Where did wokeness come from, and what can be done about it? These are the questions that US author and academic Richard Hanania aims to answer in his new book, The Origins of Woke: Civil Rights Law, Corporate America, and the Triumph of Identity Politics, published by Harper Collins.
As radical doctrines have burst into Western public life in the past decade, most notably since the BLM riots of 2020, many have wondered how this “Great Awokening” was able to change our culture so far so fast. Hanania argues that the rise of wokeness in America — and, from there, across the world — has been far from a merely organic phenomenon. Much of it has been imposed top-down by the US federal government through the law, chiefly by regulating the American workplace. Driven by ideology, US government bureaucrats, human resources managers and the judiciary have been central to the rise of this new creed. This means that winning the culture war will require not just exposing woke’s many excesses, but also undoing the government power out of which it has grown.
For Hanania, wokeness has three central pillars. First is the belief that all disparities are ipso facto evidence of discrimination. Second, that “in the interest of overcoming such problematic disparities, speech needs to be restricted”. Finally, “in the interest of overcoming disparities and regulating speech, a full-time bureaucracy is needed to enforce correct thought and action”. This may seem a tortured definition of what is usually seen as an attitude: hypersensitivity to perceived race, gender and sexuality victim groups. It reflects the book’s focus on the law and institutions, however. Hanania argues that wokeness as it exists today reflects the more than half-a-century of legislation by the US federal bureaucracy since the 1964 Civil Rights Act (CRA).
This may sound strange. After all, it was the dream of Martin Luther King, talisman of the civil rights movement, that Americans would one day judge one another by “the content of their character”, not “the colour of their skin”; to treat each other as individuals, not as representatives of a racial group. Less than a year after he spoke those words at the 1963 March on Washington, it was the same venerable colour-blind sentiment that animated the 1964 Civil Rights Act (CRA). As Hanania puts it, “The members of Congress who voted for the Civil Rights Act believed that they were dismantling a caste system in the South that was sustained by intentional and conscious private and state-backed discrimination”, as did most of the American public.
When the CRA was signed, its proponents had emphatically denied that it would lead to large-scale social engineering based on racial categories. Debating the bill, Senator Herbert Humphrey was so sure of this, he promised colleagues that if it ever meant employers would have to hire on the basis of racial quotas, he would eat the pages. Even still, the following text was added to satisfy critics in Congress: “Nothing contained in this title shall be interpreted to require any [employer or labour union] to grant preferential treatment to any individual or to any group because of the race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin of such individual or group on account of an imbalance.”
Its colour-blind ideals notwithstanding, the effects of the law ended up very far from the original intention of Congress. Indeed, its many later interpretations often “directly [contradict] what legislators promised and agreed to”. In the simple version of US constitutional law, Congress passes bills, the executive branch enforces them, and courts merely interpret the law. Legislation is thus passed democratically by representatives of the people. “But in the hands of bureaucrats, executive agencies, and judges,” Hanania explains, “the text can take on a life of its own.”
In Chapter Two, “Lies, damned lies and civil rights law”, Hanania shows how subsequent “innovations” in civil rights law used an act intended to reduce discrimination to foster an environment where businesses are “forced to be obsessed with race and sex”. Since this goes flatly against the wording of the law — according to which “racial quotas are expressly forbidden” — this necessitates a good deal of cynical euphemism.
The first of these is affirmative action in government contracting, a domain which currently accounts for about a quarter of the US workforce. Under affirmative action regulations, a contractor’s workforce is expected over time to “reflect the gender, racial and ethnic profile” of its labour pool. Where a contractor falls short of this goal, it must take “practical steps” to make up for its deficiency. To this end, Hanania explains, “the employer is required to participate in a detailed process of identity-based classification and analysis”.
Places of business do not admit this is happening, but instead must “broadcast … doublethink to the world” by “announcing themselves as ‘equal opportunity employers’” — which supposedly means that they do not discriminate on the basis of protected characteristics. Meanwhile, mandatory government posters in workplaces remind employers that the law both “prohibits job discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex or national origin” and also “requires affirmative action to ensure equality of opportunity”. Such naked doublespeak is a central part of how these initiatives are rationalised.
