Recently, a San Diego school district superintendent attempted to explain the overall good educational performance of Asian students by highlighting these students’ alleged rich immigrant backgrounds. She said: “people who’re able to make the journey to America are wealthy.” Once her bigoted comments were exposed, the superintendent first apologized and then doubled down and advocated for more diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programming. Confronted by parents calling for her resignation, said education leader then absolved herself of any responsibility, accused the dissenters of public lynching, and threatened legal action. The woke mentality is unapologetically invasive.
The firm conviction that DEI presents an unquestionable model for success and virtue reflects a bigger, national quagmire—America has become obsessed with race, captured by dressed-up fringe ideologies and paralyzed by the urge to equalize outcomes. The current state of affairs is a result of deliberate institutional changes, which have step by step hijacked liberal designs of individual rights, equal opportunity, free speech, and critical thinking. Teachers unions inject political agendas and activist demands into normal education policymaking through collective bargaining and terrorizing non-conforming members. Higher education programs such as education colleges produce ideologues rather than free thinkers by promoting invasive new pedagogies, such as critical race theory (CRT) and culturally responsive teaching. A major American political party is so smitten with the dogma of DEI that most recent federal policies, whether on national defense or homeland security or banking, have been tinged with its pursuit.
It seems that the strategic vision of a “Long March through the Institutions,” shared by Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci, and Mao Zedong, has come alive in America in the 21st century. The logical follow-up question is obvious: can we long march back through the same institutions, originally designed as part and parcel of the longest uninterrupted experiment of liberal democracy, to undo the damages? If so, how? Let’s consider three possible routes in turn.
Vote the Radicals out
Perhaps the most straightforward route, this approach draws on the growing energy of constituents to produce quick results at the ballot box. Until recently, this tactic seemed unrealistic: All politics is local, but low voter turnout in local elections reached a crisis proportion over the last several years. According to the “Who Votes for Mayor” project, fewer than 15% of eligible voters turn out for mayoral elections in 10 of America’s 30 largest cities. School board elections, outcomes of which can largely influence the overall landscape of local education, fared even worse, with a devastating range of 5 to 10 percent in voter turnout between 2014 and 2019.
Luckily, since 2020, more and more voters have been showing up at local ballot boxes, energized by education issues such as political indoctrination and school reopening. In addition, more electoral contestation has taken place to effectively challenge incumbents. For instance, San Dieguito Union High School District held a special election in November 2021 with a 19.1% voter turnout. From 2018 to 2021, the percentage of unopposed seats in 3,319 school board elections decreased from 40% to 24%, and seats won by newcomers challenging incumbents increased from 39% of the total available seats to 49%. This upward trend must continue if we want to balance the decision-making power, redistributing it from centralized, ideology-driven actors to decentralized stakeholders such as parents and taxpayers.
The end goal here is to empower education leaders who will represent their local constituents and promote core goals of a democratic public education system by truthfully informing voters about the ideologues and woke industry insiders who are overrunning our schools. Challenges to accomplish this come from the woke industrial complex and the internal collective action problems that result from information asymmetries, political infighting, and idiosyncratic differences. Over time and with strategic calculations, collective action problems can be solved or alleviated by better coordination and information-sharing.
1776 Project PAC, a national political action committee founded by Ryan Girdusky, is sharply focused on helping anti-CRT school board candidates win in local elections. In 2021, the organization flipped 18 school boards and won 42 individual races out of 58 in which it invested, even in progressive areas of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Texas, and Virginia. New grassroots organizations such as No Left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty are actively recruiting and training local parents to become more politically sophisticated in an effort to counterbalance union operatives and woke propagandists who have monopolized the education bureaucracy. My group, Californians for Equal Rights Foundation, has had success educating local candidates and constituents about the prevalence of DEI and CRT in progressive California through public advocacy campaigns and policy monitoring.
