by Philip Wegmann
Josh Hawley was just explaining how much he agreed with Barack Obama when Kamala Harris arrived. For weeks, the junior senator from Missouri had raised hell over who should head the federal agency that is the equivalent of the federal government’s human resources department. Hawley gave speeches and made procedural motions that deadlocked the Senate, ultimately resulting in the arrival of the vice president’s motorcade on Capitol Hill. That’s when Hawley lost the fight.
And Hawley knew he had lost the moment his chief of staff leaned over to interrupt an interview with RealClearPolitics. “She is here,” he announced.
The veep’s trip down Pennsylvania Avenue was unscheduled but necessary. Harris had to travel to the Senate last Tuesday to rescue the nomination of Kiran Arjandas Ahuja, President Biden’s pick to head the Office of Personnel Management. It was Hawley, in large part, who had convinced his Republican colleagues to oppose the nomination. Until Harris’ motorcade rolled to a stop, the Senate was split 50-50. She cast the deciding vote.
But the fact that the vice president was even in the building was evidence, that same aide decided, that Hawley had also won: “I think Republicans, at least in this case, have started to listen to what Josh is saying.”
How could, of all things, the nomination of a glorified human resources manager become so controversial? Because of previous opinions Ahuja had expressed in support of critical race theory. More specifically, because the debates over those kinds of beliefs, as former President Obama recently explained, “get at what story we tell about ourselves.”
“He is absolutely right,” Hawley told RCP around the time Harris was making her way to the upper chamber. “This is about the story we tell about ourselves,” he insisted. “It is about what you think about America.” Where Hawley and Obama disagree, he added, is that “I take my stand on the goodness of the American people.”
The dust-up over the OPM nominee was the latest skirmish in the larger ideological battle over the soul of the nation. Progressives who espouse critical race theory argue that white people should own up to the benefits afforded to them by the systemic racism woven into the fabric of this country’s past and present. Conservatives such as Hawley reject that characterization. They say that such an approach, when sanctioned by government, amounts to little more than “state-sanctioned racism.” Welcome to Joe Biden’s culture war.
Hawley says he doesn’t want this fight. The conservative populist with an undeniable soft spot for big government, à la Teddy Roosevelt, would rather be off hunting down monopolies or slaying tech giants. In this culture war, the president is the aggressor. Or so says the 41-year-old senator rumored to have his eyes on Biden’s job.
“It’s not Republicans, and certainly not the American people, who are putting critical race theory front and center in this country.” Hawley argues. “It is Joe Biden. He is the one who’s nominating these people. Joe Biden is the one who’s forcing this controversy on America. Joe Biden is the one who’s trying to divide America.”
But Kiran Ahuja, the soft-spoken attorney who last week became the first ever Indian American to lead OPM, does not seem particularly divisive. Her back-and-forth with senators was anything but confrontational during her confirmation hearing, and the former civil rights attorney pledged in committee to uphold merit-based principles in government hiring. Ahuja did not, however, deny that she thought systemic racism remains a problem.
Formerly the CEO of Philanthropy Northwest, a nonprofit focused on diversity and equity programing, Ahuja has previously written that her goal is to free minorities from “the daily trials of white supremacy.” Also alarming to Republicans: Her connection to Ibram X. Kendi. Her organization hosted the Boston University professor who has pioneered the term “anti-racist,” argued that the history of the country is one “of American tyranny,” and advocated for an extra-constitutional Department of Anti-Racism to discipline “policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.”
Conservatives are suspicious of any Kendi connection due to his prescription for addressing systemic racism. Specifically, his rigid binary approach: “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination,” he has written. “The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
Adherence to those kinds of ideas ought to be disqualifying for anyone who wants to lead a nonpartisan government agency, Hawley says. He’s hardly alone, but that is how the latest episode in identity politics began. White House officials, for their part, seemingly wants no part in the controversy. Asked about Republican criticism of Ahuja, White House press secretary Jen Psaki demurred and would only tell RCP that Congress “should move forward expeditiously.” But this wasn’t the first time critical race theory, a decades-old concept that rejects traditional ideas of liberalism and meritocracy as insufficient, was dragged out of the academy and into the public square. Donald Trump made that introduction.
Last September, as RCP first reported, the former president directed all federal agencies to “cease and desist” any government programs that referenced critical race theory or advanced the concept of white privilege. Later that same month, Trump created the 1776 Commission to identify “the core principles of the American founding” — as opposed to CRT, which he condemned as “ideological poison” threatening to “dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.”
Hawley and other social conservatives cheered. Democrats countered that Republicans were, at best, overreacting to diversity and equality training or, more likely and much worse, catering to white rage. “They were teaching people that our country is a horrible place — it’s a racist place. And they were teaching people to hate our country,” Trump said in defending the moves during the first 2020 presidential debate. “Nobody’s doing that,” Biden shot back on stage. “He’s the racist.”
