Racial Newspeak Comes to the Classroom

The airwaves have combusted. Parents confront school boards. Across the country, state and government agencies are moving in opposite directions: some release the genie of racial equity and Critical Race Theory (CRT) while others try to corral it and squeeze it back into the bottle. In California, CRT, either explicitly or implicitly through its aligned pedagogies, is present at every level of education—from universities and community colleges to K-12 education.

The chancellor of California Community Colleges, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, seeks to “close racial equity gaps,” asking all within the system to “integrate an anti-racist campus culture into every districts (sic), campus, department, classroom, professional meeting, convening, work group and committee.” Chancellor Oakley and all top administrators signed the June 14 letter, “In solidarity.”

However, there is a competing viewpoint.

Speaking to the same general issue of gaps in performance among ethnic groups, especially black students, Professor Glenn Loury argues, “One might hope that the administration, being so informed [of these disparities], would. . . say, ‘Oh my God, let’s do something to make sure that our youngsters of color have the requisite skills.’ Instead, they retreat behind an ‘institutional racism’ smokescreen. It is patronizing and condescending to blacks to do this, because what they’re saying in effect, is: ‘We don’t think you’re going to be able to cut it. But it’s okay. We’ll cover for you.’ [This] is profoundly inconsistent with racial equality in its truest and highest sense.”

George Orwell’s Newspeak, the fictional language of a totalitarian state, provides insight into the use and abuse of language that is making it difficult to decipher these new ideologies of race and racism. “Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like Freedom is Slavery when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think.”

The chancellor and his office employ the slogans commonly heard today: ‘being anti-racist’ and seeking to ‘close racial equity gaps.’ Is this Newspeak, the new racial orthodoxy? Is it, as Loury argues, “inconsistent with racial equality in its truest and highest sense”?

Perhaps you find this to be an exaggeration, maybe satire. But if we dig deep enough into the chancellor’s update, following those magical linguistic links, we can determine the precise meaning of ‘racial equity.’

The Mechanics of Racial Newspeak

Let’s start with the word ‘merit.’

Webster’s Dictionary defines merit as “the condition or fact of deserving reward or punishment” (e.g., “Students are graded according to merit”).

However, California Community Colleges (CCC) has adopted a different definition of merit, which may be found in its in-house Newspeak dictionary, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Glossary of Terms: “Merit: A concept at face value appears to be a neutral measure of academic achievement and qualifications: however, merit is embedded in the ideology of Whiteness and upholds race-based structural inequality. Merit protects White privilege under the guise of standards (i.e., the use of standardized tests that are biased against racial minorities) and as highlighted by anti-affirmative action forces.”

With this definition, racial newspeak demands that true meritocracy be abolished. To that end, the University of California has ended the use of the SAT and ACT as an admission requirement because of “the impact of the standardized tests to disadvantaged students, emphasizing how the exams discriminate against the poor, black, and Hispanic students.” Meanwhile, New York City, Boston, and San Francisco have taken or are in the process of taking similar action against their premier high schools by eliminating admissions tests, instead preferring lotteries and school zones.

In New York City, the three premier public high schools are Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, and my alma mater, Brooklyn Tech. Progressive reformers assume that through the SHSAT, the admission exam for all three of these schools, whites outpace people of color and dominate school enrollment.

Is this true?

Recent data show that in 2018, Asians comprised 61% of students at Brooklyn Tech, 64% at Bronx Science, and 73% at Stuyvesant. It’s clear that whites are not overrepresented in these schools, but rather Asians, who have taken it upon themselves to do the hard work necessary to gain admission. That’s the real ‘merit,’ not some mysterious force in the aether that “upholds race-based structural inequality.” Nevertheless, Asians feel stigmatized: “[T]hat somehow we own this test, [that is] very hurtful. . . These are low-income immigrant families, and these are also minorities. And often times when people talk about people of color, they don’t even consider Asian Americans as people of color.”

The Intellectual Quicksand of Race-Consciousness

Let’s dig even deeper.

Apparently, some question whether blacks and Latinos can work as hard as Asians. If we only look at New York City public school test scores, that may seem correct. ‘Correct,’ that is, until we compare the black and Latino student scores to those in the Success Academy (SA) charter school system. SA schools take students from the same communities as the district schools. The demographics are very similar. SA schools select students by lottery. And yet, students at these schools score about twice as high in math and English as those in district schools; they also score higher than many affluent schools outside New York City.