Next is the legal doctrine known as “disparate impact”, another mutation of the Civil Rights Act that was expressly forbidden by its authors. Under disparate impact, any practice in employment, housing and almost anything else can be potentially discriminatory (and thus illegal) if it leads to a disparity — regardless of intent. For instance, when employers use standardised testing, any observable disparity in hiring that results is taken to be caused by discrimination. Hanania shows how this belief results in bizarre and damaging conclusions.
US author Heather Mac Donald made the same argument this year, in her book When Race Trumps Merit. The Obama administration, for instance, “went out of its way to harass schools about punishment gaps between white and black students” on the explicit grounds that race-neutral policies creating a disparate impact could be illegal. Similarly, “localities hiring police, firefighters and correctional officers are now forced to lower physical standards in order to be able to hire more women,” Hanania writes. “Even literacy tests for teachers have been the subject of civil rights lawsuits”, often leading to enormous payouts. “When I see racial disparities, I see racism,” intones Ibram X Kendi, high priest of American identitarianism, acting as its unfiltered id. In so doing, he simply voices a woke dogma that has been embedded in American law for decades.
Social engineering by a sprawling bureaucracy is not what most Americans want
A third civil rights innovation is harassment law. This is built on the doubtless well-meaning idea that women or minorities should not have to feel “uncomfortable” at work. However, it has “developed to ensure that business owners must have their own speech restricted, and also police their employees under federal law”, writes Hanania. The definition of “sexual harassment”, for instance, was expanded drastically by the courts — from rightly forbidding bosses demanding sexual favours from subordinates, to mean anything that could contribute to a “hostile work environment”. This vague standard is highly open to interpretation. The result is a workplace environment where employees are primed to take offence and extremely litigious — an attitude that inevitably trickles out into the wider culture.
All of this has happened in spite of America’s First Amendment right to free speech. Bureaucratic and legal rulings have found evidence of a hostile work environment in things as innocuous as: “signs with the phrase ‘Men Working’; ‘draftsman’ and ‘foreman’ as job title”, “jokes of a sexual nature not targeted at any particular person” and “an ad campaign using samurai, Kabuki, and sumo wrestling to refer to Japanese competition”. It is, as the saying goes, political correctness gone mad.
Take the case of Google engineer James Damore. He was fired in 2017 after suggesting to colleagues that part of the reason that women are underrepresented in tech is due to men and women’s psychological differences in personality and preferences. Under harassment law, Damore’s politically incorrect memo was liable to be interpreted as making Google a “hostile work environment” for female employees, potentially resulting in a class-action lawsuit and hefty damages payments. “It is unlikely that the management of Google was sympathetic to Damore’s viewpoint,” Hanania summarises, but “even if they were, civil rights law probably made firing him the right business decision”.
Hanania argues that subjecting the workplace to these intrusive bureaucratic standards of conduct sucks the joy out of working life. A good example is the now pervasive practice of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training, an industry worth $3.4 billion in the US in 2020. Given that there has never been any evidence that these trainings work — if anything, they seem to heighten tensions between colleagues — it often seems almost inexplicable why any company would waste money on them. Hanania suggests that this is partly a back-covering exercise, as firms need to signal to government agencies that they are complying with the latest “best practice”, regardless of whether this works.
Hanania is illuminating when it comes to the arbitrariness of government racial categorisation, which he covers in Chapter Four, “Government as the creator of new races and genders”. For instance, why should South Asian, Polynesian, Hawaiian and Chinese Americans be lumped together under the dubious “racial” category “Asian American and Pacific Islander” (AAPI)? Why is the category “Hispanic” seen as so important by US elites, when seven in 10 American Hispanics — as various as Cubans, South Americans and Spaniards — say “Hispanics” do not share a culture? Why should American society care so overwhelmingly about disparities between such so-called racial groups, but not at all about those between Protestants on the one hand and Catholics, Mormons and Jews on the other, even though they have also historically faced discrimination? None of these questions can be reasonably answered, because there is little logic to any of this identitarian thinking. Instead, as Hanania demonstrates, the story of how contemporary America’s “races” came about “reflects the importance of lobbying, interest group politics, and historical contingency more than it does either anthropology or a good faith effort to address historical discrimination”.
