Contemporary universities are doing their best to eradicate prejudice and bias. Yet one remaining prejudice—against white men—is not only tolerated but encouraged. While we are told that diversity of skin color and gender is an unmitigated good, people in faculty meetings and job searches joke about the undesirability of white men. They look forward to the time when all the “old white men” shall disappear from campus. Job performance? Publications? Pedagogical skill? These are now less important than a faculty that reflects the demographics of the school, or the general population, or . . . we’re not quite sure what. But everyone knows the first principle of academic life: Diversity is a moral imperative.
Faculty members are trained in Title IX regulations, intersectional sensitivity, and unconscious bias and microaggression avoidance. We are encouraged to speak out when we observe inappropriate words or actions, and to report such instances to teams of administrators. Yet the prejudice against white men goes unquestioned. Its victims never speak of it publicly. They only hope not to offend, and to be allowed to go about their business.
“This is as it should be!” say the presumed moral leaders of the university. Men have held privileged positions for too long. White men, in particular, need to sit down and shut up so that others can speak out and take institutional power. For more radical activists, a group of white men is itself a symbol of oppression. For the less strident, the hope is that a school or program might acquire a critical mass of women and minorities to balance out the white men, or perhaps to equalize the numbers of men and women. The unspoken and largely unexamined assumption is that students need to learn from people who look like them. Women now make up the majority of college students; therefore, women should be their teachers.
The superiority of women as a group has become accepted wisdom over the past few years, and people across the political spectrum constantly and nervously monitor the diversity makeup of their organizations. They fear situations like the one that took place at Stanford’s Hoover Institution in March of 2018, which led the organizer of a history conference to issue a mea culpa for the fact that his event had been “too white and too male.”
But do men, and white men in particular, really constitute a homogeneous bloc? This idea is typical of the neo-Marxist world of the academy, and it has now thoroughly infiltrated the realms of business, government, and the arts. The notion that an individual, by virtue of his group identity, inherently possesses power or suffers oppression is a cornerstone of the theory of intersectionality. Invented by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality has overtaken the academic world in the last decade.
The theory of intersectionality holds that oppression and privilege do not attach to a single characteristic (race or gender, for instance) but occur in combination depending on the intersecting traits one possesses. A black woman, therefore, experiences greater and different oppression than does a white woman, who suffers from only a single disadvantage. In this framework, group identity always takes precedence over individual identity, and white men are the most privileged group. Structural oppression is taken as incontestable fact.
Yet anyone must admit that white men are as intellectually and morally diverse as any other group. Stanley Fish, Donald Trump, Paul Krugman, and Sean Hannity are all part of this demographic. So are the millions of middle- and working-class men who have no voice in the public conversation and little political power—single fathers who support their families, rural small-business owners, men who work in urban convenience stores. These people are positioned across a broad spectrum of privilege and disadvantage, wealth and poverty, achievement and failure.
Of course, progressives know this as well as anyone else. When they talk about white male privilege, they commit the same stereotyping that they claim women and minorities suffered in the past and still suffer. Their goal, however, is not to end stereotyping, but to stereotype a different group. Progressives adopt the group privilege narrative for particular purposes: to seize the levers of the university and change its personnel. If white men are indeed a homogeneous, oppressive bloc, then they may be opposed en masse.
The problem is that though sorting people into groups is appropriate for studies of voting behavior and public health outcomes, it is far less helpful in evaluating the particular white male who happens to sit across the table in a job interview or occupy a seat in the classroom. Even the most ardent diversity advocates recognize this when it is convenient. I have often heard a woman say that white men are the problem—and then add (rather sheepishly) that her husband happens to be an exception.
The corollary of this derogation of men is the notion that women are morally superior. As Michael Moore put it in a provocative tweet, “No women ever invented an atomic bomb, built a smoke stack, initiated a Holocaust, melted the polar ice caps or organized a school shooting.” Notwithstanding the questionable historical accuracy of this comment, it conveys the new orthodoxy quite well, particularly as expressed by prominent progressives. Because women are statistically less violent and more emotionally sensitive, we ought to place them in positions of leadership. Doing so will counteract the toxic masculinity that saturates our culture.
