the civil war was actually not fought about slavery. That's what I was taught in school. It wasn't until I became a law professor in fact, that I realized that Abraham Lincoln was not quite as extraordinary person as I had imagined. He did have some warts.

Ralph Richard Banks:

In particular, for example, the 13th amendment prohibits slavery. Most people don't realize even educated people that there was a proposed version of the 13th amendment before the one that was enacted. That prior version of the 13th amendment would in fact have prohibited the abolition of slavery, Abraham Lincoln referred to that with some sense of approval. So these are historical facts that most people don't know about and most our understanding of ourselves as a nation is not really comfortable with.

Jason Riley:

Well, Professor, let me follow up with you, Professor Banks. I asked Professor McWhorter, or he discussed how he defines-

PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:54:04]

Jason Riley:

Or he discussed how he defines critical race theory. And I wanted to ask you what your working definition is because you're an academic. And among theorists, they might be working from a different definition than the one activists are working from or consultants are working from. So when you talk about critical race theory, how are you defining the concept?

Ralph Richard Banks:

I mean, there are books written on this topic and what the elements of critical race theory are. But the core of the insight, frankly, is the recognition, which I think is correct. The recognition that race has been and remains central to American society and institutions, that one cannot understand American history without recognizing the centrality of race. And if one wants to understand even now how basic institutions in American society operate, public education, employment, large corporations. If you want to understand how things operate in American society, you need to attend to the role of race in those institutions. And that, I think, is certainly correct.

Ralph Richard Banks:

And that view stands in opposition to the more liberal. And I use this in, I guess, a small L sense. The more liberal view that over time race is going to fade away. American institutions are going to be oriented around individual merits and opportunity, and race is going to be something that we can sign to the past, right? And this is similar to Randy's observation or expectation, the hope, that we would have presidents who would no longer make racial antagonism or racial resentment a centerpiece of their appeal. And that's a vision that is very attractive, this notion that we're progressing.

Ralph Richard Banks:

I try to be hopeful, but I'm less optimistic in some ways because you see that race does remain a central part of our nation. And frankly, there are some ways in which we, I think, as a nation don't regard African-Americans as fully American and as full citizens, and even in some senses, fully human. We do have a challenge to recognize the humanity of African-Americans and that has been the challenge of our nation. It is a challenge of our democracy. And what I hope we realize, frankly, is that these debates about race, they're not simply debates about race. They're actually debates about the sustainability of our democratic project. If we don't address the racial issue, our democracy will be in peril.

Jason Riley:

Mr. Rufo, you've done a lot of reporting into how these critical race theories play out in the real world, in the workplace, in schools, to some extent. Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to this topic and what you found?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah. I found something that really surprised me and I think would surprise my fellow panelists, but critical race theory has really become the default ideology of public institutions. And to an extent, reading actually the Professor's Law Review piece from 1988, which was very much focused on kind of issues of kind of status and credibility within the university. I think it was shocking to see that that was where it was 30 years ago. But now every major corporation, every major federal agency, every major school district in the country is perpetuating really a very different vision of critical race theory than the last panelist outline.

Christopher Rufo:

I think we all agree that race is a central issue in United States, that there is a legacy of racism and oppression. And as you were talking about with John, of still kind of racism, racist attitudes and perceptions in the United States. But I think that's an anodyne way of describing critical race theory. And I'll use some examples to make my case, but what I found is that critical race theory is essentially taking the old Marxist dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed. That's really the key categorical framework, but basically abandoning it from a class perspective.

Christopher Rufo:

So saying, "Bell, we're not going to use bourgeoisie and proletariat. That has kind of a hundred year history of failure. What we're going to do is we're going to graft a kind of 1960 style identity politics onto that binary. And now the new oppressor and oppressed framework is black and white." And then they kind of manage at the margins other racial groups, most prominently, Latinos and Asians. And recently Latinos have been kind of subsumed into the overall kind of oppressed dynamic. And some school districts are now categorizing Asians as white or white adjacent.

Christopher Rufo:

So I think that's really the key framework and what happens and what I've showed through a number, more than a dozen stories, leaking internal documents from very prominent institutions, the United States Treasury Department of Education, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and then a series of universities and school districts, is that they are really taking these concepts and making them operational in institutional settings. And they're really ugly outcomes.

