September 20, 2023
What causes wokeness? Richard Hanania writes in his highly useful new book, The Origins of Woke: Civil Rights Law, Corporate America, and the Triumph of Identity Politics, that:
Conservatives have blamed wokeness on entities as diverse as capitalists, the education system, recently arrived immigrants, financiers, Hollywood, the United Nations, “globalists,” the mainstream media, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Jazeera, the upper middle class, and the Chinese Communist Party.
But Hanania makes a strong case that the main reason has been the past half century of government regulation of the workplace in the name of civil rights.
As Willie Sutton replied when asked why he robs banks, that’s where the money is. For the ever-growing numbers of people paid to micromanage diversity and shut down potentially offensive free speech at work, it’s a living. It may not seem like a lot of money to Silicon Valley titans, but to many soft-major college grads it’s more than they could make doing anything else. To update Upton Sinclair’s famous quote, “It is not difficult to get a woman to believe something when her salary depends upon it.”
Hanania’s book is a more technical, in-depth exploration of the exact mechanisms behind wokeness that were outlined in general terms in prose stylist Christopher Caldwell’s visionary 2020 book The Age of Entitlement, in which Caldwell argued that the civil rights revolution of the 1960s wound up inevitably making white men into America’s designated bad guys/chumps.
In Hanania’s retelling, there’s more emphasis on what happened after Jim Crow was defeated. The Origins of Woke draws much from the work of law professor Gail Heriot of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, such as her article “The Roots of Wokeness: Title VII Damage Remedies as Potential Drivers of Attitudes Toward Identity Politics and Free Expression” on the malignant effects of specific provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
In his online 2022 introduction to his interview with Heriot, Hanania summed up his upcoming book’s thesis:
In her 2020 paper [“Title VII Disparate Impact Liability Makes Almost Everything Presumptively Illegal”], [Heriot] frames the issue of disparate impact in a way I hadn’t thought of before. Literally any practice you can think of has a disparate impact…. If everything is potentially illegal, and government does not have the resources to go after everything, then the government basically has arbitrary power to do whatever it wants under civil rights law. People who become civil rights lawyers or EEOC bureaucrats tend to be extremely woke, and it is their interpretations of the law that shape how institutions can behave…. As long as civil rights laws remain as they are, almost any idea coming out of universities, no matter how crazy, can potentially be forced onto local governments and private institutions without having to ever be sanctioned through the democratic process.
In the 1960s, the federal government geared up for a long twilight struggle with the forces of Jim Crow in the South, creating numerous bureaucracies to battle entrenched Southern segregation. But, it turned out, as soon as the federal government stopped allowing state-sanctioned or state-tolerated violence against firms that violated Jim Crow norms by no longer segregating their lunch counters and the like, overt discrimination almost immediately collapsed in the South. After all, Jim Crow with its persnickety caste rules was a drag on economic growth, so the Southern business class was happy to finally join modern, booming America.
This left federal bureaucrats with a lot of time on their hands.
Similarly, even though the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s ban on sex discrimination in employment had been added as a joke by a segregationist senator trolling the bill, traditional sex discrimination in hiring largely evaporated in the 1970s. It turned out that capitalists loved having a law tell them to double their potential workforces. (That’s one reason 1973 shows up on so many graphs as the last really good year for male wage growth in American history.)
Rather than announce “Mission accomplished” and go find other work, the triumphant forces of the civil rights bureaucracy became instead the scourge of ever more esoteric forms of discrimination, such as disparate impact, hostile environment due to mean speech, sexual harassment, and disability access. They increasingly intervened in the American workplace in favor of complaining members of protected groups, which cultivated a culture of complaint.
Meanwhile, center-right judges, such as Nixon appointee Lewis F. Powell in the 1978 Bakke decision, banned simple, obvious methods to promote now-privileged groups such as outright quotas in favor of more occluded “goals,” with enforcement largely by lawsuits, public and private. This had the unintended result of making affirmative action, almost always a political loser for Democrats, less politically salient. Hanania notes:
Only when civil rights law cannot stealthily prefer some groups over others does it do so openly.
Over time, Democrats figured out that it was in their interest for corporations to be uncertain what exactly the governments’ rules are regarding race and sex. This avoided making clear to voters, who, even in California remain strongly opposed to racial preferences, how much of a thumb the government was putting on the scale.
The government tries to keep the public confused. For example, Hanania writes:
The “EEO [Equal Employment Opportunity] Is the Law” poster that a firm is required to place in a conspicuous place informs its workers, among other things, that “Executive Order 11246, as amended, prohibits job discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and requires affirmative action to ensure equality of opportunity in all aspects of employment.” In other words, major American institutions are required to declare within the same sentence both that they do not discriminate and that they practice affirmative action…. To do business with the federal government, one must participate in rituals that both legitimize the goals of the state while hiding the nature of the project.
Likewise, while the press constantly reprints plaintiff attorney’s arguments alleging discrimination against blacks based on dubious disparate impact allegations, the media mostly only reports on institutionalized racial discrimination against whites every five or ten years when a college admissions lawsuit makes it to the Supreme Court. So it is easy for the average American to remain oblivious to how the system works.
In response to the proliferation of government regulations (and the lawsuits that accompany them) banning discrimination against some people and encouraging discrimination against others, corporations vastly increased their human resources staff to cajole and mollify the bureaucrats.
Of course, corporate HR staffers are less the adversaries of the government and plaintiff attorneys than their codependents in a symbiotic relationship featuring slightly different career paths in the same business. Just as many of the environmental consultants hired by corporations to placate the Environmental Protection Agency are former EPA staffers (and thus are definitely not going to call for repealing environmental laws), corporate HR, federal civil rights bureaucrats, discrimination lawyers, sexual harassment trainers, and so forth have perfectly understandable mutual economic incentives to bring ever larger parts of American life under their purview to generate more business for people like themselves.
From 1968 to 2021, despite immense improvements in automation, the number of Americans working in human relations grew from 140,000 to 1,500,000:
In 1968, only 1 in 558 American workers were employed in human resources. By 2021, that number had risen to 1 in 102, including 1 in 184 men and 1 in 68 women.
I wonder what fraction of black women with college degrees work in HR: 1 in 20? 1 in 10?
A third of a century ago, the founder of a couple of firms I worked at had a stated policy of only hiring black women as his head of human resources because that inclined the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to harass his companies less. As Hanania explains, the civil rights rules regarding employment are so vague and potentially far-reaching that in the inevitable federal investigations and discrimination lawsuits over firings, the best defense is often to look like you aren’t one of those bad racist companies that must be rooted out and punished. And what better proof that you are Good than making the face of your HR department a black woman? Employers, Hanania says,
are encouraged to find ways to convince bureaucrats, and potentially judges and juries, that they are good people who take discrimination seriously…. “Woke capital,” which often refers to corporations taking left-wing stances on identity-related issues, is a natural response to a system that rewards this kind of virtue signaling.
For example, if a few deep-pocketed employers increase their budget for DEI staffers to new highs, the EEOC can extoll this to other employers as a “best practice” that might be looked upon favorably by the EEOC the next time they get sued for firing a protected class goldbricker (likely next week).
The diversity racket is a self-licking ice cream cone that ratchets upward much more easily than downward.
Further, post–Jim Crow developments in civil rights laws and regulations incentivized employers to shut down free speech at work for fear of being sued for allowing a hostile environment in which privileged people might have their feelings hurt. As Hanania notes,
Opponents of wokeness sometimes say that “facts don’t care about your feelings.” But the federal judiciary does.
For example, here’s something you might get in trouble for saying in the modern federally regulated office:
Oh, you want to learn more about statistics? There’s a really lucid introductory appendix on how stats work at the back of ‘The Bell Curve.’
Q. What’s the best way to avoid any chance of blurting that out?
A. Don’t ever read The Bell Curve. Don’t even know anything about it other than it’s debunked. Debunked!
Granted, it’s kind of humiliating to have to live like this, so many workers adapt to these dictates by assuming that what they need to say to protect their jobs is what must be morally and scientifically true. It helps ease the cognitive dissonance.
What about the rest of the world? Hanania cites the counterexample of France, where collecting race data, a fundamental necessity of post–Jim Crow civil rights regulations, is outlawed. In response, French political elites, such as Macron, frequently denounce wokeness as an insidious American import. (Of course, the French and the Americans still have similar first-order racial problems, such as rioting by youths of African descent.)
