🎧 Michael Powell on Race, Class, and Free Speech

Michael Powell and Yascha Mounk discuss the cultural transformation of America's elite institutions.

  
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Michael Powell is a reporter for The New York Times, covering issues including free speech, education and identity politics. His reporting takes him from the campuses of elite universities and private schools to the halls of the ACLU.

In this week’s conversation, Michael Powell and Yascha Mounk discuss whether the left has cooled on free speech, what’s lost in the national discussion about critical race theory, and how establishment institutions across the United States are being transformed.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Yascha Mounk: Every time we get a story about an attack on liberalism, in part from the right but also from the left, it is dismissed by partisans as just some crazy story, an extreme example — “this really isn't a broad phenomenon going on in the country”, etc. Do you think all of the stories that you've been writing about add up to a bigger picture?

Michael Powell: I think the answer is almost certainly yes. About seven months ago, I did a story on a particular racial incident at Smith College, an elite liberal arts school in Massachusetts. I spoke to at least 15 faculty members, all of them tenured. As I recall, three of them went on the record. With perhaps one exception, none disputed that there was an illiberal stream running through liberal higher education these days, and specifically at their school. Almost all had particular tales to tell—not all hair-curling. But it was quite striking that I'm talking to—in almost all cases—senior tenured faculty, and none were willing to go on the record. Untenured people, I very much understood. I thought to myself, “This is a fine liberal institution, an elite liberal institution, and this isn't good.” After the piece appeared, the president, as I expected might happen, denounced the piece, denounced me, and went to the faculty meeting. One of the faculty members called me a few hours afterwards, and she was chuckling. She named a number of people who stood up and denounced the piece and several of those were people who had given me chapter and verse on the problems that the university was running into on these very issues. I took that as a bad sign on the state of many of these institutions.

Mounk: Being back in Europe for a few months, I haven't had anybody say to me, “But of course, I would never say this publicly.” And I suddenly realized that this is a phrase that I would hear more or less every day in the United States, often from people who are very much on the left, who are very progressive, who supported Bernie Sanders, who are deeply engaged in the fight against discrimination and so on. Their position is perfectly reasonable, but they would be afraid to speak publicly. When did you first sense that cultural transition?

Powell: I've only really started writing on this in the last year and a half. I was writing a sports column, actually, for about four or five years before this. I bounced all over the place. The Times being the Times, it's sports column in which you can write about all sorts of social issues as well. And I started to come across this when I was looking at Title IX abuses which were, frankly, in some cases quite problematic from a civil liberties point of view. And doing that reporting—this is casting back four or five years—I was running into the same problem: that lawyers handling the cases were perfectly willing to talk to me, but when I would try to talk with professors and others on college campuses, people were wary of it. Feminists were leery of it—with, I should say, some spectacular exceptions. There are people who've been very forthright on this question from the liberal feminist community. But it just feels to me this is a stream that runs quite strong through our culture right now. And not simply universities and colleges.

Mounk: Your work covers a broad range of issues, and I want to do justice to that. So I understand you're currently in Texas, reporting on some of the so-called anti-critical race theory (CRT) laws. Can you give us a little bit of a sense of what's going on there and what you're covering at the moment?

Powell: Sure. Texas has—as is true in about eight or nine other states—enacted several laws that set lines for how public school teachers can talk about. Actually, it's a little more chilling than that. For instance, you can talk about the real history of the Alamo in Texas; you can talk about, theoretically, how the Texas Rangers lynched Mexicans, which happened with tragic frequency for quite a while. But the law basically says you can't make children feel uncomfortable. In this way, it's kind of a funhouse mirror of some of the stuff that you see on the left. You can't make children feel uncomfortable. In this case, say, white children. 