Christopher Rufo:

I had one story about the Sandia National Nuclear Laboratories. They designed America's nuclear arsenal and they had taken white male executives on a three-day retreat in the form of reeducation camp. And explicitly said, "We're here to deconstruct your straight white male identity." And they had the white male executives, including the chief weapons engineer of the United States, write on a white board kind of synonyms or corollaries of white culture. And they have an image of this. They say white culture is associated with the KKK, lynching, slavery, MAGA hats, all of these mass killings, et cetera. And then they went through a process of deconstruction where they were forced to admit that whatever their outward behavior, that they had internalized white supremacy, that they were guilty of a kind of collective sin. And then they went into a kind of repentance phase where they had to write letters of apology to imaginary kind of people of color and women and others apologizing for their privilege, apologizing for their identity.

Christopher Rufo:

And this is really kind of a similar format to trainings in dozens of organizations. And I think in a way it really does two things. One is that it creates divisions. And then I think it gets away from a kind of, despite its flaws, a liberal enlightenment kind of constitutional idea of moving towards greater equality.

Christopher Rufo:

And I think the last point that I'll make briefly and then open it up for discussion or debate is that to me, what critical race theory does is that it serves to provide kind of secure elite social status for people of all races. And my sense, and again, I could be wrong, but my sense is that for people, I think even minorities in the United States that are educated, there are more opportunities than ever. And for a kind of multiracial coalition, whether you're the CEO of a hospital or a sociology professor in a university, critical race theory is something, again across all racial groups, that can kind of secure your social status.

Christopher Rufo:

But what I think is really the kind of great crime, if you will, of critical race theory is that based on a documentary that I directed for PBS looking at American poverty in three cities, a white neighborhood, a black neighborhood, a Latino neighborhood, the core tenets of critical race theory, and then critical race theory as applied social policy, really serves the interests of kind of the multiracial elite coalition, but actually would do nothing to serve the interests of really kind of the multiracial core and working class. And I think that's really the game of it. And I think that you can on one hand say that race is central to the United States. There's a history that we have to reckon with. There are current issues and problems. We have to recognize the kind of centricity of that, but you can then really say critical race theory is really the kind of opposite side of the coin of kind of white grievance politics or kind of white resentment politics that we were discussing earlier.

Jason Riley:

Okay. Professor Kennedy, toward the end of your law review article, you mentioned that you had passed some early drafts around to colleagues, and some of them urged you not to publish it. Why didn't they want you to publish it, is my first question. And secondly, you suggested in the piece, if I recall correctly and please correct me if I'm wrong, that critical race theory was being used as a tool to advance affirmative action in higher education for academics of color. In other words, there was a self-interest here. They were speaking on behalf of blacks at large, the black poor and so forth when it came to discussing this topic, but they had a vested personal interest in advancing this theory. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Randall Kennedy:

Sure. So first, yes. I was asked not to publish it, as I've been asked subsequently not to publish various things. And I think the idea is this will get in the way, our ideological enemies will use this against us. You're black, you're criticizing other black people. Can't you see that the white establishment is going to use your blackness against other black people? I mean, these are various arguments that have been voiced. Obviously I decided to publish what I wrote. I'm glad I published what I wrote. And again, I've been critical.

Randall Kennedy:

And Mr Rufo spoke and the various points that he made, I think that there's strength to them, the anecdote that he told about people being basically indoctrinated, people being sort of this... I mean, it was a horrible anecdote and there are misdoings. And I think that when people go off, they ought to be criticized. But, and here I'll go to my initial, comment critical race theory. One problem in talking about critical race theory is it's very amorphous. I mean, frankly, if I wanted to call myself a critical race theory person, I could. If I just went and just said, "I'm a critical race theorist", what's to stop me? It's a very amorphous thing. We're talking about a lot of people. Some people have ideas that are awry. Some people have ideas that are pernicious. On the other hand, there's some people who call themselves critical race theorists who write things that are very useful, very interesting, very instructive. So I think that we need to sort of get out of this critical race theory. It's an abstraction that I don't think has much bite to it, and talk more concretely about individual ideas.

Randall Kennedy:

Finally, you asked me about were people using things in a self-interested way? Yeah, sure. I think that one of the things that I especially did not like and I still don't, is the idea of people of a given race making a claim that they have some sort of monopoly on insight. I'm very much against that. I think that the world of knowledge should be an open world, open to all and that we should do is judge arguments on the basis of evidence, on the basis of logic and not on the basis of somebody's background.

