Struggling with CRT in the workplace

We should resist the creeping spread of a Manichean model of social life

Artillery Row

In a ground-breaking judgment against workplace cancel culture and for lawful freedom of expression, the Employment Tribunal has ruled that ACAS employee and Free Speech Union member Sean Corby was expressing a legitimate philosophical belief when he challenged Critical Race Theory in his workplace. As such, his belief amounts to a characteristic that will now be afforded protection by Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010.

This is a terrific result – the Free Speech Union has been supporting Mr Corby every step of the way in his dispute with ACAS and helped him secure top-drawer legal representation from the barrister Jon Holbrook.

Mr Corby, whose wife is black and who, as the Employment Tribunal notes, has “throughout his life… spent large amounts of time with black people and formed close relationships with them”, has been under investigation since August 2022, after colleagues complained that messages he posted on a private, workplace-based equality and diversity ‘Yammer’ forum were “discriminatory” and “racist”.

In an effort to get him fired, the four complainants accused Mr Corby of “using the Yammer platform to promote racist ideas”. Elsewhere in the formal complaint it was alleged that he had “demonstrated a deep-rooted hatred towards black and minority ethnic people”, that “I would not feel safe to be in contact with him in person”, and that “I fear for any black and minority ethnic people working [in his office] if,” they added caustically, “there are any”. 

ACAS dismissed their complaints but did nevertheless instruct Mr Corby to remove the eight Yammer posts on the grounds that the complainants had found them offensive.

So what sorts of grotesquerie had Mr Corby been dabbling in? As the Employment Tribunal panel heard, the Yammer posts at issue had in fact cited entirely lawful – some might say ‘inspirational’ – defences of free speech around issues of race and race equality taken from such celebrated figures as Howard Thurman, the African American civil rights leader whose arguments against separatism and segregation later influenced Martin Luther King, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who delivered an excoriating critique of cancel culture in last year’s BBC Reith Lecture on ‘Freedom of Speech’, and Ayishat Akanbi, cultural commentator and author of The Awokening, who has warned that social justice campaigns can all too easily tip over into a form of “oppression Olympics”.

Hardly the stuff of which whispered, clandestine meetings of proscribed far-right groups in disreputable East End pubs are made, you might think. And yet, such are the vagaries of contemporary identity politics that right-on social justice warriors have now manoeuvred themselves into an ideological position whereby ‘colour-blind’ approaches to achieving racial equality are considered “racist”.

According to Robyn DiAngelo, the doyenne of the well-remunerated, sharp-elbowed bien pensant class, the problem with Martin Luther King’s “content of their character” line is that it has been “seized upon by the white public because the words were seen to provide a simple and immediate solution to racial tensions: pretend that we don’t see race, and racism will end”. On this view, she argues, colour-blindness constitutes an obstacle to people recognising the racism that permeates every aspect of society. And not just an obstacle, either, because for DiAngelo and her acolytes, it is the very people who believe they are not racist, and particularly those who may have black friends or loved ones and who believe themselves to be progressive, who are likely to “do the most daily damage to people of colour”.

That’s why for proponents of Critical Race Theory, racism can only truly be tackled via equity-based initiatives — or what in common parlance would be called “reverse racism”, wielded against whites and to the alleged benefit of blacks. As the now disgraced critical race theorist Ibrahim X Kendi explains, “the only remedy to past discrimination, is present discrimination”. 

Not that the complainants in Mr Corby’s case bothered to articulate, let alone debate, this position

Not that the complainants in Mr Corby’s case bothered to articulate, let alone debate, this position. Instead, they fired off their formal complaints threatening their colleague’s career and livelihood having never actually met him. In this ostensibly abstruse dispute over a series of posts which appeared in a private workplace-chat with less than 100 members, the psychological “safety” of the complainants was deemed paramount, despite the fact that one of their number was a hardened political activist who previously featured on the front page of the Morning Star, happily promoting a brand of BLM-infused racial politics.

However, during a four-day hearing in Leeds, Mr Corby was able to persuade the panel that his opposition to CRT possessed a level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, that elevated it above a mere “viewpoint” or “opinion” and into the realm of a “philosophical belief” that is worthy of respect in a democratic society, and that as such it attracts legal protection under the Equality Act.