Thus, merit not only can be achieved by black and Latino students—it actually has been achieved. Blacks and Latinos are not helpless victims. If anything, the failure of New York City public schools suggests—if one follows the thinking of critical race theorists—that the schools themselves, not standardized testing, are systemically racist.

There are likely other explanations, but CRT is not concerned with them; it begins and rarely departs from a racialized explanation, which it always articulates through the semantics of structural racism. From this racialized perspective, ‘merit’ is a biproduct of white culture. Yet, as we have seen, this falls flat on its face in light of the empirical data. Asians have done the hard work and thereby dominate enrollment in NYC’s premier high schools; blacks and Latinos have likewise done the hard work and dominate objective standardized tests in SA schools. Empirical data disproves the ideology of racial equity.

But the calculus is different in the Chancellor’s Office.

Notwithstanding the complex reality we live in, including the civil rights reforms of the past fifty years through legislation and court decisions, the glossary of racial newspeak thrives on disproven science and faulty notions of race.

To further understand the ideology of racial equity, Figure 1 illustrates how ‘merit’ (as white culture) is the foundation of equity, DEI, oppressor and oppressed, implicit bias, racial justice, white privilege, anti-racism, microaggressions and so on. It is wrongheaded and upside down:

Figure 1. The New Meaning of ‘Merit’ / The Upside-Down Notions of Racial Newspeak

Here’s a quick example that underscores the upside-downedness of racial equity:

“There is only one race, the human race” is deemed a microaggression that ought to be suppressed. But for a biologist and anthropologist, this is a fundamental truth that should be taught in every classroom. It is the rejection of ‘scientific racism’ that stacked one ‘race’ above the other in the 19th century. And yet, the proselytizers of anti-racism want to throw this phrase down the memory hole.

Racial newspeak has confused ethnicity and race. California’s State Board of Education adopted an ethnic studies model curriculum, not a racial studies model curriculum. Moreover, the use of the term ‘race’ and ‘racialized’ groups is both incorrect and stigmatizing.

For example, ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic’ is not a race in any sense of the word. It is an ethnic category that represents combinations of indigenous, mestizo, black, European, and Asian peoples. One can be black and Latino; one can be Native American and Latino; one can be Asian and Latino; one can be European and Latino, and so on. How, then, is ‘Latino’ a race?

The Problem of Coercion and Blind Spots

Another term in racial newspeak dictionary is ‘implicit bias.’ It is intended to identify and

decondition those afflicted with a ‘white’ consciousness. For example, a recent training at Coca-Cola calls to mind the slogan: Be Less White.

We all have biases. That is nothing new. The question is about the connection between our biases and our actions. The Implicit Association Test, developed by Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji in 1995, postulated a connection between our biases or constructs and our behavior. However, subsequent researchhas found this connection to be invalid and unreliable, yet the superficial attraction of this test has been sufficient for some institutions to impose it on the unsuspecting—and often the unwilling.

Here lies the problem of racial newspeak. It is not that we have different words to discuss race (e.g., ethnicity and ethnic groups). Rather, troubles arise when we impose these new definitions on everyone within a business, school, military, or other organization in a coercive and blunderbuss manner. This is invariably counterproductive.

In 2019, for example, New York City police officers completed a bias training. The intent is admirable—to treat everyone equally; yet reality tells a different story. It turns out that treating everyone and all encounters equally could lead to hyper-vigilance that has been “implicated as a cause of excessive force as well as a primary source of mental strain and burnout for cops. While hyper-vigilance sounds positive in the context of public safety, experts in police training have warned against it for decades. The sense that one’s life is in constant danger is associated with PTSD, panic disorder, reflexive shooting and even suicide.”

A public records search at Wellesley Public Schools in Massachusetts revealed another approach to changing biases. In this case the schools’ strategic equity plan included separating students and staff into racially segregated affinity spaces, such as ALANA, Admin Leaders of Color, White Educators for Antiracism, and so forth. (ALANA or AALANA is an alternative to saying “people of color,” “minorities,” or “underrepresented.”)

At Stanford University Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS), two Jewish staff members were pressured to join a “whiteness accountability” group as part of their DEI training. The DEI committee also espoused narratives that Jews were linked to white supremacy through antisemitic tropes of Jewish power. What’s more, the DEI committee failed to respond to antisemitic incidents since, in its view, they were concerned with anti-black incidents, not anti-Jewish ones. The complaint filed with the EEOC and the California Department of Fair Employment and Equal Housing also stated, “DEI committee members justified the omission of anti-Semitism by insisting that unlike other minority groups, Jews can hide behind their white identity.”

