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A gold plaque on a wooden background reads "Department of Ethnic Studies."

Slizardi, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Conservative attacks on critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion programs and anything labeled “woke” have rekindled a national conversation over the proper role of the university in society. Academics have attempted to uphold higher education’s status quo by defending the idea that professors have the right to formulate and promote contrarian ideas within their area of expertise. While this tactic has well served the champions of academic freedom for the last century, it is now threatening to unwittingly jettison my home department, ethnic studies, from its besieged bastions.

Antiwoke laws have explicitly carved out vast areas of scholarship as “controversial” topics that may no longer be taught in state institutions of higher education. Most famously, in 2022, Florida passed the Individual Freedom Act (also known as the Stop WOKE Act), which effectively prohibited research or teaching about theories of unconscious racism, structural racism or remedies for racist discrimination. An exception was made for teaching such concepts “in an objective manner without endorsement,” which is a caveat whose implementation would require investigation into the tricky issues of what viewpoint counts as being objective and what speech constitutes endorsement. Ohio’s Legislature has recently followed suit and is considering a similar bill.

So far, one federal district court in Florida has ruled that the Individual Freedom Act constitutes “blatant viewpoint-based restrictions on protected speech once the subject at issue is included in the curriculum. In other words,” Judge Mark E. Walker wrote, “simply because the State of Florida has great flexibility in setting curriculum, it cannot impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoint about the content it allowed within university classrooms.” This logic, by dividing a state’s legitimate and legal interest in defining the content of its institutions’ curricula and Florida’s unconstitutional attempt to ban certain perspectives on prescribed subjects, leaves the state free to banish entire courses and programs in diversity, equity and inclusion, or the study of race and gender itself.

Lawmakers in Florida seized upon this opening and sought to get around Walker’s injunction by simply proposing the elimination of any program that is “based on or otherwise utilizes pedagogical methodology associated with Critical Theory, including, but not limited to, Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Radical Feminist Theory, Radical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Social Justice, or Intersectionality.” While this provision failed to make it into the final version of the bill, it nevertheless highlights the direction that antiwoke censorship may take in the future. Indeed, Christopher F. Rufo, the culture warrior widely seen as the originator of the anti-CRT movement, recently urged lawmakers to “propose the abolition of academic departments that have abandoned their missions in pursuit of shoddy scholarship and ideological activism.”

Organizations dedicated to defending academic freedom have long attempted to widen First Amendment protections shielding professors by emphasizing the unique and exceptional contributions universities make to society. As the American Association of University Professors declared in 1915, the modern university was “an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world.”

This argument is grounded in the idea that intellectual discovery and progress depend on the freedom of experts to pursue truth even in realms that are popularly seen as frivolous, dangerous or heretical. Such formulations draw power from and reinforce an older genteel notion of professionalism and traditional disciplinary organization. Bound to them is a presumption that threatens to leave interdisciplinary fields outside its ramparts—namely, that academic freedom exists only within the boundaries of a professor’s expertise in a defined area of scholarship. AAUP’s official position on academic freedom defines “freedom of research” as being “grounded in the exercise of professional expertise.”

Ethnic studies, because its subject of inquiry is viewed as being uniquely charged with political and partisan controversy, is often viewed as lacking the sort of neutrality that would rise to the standard that is credited as the mark of professionalism. Because it lacks an easily definable disciplinary home, its claims to unique expertise are often suspect.

Partly, this is due to its unique origins within the academy, as the achievement of a protest movement whose demands encompassed both the academy and the wider world. The first ethnic studies departments, like my own here at Bowling Green State University, were founded by Black, Chicano, Asian American and Native American students who were unrepresented in traditional departments. At the time, it seemed that only by establishing separate programs and departments would universities be pushed to hire more faculty members of color and include nonwhite perspectives and experiences in the curricula.

Ethnic studies, like its sibling women’s and gender studies, once established, quickly incorporated a fundamental critique of universalism and its drive to canonize subjects, challenging disciplinary paradigms by pointing out how they were rooted in dominant raced and gendered identifies and their consequent standpoints. While such purposeful interdisciplinarity proved its usefulness in both blazing paths to new questions and methodologies and revitalizing the approaches of traditional disciplines, its successes came at the cost of venturing farther away from the established academic protections of “expertise in a discipline.”

Traditionally, disciplines have been seen as not just the means of organizing the production and teaching of knowledge, but also as the means by which education and indoctrination are distinguished. It is disciplines that stake out what subjects, questions, theories and debates count as educative, and what is relevant and extraneous to that purpose. Since 1940 the AAUP has marked the boundary between teaching and indoctrination as being where an instructor introduces “controversial matter that has no relation to their subject.” What happens when such a subject is neither respected as a settled professional standard within the academy nor recognized as a legitimate subject by the public?