That’s important for two reasons. First, it drastically improves Mr Corby’s chances of achieving a favourable outcome when the Tribunal resumes in April 2024, specifically to consider whether ACAS unlawfully discriminated against and harassed their employee for expressing what are now protected philosophical beliefs on race and racism.

Second, it sets an important legal precedent. While it’s true that the ruling is only a first-instance judgment, and not binding on others, it does nonetheless give some interesting indications of the way a tribunal can be expected to treat a similar case in the future, particularly in instances where an employee expresses a ‘colour-blind’ critique of the woke or critical theory approach to racism so in vogue with ‘progressive’ employers, associations, accreditation bodies and professional regulators up and down the country.

It might seem far-fetched to imagine that cases similar to Mr Corby’s will occur with any great frequency — and yet the fact that Critical Race Theory allows for no “outside” to its own ontological framework certainly gives pause for thought.

Perhaps uniquely among all the major social theoretical frameworks to have emerged in the West since the Enlightenment, critical theory — and, more specifically in this case, Critical Race Theory — doesn’t simply theorise its object (i.e., a society in which latent, mostly invisible forms of racism permeate everyone, every institution, everything), but also theorises its detractors within, and as part of that object.

Like some giant Kafka Trap, any and all forms of dissent are taken as proof of the essential validity of its overarching theory of society. Popperian falsification, or indeed any form of dialectical synthesis, is thus rendered impossible. Dissent, doubt, cynicism, scepticism — these are all exactly the types of social action that theorists like Ibrahim X Kendi would expect — indeed, have already predicted – to be forthcoming from members of a society in which latent, mostly invisible forms of racism permeate everyone, every institution, everything.

In his Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics, Immanuel Kant describes the point at which individual knowledge of the external world starts to falter as “the spot at which experience touches the void”. To believe in Critical Race Theory is to enter a world in which no such void exists, since every eventuality that may befall its adherents is always already accounted for. 

One of the (many) problems with theoretically induced certainty of this kind is of course that it tends to breed intolerance.

Over in the U.S., for instance, writer and podcaster Coleman Hughes recently revealed how he has endured a series of attempts by TED to suppress a recent talk in which he defended colour-blindness, after an internal employee resource group called “Black@TED” complained that the content of his lecture had “upset” them.

Closer to home, Dr Alka Sehgal-Cuthbert, the academic and Director of Don’t Divide Us, was no-platformed from an education conference in September over claims that her campaign group’s colour-blind, meritocratic approach to race relations made other speakers feel “unsafe”.

Note that in both cases — just as in the complaint made against Mr Corby — it is the idea of “psychological safety”, that great incontestable of the woke age, that is invoked as a de facto heckler’s veto.

It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at this sort of thing

It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at this sort of thing, but what shouldn’t be forgotten is that performative histrionics of this kind aren’t motivated by the personal eccentricities of a few isolated odd bods, but by a well-worked out, divisive and bleakly Manichean model of social life that most self-proclaimed “progressives”, along with the major institutions that employ them, now wholeheartedly subscribe to.

Peering out from behind their theoretical barricades, the True Believers see the masses repeatedly refusing to repent of the “fact” that racism is the original sin of the tainted society within which they have been socialised, and they know, indubitably, that those people have chosen to perpetuate a system of oppression that brutalises vulnerable racial minorities.

That in itself would be traumatic enough, but then they look again, and through a miasma of whiteness they catch glimpse of the well-read and the articulate — the Sean Corbys of this world, who really should know better… who really should be on their side — proposing “colour-blind” policies as an alternative means for pursuing racial equality, and they know, indubitably, that those people are doing little more than sublimating their latent racist desires into more socially acceptable forms of action that tacitly serve to perpetuate a system of oppression that brutalises… and so on and so forth.

It’s in this anxiety-riven, paranoid context that we’re all too likely to see cases that bear striking similarities to Corby vs Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service cropping up with increased frequency at the Employment Tribunal. On the positive side of the ledger, though, we can at least say that employment judges hearing such cases will now have a clear and unequivocal ruling to reference. Let us hope that the ramifications of Mr Corby’s case are also felt much further upstream, in the Human Resources departments of every major company up and down the country.

Employees have of course always been legally entitled to hold colour-blind “opinions” on race and race equality — but in the wake of Mr Corby’s Employment Tribunal ruling, employers that have for too long been indulging the every whim of their woke, activist employees will have to confront the fact that manifesting those opinions through lawful speech and action have for the first time been granted protection under the Equality Act.

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