Lifting the Veil of Newspeak

Immigrants often come to America in search of freedom. As such, they are attuned to agendas that seek to undermine their rationale for immigrating in the first place. This is particularly true for those seeking the opportunity for a better life, one based on merit. ‘Merit’ is their brass ring for social mobility.

Frank Xu, a San Diego resident, migrated to the United States from China. Xu hears the echo of Communist China in the current debate over ethnic studies: “Culture Relevant Pedagogy is a fancy term for Ethnic Studies, which will inject the idea of Ethnic Studies into ALL subjects. That reminds me of the Mao era math textbooks. If this is not political indoctrination, what would be?”

Many of us lack sensitivity to the indoctrination process that took place during China’s Cultural Revolution. Xu shared a mathematics book that illuminated the nature of that indoctrination: “In the Cultural Revolution, the revolutionary people invented a way to use wheat straw pulps to produce paper to print Mao’s words. The loyalty people now want to donate this pile of wheat straw to make paper. Given the following parameters of the pile in the figure, please calculate the volume of the pile.”

Figure 2A. Sixth Grade Math Textbook – 1969, China

Figure 2B. A mathematics lesson embedded with slogans of Chairman Mao

But is this sort of indoctrination occurring in California mathematics education? Or is Xu being over-sensitive?

In fact, Xu’s concern has been validated by the updated California Department of Education Mathematics Framework. Chapter 2, titled “Teaching for Equity and Engagement,” claims that “[a] ‘color-blind’ approach allows systemic inequities to continue.” The opposite of ‘color-blind’ is racial equity.

The update explains that “[m]athematics has traditionally been viewed as a neutral discipline . . . [In this framework] [a] different perspective enables teachers to not only help their students see themselves inside mathematics but develop knowledge and understanding that allows them to use mathematics toward betterment in their worlds. Teachers can take a justice-oriented perspective at any grade level, K–12.”

So, what’s wrong with a kindergartner learning about social justice and equity?

In Chapter 9, the framework incorporates A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction: Dismantling

Racism in Mathematics Instruction. This workbook asserts, “White supremacy culture infiltrates math classrooms in everyday teacher actions.”

Just as racial newspeak sees merit as white culture, so too does it view merit-based math instruction as “white,” namely that which focuses on getting the ‘right’ answer, independent practice over teamwork, tracking students into ability levels as well as assessing students by having them show their work, grading based on what one has learned, and presupposing that mathematics is objective. The new equitable math rejects these practices and ideas.

But white culture? Isn’t there an alternative to racialized mathematics instruction? Of course, we can all agree that there are different sub-fields of mathematics, from topology to statistics to calculus. And we can all agree to an open approach to teaching mathematics, including different paths to an answer; that approximation is a skill and is sometimes sufficient; that some can use an abacus, others a calculator. But, in the end, we want the rocket-ship to land on the moon; we want cars that drive; we want a computer that functions like a computer and not a toy. All modern technology requires objectively right answers in whatever mathematical system it employs. This is not about racial equity, but the realities undergirding a functioning society.

The infusion of ideology into mathematics, whether in Mao’s China or California’s Mathematics Framework, is cut from the same cloth. It is easier for Frank Xu and other immigrants to see this connection than for Americans who may think that we can right social ills with race consciousness.

“But I Am Not a Racist”

A more recent addition to the racial newspeak dictionary is “anti-racism.” Being an ‘anti-racist’ means the opposite of what the term would imply. When it comes to fighting racism, Chief Justice John Roberts providesthe traditional understanding: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” In this view, if one doesn’t discriminate, one is not a racist.

However, for Ibram Kendi, it is impossible to simply “not be a racist.” One is either a racist or an anti-racist—there is no neutral position. Kendi’s now-infamous formulation is: “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

In many situations, Kendi’s view would violate the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution’s 14th

Amendment has come to mean “equality for all,” not a mandate to be an ‘anti-racist.’ Kendi’s approach would lead to vague and overbroad conduct no matter how well intended.

Judge Amul Thapar pointed this out when the Small Business Administration attempted to right the wrongs of past discrimination by distributing loans first to minorities and women ahead of whites and men. Thapar saw the result as irrational: “[I]ndividuals who trace their ancestry to Pakistan and India qualify for special treatment. But those from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq do not. Those from China, Japan, and Hong Kong all qualify. But those from Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco do not.” Moreover, the SBA practice was not narrowly tailored, nor did the government itself cause the disparities in question.