Trump is gone now. Biden is back in the White House, this time as president. Five months into the new administration, Hawley claims that critical race theory is the White House’s “animating ideology.” Is the president, who brands himself as just another blue-collar Joe from Scranton, really familiar with the ins and outs of academia’s proclamations on racism? Hawley won’t say. “I don’t know what Joe Biden knows or doesn’t know,” he told RCP. “I don’t know how involved he is in these nominations or not. I attribute to him knowledge and control because he’s the president.” But he is drawing conclusions from how the top Democrat staffs his administration.
His objections to critical race theory, as well as “the constellation of ideological thought” that flows from it, Hawley says, is a protest against “the falsification of our history” and “the castigation of America as an inherently racist and evil nation.” Some may counter that Hawley’s definition of CRT is too broad. But the senator isn’t chasing phantoms. “There’s a huge literature on critical race theory. It has existed for decades,” says the graduate of Yale Law School who later taught at the University of Missouri Law School. “You can go and read it. I’ve read it. I’ve written about it as a scholar.”
Maybe this kind of abstract talk sounds a little out of place, especially at a moment when Congress is debating an infrastructure package to build very real roads and bridges that people can someday actually walk and drive along (if a bill ever gets passed). But to Hawley, the conversation is elemental. Debates over first principles matter because, as Obama explained, they “get at what story we tell about ourselves.” Start with different ideas, Hawley says, and radically different conceptions of the nation emerge.
“My view of this country is defined by hope. It’s not defined by despair. It’s not defined by oppression. It is not defined by the view that we’ve got to level the whole country’s social institutions and start over again,” Hawley counters. “I don’t believe any of that, because I believe that the American people are fundamentally good and decent, and that they want to see the best for their fellow citizens.”
Others have doubts, and critics detect a whiff of political opportunism. Chuck Todd of NBC’s “Meet the Press” recently called the outrage over CRT “manufactured,” while Jane Mayer of the New Yorker penned an essay dismissing the backlash as having “all the red flags of a dark money AstroTurf campaign.” Asked about that criticism, Hawley likened it to those who doubt climate change. “They’re the deniers,” he deadpanned. Then he suggested they “go and visit with some voters in Missouri.”
Parents who have filed into recent school board meetings in Missouri likely aren’t familiar with the scholarship of Derrick Bell, the late New York University law professor credited with originating CRT. Most likely, they haven’t read the writings of Kimberle Crenshaw either, the law professor from Columbia Law School who pioneered the study of intersectional feminism. Many are furious all the same.
A forum on race hosted by Springfield Public School employees, details of which were later leaked to conservative journalist Chris Rufo, encouraged middle school teachers to use their gender and ethnicity to locate themselves on an “oppression matrix.” An accompanying handout compared “covert” forms of racism, such as saying “all lives matter” or claiming “reverse-racism,” to overt forms of racism like “lynching” and “burning crosses.” It is not enough to simply oppose racism, one of the trainers explained in audio leaked to Fox News. When one attendee wondered when it was appropriate to speak about these issues, the trainer responded, “What might an underrepresented or under-resourced student say in regards to our fear of speaking up?” Another voice chimed in, “Silence is violence.” An incredulous teacher interrupted, “Is the district saying that we should be Marxists?”
Springfield Public Schools later released a statement saying it was “pleased to provide robust professional development.” Controversy has followed in Missouri and around the country with many state legislatures seeking to ban the teaching of critical race theory.
Becky Pringle, a close ally to the Biden White House and president of the National Education Association, has publicly opposed those GOP bills, saying instead that lessons about race should be added to school curriculum. “We have made many mistakes in this country,” she said in an interview with NBC. “But our kids … deserve to learn all of that truth.”
The debate has spilled out into popular culture as well. Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and Hollywood actress/screenwriter Lena Waithe penned a recent open-letter in The Root supporting Nikole Hannah-Jones and the teaching of her New York Times “1619 Project” curriculum, which is influenced by CRT and described by Coates and Waithe as “a landmark exploration of America’s deep roots in enslavement.”
Former Trump administration OMB director Russ Vought counters that critical race theory, even under the banner of diversity training and branded as “antiracism” instruction, has no place in public schools. He has founded a new group called Citizens for Renewing America and released “an A-to-Z guide” for parents who want “to stop Critical Race Theory and reclaim your local school board.”
“At the end of the day, parents are seeing it with their own eyes and are hearing it with their own ears, and no amount of obfuscation by the left is going to hide the fact these frameworks and concepts are race-based identity politics indoctrinating their kids,” Vought told RCP. “No matter what the left calls it — parents around the country are calling it racism.”