I've talked with a lot of teachers down here—public school, high school, middle school, social studies teachers, mainly—and they say if you're going to talk about history (let's put CRT just off to the side for now), if you're going to wrestle with history in all of its glories and unpleasantness and messiness, you run the imminent risk that you're going to make a student uncomfortable or upset—not personally, but because it's difficult stuff to handle. Right now, theoretically, a teacher who does that—and if a couple of students or parents were to complain—literally could run the risk of losing their teacher's license. Similarly, you have librarians who are very worried. This is not in the law, but there have been a couple of legislators who put out these very long lists of books on all manner of things from race to the Holocaust. People are just very, very worried. It's a bad place for free inquiry right now.

Mounk: You're not primarily an education reporter, but what can you tell us about how race is actually taught in public schools across the United States? Local control is so strong in America that what you're likely to be taught in a school district in New York City is so different from what you're likely to be taught in a school district in Alabama. In most schools, you probably do have serious engagement with the negative aspects of American history. We have some outliers where those events are denied and not discussed at all. But you also have some outliers where something like a non-academic, applied cousin of critical race theory is taught. Do you have a sense, from your reporting, on this question?

Powell: I honestly don't, and I'm not sidestepping. I agree with you that education runs a great gamut. My own kids went to public school in Brooklyn, New York, and there was a great difference between the two elementary schools they went to, and the two junior high schools they went to; and even within that, teachers have a fair degree of agency. I would argue that's a good thing, at some level. I remember my younger son at one point in middle school came home in a huff because he had that rarest of beasts in Park Slope, Brooklyn: a Reaganite social studies teacher. I told him, “Look, this is great. You're not getting exposed to much of that in Park Slope. And as long as he's letting you disagree and debate things with him, have at it.” 

Now, as it turns out, he was not the most exceptional teacher. But I thought it was useful for him to get exposed to that. Having said all of this, I also think that there is some sleight-of-hand that journalists, teachers, and liberals sometimes use around CRT. It is certainly true that no one is teaching CRT to a seventh grade social studies class. It is also true that, to some extent, a number of the teaching colleges are very much influenced by what we might call a sort of anti-racism, in everything from long-standing pedagogy, to popularizers like Ibram X. Kendi, to CRT. Those are threads that run through many of our teaching colleges. To some extent, you get teachers who are very much dipped in those intellectual waters. I'm looking for how they apply those lessons. I think it is fair to say that these are important intellectual currents right now in liberal-left circles, and it would be rather strange if it weren’t having some impact on teachers.

Mounk: It often seems that left-leaning people at places like universities or the ACLU are reluctant to speak up about wokeness, or critical race theory, or the successor ideology, whatever you want to call it. Tell us a little bit about what's happening in those places.

Powell: To cite one recent example, I wrote on the case of this renowned physics professor Dorian Abbot, at the University of Chicago. He's one of the foremost experts on exoplanets and the degradation of atmospheres on exoplanets. There are all sorts of revealing analogues to what that might tell us about our own atmosphere through climate change and pollution. His work is at the heart of a very important—one might argue, existential—threat to our future. He was invited to MIT to give a prestigious lecture purely on science. He is also fairly outspoken in his critique of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and he has real concerns about affirmative action. I would say he's probably center-right in the larger sweep of American society. If you look at polls, he is very much mainstream. 

In fact, in California—the prototypical blue state—voters in the last election turned down an effort to reinstate affirmative action in the University of California system. And that was a strong majority of Asians and apparently a majority of Latinos as well, who voted against reinstating it. Abbot is not somebody who holds extreme right-wing views. Whatever one makes of his views, they're—not to insult him—unremarkable. But when it was announced that he was going to give a speech at MIT, faculty and STEM grad students, really across the United States, reacted with outrage and peppered MIT—one of the highest churches of science education in the world, really—with all sorts of objections: “How can you have this man? You have a DEI policy. It's hypocritical to invite him. This is going to be damaging. This creates harm.” And MIT, I think, rather remarkably, backed down and decided they weren't going to do the lecture this year, and said he can come and address the faculty at some later point in time, but not in this prestigious lecture.