The Path Forward: Guardrails

Yes, it is important to be self-aware; and yes, it is wise to treat others respectfully. But in practice, racial equity is implemented with a one-size-fits-all approach.

In the distant past, history has seen coercive litmus tests, such as the prueba de limpieza de sangre (proof of pure blood Christian lineage) and dhimmi (Islamic requirement of second-class status to Christians and Jews). More recently, there has been the Russian gulag with its brainwashing in forced labor camps and Mao’s Red Guard, which sought to purge traditional beliefs from the masses.

The United States, by contrast, is a representative democracy, with all the head-banging and cacophony that this entails. Allegiance to defend the country is a prerequisite for holding federal office. We also have a Pledge of Allegiance. But such tests do not distinguish between racial, religious, gender, or class groups.

Racial newspeak fails to recognize the substantial progress Americans have made in the past half-century, and it is willing to sacrifice merit and objectivity in pursuit of “racial equity.”

We are not immune to reimposing such ideological litmus tests. Take, for example, the test proposed by the Poway Unified School District’s (PUSD) Racial Equity and Inclusion Plan. PUSD sees this test as an educational improvement: To be a loyal practitioner of ‘anti-racism’ requires signing a pledge and “committing to be anti-racist.” (Figure 3.)  However well-intended, the pledge steps beyond the norms of respect into Kendi-inspired anti-racism. Judge Thapur would be appalled at this overreach; George Orwell would smile at the racial newspeak.

Figure 3. Poway Unified School District Comprehensive Plan for Prioritizing Equity, Inclusion, Progress Towards Implementation, Educational Improvements, 10-13-20, p. 12

To stay on the path of ameliorating social ills rather than creating litmus tests and semantic ploys, we should adopt guardrails against coercive institutional behavior and against ill-considered racial newspeak.

Here are some options:

Guardrail 1: Focus on the language of equality and non-discrimination.

Guardrail 2: Ethnic studies, not race studies, as an academic objective.

Guardrail 3: Include contrasting viewpoints on viable policies.

Guardrail 4: Reject narrow perspectives about the history of the United States.

Guardrail 5: Open the discussion to the full history of the United States and its peoples: reform, opportunity, freedom, and achievement, as well as injustice and disparities.

Notably, the state of California has formulated its own guardrails, while at the same time mandating ethnic studies as a graduation requirement (AB 101).

Some advocates would have preferred the total avoidance of ethnic studies coursework, allowing students to spend more time on STEM and other subjects. However, now that ethnic studies has been mandated, these guardrails provide a safety net that will allow students, parents, and community members to investigate whether school districts are in compliance with this new law.

The key guardrails in AB 101 are:

  1. The courses should be appropriate for use with students from all protected classes such as race, religion and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds;
  2. The courses do not promote bias, bigotry or discrimination against any person or groups with a protected group;
  3. The courses do not teach or promote religious doctrine;
  4. Districts should not adopt any version of the ethnic studies curriculum not approved by California’s Instructional Quality Commission.

Keeping the more than 1,000 California school districts from going rogue will require constant attention, especially when they claim innocence of racial newspeak while the content says otherwise.


Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Joe Nalven

Joe Nalven is a Lecturer of Anthropology and Research Associate at the University of San Diego.

One thought on “Racial Newspeak Comes to the Classroom”

  1. Everything is fine and correct, but one point is more than questionable. “There is only one race, the human race” … for a biologist and anthropologist, this is a fundamental truth that should be taught in every classroom.”
    Even to keep aside the important point that Census Bureau clearly separates the Race and Ethnicity, regardless on CR or other theorists, the fundamental fact that races exist, as materialization of different physical and other traits for very large groups of population, is very hard to disprove. It is not just 19-th century misconception; majority of the modern scholars agree with it. It is confirmed not only by genetic and biological studies, but by self-determination of the very people, who belong to those groups. Everything else – the main principle of meritocracy, etc. – should be applied equally to all races, no smallest doubt in it. The differences, however, could be very deep, whatever one’s efforts – see an excellent survey in Charles Murray’s latest book, Human Diversity. The Biology or Gender, Race and Class, 2020 (see review https://www.amren.com/blog/2020/02/nyt-reviews-charles-murrays-human-diversity/)

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