Jason Riley:

Professor Banks, just picking up on that and something I asked John McWhorter earlier, about how in the past, in my recollection at least, there seem to be more Randall Kennedy's out there criticizing concepts on the left than you find today. And there doesn't seem to be a lot of tolerance for what he was doing in that article in today's environment. I'm curious if you read that the same way. And if so, what happened? Where did all the Randall Kennedy's go?

Ralph Richard Banks:

Well, I think you are correct. I think we live in a time that is extraordinarily polarized and divisive. What passes for public debate is really just one side and then the other claiming the moral high ground and asserting their ideological commitments. And oftentimes people don't pay a lot of attention to evidence. They don't want to hear what people who disagree with them have to say. They don't have a lot of tolerance for dissenting views. I think John McWhorter was correct that people regard their positions on race almost as a form of religion and there's a religious fervor to their views.

Ralph Richard Banks:

This doesn't only happen with critical race theory though. I mean, this happens on the left and the right. This happens on all sides of the political spectrum. And that's a source of sadness for me, is that we have lost an ability to debate hard issues, to recognize that people who disagree with us might have good points, that they might make those points in good faith. We don't have a lot of respect for evidence, and that's true on the left and on the right. We don't have a lot of respect for evidence. We often approach situations as though we already know what the right thing to do is. And that is not the path to anywhere good and it doesn't bode well for society.

Jason Riley:

Mr. Rufo, you heard Professor Kennedy refer to critical race series as amorphous concept. I was curious if you think that's sort of by design so that it can be used the way the person wants to use it. But also there's a criticism that what conservatives have done when addressing critical race theory is to really cherry pick some very extreme examples and present them as representative of critical race theory. And the proponents say, "No, that's a distortion. Yes, there are some excesses here or there, but that is not representative of what this movement is really about." Those are outliers. Those are outliers distorting. Those are activists or consultants distorting critical race theory for their ends. And that should not be used to tar the greater good that is being done in the name of critical race theory. I'm just curious how you respond to that.

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah. I mean I would disagree. I actually think that it is both kind of consonant with the kind of theoretical premise of critical race theory, but in practice we have kind of a critical mass. I gave one example, but I'm sitting on a database. Again, I'm one reporter, been working on this only since the summertime and I'm sitting on a database of probably 500 to 600 corporations, schools and government agencies that are doing these trainings exactly like this. And these aren't just anecdotes from disgruntled employees. These are training sessions with documentation, PowerPoints, recording, et cetera.

Christopher Rufo:

Another thing that's happening, and I broke a story for the New York Post that showed in three institutions since then, that number has gone up quite a bit. They're reinstituting race-based segregation in the workplace where they're saying, "We're actually going to have separate training sessions for white employees and for people of color." And I think that it is both the mass of anecdotal evidence. Once you get into the 500, 600 level, I think can't really be dismissed as cherry picking or unrepresentative.

Christopher Rufo:

But I also think at a deeper point, and to professor Kennedy's point that he made earlier, is it's amorphous because it rejects standards of empiricism, evidence, debate, et cetera. And this is not my interpretation. If you actually look at the work, and I spent quite a bit of time looking at [Derek Bell 01:12:44] and looking at Richard Delgado and looking at Cheryl Harris, et cetera. They explicitly, not implicitly, reject kind of enlightenment standards of rationality. They reject objectivity as a vestige of kind of white heteronormative epistemology. And then they're deeply skeptical of the kind of liberal project of individual rights. They are deeply skeptical of debate. As a matter of fact, many critical race theorists refuse to debate because they reject debate itself as a kind of a form of oppressive whiteness.

Christopher Rufo:

And I don't think that these are really mistakes at all. And I think that we have to, as conservatives and liberals, come together to defend the kind of core standards of liberalism. And the critical race theorists are really kind of a different lineage, a different view of progress. And I think that we can look at those both levels theoretically, but also in practice at, frankly, institutions where people should know better. I mean, some of these large school districts, universities, treasury department, I really think there's no excuse for these kinds of training sessions.

Jason Riley:

Professor Kennedy, to do what did you want to respond to that at all?