More than a decade ago, Robert Post recognized the as-yet unrealized power of David Horowitz and other conservatives’ hand-wringing over what was then called “political correctness” in the humanities. Such attacks were facilitated by the rise of interdisciplines that were shifting the tectonics of the academy. “To the extent that humanities scholarship disclaims disciplinary authority, to the extent that it abandons claims for the expert production of knowledge, it repudiates the traditional justification for academic freedom,” he warned. “If humanities scholarship does not produce expert knowledge, if it is merely a vehicle for sage amateurs to advise their fellow citizens, humanities scholarship places itself outside the protective shield of academic freedom and renders itself vulnerable to the ordinary political recrimination and reprisal that envelops all citizens who enter the public realm.”

Judith Butler, a pioneering theorist of the problems of disciplinary methods and knowledge across several humanities disciplines, responded that retreating to disciplinary bunkers to head off attempts at censorship and mandated state ideologies will entail foreclosing further investigation of the dynamics of knowledge itself. Butler cautioned that if disciplinary norms are braced as the shield of academic freedom, “then we are left with the situation in which the critical inquiry into the legitimacy of those norms not only appears to threaten academic freedom but also falls outside the stipulated compass of its protection.” For Butler, abandoning inquiry into the basis of professional practices leads us into a quandary: “either professional norms are necessary restraints that we ought not to question if we are to preserve academic freedom, or professional norms have to bear internal scrutiny if we are to preserve academic freedom.”

As predicted, the successes of these interdisciplines within the academy have provoked a massive backlash against not only their innovative approaches but against their subjects themselves. As Stanley Fish observed back in 2004, “The left may have won the curricular battle, but the right won the public-relations war.”

The threat to ethnic studies, and similar fields across the broad realm of cultural studies, is not only that it focuses its critical gaze squarely upon the most angry and festered spot on our body politic, but that its subject is increasingly viewed as something that cannot, or should not, be studied at all. When the core of a field is held to be common sense, then no one can claim to be an expert about it. Without a claim to expertise, the argument for modern academic freedom collapses.

In recent years we have seen on the political right a covert revival of biological and scientific understandings of race combined with an uneasy innovation: a tendency to view race as both real and unimportant. Ever since former president Trump issued his Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping shortly before the 2020 election, its wording of “divisive concepts” has found its way into dozens of GOP bills and laws, hardening the idea of race. Trump’s order uses language that treats race as a given, referring to “members of certain races” and “Americans of all races.” Its first listed divisive concept is that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.” In defining “race or sex stereotyping” as “ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status, or beliefs to a race or sex,” Trump’s order rests on the assumption that race (and sex) exist independently and apart from the values and beliefs attached to them.

Ironically, most of the “antiwoke” and “anti–critical race theory” laws being proposed and passed in dozens of states that claim to be upholding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 codify the notion of race in a manner that requires race to be viewed as a natural, stable and primarily biological category of human difference. One of Missouri’s first anti-CRT bills, HB 1634, introduced at the end of 2021, referred to curriculum that “employs immutable, inherited, or typically continuing characteristics such as race.” In other words, HB 1634 would have established in law that race is an “immutable” essence of humanity.

Many of these bills also make curious use of the adjective “moral” in their prohibition of teaching that “an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex.” The addition of the word “moral” has the effect of leaving a door open to teaching that races differ in other aspects of their character. In other words, the legislation specifically prohibits claims that races differ as to their morality, thereby implying that they differ in other significant ways.

A bill introduced in South Carolina’s Legislature, H. 4605, actually goes even farther than most and restricts teaching that “race and sex are social constructs.”

The operative theory underlying the tsunami of antiwoke legislation is that race (and sex/gender) are natural, given things that everyone should accept and no one should pay any attention to. This reflects a widespread public denial that scholars have gained any meaningful insights into the workings of racism or race itself. Such rejection is the inevitable consequence of seeing race as a natural and uncomplicated aspect of human experience and racism as a belief that can be as easily embraced as it is eschewed.

As the antiwoke movement adapts to a legal environment in which it must be careful about running afoul of First Amendment protections in picking the winners and losers in academic debates, it may, as Florida lawmakers initially attempted and as Rufo has proposed, resort to simply kicking all interdisciplines associated with race, sex and gender off their campuses. If and when this happens, those we rely upon to defend our academic freedoms will stand unequipped to engage in this fight because their long-standing conceptions of “expertise” are antiquated and rendered irrelevant in the face of a public that views these topics as unworthy of systematic investigation.

Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor of ethnic studies at Bowling Green State University.

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