On a warm day in the early fall of 1966, a 17-year-old former high school student led a group of local Red Guards in a struggle session to publicly shame members of the “Five Black Categories (landlords, rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, and right-wingers)” in a small town near Shanghai. The teenager, who came from an affluent landlord family, herded over a dozen “Five Blacks,” who were ordered to stand in a row on a makeshift stage in the town center and wear signs showing their names and alleged crimes. The Red Guard leader read out each person’s crime against the revolutionary regime, demanded confessions, and encouraged the crowd to join the struggle. He chanted: “The revolution is just and the rebellion is justified!”
This event was part of a student-led paramilitary movement that debuted the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Many, including the generation born after the Cultural Revolution, view the chaos and destruction caused by Mao’s Red Guards as a mere historical hiccup, rather than a formative series of events that would set a pattern for the future. Few draw parallels between what happened in China half a century ago and what could happen in an open society engulfed by an orthodoxy of group think, racial identity politics, and dichotomous social relations.
To start, this radical orthodoxy preys on impressionable and unsuspicious young minds, filling them with romanticized “revolutionary” ideas, such that many are willing to forego formal education for political ambitions. Chinese Red Guards, mostly high school and middle school students, helped effectively shut down their schools by subjugating school principals and teachers in endless struggle sessions and substituting field trips with free train rides to Beijing to meet with Chairman Mao.
Now we are not re-experiencing the Cultural Revolution, nor are we in danger of another bloody “Red August” massacre, but Americans should be alarmed by the threat of a similar radical doctrine and its increasing demands for our students to become “change agents” in the names of social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism, and other lofty goals unrelated to education.
Real-life implementation of this divisive doctrine often departs from its unobjectionable and virtuous claims for an improved society free of any injustice, bias, or oppression. Some college campuses are now re-segregating into multicultural spaces that exclude “offensive” bad elements. The Multicultural Solidarity Coalition at Arizona State University, for example, recently demanded that two white, male students leave its space because “there is no such thing as ‘white culture.’” Student leaders of the Multicultural Student Center and the Latinx Student Center at the University of Virginia are lobbying the university’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Manager to keep the University Police Department out of their safe spaces. Student activists from my alma mater—the University of Miami—created a petition to request a Black Cultural Center to further racial justice. Once done, the new cultural space will add to the school’s existing network of the Multicultural Center, the LGBTQ Student Center, and gender-inclusive housing. In the name of cultural diversity, Western Washington University recently created a separate Black Affinity Housing program that occupies an entire floor of a residential hall on campus. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement must be rolling in their graves.
The irony is not lost that, like the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the new movement to create multicultural safe spaces on college campuses has little to do with culture or pluralism, but much with political power. Or according to American journalist Richard Bernstein, this orthodoxy is:
A universe of ambitious good intentions that has veered off the high road of respect for difference and plunged into a foggy chasm of dogmatic assertions, wishful thinking, and pseudoscientific pronouncements about race and sex.
The political, rather than cultural, core of this orthodoxy can be corroborated from several sensational cases, when racial incidents in schools are swiftly used to advance certain curriculums or initiatives that conform to the doctrine. In September, a Missouri high school had its bathrooms littered with racist graffiti, which led to a wave of anti-racist walkouts demanding racial justice reforms. In August, a group of students at a Salinas high school in central California were “exposed” for defacing and torturing a black doll. The episode generated sufficient public outrage for the Salinas Union High School District to legitimize its liberatory ethnic studies courses to combat white supremacy. In April, racist graffiti in reference to the Ku Klux Klan was found in a student dormitory at Albion College in Michigan, prompting school officials to announce actions to repair racial trauma. Last year, two twin sisters from Poway Unified School District in San Diego started an Instagram account to solicit and showcase instances of racial slurs, threats and microaggressions. In response, the school district passed a Racial Equity & Inclusion plan and instituted two new courses on ethnic studies.
Ironically, the instigators or perpetrators of all these racist incidents were non-white students who hoped that their actions would raise public awareness of “systemic racism.” What do they have in common with Mao’s Red Guards, you wonder?
In their fervent pursuit of “justice,” these youngsters have become judge and jury, director and actor. But perhaps the political passion is nothing but a short-lived blip in a life of unexpected twists and turns that awaits the young warriors.
Back to that 1966 struggle session in China: on public display were local officials, teachers, and intellectuals who had been selected and persecuted by a kangaroo court organized by the young Red Guards. Before the session had even begun, they were categorized as “bad people.” Among the accused were a couple—the husband was the elementary school principal who had taught most of these local Red Guards and who also owned a small plot of farmland, while the wife worked at the local pharmacy and had a rice merchant family background. Years later, the 17-year-old Red Guard leader became a small businessman who rode the train of China’s Open and Reform and retired in the late 2000s to take care of the couple he denounced in 1967, as their beloved son-in-law. The three are my stepfather and maternal grandparents. None of them cares to mention these events in the fall of 1966, which they regard as a footnote in their full circles of life.