Legal Law

Wisconsin-Madison Under Fire Over Mandatory Anti-Racism Training – JONATHAN TURLEY

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is at the center of another controversy this week over its diversity training program. The mandatory diversity training at Wisconsin instructs students that “people of color” are incapable of being racist. That claim has long been voiced by radical elements in academia, but its incorporation into a mandatory training program has raised new questions over the leadership of President Jennifer Mnookin, a former UCLA law professor, and Law Dean Daniel Tokaji.

This training is part of the ABA Standard 303’s requirement for all law schools and was presented by consultant Debra Leigh, Vice President for Cultural fluency, equity, & inclusion at St. Cloud Technical & Community College.

The controversy was featured on a couple of conservative sites such as College Fix  after law students complained about the first-year law student training. Leigh has long been controversial for her views, including that those who claim to be “colorblind” are racist.

The required reading list for student “Re-Orientation” includes instruction on indications of “white guilt, denial or defensiveness.” It then explains how “People of color, as a social group, do not have the societal, institutional power to oppress white people as a group. An individual person of color abusing a white person – while clearly wrong, (no person should be insulted, hurt, etc.) is acting out a personal racial prejudice, not racism.”

Thus, people who have accused figures like Leigh of being racist in her own writings are categorically wrong and racist themselves. No matter what Leigh says about white people, she cannot be racist.

The explanation in the material is self-serving and shallow. The idea that racism is premised on the ability to yield power is not accepted by many, if not most, citizens. Racism is a matter of prejudice, not power. It is racism whether it is in a country, state, or city dominated politically by whites or racial minorities. It is an expression of ignorance and hate that uses the racial identity of others as the basis for claiming inferior or dangerous qualities.

The site also identified other controversial claims, including how seeking to learn about racism can be racist. Leigh explains that “I want to stop acting like a racist, so please tell me when I do something you think is racist,” is a “common racist [attitude]” or behavior.

She is quoted as adding “While it is vitally important for white anti-racists to work with other white people, this detour again results in white people controlling the direction and focus of anti-racist work.”

The controversy could not come at a worse time for the university, which recently agreed (after considerable debate and pushback) to cut down on its diversity-related materials in exchange for $800 million in funding from the state. The board originally refused the money rather than cut back on the training before finally yielding to the pressure.

The immediate responsibility for the training material falls on the shoulders of Tokaii, whose staff approved this mandatory training and presumably reviewed the material in advance. If they did not, they are equally at fault.

The University issued a response to the College Fix that stated:

“The session was interactive, with ample opportunities for students to engage in dialogue with each other. A core goal was to help students develop their critical thinking skills with respect to these topics.

We do not expect students to automatically accept the views expressed in the document referred to, any more than they would the reasoning of a legal brief, judicial opinion, or their professors… Accordingly, we welcome and encourage vigorous debate over important questions of law and policy, and this session provided a forum for such discourse.”

However, the pamphlet does not present these claims as springboards for discussion, but as facts to be learned in the mandatory training. The pamphlet entitled “Common Racist Attitudes and Behaviors that Indicate a Detour or Wrong Turn into White Guilt, Denial or Defensiveness,” lists 28 potential hazards for well-meaning white people on their redemptive journey.

It starts with the affirmative statements:

“Below is a list of 28 common racist attitudes and behaviors that indicate a detour or wrong turn into white guilt, denial or defensiveness. Each is followed by a statement that is a reality check and consequence for harboring such attitudes.”

It rails against “colorblindness” as a tool of white racial evasion that “negates the cultural values, norms, expectations and life experiences of people of color” and “denies the people of colors’ experience of racism and your experience of privilege.”

These are controversial and contested views that the University of Wisconsin is training law students to accept. There is no indication in the material that these are offered for debate.

Universities are facing increasing legal action for the diversity programs. Recently, we discussed how Penn State lost a critical motion in a lawsuit brought by a faculty member.

Likewise, at Johns Hopkins Hospital chief diversity officer Sherita Golden issued an apology after an outcry over her “privilege” list from the Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Health Equity program.

The newsletter stated

“Privilege is an unearned benefit given to people who are in a specific social group. Privilege operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural and institutional levels, and it provides advantages and favors to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of other groups…

In the United States, privilege is granted to people who have membership in one or more of these social identity groups: White people, able-bodied people, heterosexuals, cisgender people, males, Christians, middle or owning class people, middle-aged people, and English-speaking people.”

What is most disturbing about the Wisconsin material is the inclusion of political viewpoints as categorical examples of racism, including objections to reverse racism. They include statements that:

A. “People of color are just as racist as white people.”

B. “Affirmative action had a role years ago, but today it’s just reverse racism; now it’s discriminating against white men.”

C. “The civil rights movement, when it began, was appropriate, valuable, needed. But it’s gone to the extreme. The playing field is now level. Now the civil rights movement is no longer working for equality but for revenge.”

For a law school to train students that such viewpoints are inherently racist, including the very premise of reverse racism, is chilling for free speech and inimical to the academic duty to protect a diversity of viewpoints on campus.

The material also tells students that reference to the “Rugged Individual, the Level Playing Field and the Bootstrap Theory” are all racist tropes. Indeed, they are present as the “three of the crown jewels of U.S. social propaganda.”

How is that fostering “discourse,” as claimed by the university? They are stated affirmatively as the object of the training. The suggestion is that students are to adopt and recite, not debate and challenge such viewpoints.

The suggestion that this is a sounding board for discussion is refuted by even a cursory review of the material. Students are given facts to be learned and the material attacks those who question these facts as demonstrably racist. Even those who espouse anti-racist viewpoints are reminded that they remain racist:

“You righteously consider yourselves white people who have evolved beyond our racist conditioning. This is another level of denial. There are no ‘exceptional white people.’ You may have attended many anti-racism workshops; you may not be shouting racist epithets or actively discriminating against people of color, but you still experience privilege based on your white skin color. You benefit from this system of oppression and advantage no matter what your intentions are. This distancing serves only to divide you from potential allies and limit your own learning.”

To question such material on campuses today is to invite cancel campaigns and a pariah status. Few professors want to risk such controversy, which can sharply curtail academic opportunities and even the renewal of academic contracts.

Yet, this training is now being replicated in many other schools. It is part of a rising orthodoxy in higher education. There are important elements to this material which should be part of a dialogue on campuses. Those, however, are lost by the heavy-handed indoctrination shown in this material.

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