The following is an excerpt from 'The Plot to Change America: How Identity Politics is Dividing the Land of the Free' by Mike Gonzalez
The last time America was convulsed with race riots coast to coast, the then white Eastern establishment panicked and allowed activists and ideologues to push through a series of measures, including identity-based fragmentation, and a benefits system grounded on immutable traits such as race and sex, that they said were “temporarily” needed to heal the nation’s wounds. Yet, not only did the new policies become permanent, they also had the logical effect of reinforcing differences and perpetuating balkanization—that is, deepening the wounds—as we tragically see on the streets today.
The ideologues preached group grievances as a tactic rather than as a commitment. They accompanied the race-conscious policies with an unremitting assault on the nation’s history, institutions, and very reason for being, because they saw an opportunity to fundamentally transform it into something it had never been meant to be—a centrally run economy where such freedoms as the natural rights to speech and property would not impede such “progress.”
They have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. Decades of teaching American children that their country is irredeemable because it is “institutionally” racist has had the logical effect of creating a generation that wants to replace the institutions. The Black Lives Matter movement, with its calls to dismantle the family, abolish gender roles, and advance trans-rights, and The New York Times 1619 Project, with its attacks on the free-market system, bear the imprint of 20th Century ideologues who realized the way to have revolution was to replace the organically grown cultural narrative with a blueprint for central planning. What the ideologues left behind is a divided nation where the young think their country is in need of root-and-branch transformation, and socialism might do the trick.
All of this means we should be very much on guard today for what else social engineers have in store for us in the aftermath of the present riots. If history is guide, they will push for far, far worse ideas than simply defunding the police, as bad as that is in itself. Highly paid “anti-racism” consultants such as Robin DiAngelo, who recently briefed 184 Members of Congress wants to dismantle the free-market system.
What we see today in cities like Portland and Seattle is horrific, to be sure, from the murder of George Floyd to the wanton destruction that has come since at the hands of rioters and looters. Yet, Americans of a certain age will remember worse. Hundreds of riots, as many as 700 by one count, ravaged sections of several American cities between 1964 and 1971. Between 1965 and 1968 alone, “the riots left 250 African-Americans dead, 8,000 wounded, and 50,000 arrested in more than 300 race riots and disturbances,” writes Hugh Davis Graham in Collision Course. The property damage was in the hundreds of millions, most of it African American property.
The white Establishment, generally high-minded and liberal-leaning, though not in a rigidly ideological way, feared that the country would crack.
This panic led to two main outcomes. First, members of the establishment offered “temporary” race-conscious benefits to blacks, in an effort to pacify Northern blacks, who had seen fewer advances than their Southern counterparts during the Civil Rights era. This meant, of course, that these frightened federal officials were going beyond the Civil Rights Movement’s original promise of color-blind justice. And the race- and group-conscious preferences did not stop with blacks. The second outcome was that bureaucrats accepted the assertion by leftist activists claiming to mediate on behalf of other ethnic groups that there was an analogy to be made between the suffering of blacks and the experiences of Americans of Mexican, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Japanese, Filipino, and other descents. This analogy, which was also extended to women as a group, was drawn over and over. It was, of course, dishonest and deceitful: the experience of black Americans was in fact unique. It has left us with the absurdity that someone who has arrived on American shores can receive a preferential treatment in the name of “compensatory justice.”
No Boston Brahmin was more emblematic of the elite set that helped this happen than McGeorge Bundy, John F. Kennedy’s National Security Advisor and as result one of the best and the brightest denizens of Camelot. By the time he took the helm of the Ford Foundation, in 1966, the era’s riots were fully under way and the urgency to do something was deeply felt by a policy community feeling overwhelmed. Though Bundy and Ford Foundation execs may have talked about the riots in liberal generalities as if they had a handle on the crisis, “they nevertheless had little idea about how to stop the rebellions or their negative impact on ‘the American body politics’,” wrote Karen Ferguson in her sympathetic history of the Ford Foundation, Top Down. “Fear of the destabilizing impact and revolutionary possibility of a sustained black revolt drove virtually all American social policy, public and private, during this crisis.”
Bundy and his officers at the Ford Foundation thought immediately of a system of racial preferences, which betrayed the color-blind promise of the Civil Rights Movement. But even that wasn’t enough, however. Only after a period of ethnic separation, they somehow reasoned, could assimilation take place at some time in the future. This staggering stratagem, called “developmental separatism” by Ferguson, is what convinced them that not only racial preferences but balkanization was needed. This was the true breaking of the ground of identity politics, when the Ford Foundation began to lay out large amounts of money to lay down its foundations. Ferguson notes that in 1969 the foundation’s Social Development Program was already making “grant proposals directed at increasing the group identity and power of minorities.” Their goal, she explains, was to promote “a balkanizing ethic for the black urban poor that emphasized the need for the continuing isolation of minority communities so that they could experience a cultural revitalization that would lead to what Bundy called ‘social development’ and eventual assimilation into the mainstream American political economy.”
As Ferguson wrote, the foundation’s activities reduced the matter to a “psycho-cultural and therapeutic issue of black identity without having to deal with the structural and material issues that initially fostered the call for black self-determination.”