Those debates, many of them between school boards and outraged parents, have reverberated in Washington. Back in his Senate office, Hawley says it was the New York Times’ 1619 Project that started the chatter over critical race theory, a term he hadn’t heard much about since law school. “That was a huge catalyst for people saying, ‘Whoa, whoa, woah. Wait a minute. You’re telling me the United States was actually founded in slavery, founded in racism, founded to be oppressive and racist?’” he says. Voters in his district saw that, rejected that, and said, “I don’t believe that defines our country.”
But to some, even that kind of response is problematic. Writing in The Atlantic the day Harris voted to break the tie to confirm Ahuja, Ibram X. Kendi argued that to deny that the country still struggles with racism is to assume that the work of reconciliation is over, that “America is a post-racial nation.” He continued: “To say that there is widespread racial inequity caused by widespread racism, which makes the United States racist, isn’t an opinion, isn’t a partisan position, isn’t a doctrine, isn’t a left-wing construct, isn’t anti-white, and isn’t anti-American. It is a fact.”
Hawley does not believe that racism has been vanquished. He talks about it in past and present tense.
“It is absolutely a fact of our history that we had slavery in this country. We had to fight a civil war in order to eradicate slavery. After slavery we had a century of Jim Crow,” he says before declaring that the civil rights movement that followed was “one of the highest points of our history.” And he said of “Dr. King’s example — what he said about America, that this was a nation that was founded in liberty, and that it was founded with these great ideals that we haven’t fully lived up to them, but we have to — I believe every word of that.”
And then, in a move perhaps odd for someone railing against CRT, Hawley does not even reject the idea of structural inequality. A modern sort of Bull Moose populist, he just points the finger at industry.
“You want to talk about something that is a systemic problem,” the senator says, returning to form when asked about how Republicans and conservatives ought to address lingering inequality. “Look at what corporate America has done to our inner cities, to our rural areas, and then look at their systematic policy of hollowing out our industrial base and sending jobs overseas, seeking labor arbitrage and tax arbitrage, to destroy jobs in this country.”
The corporations that caused this American carnage, the companies that unbolted factories and shipped industry overseas, in his telling, well, “they are the least responsible people in America,” and they “should be on the hook.” Inequality isn’t a made-up concept, he concludes. “Are there structures that need to be taken on? Yeah, there are. I’d start with corporate America.”
Most Republicans aren’t inclined to make that distinction. More likely, they will try to make CRT a Democratic millstone, and new polling from the National Republican Senatorial Committee shows that the majority of Americans oppose the idea that white people “benefit from the American culture of systemic racism and white privilege.” An NRSC spokesman confirmed the polling, first reported by the Washington Post, and told RCP that “we absolutely plan to make this part of the campaign.”
Like Hawley, Jessica Anderson, executive director of the Heritage Action, sees Biden and the left as the aggressors. The debate over CRT is just the latest salvo in a larger culture war. “For the last year, Americans have seen their basic institutions under assault from the left, including our schools, churches, police, and elections,” she said. “The left forced critical race theory into our schools, indoctrinating children from K-12.” And this won’t end well for Democrats, Anderson added. “Critical race theory is electrifying the movement, and concerned parents across the country are fighting back against the left’s radical teachings with the same energy that carried the Tea Party a decade ago.”
Hawley doesn’t doubt that there are parallels between his current fight and the one that delivered Republicans a House majority in 2010. He says he hasn’t thought much about it that way. He declines, twice, to say whether fellow Republicans should follow his example or how. Floor speeches aren’t that hard to deliver and press releases are easy to issue. But again, he won’t say what his colleague should or shouldn’t do beyond those simple steps.
“America’s central idea is the equality of all, and our politics and history — however imperfect and incomplete — radiate out from that. The modern left does not hold to that idea, but believes inequality defines America and everything about it,” Matt Spalding, executive director of the 1776 Commission, which Trump established and Biden dismissed, told RCP.
By pressing that point, Hawley may have won a larger victory while losing the fight over confirmation of the federal government’s human resources manager. At least for Republicans, the junior senator from Missouri has managed to frame the national debate.
While Hawley won’t say if Biden actually knows all the ins and outs of CRT, he thinks that by nominating candidates who endorse the essential elements of that theory, the president — who launched his campaign promising to bind up the wounds of the national soul — is making clear his opinion.
“His view of the soul of the nation is that it’s suffering from major maladies — deformed in many ways. Again, that this is a systemically racist and unjust place. I just don’t share that vision at all,” he said before concluding, “I think the soul of this nation is fundamentally good.”
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Philip Wegmann is a reporter at RealClearPolitics.