Randall Kennedy:

Well, I agree with much of what was just said. Again, I've been critical of much of what goes under the flag of critical race theory. At the same time, I would just say two other things, picking up on a point that was made by professor banks. We live in a big country. There are many menaces around us and we've been talking about a type of menace. There are others. And if we're talking about the race question in American life, we cannot overlook what has been going on well throughout American history, but in recently as well. I mentioned the election of Donald Trump. And Mr. Riley, you said, "Well, what about before him?" Well, yeah, fine. Let's take Donald Trump out of the picture.

Randall Kennedy:

Let's talk about the Supreme court of the United States in 2013, eviscerating a key element of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the case Shelby County versus Holder. I did not think that I would see something like that. In my view, that was an egregious act of judicial delinquency. I would say that the holding of that case will go down in history alongside of Plessy versus Ferguson, Korematsu versus the United States. It was a horrible attack as far as I'm concerned on American democracy. The Supreme Court of the United States, in a wholly unjustified way, striking down a congressional enactment which had proven very effective in undoing racial disfranchisement.

Randall Kennedy:

It's things like that that have given resonance to the arguments by people who say that the racial problem in the United States is bigger, more intractable than people like me have been writing about. And what I have to say is they have a point. And so if we're talking about criticism of them fine, but I also think that we have to acknowledge, we should acknowledge that they are on to a point when they say that the race problem in American life is deeper, uglier, more stubborn than many people have recognized.

Jason Riley:

Professor Banks, as you understand it and define it, is critical race theory compatible with freedom of speech, property rights, and so forth? Aggregating employers on the basis of race, objecting different groups to different diversity trainings and so forth. Doesn't that run up against the Civil Rights Act, for example? I mean, even Kennedy wants the government to create a department of hate speech. So again, is this type of thinking consistent with some of our liberal traditions in this country?

Ralph Richard Banks:

Yeah. No, those are great points. And I do agree that sometimes the focus on speech, for example, can be misguided and that can be a distraction. I also agree that these so-called reeducation programs and many sorts of trainings can also be a distraction or even harmful. So that's true, but it's also the case that there is good reason to have skepticism of what was referred to as a project of individual rights. Because the reality is that our regime of individual rights may be, and I think is, insufficient to create the sort of society that we need.

Ralph Richard Banks:

And this is true with respect to race. And it's also true more generally, I should add. We live in an America that is more unequal economically than at any time in our lifetimes and that frankly does not work for all too many people. There are millions and millions of people who can not afford a $400 unexpected expense. Life expectancy for working class white people, white men, is declining. So these are symptoms of a bigger problem. And when we think about individual rights and property rights and so forth, we need to under—and if they're not serving the needs of society, yet we cling to them, then yes. Those commitments to rights might be impediments to reform that block us from creating the society we need to create.

Jason Riley:

Well, just to follow up there professor, then if these are problems that transcend race, how does an ideology so laser focused on race help us as a country?

Ralph Richard Banks:

That's an excellent question. And I think that where that's leading to, I think, is that in many ways, right, some of the tenets of critical race theory can lead us astray. Once you start to divide society into the oppressed and the oppressors, and the black people are always on the downside and the white people are always the possessors of privilege, I think that's a mistake. It's a mistake to fixate on the idea of white privilege, because most white people in American society are not, and don't feel themselves to be privileged. Most white people in American society are actually struggling. They're struggling to raise their children. They worry about whether their children's lives will be better than their own. They confront all manner of illness and distress and economic anxiety. So it's both analytically wrong and politically misguided to promote an ideology that suggests that all white people have it good and all black people have it bad. Right? That's a mistake. That is a mistake, but that's not to say, recognize-

PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [01:21:04]

Ralph Richard Banks:

But that's not to say recognize the centrality of race and the entrenched nature of race-based disadvantage is a mistake, because that's also real.

Jason Riley:

Do you agree with that Professor Kennedy, that there is a danger here with this promotion of critical race theory in practice could foster more racial resentment and division?

Randall Kennedy:

Yeah. I think there is a problem. I think I'd like to underline what was the basis of your question, is there a danger of racial narcissism in critical race theory? People who call themselves critical race theorists and in my view is, yeah, there is that danger. So for instance, I'm particularly interested in the administration of criminal justice. Sometimes you will hear these discussions about the police and police misconduct. I think that police misconduct is a huge problem in America. I think it's a scandal that the police are not made more accountable, but sometimes you'll be in these discussions and it'll be as if the only people who are being menaced by police officers who were not being held accountable are black people.

