Affirmative action has failed (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

October 7, 2021   5 mins

Does “critical race theory” (CRT) really exist? Not according to Ralph Northam, the Governor of Virginia. CRT, he recently told The New York Times, “is a dog whistle that the Republicans are using to frighten people. What I’m interested in is equity.”

But rather than convince anyone about the non-existence of CRT, his comments merely confirmed something else: namely, CRT’s remarkable ability to shape-shift into whatever form its advocates choose. For Northam, CRT might not exist — but that’s only because it has undergone a rebranding.

Indeed, while many on the Right have obsessed over the rise of CRT in the past year, a different abbreviation has quickly become entrenched in America’s schools and colleges: “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI).

Part of its purpose appears to be to sow confusion among opponents of CRT. It has certainly riled the conservative Heritage Foundation. In its recent guide on “How to identify Critical Race Theory”, it warns of a “new tactic” deployed by the movement’s defenders: they “now deny that the curricula and training programs in question form part of CRT, insisting that the ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)’ programs of trainers such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo are distinct from the academic work of professors such as Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, and other CRT architects”.

Certainly, regardless of which trendy three-letter term you prefer to describe the latest iteration of America’s obsession with race, the goal in each case is the same: to shift away from meritocracy in favour of an equality of outcome system.

But implementing a grievance model into our youth education curriculum will not fix the problems it purports to solve. There is, after all, a dearth of evidence suggesting that DEI programmes advance diversity, equity or inclusion. In fact, if DEI programmes in schools have similar results as DEI corporate training, they might be not only ineffective, but potentially harmful.

This shift is due to the clear failure of affirmative action policies. First introduced more than 50 years ago, they were intended to create equal opportunities for a black community said to be held back by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow laws. Suffice it to say that they failed. Today, only 26% of black American’s have a Bachelor’s degree, 10% lower than the national average. More than half of black households earn less than $50,000 annually, and the labour force participation rate for black men is 3.3% lower than for white men; it has actually shrunk by 11.6% since the early 1970’s. Only four CEOs from Fortune 500 companies are black.

Instead of providing opportunities for black students, affirmative action threw many students into the deep-end of schools where they lacked the educational foundation to succeed. Frequently, as Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr have observed, they were mismatched: “Large racial preferences backfire[d] against many, and perhaps, most recipients, to the point that they learn less… usually get much lower grades, rank toward the bottom of the class, and far more often drop out.”

But rather than recognise the failure of this approach, its proponents have chosen to double down. Without analysing why affirmative action failed to produce equal opportunity for black students, and without trying to identify solutions that would be more impactful, those interested in CRT and DEI only wish to manipulate the system further.

Instead of focusing on ways to lift black students up as individuals with agency, ability and choice, they believe the system must reorient itself to produce the desired outcome, starting with kindergarten. It is dependent on the magnification of barriers and tension between racial groups — something which I suspect is psychologically damaging to both white and black students.

For white students, the blame of slavery and Jim Crow laws are laid at their feet. Bari Weiss recently revealed a number of shocking cases of how this manifests itself in schools, but one in particular caught my eye: “A Fieldston student says that students are often told ‘if you are white and male, you are second in line to speak.’ This is considered a normal and necessary redistribution of power.” But it is far from “normal” or “necessary”. Putting the atrocious sins of America’s past on the shoulders of children and teenagers is a form of child abuse.

For black children, the situation is no better. Students are being taught that it is the system, not their own effort and abilities, that will determine their future in life. This discourages hard work, motivation, ambition and aspiration. It also breeds distrust and hostility towards white teachers, further truncating their abilities to learn and progress in school. As Ian Rowe points out, “the narrative that white people ‘hold the power’ conveys a wrongheaded notion of white superiority and creates an illusion of black dependency on white largesse”.

And in the schools themselves, this often leads to physical segregation. Paul Rossi, a former teacher at Grace Church High School in New York, recently described how “racially segregated sessions” were “commonplace” at his school. Down in Atlanta, meanwhile, last month a concerned mother filed a lawsuit alleging that black students at Mary Lin Elementary School were being assigned to only two of the six second-grade classes.

But “you can’t treat one group of students based on race differently than other groups”, as her attorney eloquently put it. After all, any ideology that separates people due to their immutable characteristics will not lift up minority students, but drag society down into neo-segregation. Indeed, it’s hardly surprising that students today seem more anxious, scared and lacking in confidence than any previous generation for which we have data.

Nevertheless, the grievance model methods are spreading through American schools like wildfire. Take Ralph Northam’s state of Virginia, which is implementing the “Road Map to Equity”, which suggests that making equity is more important to education than academics. Perhaps that’s why Virginia legislators passed a bill this year that requires all educators to “complete instruction or training in cultural competency and with an endorsement in history and social sciences to complete instruction in African American history”.

Rather than push race to the foreground of education, anti-racists would do better to cultivate a learning environment for students where the focus is on being kind and respectful. Real diversity and inclusion are more likely to flourish when students are taught to help their fellow classmates — rather than view them through a crudely racialised prism.

Last week, I spoke to Katharine Birbalsingh, the Headmistress of the remarkable Michaela Community School, which serves families from disadvantaged backgrounds and achieves incredible results. When I asked Katharine what their secret was, she told me: “We’re very traditional. We believe in things like belonging. We believe in personal responsibility in a sense of duty to your family, to your community.”

And that is what it comes down to. All children and students want to belong. But demonising white students and re-segregating black students does the very opposite: it divides far more than it unites.

A focus on personal responsibility also goes a long way, both for students and for those looking to help. When watching some of the Virginia Department of Education webinars on equity earlier this week, I heard no mention of empowering or helping individual black children. The conversations revolved around “personal reflection” and “doing the work”, with little explanation of what this means in real life. There was no mention of tutoring, mentoring or guiding struggling students.

If we are going to have an honest conversation about elevating black students, we must throw out buzzwords such as “equity” and start talking about practical solutions. There is, after all, a genuine appetite for this: a recent Pew report found that 76% of Americans said that “racial and ethnic diversity is good for the country”.

And that will only be achieved by encouraging community service and involvement, and requiring teachers to focus on respect and academic rigour within their classrooms. What we must not do, however, is outsource education to a three-letter abbreviation, be it CRT or DEI. They are shallow, short-sighted and performative — and, most importantly, will do nothing to improve the futures of our children

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an UnHerd columnist. She is also a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Founder of the AHA Foundation, and host of The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Podcast. Her new book is Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights.