by Frederick M. Hess
A year ago, “defund the police” activists were having quite a time. Outlets like CNN and Vox were publishing fawning profiles. Social media sensations like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar were leading the parade. Cities like Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Austin even approved partial defundings. It was a juggernaut.
Now? A tough-on-crime former cop just won the Democratic mayoral nomination in Bill de Blasio’s New York. Former President Barack Obama is warning fellow Democrats, “You lost a big audience the minute you say [‘defund the police’].” Sen. Bernie Sanders has rejected calls for “no more policing.” And White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, a few weeks ago, bizarrely claimed that it was not Democrats but Republicans who wanted to defund the police (because they opposed President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill).
What happened? Intoxicated by a few policy wins in deep blue cities, enthusiasm in the left-leaning Twitter echo chamber, and their viselike grip on the national media, “defund” activists overlooked one important detail: Their agenda was deeply unpopular with most Americans. A summer 2020 YouGov poll found that just 16 percent of adults wanted to cut police funding — much less “defund” the police. Indeed, 81 percent of black Americans wanted police to spend as much or more time in their communities. During a year when major American cities saw an unnerving increase in homicides, after years of declines, that reaction was not just understandable, it was wholly predictable.
As a result, Democrats squandered an opportunity to build consensus around meaningful police reform. After all, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, there was broad national agreement supporting a range of reforms. Prominent Republicans like Sen. Tim Scott were eager to negotiate. Sen. Ted Cruz, sitting on a panel alongside Houston’s Democratic mayor, insisted it was time for “all of us together to look at ways to make sure that our justice system is more fair.” Rather than pressing an advantage where most Americans were with them, though, Democrats got suckered by a woke fringe into embracing a deeply unpopular agenda.
Those who embrace the stew of “anti-racist” policies and practices loosely referred to as “Critical Race Theory” should take note. As with policing, there’s broad-based support for practical efforts to address persistent inequalities. For instance, while residential attendance zones lock many black and brown children into schools that fail to provide crucial supports, set high expectations, or deliver first-rate instruction, the nation’s parents support school choice policies by hefty margins.
Moreover, there’s widespread agreement that schools can do better talking about race. There’s broad sympathy for the notion that schools have, at times, taught a white-washed version of history that minimizes our failings and overlooks the contributions of minority communities to American commerce and culture. If Democrats want to tackle such concerns in a practical manner, they have the wind at their back.
As with the self-destructive push to “defund the police,” though, those intent on tackling such problems have stood by as their efforts have been overtaken by ideologues in thrall to a vision of “anti-racist” education that is noxious to the vast majority of Americans.
Take, for instance, the “anti-racist” insistence that universal values are actually hallmarks of “white supremacy” culture. The famed KIPP charter schools announced last summer that the chain was abandoning its slogan “Work Hard, Be Nice” as an “anti-racist” blow against “white supremacy” culture. The Smithsonian published a guide asserting that “hard work,” “self-reliance,” and “be[ing] polite” are all a product of the “white dominant culture.” Bellevue School District in Washington state paid for “aspiring white antiracist leaders” to attend a class called “Humble & Brave,” where educators learn that these traits “go against the white norm.”
It should come as no great surprise that all of this is out of step with what the lion’s share of Americans believe. If one asks parents — of any race — what values they want their kids to learn, more than 4 out of 5 will endorse concepts like “hard work,” “being well-mannered,” and “being responsible.” In fact, Black parents are slightly more likely than white parents to say that these traits are important. It’s not that hard to understand why Black, Latino, or Asian parents might resent the notion that “hard work” or “responsibility” are somehow alien to their culture. As one parent put it, “We did not immigrate to this country for our children to be taught in taxpayer-funded schools that punctuality and hard work are white values.”
The woke fringe cheered earlier this spring when the Biden Department of Education held up as a model of civic education the 1619 Project, which teaches that America was founded as a “slavocracy” and is a nation where “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” Most Americans reject this cartoonish narrative of their country, with more than two-thirds of adults opposed to having schools tell students that America was founded on racism.
And yet, Democratic officials have blithely gone along as progressive pundits, union leaders, and advocates have raced to defend even the most noxious goings-on against the critics of Critical Race Theory.
Look, there’s much of value in today’s efforts to make education more effective, responsive, and just. Indeed, there are plenty of places where people of goodwill can find common ground on school improvement. But, if Democrats intent on school improvement follow the woke fringe down the same Twitter-inspired, navel-gazing rabbit hole that swallowed police reform, they oughtn’t be unduly surprised when they look up in the heat of the 2022 midterm elections to see Jen Psaki insisting that Critical Race Theory was really a Trumpian scheme all along.
– – –
Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.