January 26, 2024

Jan Resseger: NY Times Exposes More Culture Warriors Attacking Social Justice in Education

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Jan Resseger looks at coverage of the culture warriors attacking education these days. It’s more than just Chris Rufo. Reposted with permission.\

In an urgently important NY Times report last Sunday, Nicholas Confessore exposed some of the culture warriors who have been inflaming attacks on Critical Race Theory and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in U.S. colleges and universities as well as K-12 public schools.  Chris Rufo has made a name for himself as a right-wing linguistic reframer and political provocateur, but others are also engaged in this work: most notably a group of Claremont Institute culture warriors.

Confessore explains: “Gathering strength from a backlash against Black Lives Matter, and fueled by criticism that doctrines such as critical race theory had made colleges engines of progressive indoctrination, the eradication of D.E.I. programs has become both a cause and a message suffusing the American right. In 2023, more than 20 states considered or approved new laws taking aim at D.E.I., even as polling has shown that diversity initiatives remain popular… Centered at the Claremont Institute, a California-based think tank with close ties to the Trump movement and to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, the group coalesced roughly three years ago around a sweeping ambition: to strike a killing blow against ‘the leftist social justice revolution’ by eliminating ‘social justice education’ from American schools.”

Here is one of the most recent results. Last week the USA Today network’s Tarah Jean reported: “The Florida Board of Education… approved rules that prohibit spending on diversity, equity, and inclusion and remove sociology from general education core course options at community and state colleges… (T)he regulation about the sociology course comes after (Florida Education Commissioner Manny) Diaz—who also serves on the Board of Governors—made the proposal to the board to remove ‘Principles of Sociology’ from the state’s core courses for general education requirements during a November meeting.”  Students can still sign up for the introductory class in sociology, but it won’t count as one of the courses required to meet academic distribution requirements.

In a November report, the Orlando Sentinel‘s  Ryan Dailey examined one university’s syllabus for Intro. to Sociology to understand what what far right ideologues believe is so dangerous about this college class: “A fall 2022 syllabus for the Principles of Sociology course at the University of Florida outlined issues included in the class. In the course schedule, one exam included topics ‘Gender, Sex & Sexuality’ and ‘Social Class & Education.’  Another exam dealt with ‘Race, Ethnicity & Migration.’”

Confessore explores the role of activists at the Claremont Institute: “(E)ven as they advocated more academic freedom, some of those involved privately expressed their hope of purging liberal ideas, professors, and programming wherever they could. They debated how carefully or quickly to reveal some of their true views—the belief that ‘a healthy society requires patriarchy,’ for example, and their broader opposition to anti-discrimination laws…. Lagging achievement for African Americans and other racial minorities, some argued privately, should not be a matter of public concern.”

Confessor describes the thinking of Scott Yenor, a conservative Idaho professor and the Claremont Institute’s senior director of state coalitions: “My big worry in these things is that we do not make ‘the good of minorities’ the standard by which we judge public policy or the effects of public policy… Whites will be overrepresented in some spheres. Blacks in others. Asians in others. We cannot see this as some moral failing on our part.”  Confessore reports that Yenor now leads the anti-D.E.I. project for Claremont.

Claremont and its partners are reframing and twisting the English language to mean something very different from the definitions most of us understand. The effort is intentionally to undermine three quarters of a century’s work to end segregation, inequality, and exclusion. When Confessore asked the Claremont Institute for a statement of its policies, he received the following. Claremont is: “proud to be a leader in the fight against D.E.I., since the ideology from which it flows conflicts with America’s Founding principles, constitutional government and equality under the law. Those are the things we believe in. Without them there is no America. You cannot have those things with D.E.I.”  Most Americans do not consider that diversity, equity and inclusion conflict with equality under the law or with the Constitution, whose 14th Amendment provides equal protection under the law.

Confessore describes Claremont’s advocates and its funders experimenting with the distortion of language: “(E)arly in 2021, in the wake of the George Floyd protests and President Donald J. Trump’s re-election defeat, the Claremont organizers were on the defensive… (D)ocuments show them debating how to frame their attacks: They needed not only to persuade the political middle but to energize conservative politicians and thinkers, many of whom they regarded as too timid, or even complicit with a liberal regime infecting American government and business… Dr. Yenor reported to his colleagues… that many lawmakers were reluctant to take on anything called ‘diversity and inclusion.’ Terms like ‘diversity,’ he argued need to be saddled with more negative connotations… ‘I obviously think social justice is what we should call it,’ he wrote. ‘We should use the term that is most likely to stigmatize the movement that is accurate and arises from common life.’  While nobody wanted to seem in favor of discrimination, he argued, ‘social justice’ could be ‘stigmatized so that when people hear it, they can act on their suspicions.’”

In 2021, Claremont’s work began to merge with Chris Rufo’s effort: “At the time, a like-minded activist, Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, was popularizing an alternative catchall with his attacks on ‘critical race theory’—a once-obscure academic framework that examines how racism can be structurally embedded in seemingly neutral laws or institutions… By 2022, as Claremont and allies like the Maine Policy Institute and a Tennessee group called Velocity Convergence rolled out early research, the approach had changed. Their public reports began to borrow from Mr. Rufo’s rhetoric, attacking ‘critical social justice’ or ‘critical social justice education.’”

As the months passed, “Claremont officials would partner with state think tanks, and with the hundreds of former fellows scattered through conservative institutions and on Capitol Hill. They would catalog the D.E.I. programs and personnel honeycombed through public universities. Then they would lobby sympathetic public officials to gut them.”  Here is a statement Claremont included in a 2021 draft grant proposal to the Taube Family Foundation: “Our project will give legislators the knowledge and tools they need to stop funding the suicide of their own country and civilization.”

Like Christopher Rufo, whom Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appointed to the board of trustees of Florida’s New College, Claremont Institute has been advising Governor DeSantis on education policy: “Last year, Claremont officials … courted Mr. DeSantis… the governor most closely associated with anti-D.E.I. policies. The institute dispatched Dr. Yenor to run a new office in Tallahassee, appointing him as its ‘senior director of state coalitions’… In an email, Mr. Klingenstein (Clairmont’s chairman) told Claremont officials that Mr. DeSantis had agreed to give Dr. Yenor access to his top political and government aides. Mr. Klingenstein also said he’d urged the governor to do a better job explaining to voters why ‘wokeism’ was dangerous.”

More recently, Confessore reports, “as Mr. DeSantis’s presidential bid sputtered…. The American Principles Project circulated a memo detailing the results of several focus groups held to test different culture-war messages… Most voters didn’t know the difference between equality and the more voguish term ‘equity,’ oft-mocked on the right, which signifies policies intended to achieve equal outcomes for different people, not simply equal opportunities.”

I guess those of us who advocate for school finance equity—to ensure that public schools have the resources to help poorer kids catch up with their wealthier peers—had better watch out. School funding equity may be next to suffer the fate of Intro. to Sociology in Florida—where universities, colleges, and community colleges can no longer offer it as a core course to meet a student’s distribution requirements in five subject areas.


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