A key insight of Hanania’s book is how undemocratic and elite-driven all this is. Of the nine times between 1996 and 2020 that affirmative action has been on the ballot, it has been rejected eight times, including in California in 2020. This was despite the Golden State being heavily in favour of Biden. Proponents of the ballot outspent opponents by 19 to one, whilst counting amongst their ranks “chambers of commerce, tech companies, sports teams and Democratic leaders”. The winning side, meanwhile, was “fueled by smaller donations from a grassroots network that included Chinese immigrants”. Clearly, social engineering by a sprawling federal bureaucracy is not what most Americans want. “When policy is made by activists and bureaucrats,” Hanania writes, “it naturally becomes tilted toward the interests and aesthetic preferences of a small minority.”
This presents an opportunity, says Hanania. “On the question of civil rights law, if there is anything resembling a fair debate,” he writes, “conservatives can win.” The closest precursor to Hanania’s book is journalist Christopher Caldwell’s Age of Entitlement (2020). He argues that the rise of civil rights legislation since the sixties has gone so far as to create a “rival Constitution”. Where Caldwell is gloomy about the future, however, concluding that little can now be done about America’s civil rights regime, Hanania is optimistic — and more to the point, pragmatic.
“[T]he time is right,” he says, “for conservatives to act on rolling back the excesses of civil rights law.” His later chapters present a wishlist of laws he would like to see repealed, and how the Republicans might go about doing so (Hanania views the Democrats, so deeply wedded to woke politics, as a lost cause). Hanania is confident that the foundations for such a counter-revolution have been laid. Republicans and their base are now “less subject to left-wing pressure campaigns” and “more obsessed with wokeness” than ever. He argues this is owing in part to America’s increasingly polarised media ecosystem. If wokeness as civil rights law is indeed a government-led phenomenon, the fractured Republican party should agree about the need to fight it. To both populist, new right culture warriors and establishment conservative libertarians, woke big government is a unifying enemy.
Fighting this poisonous ideology means striking at America’s elite institutions
To those who would merely complain about wokeness, whilst offering no positive plan of what to do about it, The Origins of Woke presents an urgent corrective. “[F]or half a century now the culture war has been an asymmetric fight,” he writes, “with one side able to inspire a critical mass of bureaucrats and activists who do their work far from public attention, and the other doing little more than encouraging and reflecting mass discontent.” Hanania hopes his book will mark a turning point in the culture war, galvanising conservatives to aim higher than simply “owning the libs”. Here he dovetails with conservative activist Christopher Rufo, whose book America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything, also by Harper Collins, was published earlier this summer. Rufo has almost single-handedly brought the phrase “critical race theory” from obscure legal doctrine to a campaigning issue for Republican politicians. He focuses not on the law causing wokeness, but on the radical woke doctrines that have emerged from academia. Both, however, are clear that fighting this poisonous ideology will require striking at its wellspring in America’s elite institutions.
Hanania’s book is not perfect. At times the jargon of legal decisions, Acts of Congress and various US government agency acronyms makes for heavy going to those not steeped in US constitutional law. He has a tendency to get caught up in his own anti-bureaucratic zeal, rarely dwelling for more than a few lines on injustices that it is right to correct. (“There is thus a philosophically elegant, perhaps irrefutable, libertarian case for getting rid of all anti-discrimination laws,” he muses at one point, though he does not actually advocate this.)
The Origins of Woke also likely overstates the importance of the law in causing wokeness (as Hanania concedes, “In the relationship between culture and law, the arrow of causation does not flow in one direction”). Hanania shows that it took decades of motivated legal innovations to subvert the CRA from its original intention — this zeal cannot itself have come from the law. Birkbeck professor Eric Kaufmann has traced the moral core of wokeness back to a “minoritarian liberal identity” which was already prevalent in the early 20th century. According to this view, the virtuous minority is always “sacralised” as against a majority identity viewed as oppressive. The cult of the virtuous victim itself has been embedded in the Western mind far longer, as historian Tom Holland notes in Dominion (2019).
Nonetheless, The Origins of Woke amply demonstrates the folly of government social engineering based on protected characteristics. Siloing people into identity categories will never make society colour-blind. Trying to remake society from the top down will always entail a huge intrusion on liberty by the managerial state. Far better to trust individuals to manage themselves.
Whilst civil rights law is not the only cause of wokeness, Hanania’s book certainly raises an important question: would these damaging ideas have ever got so far had they not been backed at every turn by government power? Surely there is a lesson here for us in Britain.
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