Please note that this article is the third part of a three-part series.
Critical race theorists have been effective evangelists of Bell’s ideas and have continued to build on the foundation he laid. But we shouldn’t be naïve: These ideas are antithetical to liberalism’s core value of equality, which was the animating telos of the civil rights movement. Critical theory and its progeny have one great advantage over liberalism: It is far easier to unite people against a common enemy than it is to unite them around a common humanity. The theory’s us-versus-them message taps into our capacity for tribal warfare, which is, quite literally, hardwired into our DNA. More than that, it explains why activists might describe SLS, as easily as Ole Miss of 1962, as a racist institution.
If we accept that white supremacy is, as Bell saw it, “an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this society,” the best and perhaps only way forward is to organize, to unionize, on racial grounds. Movements for racial equality are then displaced by a form of collective bargaining – a way for a race or coalition of races to compete for goods in zero-sum struggle with other races. To galvanize support for this struggle, fearsome enemies must be identified or conjured; and the status quo cast in bleakest terms (a strategy not unfamiliar to xenophobes on the far-right). To that end, critical race theorists have, in Gates’ view, succeeded in finessing “the gap between rhetoric and reality by forging new and subtler definitions of the word ‘racism.’ Hence a new model of institutional racism is one that can operate in the absence of actual racists.” Professor Gates’ analysis, if correct, explains the dissonance between SLS as it is and RLHT’s description of it, and leads us to a depressing conclusion.
SLS will always be a “racist” institution – not in spite of its progressivism and commitment to diversity and equality, but because of it. Progress toward racial equality will never overtake the shifting definitions of racism so long as liberal openness and self-doubt are easily exploited by radical certainty. For students who believe that SLS is “exactly, wholly and unquestionably a pervasively racist, white supremacist institution,” SLS’s careful, apologetic responses are validation enough of the veracity of their accusations. By indulging rather than rejecting the extreme language used by RLHT, SLS only proves its effectiveness and ensures its repetition.
The linguistic project of redefining terms and moving boundary posts, described by Gates, seems to me a character of activist rhetoric on campus more broadly. It is common now for activists of all stripes to lament the erasure of their presence, the loss of their right to exist, and the denial of their humanity. To be clear, I’m not talking about activists speaking on behalf of victims of genocide in Iraq or Syria, but incredibly privileged students in one of the most socially liberal and tolerant environments around who are speaking on their own behalf. Surely, our presence, our existence, our humanity cannot be taken (or for that matter given) by a university. These are political slogans and ideological terms-of-art, not descriptions of the world. Yet given the anxiety and trauma some students express, I worry they actually believe they are – like the Yazidi in Iraq – in a dire struggle for survival. If so, I have sympathy for them.
If students have been taught and conditioned to experience animosity – or even disagreement – as a threat to their humanity, their very existence, we mustn’t be surprised by their mental anguish. This desperate, politicized language, whatever its standing in certain academic enclaves, is destined only to make the perfect the enemy of the good. And insofar as there is an attempt to redefine and control the language we use to discuss these issues, I sense great reluctance on the part of faculty to challenge it as such.
There’s much I don’t understand and may never understand about the discourse on highly politicized topics like race at Stanford, but one thing has become clear to me: Semantic meaning – the substance of what we say – has been displaced by pragmatic and implicit meaning. With identity and race in particular, what we say doesn’t matter nearly as much as what others assume we are doing or implying by speaking. In this identity-obsessed environment, it seems expression of fragility or guilt stand as shibboleths for ideological like-mindedness. The reflexive response to non-conforming opinion, then, is to ignore its substance and question the speaker’s identity or motives. By doing so, our activists may believe they’re enforcing a just program of community etiquette. Yet however laudable their goals, community homogeneity is anathema to the truth-seeking enterprise, the raison d’être, of the university. The university – and the law school in particular – is where “the community” and its orthodoxy ought to be challenged.
No less important, it forces good people who share the students’ values and aspirations, like many of our professors, into a terrible dilemma: To signal that they are on the “good team,” they must uncritically accept the movement’s extreme rhetoric, along with the cognitive dissonance and insincerity it brings. And we can be sure, many issues of critical importance today will never be discussed with the honesty and nuance they deserve so long as our language is reduced to a blunt tool for in-group signaling.
The RLHT campaign has inspired solidarity among groups of faculty, students, and alumni. Yet I sense an undercurrent that is darker, more wounding, and alienating. We don’t state explicitly but have come to accept that activism and political signaling supersede the university’s educational mission. As we’ve rallied around our differences, we’ve neglected our commonalities. We ascribe the maximally offensive and hostile interpretations to the words and behavior of others. For fear of giving offense or being offended, we choose silence over dialogue, as we retreat into ever more concentrated factions of like-minded people who think and speak like us. Lines have been drawn. Defenses fortified. But along the way, we lost a common language. With only the brute signals for friend and foe, we communicate across our divides like ships passing in the night: only signs and silence.
– James Banker J.D. ’17
Contact James Banker at jbanker ‘at’ alumni.stanford.edu.