This is an excerpt from Arguable, a Globe Opinion newsletter from conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby. Sign up to get Arguable in your inbox each week.
Some progressive commentators have put on a show lately of being baffled by what Republicans or conservatives mean when they use the term “woke” or “wokeness” to refer to left-wing identity politics.
A momentary brain freeze by a young conservative writer who stumbled when she was asked on camera to define the term unleashed an avalanche of mockery on the left. “Conservatives have no clue what ‘woke’ means — and they don’t care” was the headline over a lengthy attack piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. Time magazine assured its readers that when Republicans criticize something for being “woke,” they are actually sounding a racial dog whistle. A writer for The Hill wagged a finger at the “the GOP’s misguided ‘woke police,’” who, he claimed, deride progressive efforts to “confront problems like racism, poverty, environmental ruin, and climate change.” The Washington Post’s Philip Bump declared disdainfully that “‘woke’ simply describes anything that is inherently alarming to the right.”
In truth, “woke” isn’t hard to define at all. In its most focused sense, it is the belief that America’s social and political institutions are engines of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of persecution and that virtually all invidious gaps or distinctions between groups can be explained by such oppression. More broadly, it is the illiberal insistence that group identity and grievances trump freedom of thought and honest debate. In the woke zeitgeist, anyone who prioritizes traditional liberal values, such as merit or colorblindness, over “equity” — i.e., proportionately equal outcomes for every group, regardless of credentials, experience, or performance — is part of the oppressive hierarchy that needs to be demolished.
You don’t have to be a conservative or a Republican to object to wokeness. Back in 2019, former president Barack Obama had tough words for those who think the best way of “making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people.” Speaking to a gathering of youths, he deplored the tendency to cancel individuals for expressing heterodox opinions. “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff? You should get over that quickly,” Obama told his audience. “If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because, man, you see how woke I was?”
I don’t recall anyone professing to be puzzled by what Obama meant by “woke.” Nor were they mystified when James Carville, the Democratic Party strategist, said in 2021 that “wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it.” Nor when the liberal commentator Kevin Drum warned that “academic theories of racism — and probably the whole woke movement in general — have turned off many moderate Black and Hispanic voters.”
For a current example of woke ideology in action, consider legislation now before the Minnesota Legislature.
A sweeping education omnibus bill backed by Democratic Governor Tim Walz was taken up last week at a hearing of the Education Finance Committee. It includes numerous subsections, but one that drew particular attention would require “ethnic studies” in Minnesota’s K-12 classrooms. According to the measure’s chief sponsor, Representative Samantha Sencer-Mura of Minneapolis, the bill would simply ensure that students are taught about all ethnic “cultures, communities, and histories,” not solely about Europe and its influence. In Sencer-Mura’s characterization, it is meant to ensure “a curriculum that reflects all students.”
But that isn’t what the bill prescribes. The legislation says next to nothing about the cultures and traditions of diverse peoples. Instead, it explicitly casts “ethnic studies” as an ideological discipline, defining it as:
“the critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigenity with a focus on the experiences and perspectives of people of color within and beyond the United States. Ethnic studies analyzes the ways in which race and racism have been and continue to be powerful social, cultural, and political forces, and the connection of race to the stratification of other groups, including stratification based on gender, class, sexuality, religion, and legal status.”
That’s hardly a mandate to celebrate the many cultural backgrounds represented by students in a diverse classroom. It is a mandate to indoctrinate children with an ideological agenda focused on the centrality of race and racism and to emphasize the overarching importance of group identity in all social interactions.
The bill would require every school board to develop a plan to address “institutional racism,” which is defined as “structures, policies, and practices within and across institutions that produce outcomes that chronically favor white people and disadvantage those who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.”
Among the bill’s leading advocates are Brian Lozenski and Jonathan Hamilton, two professors of education at Macalester College in Saint Paul. In a published essay, the two academics argue that “curricula is a primary mechanism of white supremacy in schools” and hail the proposed ethnic studies mandate as “a critical tool in ... Minnesota’s struggle for racial equity.” This is wokeness distilled to a high level of potency.
Opposition to the bill has been heartfelt. Two members of the public who testified at the hearing last week, both Black women, spoke with particular eloquence.
”You might ask,” began Kofi Montzka, an attorney in the state licensing division and a mother of three, “why in the world a Black person would speak against ethnic studies.” Her answer: because the bill under consideration “tells kids of color that they are stuck in a caste system based on their race. It also tells kids that institutions chronically favor white people and disadvantage people of color. I’m sick of everyone denying the enormous progress we’ve made in this country and acting like it’s 1930.”
She decried the harm caused by drumming such messages into kids’ heads:
“Just last month, in my high schooler’s band class, the teacher took 20 minutes to talk about ‘antiracism.’ He told the kids to look around. Then he said that the Black boys in the class would likely not live to retirement because of racism and the police. ... If this law is passed, teaching this hopelessness to kids of color will be mandated, starting in kindergarten.
“I can see why you white proponents of this bill might support it. It’s not your kids being told that they can’t succeed. And you get to shed some of your white guilt in the process. But you legislators of color, how can you? You made it despite the invisible bogeyman of systemic racism. You were voted in by a majority of white people. You hold some of the most powerful positions in this state. Yet you want to tell my kids and other kids of color that they can’t succeed?”
Hillary Swanson, a lifelong Minnesota resident, agreed. She had read the bill, she told legislators, and was disturbed by its conception of ethnic studies.
”It doesn’t help kids to tell them that their skin color determines their outcomes in today’s society. This bill … divides and stereotypes by race. It downplays and erases the strength of people committed to a common goal of being united.”
Swanson cited the “dismal” record of Minnesota schools at getting students to proficiency in math, reading, and science. “A focus on critical race theory will not improve these numbers,” she said.
Bristling with emotion, Swanson asserted: “No one is better than me because of the color of my skin. ... I’ve been Black my whole life and I will not allow anyone to tell me that they have privilege over me because of my skin.” She urged the committee to rewrite the legislation with the ideological brainwashing stripped out. “Teach our kids in an uplifting and unifying way,” she pleaded. “Raise your expectations — and theirs.”
Alas, wokeness isn’t designed to uplift and unify. Its purpose is to tear down and divide. In its quest for power, it denies the legitimacy of any competing values. That is why its messaging is so relentlessly negative and bitter, and so attractive to zealots. It isn’t hard to define such zealotry, but defeating it isn’t easy.