Critical Theory in the American University: A Critical Issue, Part Three

Read Parts One and Two before proceeding here.


It is remarkable how universal a negative, critical, view of Whites as a race is in today’s university.  Every course, every speaker, every professional article and book, every “welcome week” activity in the fall, every program in the dorms, every word uttered in faculty meetings, every committee report, every organization, every administrative pronouncement, every master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, every group email, every bulletin board notice, etc., etc., etc., etc.—not one positive word about Whites and not one negative word about any other race.  If any university administrator or academic has said a favorable word about White people as a race, verbally or in print, I don’t know about it, and I think I pay attention.

The late novelist and essayist Susan Sontag, a regular on the university commencement speech circuit, captured the view of Whites held by those in power in American universities when she famously wrote, “The white race is the cancer of human history.”22 Indeed, Whites have their dirty linen—every race does—but the picture isn’t all bad in the way universities portray it.  I’d be happy to take the Whites’ side compared to any other race, let’s say Blacks, in accomplishments in philosophy, the arts and humanities, mathematics, science, technology, architecture, literature, philanthropy—you name it.20  I’d be willing to compare White communities to Black communities, anywhere in the world, on the basis of cleanliness, safety, care for children, and civility.  In the area of race relations, you can make the case that Whites are abusing Blacks and I’ll take the other side, which would involve citing interracial crime statistics. In race relations, I’ll cite examples of White individuals and groups trying to help out disadvantaged Black people and ending slavery for moral reasons at a time when slavery was pervasive throughout the rest of the world. And you can cite examples of Black individuals and groups trying to help out disadvantaged White people.

For Whites on campus, even the hint of a positive conception of their racial heritage or of racial consciousness and commitment and solidarity; even a touch of concern for the status and wellbeing of White people; even one word in favor of White advocacy, leadership, organization, and collective action; even the least gesture in the direction of affirming the right of White people to self-determination—don’t you dare.  Whites are obligated to have an all but obsessive concern for the interests of other races, and to serve those interests, while having absolutely no concern for the circumstances and fate of their own people.  In fact, Whites should go to work against their racial brethren (the race traitor idea).

Zeroing in on the Roediger and Thandeka books shouldn’t obscure the fact that they are typical of the fare imposed on White university students, students of all races.  Here are a couple others:

White Privilege:  Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, edited by Paula Rothenberg.21 The book’s introductory material states that this book describes the phenomenon of “white privilege and the politics and economics that lie behind the social construction of whiteness,” and that it “explores ideas for using the power and concept of white privilege to help [Whites] combat racism in their own lives.”

“White power and privilege” is a mantra in universities.  A key to understanding critical theory, the political left in general, is that it is a set of abstractions, words strung together with other words, albeit appealingly; it sounds good.  But listen carefully, read carefully, and you’ll see that there is almost no reference to concrete reality.  The message to students: you don’t need to look at reality.  Just listen to what I tell you, go by that.

There is no better example of this than the White power and privilege rhetoric, repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated, pounded into students.  If you look at the actual lives of individual White people, living, breathing human beings, it falls apart.  Certainly some White people are in positions of status and power, but the vast majority of them are not. By a long shot.  Actual White people are my father, who stood on his feet cutting people’s hair with his arms up until his feet ached and his back throbbed from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and rode the bus—we could never afford a car—home to my mother and me (I remember my mother rubbing smelly Bengay ointment on his back in the evenings).  Actual White people live in run down trailers in West Virginia. Actual White people work at Home Depot, wait tables at the Olive Garden, take crap from a supervisor at I.B.M., teach the third grade, sell houses or insurance, and process loan applications at the bank.

Ask White attorneys and doctors, as I have, how much power and privilege they really have.  Let them tell you of the hard work and sacrifice that went into attaining the positions they hold, and of how much commitment they feel toward their clients and patients, and how much they are in service to them.  Ask the decent hard-working White parents of my students who worked two jobs and diligently saved money dollar by dollar to pay for their children’s college education—ask them how powerful and privileged they are.  Ask my White students who work twenty hours a week in addition to carrying a full load of courses at the university and do volunteer work on top of that and are bleary-eyed exhausted: how powerful and privileged are you really?  Ask White students who were turned down by elite universities while their Black fellow students with far fewer accomplishments were accepted how powerful and privileged they are.

It’s been my experience that nothing—nothing—will get the self-satisfied “White privilege” chatterers in universities off their airy pontifications. They are oblivious to criticism.  They do the criticizing, thank you.  But at least those onto their acts can sneer at them, and that’s what they deserve rather than the high regard and deference they now receive.

The Invention of the White Race: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, by Theodore W. Allen.22 According to this book, as was the case with the Rothenberg volume just mentioned, Whites’ conception of themselves as a distinctive people is based on a fiction; in a very real way, Whites don’t even exist.  Who else, what other group, what other race—name them—is told this about themselves?  This is no less than a form of genocide, and don’t think for a minute that the most sophisticated proponents of this line don’t know it.  Literally, and I realize this can sound hyperbolic, they wish that the White race would cease to be.