Last month, the Huffington Post doxed Hanania as having written online 10–12 years ago as Richard Hoste, a tediously strident minor race realist. I would never dox anybody, but I had already looked into the Hanania-Hoste question myself. I saw many similarities, but Hanania was so much better of a thinker and writer than Hoste had been that I decided to remain agnostic on this mystery. How often do individuals improve that much?
It turns out that Hanania used to be a fat high school dropout, but now he has a J.D. from the U. of Chicago and a Ph.D. from UCLA, and has recently become a prominent skinny public intellectual. If he keeps improving at this rate, the sky is the limit.
Still, although he has much to be proud of, Richard needs to watch his ego. His editors at HarperCollins (and congratulations to them for not canceling the book after his doxing) do a good job of keeping it in check on the printed page. But online he’s been boasting like a rapper:
Why didn’t anyone do any of this before?… I don’t think anyone else could have written ‘The Origins of Woke.’
In reality, I have several books on my shelves from as far back as the 1970s that cover much of the same material. It’s a dry topic, however, so conservative intellectuals tend to forget lessons once learned in favor of highbrow speculations about Cultural Marxism and thus need periodic remindings such as The Origins of Woke.
Hanania goes on to outline his political strategy for rolling back the current legal/regulatory regime.
But perhaps what we need is to roll forward civil rights law to actively protect whites in this era of institutionalized racist antiwhite hate. For example, mandatory Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training should be seen as prima facie evidence of a hostile work environment for whites. (I outlined sixteen principles to guide legal reform back in June.)
It goes unmentioned in Hanania’s book (as a Palestinian-American, he’s wise to tread warily), but probably the single most important political task for winning support for extending civil rights protections to whites is to get Jews to notice once again that, whether or not they feel white, legally they are white.
Back in the 1970s, many Jewish intellectuals, such as Nathan Glazer, vociferously opposed affirmative action, seeing it as a threat to their working-class relatives’ jobs.
But, Jews were rapidly moving up and out of the working class into careers then much less affected by quotas.
So, over time, Jewish opposition to affirmative action faded, largely to be replaced by an unthinking suspicion that the concept of civil rights for whites is just some sort of diabolical anti-Semitic plot.
Jacob Scheer wrote in the center-right Jewish tablet Tablet in 2018:
In recent Supreme Court cases…Jewish organizations led by the “big three”—the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee—submitted legal briefs defending race-conscious university admissions policies on the grounds that diversity is a compelling state interest. Although this may seem like a given considering the liberal bent of many if not most American Jews, the Jewish stance on affirmative action has not always been supportive. In 1978, when the Regents v. Bakke case first successfully challenged affirmative action at the Supreme Court level, the big three American Jewish organizations all submitted amicus curiae briefs opposing affirmative action admissions policies in support of Bakke.
Why the shift?
A better explanation seems to lie in Jewish accumulation of status and political power, as well as the rapidly expanding presence of high-achieving Asian-American students in academia.
This worked fine for Jews until the past ten years. Up through Obama’s first term, the really fun industries of Hollywood and Silicon Valley were largely immune from government persecution over their demographics.
But then came the Great Awokening of the past decade, which has obsessed over the lack of black representation in elite (i.e., heavily Jewish) jobs like film director and physicist. A 2023 Tablet article by Jacob Savage found by looking for Jewish names across a wide variety of high-ranking professions:
Using YouGov data, Eric Kaufmann finds that just 4 percent of elite American academics under 30 are Jewish (compared to 21 percent of boomers)…. The same pattern holds across America’s elite institutions: a slow-moving downward trend from the 1990s to the mid-2010s—likely due to all sorts of normal sociological factors—and then a purge so sweeping and dramatic you almost wonder who sent out the secret memo.
Black Lives Matter?
The problem for Jews is not that the ongoing “racial reckoning” is overtly anti-Semitic, it’s that it’s overtly antiwhite. And, for the crucial purpose of tabulating diversity numbers, virtually all Jews count as white.
Jews used to be famously self-aware, but they have become woozier-minded in recent decades. Until enough Jews figure out that they share the fate of other whites during our Diversity-Inclusion-Equity mania, my strategy of rolling forward civil rights to also protect whites won’t go very far due to knee-jerk Jewish aversion.
But it’s hardly impossible that enough Jews could someday be educated to notice their own self-interest.