Culture wars over diversity, identity politics and "social justice" in New York City schools have been simmering for several years. Now, two controversies in the news highlight the troubling question of when anti-racism training turns into its opposite.
Last week, conservative activist Christopher Rufo sparked a Twitter uproar by posting a photo of a handout distributed to staff and parents at East Side Community School in Manhattan (grades six to 12). It’s a list of "8 White Identities," illustrated with a red-to-green color chart — starting with "white supremacist" and ending with "white abolitionist," which is defined as "changing institutions, dismantling whiteness, and not allowing whiteness to reassert itself." The in-betweens include "white privilege" (bad) and "white traitor" (good).
No, this is not a right-wing hoax intended to show that "anti-racism" is a code word for anti-white racism. A state Department of Education official told the New York Post that the document, written by Northwestern University associate professor Barnor Hesse, was shared among "materials meant for reflection" as part of "ongoing anti-racist work."
If you’re wondering how "dismantling whiteness" is anti-racist, the "anti-racists" will tell you that in their lexicon, "whiteness" does not mean skin color or ethnic background but "white supremacist culture."
But first of all, these activists tend to define such a culture to include characteristics that have nothing to do with racism and are arguably essential to a liberal knowledge-based society — such as, according to some literature, "objectivity," "individualism" and "worship of the written word."
Secondly: Why adopt this lexicon, if not to be deliberately confrontational? Why would people who usually urge keen sensitivity to potentially offensive language use "whiteness" — which, to the average person, means simply its plain meaning — to denote white supremacy? Why tell white Americans that rejecting racism requires "dismantling" their heritage? Why co-opt actual white supremacist language to call anti-racists "white traitors"? And that’s not to mention the other baffling parts of the handout. Thus, "consuming Black culture without the burden of Blackness" is listed under "white voyeurism," one step from "white supremacy." Next comes "white privilege" — a category that includes people who embrace the goal of diversity but remain invested in "questions of fairness/equality under normalization of whiteness." (Presumably, this gibberish translates as "believing in merit and non-discrimination.") And "some POC" — people of color — are said to share a vaguely defined "white benefit" identity.
In other developments, two educators from the Bronx — superintendent Karen Ames and teacher Rafaela Espinal — sued the Department of Education, claiming their careers were derailed by racial equity programs turned divisive. Both say they were penalized for refusing to join in a "Wakanda forever" linked-arm salute referencing the fictional all-Black nation from the 2018 Marvel film "Black Panther." Ames, who is Jewish, says she was berated for talking about her grandparents’ experience as Holocaust survivors during an anti-bias training session in which participants were asked to share personal stories about racism. Espinal, a Dominican-American Afro-Latina, says she was accused of not being "Black enough."
So far, the lawsuits have been reported primarily in conservative media. Yet they should also set off alarm bells for liberals. Diversity education is essential in a multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural city. But its goal should be to promote understanding, not scapegoat whites as well as minorities seen as supportive of a "regime of whiteness." Performative white-bashing won’t help the Black and Hispanic children who still lag behind in educational opportunities. It’s far more likely to help the right by triggering resentment.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.