A lot of the supercharged racism uber alles ideology we’re seeing right now under the general banner of “critical race theory” is not new. Most accounts place its origins in the late 1980s or 1990s, but in fact it is possible to make out the essential dynamic back in the 1960s.
Harry Jaffa gave a valedictory lecture on the occasion of his retirement from teaching at Claremont McKenna College in 1989, which he called “The Reichstag Is Still Burning: The Failure of Higher Education and the Decline of the West.” (You can find the lecture as Chapter 4 in a recent collection of Jaffa’s essays.) In the lecture Jaffa recalled the agitation to begin a “black studies” program at the Claremont Colleges back in 1969—an agitation that coincided with a campus bombing, an arson, and open threats of violence if the agitators didn’t get their way:
The demands of the Black Students Union showed it to be—in its own mind—a continuation of the Civil Rights movement. The theme of its pronouncements however was Black Power—the very opposite of the color blind principles espoused by Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. The Black Power movement demanded recognition, not of “the content of character” but of the color of skin. It wanted a Black Studies Center, not to enrich the curriculum, but to bring Black Power to bear upon it. There was no wish to eliminate racial bias from the courses of study in the Claremont Colleges. Rather did it wish to encounter white bias with black bias. The assumption was that an unbiased education was a delusion. Education was understood to be, not a function of the freedom of the human mind, but of its determination by race and ethnicity. What stands out finally in my memory of this meeting, was the declaration of a Brown leader, that he had been in Vietnam, and had seen there what bullets could do, and that he knew therefore what they could do in Claremont. This was followed by a rhetorical question asked by a Black leader—a young woman who the next year was an assistant dean at Pomona College. The question was, “Do you want this campus burned down this summer or next summer?
From here Jaffa explained the fight among the faculty about whether to support the black studies proposal (they did, narrowly), with Jaffa offering these substantive observations about the substance of what was going down:
The only purpose of our vote was to decide whether we would—or would not—endorse the concept of race as a ground or basis of education. And this endorsement was accomplished fully and unequivocally by a preamble in which it was said that Claremont Men’s College had been—and was at that moment—“a white college that gave a white education.” In the course of the ensuing debate I asked repeatedly whether it was true that CMC, providing a “white education,” taught white mathematics, or white economics, or white biology, or white physics, or for that matter, white political science. Was there anything in Plato’s Republic, I asked, that indicated that it was “white justice” that Socrates was seeking to define or discover. Was there anything in the Nicomachean Ethics, I asked, to indicate that it was “white happiness” that Aristotle sought as the summum bonum? Was there anything in Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (or in the Declaration of Independence) to indicate that taxation without representation was unjust only for whites? Was there anything in Locke’s Letters on Toleration (or in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom) I asked, to indicate that it was only in the case of white human beings, that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry”? Although I hammered away at these questions, the opposition was uninterested in debating them. “The philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world,” Karl Marx had written. “The point is however to change it.” Debate, like religion, had become in their minds only an opiate. You defeated your opponent’s arguments by trampling on your opponents, and by treating them with contempt.
The other side, although it did not have a reasoned argument, did have what might be called a position. This consisted in two elements. The one was a confession of white guilt. Of course, the very idea of white guilt contradicted the idea that we were engaged in dispensing only a white education. How could a white mind recognize a black mind as equally a mind, unless mind as such transcends the distinction of color? The response to this question was to be found in something entirely different, in a commitment to relativism. Relativism began with the assertion that the dispositions of our minds or souls, all the grounds upon which we hold anything to be true or good or precious, are rooted in our cultures. But there is no trans-cultural (or trans-historical) point of view from which different cultures can be measured or judged. In fact, there was no objective foundation for the dignity—or indignity—of any culture. All cultures being equally without such a foundation, were objectively equal in dignity. Because our curricula had failed to assimilate the truth of relativism, we had wrongly imputed a superior dignity and importance to American (and Western) culture. The Black and Brown Centers were only the beginning of a new openness—a new commitment to tolerance and diversity—based upon the equality of all human cultures.
The allegedly rational foundation of this openness was the realization of the non-rational foundations, not only of all cultures, but of all moral preferences and all “lifestyles.” All were grounded in “value judgments” which were rooted in our subconscious selves, which sometimes produced illusions of reason (called “ideologies”), but which were never rational in themselves. We were off-shoots of white Western culture, in all our habits of thought and feeling and expression, whether we knew it or not. We were guilty—the argument ran—because as members of our culture we shared a collective unconscious ethnocentrism which constituted something very much akin—or so it seemed—to Original Sin. In any event, as an institution of higher learning, we could be saved by the gospel of relativism. We had a duty to lead the way out of the dark night of ego-and ethno-centricity, to the heavenly uplands of diversity and tolerance. Of course for anyone not completely in the grip of unreason, it should have been apparent that the claims of relativism—which were made with respect to all human cultures, past, present and future—were themselves inherently and necessarily trans-cultural and trans-historical. The argument for relativism was in fact an argument for a totally new culture. There was no existing or previous culture—certainly no African or Mexican culture—among all those to be admitted to equality with western culture, that recognized the alleged truth of relativism. The only civilization that had ever recognized the equal humanity (not the equal dignity) of all cultures was Western civilization. Indeed, the first nation ever to have declared its right to independence, not upon the ground of any peculiar virtues of its own, but upon the ground of rights which it shared with all men everywhere, was the United States of America. And the doctrine of relativism itself, however self-contradictory, was nonetheless an authentic offspring of modern Western culture and philosophy.
This sounds like a spot-on description of the dynamic of the whole critical race theory phenomenon that has broken out fully from the campus and now affects the entire nation. And that’s why this lecture deserves inclusion in our Relevant Classic Texts series.