I talked to several faculty who had gone on Twitter to denounce Abbot and say that MIT should cancel his speech, and they were remarkably strong in simply saying that they believe in free speech, but also believe in consequences for free speech; that it doesn't give you a right to talk wherever you want. Perhaps I'm dating myself, but I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a very liberal neighborhood, and free speech was a kind of holy of holies. It was seen as the founding stone of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement. It's been quite striking to hear very liberal-left professors saying freedom of expression is a value that's predominantly been exercised by white men. You do hear similar sentiments quite often now, especially if you choose to hang around the disreputable neighborhood of Twitter.

There was a coda to that, which was that a very prominent physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, went to his colleagues and said, “Well, this is an important moment in free speech and science. We need to invite Abbot out here to talk to us, to essentially make a statement of where we stand,” and apparently a reasonable number of these colleagues said, “Pass. We're not going to do that.” And this professor, David Romps, who headed up a rather prestigious center there, ended up resigning not as a professor, but from the center.

Mounk: The other striking thing on the topic of free speech specifically is that many of the institutions which were built around defending a very expansive conception of free speech—and which you would think would be thriving precisely in the moment in which the defense of free speech is urgently required—seem to be balking at the fight. At the ACLU in particular, there is a really roiling internal debate between people who want to live up to the organization’s historic mission, and people who seem to want to turn it into a progressive organization that will decline to defend free speech when it is offensive.

Powell: When I took on this beat, this was a story that I wanted to do, because I had been hearing about this from friends for a long time. The ACLU, in many ways, is kind of a perfect petri dish for observing these debates. There are terrific First Amendment attorneys there who continue to do good work, but that coexists with, for example, others who have publicly urged a book to be essentially banned. 

After the horror in Charlottesville, which was a march of Neo-Nazis that got out of control, the ACLU had argued—again, very much consistent with its history—that the alt-right had the right to march; not to commit violence, but to march. And afterwards, some two hundred employees signed a really vitriolic letter denouncing the leaders of the ACLU and the ACLU put out a statement that I think—they debate this—clearly backed off a bit, saying “Well, we have to take other issues under consideration if we're going to think about representing these groups in the future.” It’s a remarkable moment, again, because growing up in New York, you thought that free speech and free expression was the sine qua non of that organization. Now, there's very much a sense that that's an important but secondary concern to some of the other issues that they're involved with.

Mounk: You had a really interesting story on elite private schools in New York City. But this is happening in cities around the country trying to deal with how to teach students about racism, which is a very important thing—but who, in the process, seemingly essentialize racial attributes. I'm obviously concerned that in the name of trying to raise awareness of racism, [some of these schools] actually are pushing students to identify as strongly as possible with their ethnic or racial identity, and that the long-term consequences of that are not going to be progressive at all, but rather to deepen mutual mistrust and prejudice and so on.

Powell: I think your summary is spot on. I found the elite private schools to be an interesting window into the high end of the socioeconomic scale. I was struck particularly by this notion of the written word as the exclusive domain of the white man or women. As a kid, my discovery—with the help, frankly, of public school teachers at the time—of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Claude Brown (specifically Manchild in the Promised Land) convinces me that that notion is just profoundly ahistorical and, in my view, condescending and demeaning.

Mounk: What's really striking to me about these examples is that it's not reverse racism, it's just racism, right? This is just saying, “Black people aren't interested in intellectual rigor, the written word, or objectivity.” That is not an attempt to overcome historical injustice; it is, in the name of anti-racism, ascribing an intellectual deficit to black people in a way that, to my mind, is and will always remain just straightforwardly racist.

Powell: That's certainly an argument that is made against these sorts of approaches. These were all in Manhattan and very elite schools, roughly $60,000 a year private schools, where white kids and faculty are herded into a room to talk about so called “white problems,” black kids are put in a room to talk about the particularities of being black, and so on. I went to a private school for two years as a scholarship kid, and I'm a white guy. I felt very much apart from the very financially elite student body. I understand there's going to be a natural desire at times—if you're one of the few black kids at a predominantly white school, for instance—to want to occasionally compare notes with other black students, and likewise across the spectrum. But this kind of enforced identity is a strange thing. I've talked about this a lot with my own sons: your best conversations are when you get together with black and Latino and other friends, and you're talking with each other. And that isn't to say this is some kumbaya moment. These can be, if you will, deep conversations.