Though some resisted at first, most of the bureaucrats did not appear to give too much thought to the idea of treating other groups as they would treat blacks; they went ahead and acquiesced either because they were in a rush to buy peace or because some of them agreed that the constituency for affirmative action had to be broadened. And once the project to carve out minority set-asides began, the courts went along with it. Justice Thurgood Marshall had stated in Bakke v The Board of Education, the 1978 landmark Supreme Court ruling that greenlighted racial preferences in university admissions, that “[t]he experiences of Negroes in America has been different in kind, not just in degree, from that of any other ethnic group. It is not merely the history of slavery alone, but also that a whole people were marked as inferior by the law.” But this the purveyors of the new identity politics ignored.
Who were these purveyors? The Ford Foundation had helped create an army of professional ethnic affinity advocates by providing the seed money for La Raza and for the Mexican-American Legal and Educational Defense Fund (MALDEF) in 1968. Its ethnic lobbyists convinced the Census Bureau to create the first National Advisory Committee on Race in 1974 and in 1977 pushed the Office of Management and Budget to issue Policy Directive No. 15, which created the ethnoracial pentagon of whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Native Americans.
These MALDEF and La Raza leaders who at times worked with bureaucrats, at others intimidated them when they were not complying, were not grassroots Americans from these backgrounds, however. This means that the ethno-linguistic pentagon—America’s current demographic dispensation—was not the result of a clamor from aggrieved sectors of the population. As John David Skrentny of UC San Diego writes in the Minority Rights Revolution, the dispensation is not the result of “angry minority protests, raised fists, picket lines and placards. The images of the minority rights revolution are mostly of mainstream Euro-American males and minority advocates, wearing suits, sitting at desks, firing off memos, and meeting in government buildings to discuss new policy directions.” Even those who are sympathetic to the balkanized groups we have created, such as Allert Brown-Gort, the head of the Casa of the University of California in Mexico, agree that the lobbying groups are grass tops, not grass roots. Brown-Gort writes in his doctoral thesis, Political Re-Ethnification, that “because the political and funding systems require and reward professionalism, the ability to deal effectively with elected officials and public agencies has become a desirable qualification for leadership, a development that favors more politically sophisticated, articulate and well-educated persons.” But even he admits that “this can become a significant problem, however, when the majority of the members of the group—putatively their clients—lack the cultural capital” and other attributes.
So even though it was the raised fists (along with broken city neighborhoods and dead bodies) that frightened bureaucrats and the elites at foundations to subdivide the country, the people who drew up the blueprint—who asked for the subdivision in the first place—were the professional cadre of activists. And their political content came straight from radical leftists like Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse, or the post-modernist thinkers working out of Paris, like Michel Foucault and Jean-Francois Lyotard. These were Europeans who realized that the proletariat would never become the agent of revolution as long as working men and women could hope to improve themselves individually and become prosperous themselves. Many of the pioneers of identity politics drank deeply from these wells.
Gramsci, writing in the 1920s and 30s, thought that the workers had become their own oppressors by buying into their “hegemonic narrative” without a need for coercion. Lyotard and Foucault likewise believed in a meta-narrative or an “episteme.” Like Nietzsche, they thought nothing was true or false, but just accepted versions of reality.
Marcuse went further than all of them. Writing in 1930s, he said democracy was not working because, even if the “the laborers” were put in charge, nothing would change as they had imbibed the hegemonic narrative of the rulers. “Where these classes have become a prop of the established way of life, their ascent to control would prolong this way in a different setting.” The fact that the American working class had become a prop for the ruling class, which advanced its interests without the need to coerce the workers, preserved “the illusion of popular sovereignty.” Marcuse did admit that “this illusion contains some truth: ‘the people,’ previously the ferment of social change, have ‘moved up’ to become the ferment of social cohesion.” The reason capitalism was bad was, essentially, because it was so good: “It is a good way of life—much better than before—and as a good way of life, it militates against qualitative change.”
But there was a ray of hope for revolution yet. Here is where Marcuse hits on his new revolutionary base, the people who, if correctly organized and led by an ideological vanguard, can move the country toward central planning and technological rationality: “underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process.”
Are there versions of Bundy, Marcuse, and Foucault today? Yes; they are in fact their direct and indirect disciples. There is Angela Davis, the former Black Panther who was a student of Marcuse herself, who told a packed auditorium at UVA that we needed systemic transformation: “Diversity without changing the structure, without calling for structural formation, simply brings those who were previously excluded into a process that continues to be as racist, as misogynist as it was before.” There is DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi. And there is Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project, which is yet another attempt to paint America as so institutionally and structurally racist as to need new institutions and structures.
The wages of all this transformation have been paid. The balkanization envisioned by liberal elites in the 1960s was not temporary, and did not lead to “social development” nor the “eventual assimilation into the mainstream American political economy.” Bundy was wrong on that, as on many other things.
Instead, we are more divided than ever, we know less history or civics than at any other time in memory, and we have traded our foundational liberal values for the “soft despotism”—to borrow de Tocqueville’s phrase—of identity politics. Everything in this brave new world is viewed through a victimhood culture that categorizes Americans as victim, ally, or oppressor. This overthrow of our “hegemonic narrative” has been so successful that the nation is today gripped by Maoist-style struggle sessions, the widescale destruction of private property, historical negationism in our classrooms, and widespread censorship in our newsrooms.
Herbert Marcuse’s students have come home to roost. But today, unlike the sixties, those professional radicals have found their home in America’s elite institutions. So when you hear our leaders say that the present moment is a great opportunity to introduce fundamental change in America, ask yourself if they really want to take measures that will prevent tragedies such as the murder of George Floyd, or if they have something larger in mind.
Mr. Gonzalez is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of 'The Plot to Change America: How Identity Politics is Dividing the Land of the Free' (Encounter Books, 2020)