All that said, however, I’m OK with books like the Rothenberg and White books, or even Thandeka’s, being part of the academic discourse in the university—I don’t like the repression of ideas, no matter what they are.  My problem is that these are characterizations of an entire race of people—millions upon millions of them; try to imagine them in your mind’s eye, starting with the ones you know, including yourself. These characterizations are not studied, analyzed, critiqued, considered along with counterarguments and alternative perspectives.  Rather they are imposed on students, indoctrinated, propagandized, as the Truth, case closed.

The negative stereotype of Whites that students of all races get pushed in their faces increases rather than diminishes racial grievance and discord and intolerance, especially among non-Whites against Whites.  It separates us rather than brings us together. But then again, that is what the critical perspective wants; Marxism is about friction, not reconciliation.

If students read something like the Rothenberg and Allen books, they also should read books that offer a positive view of White identity, say, Jared Taylor’s White Identity: Racial Consciousness in the 21st Century. Give students of all races, not just Whites, room to make choices of what to believe.  Respect their academic freedom and freedom of conscience.

But then again, these concepts are not in the vocabulary of the people who control the education of America’s sons and daughters in universities.


What I find particularly remarkable about the phenomenon that I have been describing is that, at least publicly, nobody finds it remarkable.  Nobody ever says, “Every other race on campus has a student organization and spokespeople except White students, and if Whites tried to organize one, it would be forbidden. What if Blacks or Asians didn’t have an organization, and couldn’t if they want to? That wouldn’t be right, would it?” Nobody ever says, “We have an endless number of programs and presentations with a positive African American angle but none from a positive European heritage, White, angle.  We ought to do something about that.” Or says, “Can any of us name one White organization or leader that isn’t discredited?”  Or, “Can any of us name one book that makes a positive case for White people?”  I can’t imagine the editors of the Phi Delta Kappan that published the Sato and Lensmire piece thinking for a second about what these two writers were saying about White people.

I’ve never once heard of a student announcing, “How about if you knock off trashing my people—you aren’t doing it with anybody else.  And quit telling me what to think.  I’m here for academics.” I’ve never heard of a parent calling into question what’s going on.  As far as I can tell, just about everybody buys into the program.

Of course the question is: why?  Largely, I think it comes down to the fact that this one perspective on race stands alone in everybody’s minds, and that it pays off for them to ascribe to it.

It is important to remember that universities are insular places, separated from the wider world.  The radical left, neo-Marxist, critical theory perspective has a stranglehold on the ideational context, to call it that, in the university—the thoughts, images, arguments, and conceptions of the preferable and right that prevail in this little world.  For people in the university, both faculty and students, these notions are like the water fish swim in; it’s all they know.  To stay with that metaphor, if people try to add some different coloring to the water—even one drop, they are stopped in their tracks. They are attacked, trashed, harassed, marginalized, excluded, sent packing.

Also, going along with the program is a way for people to get their basic needs met.  For faculty and administrators, that means getting hired and promoted, given merit pay increases, being affirmed and respected and invited to faculty parties, and accepted for publication in the right journals and by the right book publishers. For students, that means being welcomed into the university community, being positively acknowledged and praised by both faculty and their fellow students, winning awards, and getting good grades and favorable recommendations.

Too, going along with the program is a way to stay out of trouble. For faculty that means not getting your office moved next to the ticket window at the gymnasium, and for students in means not getting your application to become a resident hall advisor in the dorm turned down.

The point: know the prevailing ideas and reward and punishment contingencies in the university, or in any setting, and you go a long way in being able to predict both the behaviors and thoughts in that circumstance.  And by thoughts I mean the sincerely held beliefs and values.  People really buy in to what they are supposed to believe according to those in power over them; they aren’t faking it.  Human beings are like sled dogs: as long as they get pats on their heads and some fresh water and tasty chunks of beef in their bowls, they’ll pull the sleds in whatever direction their trainers want them to go, and they will like it.

I’ll go so far as to claim that if today’s university occupants, both faculty and students, had been in German universities in the 1930s, instead of going on about White privilege and racism and hate, they would have been tried and true National Socialists.  I’m serious.  Human beings are remarkably malleable creatures.

Or at least most of them are. There are always those few who don’t, another metaphor, march in step with the drummer.

Knowing that I have written books and articles about race from a perspective of respect and concern for White people, every now and again, I can’t say it is very often, two or three times a year or so, White students surreptitiously approach me to report that they feel put down by faculty in their race-related courses, and that it is insistent and persistent, and repetitive and simplistic, and sometimes harsh. Often, they say, their instructors are non-White, and they sense that these faculty bear resentment and animosity toward people of their kind, toward them; there is an edge to the class context they find discomforting and intimidating. As a White person, I would never presume to teach a class of Black students and tell them definitively who they are and where they came from, and particularly I wouldn’t do it if my message to them was that their identity was negative and cause for guilt and redemption; but in universities it goes on in reverse all the time without any analysis and debate that I am aware of.

