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Origins of Woke
Even his harshest critics seem to agree that Richard Hanania’s great new book The Origins of Woke, released today, offers the most plausible and detailed historical explanation yet of the rise of woke. (Such critics still insist without good reason that his book is racist and sexist.) His story:
While Congress banned “discrimination” based on certain protected categories in the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964, it never defined the term. That was done later, mostly through executive actions, the unelected bureaucracy, and the courts. Together, these actors decided that discrimination did not have to be explicit, or even conscious, and that was a sin committed not against individuals but against “classes” of people entitled to pursue class action remedies. It consisted of practices having a disparate impact on a protected group, potentially creating legal liability regardless of intent. And affirmative action was not only not banned by CRA but for all practical purposes required by it. The doctrine of the “hostile work environment” made comments that were rude, condescending, or mean a matter not only of hurt feelings but of potential tort or regulatory liability if they had racial or sexual connotations.
As so interpreted, such law is quite vague, apparently prohibiting many common behaviors (e.g., requiring degrees for jobs), forcing most big orgs to hire big permanent HR teams to protect themselves. Especially potent was a 1978 US Supreme Court ruling that “successful plaintiffs should get attorney’s fees and successful defendants could not”.
Hanania’s analysis seems to me roughly right. And quite sad; this is just not how law should work. So we should stop this process and try to figure out how to never let it happen again. (Neither Hanania nor I are pro-discrimination. He describes several ways in which such laws could have been done right.)
Hanania sees the public as on his side:
In 2021, Blue Rose Research surveyed 113 Democratic policy positions and found affirmative action to be the second most unpopular. More recently,… Democratic voters … were asked to choose their three most important issues … aid targeted at minority communities came in last place.
So his proposed solution is for Republicans to start a crusade to reverse these changes. Alas, their doing so would seem quite a change from their prior history:
The nightly news broadcast presented a left-wing point of view on most things, particularly on the issue of civil rights, support for which during the 1960s became a class marker in the U.S. … Policymaking shifted from Congress to the federal bureaucracy and the courts.… There were simply few conservatives within the federal judiciary. … Between 1940 and 1976, every Republican platform except those of 1964 and 1968 endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment … Reagan … clearly wished they could go further on rolling back the excesses of civil rights law … [but] it was not public opinion but elite attitudes that determined the outcome. … Bush … saw his party do poorly in the midterms and then acquiesced in liberal efforts to expand civil rights law. … Sometime in 1995, Republican leaders apparently concluded that winning the public relations battle over affirmative action was hopeless, and stopped talking about the issue. … There are simply fewer activists, journalist, and legal scholars on the right than on the left.… The Trump administration’s Title IX policies undid regulations of a previous president, breaking the cycle of the last several decades in which Democratic administrations expanded social engineering through Office for Civil Rights and Republicans maintained the novel policy. … Although the Republican Party has been taken over by conservatives, civil rights law has not been rolled back, in part because the issues involved have lacked salience. … When [in 2001 Skrentny] asked Republican congressional staff and think tank operatives why the party did not end affirmative action, the first thing they usually mentioned was fear that they would be called racist … in the media.
Hanania has a great April 2021 essay arguing that “the left simply cares more about politics”:
conservatives are extremely bad at gaining or maintaining control of institutions relative to liberals. It’s … because they are the party of those who simply care less about the future of their country.
Until Republicans come to care a lot more than they have about this sort of politics, I find it hard to imagine them crusading anything remotely enough here.