But the objection is obvious here, too. Can we not see the tremendous diversity within the group “women”? Some women may be saints, but most of us are subject to the foibles of human beings generally: pride, envy, small-mindedness, gossip, and laziness, to name a few. And to the claim that women are victims of persistent and systemic oppression: Ironically, the most oppressed women lack the megaphone possessed by the feminist elites who supposedly advocate for them. Sometimes they do not even appreciate or agree with the ideas of their patrons and protectors.
Both these overgeneralizations exemplify the fallacy described by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind. Haidt and Lukianoff call this kind of thinking “the untruth of us versus them”—life understood as a battle between good and evil people. In this context, men (especially white men) are manipulative and vicious; women are upstanding and virtuous. Complex human beings are categorized simplistically as friends or enemies.
When intersectionalists insist that the identity of teachers must match the identity of students, they really mean to highlight the degree of difference from white male identity that a person brings to campus. They value individuals for characteristics that are involuntary and, according to a traditional understanding of academic judgment, irrelevant. This trend is unintentionally patronizing. To say that women learn best from women, blacks from blacks, Hispanics from Hispanics, is to propose much the same educational segregation that Civil Rights integration was designed to overcome.
Nor is there much, if any, empirical evidence to substantiate the “mirroring effect”—the notion that students work harder and learn more when they see their own identity group represented at the podium. In truth, the “mirroring effect” is just one more anti–white male canard.
Unfortunately, these points will have little impact on intersectionalists. Their focus on identity is a religious conviction, not a reasoned position. And diversity is the first great commandment. But perhaps these religious adherents might be moved by an argument about the harm that this anti–white male prejudice inflicts on women.
On the intersectional view of justice, we should do good to friends and harm to enemies, promoting women and handicapping men. The unspoken assumption is that women seek and deserve this kind of advantage, for they understand it as payback for all the years of oppression they have endured. Some men, too, see themselves as allies and proclaim their willingness to forgo personal advantages in order to advance the cause.
But what if women don’t see the world through the lens of oppression and privilege? It’s worth pointing out (pace women’s studies departments everywhere) that the entire recent narrative of women’s oppression is contestable, especially from the point of view of many younger women who, far from being undervalued, are actively sought out in their fields.
Even if (as we’re continually told on campus) women continue to suffer discrimination based on sex, it does not necessarily follow that women want to be given benefits and advantages. They might prefer to earn them. How many times have I heard the well-intentioned but patronizing phrase, “We need a woman for this job”? Those who employ it assume that they are doing good. But their patronage transforms women into a special, needy class. A great many women want to be chosen not for their sex, but for their individual talents.
As a person who stands only one step removed from white men in the great intersectional matrix, I’m liable to be charged with coming to the aid of oppressors or failing to appreciate structural oppression. I expect criticisms like this one, from Rebecca Traister: “White women, who enjoy proximal power from their association with white men, have often served as the white patriarchy’s most eager foot soldiers.”
Perhaps not. Perhaps such women prefer to think for themselves about these issues. Maybe they decline Traister’s assessment of power relations and the social world in general. Many politely refuse the charity and affirmative action that come with this new dominant view of the goodness of women and the villainy of white men.
We would rather stand or fall on our own than be artificially promoted to positions in which we constantly wonder: Was I chosen because I am a woman? Was he excluded because he is white? Though the promotion of women is sold to the public as a matter of justice, few want to talk about the profound injustice of social engineering that harms or advantages people based on their membership in groups they have not chosen and cannot change.
Judge us, then, as men and women, not by our race or gender, but as individuals. Judge us by our work, our minds, our characters, our kindness (or lack of it), our generosity, our energy, and our talents. Do not prejudge us. Do not tell us you need a representative or critical mass of people like us, or that you need to eliminate representatives of the group “white men.” Both impulses are a kind of benevolent prejudice, operating on debatable assumptions about the betterment of society. Both have unintended and poisonous consequences that undermine the entire project of liberal education.
Elizabeth C. Corey is the American Enterprise Institute Values and Capitalism Visiting Professor for 2018–19.