As well, university faculty, particularly those just starting out on their academic careers, email me through my web site saying something to the effect that they feel as if they are in Eastern Germany before the fall of the Berlin wall and want my advice as to what to do.

What do I tell the people who approach me?  For better or worse, most often I tell them to lay low. They are very vulnerable.  If they stick their heads out of their foxholes—go public in a big way—they’ll get them shot off.  For faculty, better to stay and subvert the system than be where they want you, on the outside looking in.  I suggest being very careful about social media and the Internet. As I write this paragraph, I’m reminded of a book I’m reading about the French writer Albert Camus during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.  He wrote for a resistance publication called Combat, but he did it under a pseudonym and stayed undercover.23

Of course there are exceptions to everything. I’m writing this under my real name.  But then again, I’m tenured and a full professor and for whatever reason able to put up with nobody ever saying a second sentence to me. (The first one, if I’m right in their face, is a mechanical “Hello.”)  Right now, this moment, I’m anxious as hell, and I’m this way every waking moment of my life.  But while it is an uncomfortable way to exist, I’m fine with it.  I see it as dues I have to pay to be who I am, and that’s my first priority. We all have to decide our own way forward in life.24


Obviously, I see what’s happening around race in American universities to be antithetical to what the university has historically been about and ought to be about now. And as simply un-American.  What’s going is someplace else’s way of doing business; it is alien to the fundamental tenets of this country.  It’s dictatorial, tyrannical.

And I’d be saying the same thing if what is happening with White people were happening to Black people or Asian people or Hispanic people or Jewish people or Arab people—I don’t want to see anybody diminished or told to get to the back of the line. And especially I don’t want this happening to children and young adults.

I think we ought to cut out the totalism and re-connect with the traditional marketplace-of-ideas conception of the American university, and not just around race: the university should get out of the thought management business altogether—diversity and egalitarianism and feminism and gay rights and environmentalism and all the rest of political correctness—and concentrate on academics.  Universities are schools, not secular churches or re-socialization centers.  Students’ personal beliefs and commitments are none of the university’s business.

Are things ever going to change?

I can’t see the university changing from within anytime in the foreseeable future.  The current system aligns with the beliefs of the people in power, and it pays off everybody involved for going along with it, and it effectively punishes those who would deign to run up against it. The few outliers like me who for whatever reason can’t be gotten get rid of are relegated to pariah status.  Any memoranda and position statements we slip under doors are tossed into waste paper baskets.  I’ll retire next year or the year after, and you can be sure that the person that replaces me is not going to have a negative word to say about Thandeka. Just the opposite.  And if the hiring committee messes up and brings the wrong person on board, that will be remedied when it comes time to pass judgment on his or her applications for reappointment, promotion, and tenure.

The only way universities are ever going to change as far as I can see is from the outside.  Alterations in social, cultural, political, economic, and/or demographic realities could compel universities to change. If something led American Whites to wise up to the fact that they are being supplanted, pushed around, and plucked like a goose by people who loathe them, and that prompted them to get organized and active, including politically, like every other group in this country, part of that could be taking a hard look at what’s being done with their children in schools and doing something about it.  If White parents quit forking over tuition money to schools that dump on them and their children, that would have an effect. Money talks big in the university. It’s not impossible that White students or ex-students could at some point notice that every other group on campus is organized to the hilt except them and create White on- or off-campus organizations to speak for them and look out for their interests.  And beyond any of that, doesn’t history show that after a period of kowtowing to being demeaned and manipulated, people reach the point where they’ve had enough of it and turn on their handlers?


But all that is up the line, if it ever happens. What do people who take exception to what’s going on around race in universities do now? As I see it, what we can do is the best we can, as the unique persons we are, in the circumstances we find ourselves in, with whatever we can think of to do, big or small, today, tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that, until the day we die, which is coming—it’s the one certainty in life.  As the title of the New Riders of the Purple Sage song puts it, we can keep on keepin’ on. Nothing good may come out of it. For all I know the battle is lost, probably is.  But the challenge of being a human being is to keep on keepin’ on anyway, no matter what results from it.  As far as I can tell, that is the best way to be satisfied with our lives on this earth, and it’s the best way to be at peace with the prospect of entering eternity, which is just up the road.

Robert S. Griffin’s writings on universities include those contained in a review of the book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism in The Occidental Quarterly, Summer 2006.

20. A book that helps make this case is Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment: Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (Harper Perennial, 2004).

21. Paula Rothenberg, White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism (Worth, 2004).

22. Theodore W. White, The Invention of the White Race: The Origins of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (Verso, 2012).

23. Sean B. Carroll, Brave Genius (Crown, 2013).

24. Three thoughts on my web site——that get into how I deal with my circumstance at the university: “On Being a Modern Day Spinoza”; “On Trying to Charm the Uninterested”; and “On Bullying.”