Randall Kennedy:

Well, what about the white people? I mean, there are white people who are shot by the police in an unjustified way. There are white people who are harassed by the police in an unjustified way. In some of the discussion about the police, we don't hear about them. It's all race, race, race, race, race. The race question is important, you've heard me say that, but there's a huge country. It's not the only thing. So I think that there is a problem with narcissism. To get back to a point that Mr. Rufo made. Ironically, I took it that one point that what Mr. Rufo was saying was in a certain sort of way, some of the people who call themselves critical race theorists are not being radical enough. They are talking about issues. They want to advance issues or programs that are going to be helpful to people who actually are already doing pretty good.

Randall Kennedy:

I mean, frankly, if you are a plausible candidate for admission to the University of Michigan Law School, if you were a plausible candidate for admission to the University of California at Berkeley Law School, if you are a plausible candidate for admission to those places you are doing pretty good. It means that you graduated from college and it means that you've done pretty well in college if you're a plausible candidate. So we spend all of this time, all of this time on those people, what about the people who don't make it through high school? What about the people who when they make it through high school, they're still functionally illiterate? What about them? They don't get as much time and attention as they should. I took it from what Mr. Rufo was suggesting, actually the people who are calling themselves radicals are actually not being radical. They are actually advancing policies that help people who were actually, frankly, doing pretty well. They are not paying enough attention to people of all complexions who really do need more help in navigating American life.

Jason Riley:

Well first professor, that's one of the long time arguments people have made against Affirmative Action. It essentially helps people who are already better off, which is why I referenced your mention of it in your article, that critical race theory, amounted in some sense to an argument for Affirmative Action. It was being promoted by your colleagues who would, of course, be in a group that's already pretty much better off than most people in this country.

Randall Kennedy:

As you know, we've debated these things before. We disagree on the margins, but the point that you've made is a real point. I would say that we differ. People coming from my perspective need to take that on board more, because I think it is a strong point.

Jason Riley:

Sure. Mr. Rufo I wanted to ask you a more pragmatic question. Since you've looked at these implementation of critical race theory when it comes to things like diversity training and so forth, do we have evidence that all this anti-biased training works? That it's effective? In New York City where I'm based, the school's chancellor recently announced that he's going to spend around $25 million on implicit bias training for about 125,000 employees in the New York City school system. Is this money well spent given the goals, the objectives?

Christopher Rufo:

Yeah, it's not. I mean, even the designers of the implicit association test or the implicit bias test have basically said, "It can't be applied this way in the workplace. You can't draw any strong conclusions. It's a social science test that once you put it into practice is not actually useful." The government of the UK recently declared that they've done a kind of retrospective study of their implicit bias testing. Now they've said it doesn't work. It doesn't help. It doesn't do anything beneficial, so there they've canceled it. That's just out this week. Then I believe it's a Harvard Business School professor who's been studying diversity programs for 30 years, over 800 organizations, just released a long paper summarizing his conclusions.

Christopher Rufo:

Sadly, his conclusion was that they don't actually do any good and in some cases they do harm. I think the evidence is very mixed, but what I think a lot of these things can boil down to is that there is a kind of circular nature that kind of connects rather a bureaucracy to activism, to training firms, to speakers and in a way it's a good kind of economic circle in almost a lobbying way where people are making 20 grand for a 60 minute Zoom call. I think that it really serves the kind of circular interests of that group.

Christopher Rufo:

But I think Professor Kennedy made the most important point and the point that I personally care about is, I mentioned I directed a documentary for PBS and I had the privilege to spend three years in the poorest zip code in Memphis, Tennessee, particularly in one of the poorest public housing projects. I interviewed hundreds of people. I followed their lives over a period of time, cataloged a huge kind of body of evidence and story. The concerns that people were talking to me about in this housing project, in the surrounding environment are just absolutely completely disconnected from the concerns that the kind of most popular, critical race theorists are talking about.

Christopher Rufo:

I think that the more we can go actually to people's real life concerns, people that are truly disadvantaged. People that are truly the victims of residual historic racism and then build that coalition out, because the continuity between the poor people in the south side of Memphis and the poor white people in the south side of Youngstown and then the poor Latino and multiracial people in the central part of Stockton, California, what connects them now? I think, and the social science from Robert Putnam from others would back this up statistically, is that lower class life in America is increasingly becoming more similar.