Mounk: Obviously, individuals should be free to self-assemble in groups. And often, they will do that in groups that are structured around religion or ethnicity, and that's part of a free society. Students aren't entirely adults, but we give them a lot of freedom to decide whether they want to pursue dance or chess in extracurriculars or interest groups. I'm completely comfortable with the existence of affinity groups in middle schools and high schools in which students can choose to spend time with people of their own ethnic, cultural, or religious background. Where I really start to worry is when this is facilitated in a way that becomes, in effect, mandatory; if the school with its authoritative voice tells teenagers or even small children, “The most important thing about you is the color of your skin, and off you go into this group to be with people of your kind.”

To be clear, some version of that is in fact happening at a substantial number of private elite schools around the country now?

Powell: Without a doubt. I could have as easily written that story in a dozen private schools. They're in San Francisco and Chicago and LA. This is very much a nationally distributed model of education right now in the privates. The public schools are a far vaster landscape, and it varies school district to school district across the United States.

Mounk: One of the dimensions of many of these stories that you've reported on seems to be a sort of hidden class conflict. At Smith College, as in a few other instances, the person who ends up at the receiving end of being fired, censored, vilified, is in some way a less “privileged” position. They may be white, but they're working class, or they may be an immigrant, or they may be somebody who doesn't speak English perfectly, or are neurodiverse, perhaps a little bit on the autism spectrum. Have you come across that repeatedly in your reporting, or do you think that's just a few cases?

Powell: It’s one that I see repeatedly and I think it plays out in our politics. To cite but one example: if you look at Virginia, if you look at the Rio Grande Valley in 2020, you're seeing working class Latinos behaving in ways that suggest that they have not bought into this aspect of the left-liberal project, and I've seen a lot of class resentment. One of my favorite stories was when the Democratic Socialists of America had invited Adolph Reid—a prominent black left scholar who taught at the University of Pennsylvania—to address them on issues like identity. He's a Marxist and very much a non-sectarian sort, and takes the view that these questions of class are not just urgent, but urgent in the sense that the only real chance of change in society comes when people of different ethnicities and races form a coalition—even a cross-class coalition. His talk at the New York Democratic Socialists was cancelled by a number of prominent young socialists who took the view that, actually, race is both the primal divide and the primal organizing aspect for the left, and to suggest that class is challenging the primacy of identity was dangerous. This is remarkable for a socialist organization, which is normally predicated on the importance of, at least, class awareness, if not class primacy. The view that race and identity are the central organizing themes is very much an aspect of today's liberal left. That plays out in all sorts of ways. But there's not only an interesting philosophical divide; it holds some electoral peril.

Mounk: Do you want to hazard any prediction of where we might end up five or ten years from this cultural moment?

Powell: My crystal ball is perpetually cracked, and so I'm simply not doing that, because I will no doubt predict or forecast something that will prove wrong. One of the things I've been struck by in writing on these subjects—and I've certainly tried to engage with all sides in these disputes—is that there is great reader interest in stories like this. And this is not to pat myself on the back, but simply to say, if you write about these subjects, you get an enormous response. In the comments on the pieces, which often run into the thousands, you see people who would be clearly identified as liberals with a great diversity of opinion on questions where the argument is often made that there's really not a lot to discuss here. Much as with Dorian Abbot and affirmative action—people say “this is settled”, “this is a bad thought”, “this is dangerous”, “this puts us at risk of harm”. If you look at these comments, you see a great diversity of thought, and opposition to the view that this is all settled neatly as either good or bad.

And I definitely suggest that this may be a path to cultural hegemony, but is not necessarily the path to political hegemony, and can in fact prove perilous. But I don't know where it’s heading.


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