The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations at Rutgers

When did it become the role of an English department to devote itself to social justice?

A stunning letter written by Rebecca L. Walkowitz, the chair of Rutgers’ English Department, “Department actions in solidarity with Black Lives Matter,” affirms how deeply academia is now in the thrall of racism hysteria, and particularly after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a brutal police officer in Minneapolis. The letter is steeped in the language of social justice, racial equity, white supremacy, and racial oppression, leading one to wonder why an English department—whose function is, nominally, the study of literature and the teaching of techniques of writing and composition—would craft its entire mission and curriculum around an slavish affection with an anti-racist, Black Lives Matter-inspired ideology.

When did it become the role or purpose of an English department—and especially in a public university—to make as a central feature of its teaching social issues which are only tangentially related to the subject matter? This is not a social justice department, or black studies department, or an institute or program that focuses on race, social issues, and activism. So the letter’s stated intention that the English Department will “stand with and respond to the Black Lives Matter movement . . . create and promote an anti-racist environment . . . and . . . contribute to the eradication of the violence and systemic inequities facing black, indigenous, and people of color members of our community,” seems wildly inconsistent with what is, and should be, the role of an English department.

Not content with making a course in African-American literature a requirement in the English curriculum, every aspect of the pedagogy and instruction is suffused with layers of obsessive victimology and racism, including sponsorship of workshops that seek to “cultivate critical conversations for Writing Program instructors around the disproportionate impacts of covid-19; state power; racism; violence; white supremacy; protest and resistance; and justice.” 

What is the theory here? That familiarity with and concern for racial justice is the single topic on which students should focus their writing. That knowledge of these highly-charged, political issues is necessary for clear and cogent writing? What if students who enroll in courses taught by these indoctrinated professors have alternate views about race, or Black Lives Matter, or the existence of white supremacy, or the legitimacy of protests, violent or otherwise? Are they allowed to express those views? Can they vocalize and write about a different view of race? Clearly not.

As part of its virtue-signaling tool kit, the Rutgers English department also has something called the Committee on Bias Awareness and Prevention (CBAP).  Its purported purpose to be an “engine of workshops and forums related to anti-racist pedagogy, addressing bias in the classroom, and recognizing and eradicating bias in the workplace and academic profession.”  Clearly, none of the professors in these classrooms will be expressing racist thought, given that they are now required to attend workshops on “how to have an anti-racist classroom.” So, clearly, the only possible source of unacceptable racist thought will come from students, whose writing or interpretation of literary works will obviously be subject to intense scrutiny to ensure that no bias, bigotry, unacceptable views about race or justice, opinions about activism and protests as part of the BLM movement, or other controversial, and debatable, topics seep into classroom discussions.

Will students who express views contrary to what are obviously the acceptable views of the English Department receive low grades for challenging the political orthodoxy? Given that there seems to be one prevailing, unchallengeable ideology in this department, how will dissenters be treated or censured? The chair of the English Department, as well as her fellow travelers on the faculty (and, presumably, on the Rutgers administration), apparently feel that their desire to “foster greater understanding of the longer historical arc of racial injustice” is a virtuous, important endeavor, which it possibly is. But not everyone has that same view or even cares about it, one way or the other—and certainly not in a random English course.

The main question, however, is: what place does such thinking and such a mission have within an academic unit of a university, and is it even appropriate or reasonable to suffuse an entire discipline with a blanket of social justice aspirations, buzzwords, and beliefs—particularly when, as in this instance, this has virtually nothing to do with the academic area in question?

Most troubling, perhaps, is the stated intention in the letter that Rutgers will be “incorporating ‘critical grammar’ into our pedagogy” as a way of accommodating, and excusing, a lower level of writing skills of minority students and “students from multilingual, non-standard ‘academic’ English backgrounds.”  The term critical grammar, of course, suggests that the rules of English usage are merely social constructs, that the rules of grammar and the appropriate and accepted use of written English can be ignored and replaced, at will, with other styles of communication.

In a society of victims, knowledge and facts and reason no longer apply. Instead of having to learn to write in a way that is articulate and grammatically correct, Rutgers students will now be encouraged “to develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them w/ [sic] regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on ‘written’ accents.” Apparently, a professor who reads a composition by a student whose “written accent” is the language of the streets, or even the incomprehensible vernacular and fractured language of text messages, will be considered biased if he or she tries to apply academic standards to the essay; in other words, anything written by anybody, regardless of how inarticulate and grammatically incorrect it is, will henceforth meet the Rutgers standard.

More importantly, it is improper, if not illegal, for a public university to impose a particular ideology on its curriculum so that all students have to adhere to that point of view or be identified as pariahs in their respective academic communities. It is one thing for a university or one of its departments to embrace an anti-racism stance; it is another thing entirely when all professors and students are forced to align themselves with the mission and goals of an organization like Black Lives Matter—exactly what is taking place at Rutgers.

In 1943, the Supreme Court addressed this very issue, in a slightly different context, in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. In that case, the Court noted that even when policies are well-intentioned, and are designed to create a common good—such as improved race relations on campus through solidarity with BLM and teaching about racism—there is a danger in allowing government or individuals to impose a specific view of the world on others, even with supposed lofty purposes. “Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country,” the Court noted, “have been waged by many good, as well as by evil, men.”  And, more disturbingly, initial efforts to define what is right and good—such as improved race relations—can eventually lead to a required adherence to one set of beliefs and the suppression of other views. “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent,” the Court concluded, “soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”

And, importantly, while BLM has as its overarching mission to combat anti-black racism—something which most people can support—the organization also has a checkered past animated by vituperative, anti-white, murderous rhetoric and questionable and, often, illegal tactics. At a 2014 BLM rally in New York City, marchers screamed, “What do we want? Dead cops. When do we want it? Now.” In 2015, a  group of some 150 BLM protesters shouting “Black Lives Matter” pushed their way into Dartmouth University’s library, screaming, “F**k you, you filthy white f**ks!,” “F**k you and your comfort!,” and “F**k you, you racist sh*t!” And typical of the intersectionality of oppression to which campus victim groups regularly point, BLM’s 2016 platform included anti-Semitic language that libeled Israel by attempting to link its perceived oppression of the Palestinians with America’s treatment of blacks. “U.S. and Israeli officials and media criminalize our existence, portray violence against us as ‘isolated incidents,’ and call our resistance ‘illegitimate’ or ‘terrorism,’” the language read.  

George W. Bush once spoke of the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and it seems that Rutgers, in its ambition to vigorously address issues of race and bigotry, has fallen into the trap of that elitists often do: instead of demanding the same achievement from all students, regardless of color, in their misguided attempt to achieve equity and social justice, they ask less of the very marginalized groups they try so assiduously to help.

Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews (a David Horowitz Freedom Center publication).

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Photo credit: slgckgc

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