Christopher Rufo:

I think the concerns of a kind of broad multiracial, a working class group of people in the United States has to be absolutely taken more seriously. Needs an absolutely more radical agenda. I think that we can both at the same time recognize that race differences matter, race differences are in many cases very large, very important and need special care and attention. But also that the things that bring us together that I think can transcend race are also important. The more we can have the sophistication to avoid the kind of binary thinking on those issues, the more we can actually make progress for people who are truly kind of dispossessed and on the margins of our society.

Jason Riley:

Okay. I had a question from one of the viewers that I wanted to present to both the law professors. Maybe we could start with you, Professor Banks. The question is, do you believe that critical race theory recognizes the personal agency of blacks to improve their own condition or does it sort of downplay that in any way? If it does, if you believe it does, does that bother you?

Ralph Richard Banks:

Well again, I think it is important to note that the reference to critical race theory as a whole, right, is a difficult one to work with, because you know different writers, different scholars would have different approaches to personal agency. My own view is that, of course we want to recognize and encourage people to take steps to improve their lives. I think any position other than that is unreasonable. So we have to always want people to take steps to improve their lives, but we have to also be cautious to not focus on or be so fixated on personal responsibility that we allow it to substitute for the need for policy responses to social problems. For example, we have an opioid epidemic in this country right now. Those opioid addicts are disproportionately white. We would not, hopefully, respond to the opioid epidemic by saying, "Oh, those people just need to clean up their lives and stop doing drugs."

Ralph Richard Banks:

We instead would recognize that we have a social problem and we need to figure out how to respond to that social problem. We will think more clearly about how to respond to that social problem if we stop blaming people, judging people, blaming them for example, becoming opioid addicts. With white people we tend to do that. We don't fixate on blame and we don't fixate on telling them to fix their own problems, we recognize the need for collective response. With African-Americans, frankly, we're less likely to recognize the need for collective response. We are more likely to blame black people for problems in ways that I can't help but think resonate with our long-standing patterns of not wanting to recognize race-based disadvantage.

Jason Riley:

Same question to you, Professor Kennedy. The role of personal agency and personal responsibility when it comes to the thinking of critical race theorists, if you believe that all black problems are the fault of whites and the responsibility of whites to solve, where does that leave black agency?

Randall Kennedy:

Yeah. Well, I'll answer it this way. Anybody who does not take seriously the importance of personal agency is making a big analytic and moral error. Now of course personal responsibility is important. At the same time environment is important too. They work together. People don't just fall out of the sky and develop habits and develop sentiments and develop ways of being. People are taught things. People are taught things by other people. If you have folks who unfortunately grow up in an environment in which they are ignored, in which they don't get good teaching, they don't get the benefit of people who love them and who try to nurture them and who punish them when appropriate, when people don't have these things well, it shouldn't be any surprise that they're irresponsible, that they're selfish, that they act in all sorts of antisocial ways.

Randall Kennedy:

It's not simply that they're being cussed. It's that partly, largely, because of environmental circumstances they're now acting in a way that's personally, deeply unattractive. So it seems to me that in our thinking about things we have to keep both things in our mind. Obviously there is personal agency. Just as obviously there is environment that impinges on personal agency. Both have to be there in our thinking.

Jason Riley:

Professor Banks, civil rights activists of a previous era used to talk a lot about colorblindness, and law and the approach to helping black underclass in particular get race out of this. We want race blind policies. You give us that our people will take care of the rest on their own. What happened to that concept? We are now talking about racial determinism, racial essentialism. That whole concept has been turned on its head? Does that trouble you at all or were we being naive before?

Ralph Richard Banks:

Well, I think the idea of colorblindness is a noble aspiration and especially the idea of wanting to ultimately in some distant future, create a colorblind society where races is no more significant than eye color or hair color. I embrace that view. I think that's the right goal, but in terms of whether trying to be colorblind now and having a legal regime, for example, that pays no attention to race in the set of governmental policies that paid no attention to race, I don't think that that approach can move us forward. There are two issues I think. One is that we've always focused on individual rights and colorblindness, but those rights haven't done enough to redirect resources and people need resources. I think here financial resources for one and economic stability, economic security. We haven't redirected resources.

Ralph Richard Banks:

We also haven't done enough to reshape relationships, which is an issue that's rarely if ever discussed. Most people obtain their education and they will later obtain jobs primarily through their relationships with other people. We live in a society where we for better or worse, we view relationships as beyond the reach of the law. As a result, our relationships beginning with where we live and who we invite into our homes, with who we're friends with, who our families are, we have relationships that are racially segregated. If you have groups that are racially segregated in that way, we're not going to see nearly as much mobility or advancement by disadvantaged minorities as we might expect. Not because there's any pernicious decision-maker or any government official who's out to get someone, but merely because most people hire employees based on referrals from other employees. The best way to get a job is to know someone who has a job who will refer you. African-Americans are systematically disadvantaged in the employment market.

Ralph Richard Banks:

For example, because they lack relationships with other people who have jobs and can bring them into the loop, so to speak. So individual rights doesn't address the question of resources. It doesn't address the question of relationships. I don't think we can move forward unless we address those two issues and we have to have a color conscious policy in order to do so.

Jason Riley:

Okay. Well, we are short on time, so I wanted to ask a last question for each of you to address, but briefly please, and that is where you think things are headed in this debate. I wanted to start with you, Mr. Rufo. These diversity training programs, these school curricula implementations, are we just getting started? Are we going to continue down this road or do you see some backlash coming? Where do you think we're headed?

Christopher Rufo:

I think we're headed for a kind of politically stratified society where you're going to see this accelerate in blue and urban areas. Then you're going to see some kind of disengagement from suburban, rural red areas. I think what is really happening and something that really stunned me is as I was reading the kind of foundational texts of critical race theory from the '90s, and then listening as a reporter and reporting on the recent unrest and the kind of protest speeches and the most extreme kind of CHAZ CHOP in Seattle, or the Antifa riots in Portland. There's a kind of direct line from the core concepts that are in academic jargon, and then translated into kind of the language of street protests. I think this is both deeply rooted and deeply persuasive for a certain segment of the population. I think cities like Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, New York, et cetera, are going to accelerate. Unfortunately when these programs fail to yield the current results, they're going to double down. That's my prediction.

Jason Riley:

Professor Kennedy, where is this debate headed with critical race there?

Randall Kennedy:

I'm not sure. I'm going to change your question a bit and answer not where I think things are going, but one thing that I think that we need to do. I think one thing that we need to do is think harder about what we truly want. We have various slogans out there. So colorblindness is a slogan. Some people talk about the rainbows. Some people talk about the mosaic. Some people talk about looks like America, what cabinet that looks like America. Some people talk about integration. Some people are talking about racial tribalism. We've got an America where there are a lot of competing definitions of the racial good. I think we need to really think about that more carefully. What do we truly want? Because I think that there's actually a lot of confusion out there and that we need to actually think about this and develop more clarification about what we truly want. Thank you very much for having me on.

Jason Riley:

Professor Banks, I'll give you the last word. Are you optimistic?

Ralph Richard Banks:

Oh, well, I've actually shifted, because when I'm in the predictive mode, sometimes I'm not optimistic. But even when I'm not optimistic, I do try to be hopeful. There is a distinction between optimism and hope. What fuels my hope is the belief that we can recognize that the problems we confront are deep problems, they're longstanding problems. We need to recognize that no one group has a monopoly on good ideas or the right way to approach issues. We need to stop demonizing each other. We need to stop separating ourselves into the good side and the evil side. We need to descend from the high level of abstraction, frankly, and talk more concretely about how to address the impediments in our society which stop people of all races, but especially of African-Americans from thriving and living the lives that they want for themselves and their children. I am hopeful that we can do that. I say that even as sometimes my optimism flags.

Jason Riley:

Okay. Okay. Well, I was very optimistic about how this panel would go and how this discussion would go. It turned out to be right, to be optimistic. I hope you all found it worth your while. So I want to thank you again for joining us. Have a happy holiday and be safe. So thank you.

Ralph Richard Banks:

Thank you, Jason.

Jason Riley:

Okay, take care.

Christopher Rufo:

Thank you.

Jason Riley:

That will end our program. I'm not sure if we're going back to Michael, if I'm going to close things out, but I do want to thank everyone. Our viewers for tuning in, I want to thank you for all the great questions that came in. I hope you found this a productive conversation. So everyone be safe. Take care.

PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [01:44:14]

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