Increase the Transactional Costs of Going Woke
In the meantime, the woke industrial complex must be dealt with promptly. Entrenched special interest groups, which advance non-educational objectives such as DEI programming, anti-racist initiatives, and social justice activities, present an existential threat to our public education system. One potent vehicle to make the woke pay is through effective public and legal advocacy campaigns that interrogate the substantive destructions and procedural errors of shaping societal norms through the prism of superfluous human characteristics. In the opening case of this article, the disgraced superintendent reckoned that she would not have been targeted if it was a closed meeting, while her lawyer brazenly argued that she did absolutely nothing wrong. They are both right. Race baiting, stereotyping, and other unacceptable behaviors are condoned and even encouraged when little to no public scrutiny is applied.
Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Is it more legally questionable to treat students differently on the basis of race than to bring incidents of woke racial animus to the public’s attention?
In the open marketplace of ideas, the absurd idea that intersectional identities of power and privilege explain discrepancies in educational outcomes can’t stand intellectual or logical cross examination. The majority of Americans, regardless of color, creed, or political persuasion, simply won’t accept a race-based system as a practical solution to our social issues. The vocal woke minority will not face the sheer unpopularity of their proposals until they are confronted and made accountable to the public. When everyday folks learn about the rampant oddities of anti-racist early education, DEI statements for science professors, ethnomathematics, or woke medicine, many begin to apply critical thinking and probe further with meaningful questions. What does it mean to disrupt racism? Why should preschoolers be obsessed about different skin tones in a coloring activity? Why do we need to label children white or BIPOC and teach systemic racism as a universal fact?
In certain egregious instances, such as when a biracial student received a failing grade for refusing to deconstruct his power and privilege, or when public school students would be propelled to chant repetitive affirmations to Aztec and Mayan deities, or when students were segregated into affinity groups on the basis of race, legal actions are warranted to blunt thought indoctrination. Winning in the court of law works hand in hand with succeeding in the court of public opinion.
Build Dynamic Coalitions to Reinstate Good Values
Politics is downstream from culture. To long march back through the institutions, we also must be committed to playing a long game to sustain the first two routes. Cultural institutions, shared ideas, and commonly held norms and practices all have the capacity to revitalize society if they are activated in our public conscience. Is America still a union striving for perfection? Are we more similar than different? Is the melting pot of natural diversities better than the fashionable salad of identities? Why should equity overtake equality?
The movement against hard-left ideologies has untapped potential for appealing to a broadened base of conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals, especially when the focus transcends immediate political scores. My work building an alliance against CRT, for instance, has become a unifying project that has brought together a diverse group of civil rights leaders, academics, community activists, and ordinary citizens from vastly different racial, ethnic, and political backgrounds. Albeit different in many aspects, the members of the coalition are united by “our common values and shared identity as Americans… committed to promoting values of equal rights, equal citizenship, individual merit and liberty, against the divisive invasion of critical race theory in every aspect of our public life.”
Coalition building with likeminded professors and academics can help detox a dangerously illiberal addiction to tribal identity politics on American campuses and break the isolation for heterodox thinkers in hostile academic environments. Free thinking and merit must be vigorously defended in higher learning, where future leaders are trained and molded, amidst an extreme leftward turn in recent decades. Earlier this year, the Independent Institute led an open letter initiative opposing California’s new equity-centered, anti-merit mathematics framework, which generated over 1,200 signatures. The majority of the signers were STEM professors from prestigious American universities. The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal published a model bill called the “End Political Litmus Tests In Education Act,” which would prohibit schools from requiring faculty DEI statements in an effort to preserve academic freedom. The culture of critical thinking must return so that intellectuals can freely discuss diverse perspectives and contested ideas about the human condition and our scientific advancements without fear.
In K-12, curriculum experts, policy practitioners, community advocates, and parents need to turn the table from defending against progressive pedagogies to proactively offering superior alternatives. Not all ideas are equally good. The 1776 perspective on American founding needs to be provided to kids alongside the 1619 Project. Writings from Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and John McWhorter should be assigned in conjunction with Derrick Bell, bell hooks, and Ibram X. Kendi. Equality-rooted policy solutions that explore sociocultural factors behind disparities must be considered in comparison with equity-based politicking. I have compiled a list of curricular alternatives to CRT, critical ethnic studies, and DEI, which can and should be disseminated through a growing national network of anti-woke thinkers and doers.
With patience and tact, the long march back through our political and cultural institutions can be accomplished.