Blacks who don’t adopt the doctrines of victimhood or critical social justice erode the narrative promoted by woke activists, Erec Smith, a professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania and co-founder of Free Black Thought, says.
“The illogic that is inherent in a lot of anti-racist activism … is absurd,” Smith says.
Smith doesn’t like how The New York Times’ 1619 Project, authored by Nikole Hannah-Jones, only has furthered division within the nation.
As a professor of rhetoric, Smith, who is black and the author of “A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment,” says he is concerned that anti-racist dogma contains “no sincere attempt to persuade” but is instead “an attempt to intimidate.”
Smith joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” from the Parents Unite conference in Boston on Oct. 1 to discuss why blacks who oppose critical race theory are being “erased.” Smith also explains what he would discuss with Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” if he were given the opportunity.
We also cover these stories:
- Democrats move to slash their $3.5 trillion social spending bill to $2 trillion.
- Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announces that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, no longer will conduct worksite raids.
- Eleven state-level school board groups put distance between themselves and a National School Boards Association letter to President Joe Biden asking for federal authorities to investigate parents.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined by Erec Smith. He’s an associate professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania and the co-founder of Free Black Thought. Erec, thank you so much for being here.
Erec Smith: Thanks for having me.
Allen: So Erec, you are also a senior fellow for the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. You’re also an author, your latest book, “A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition.” And you co-founded an organization, as I mentioned, called Free Black Thought. That really interests me. Explain a little bit about Free Black Thought. What do you-all do? What’s your mission?
Smith: Well, I can start by talking about my background regarding this. Well, not my background, my recent background.
In my field there are a handful of people who are insisting that they’re speaking for an entire race, and this is a multicultural group of people, it’s not just black people saying we know everything about black people. And when I try to push back on that I get a significant vitriol and I was a little annoyed by that and not just because of their behavior, but because of the, I’ll be frank, idiocy of thinking they can speak for 50 million individuals.
So I found some like-minded souls, we put together Free Black Thought, which is basically a showcase of viewpoint diversity within the black intelligentsia, and we have scholars, we have a compendium in which we list various topics having to do with race from a variety of scholars who are not parroting the “woke ideology” that we get most prominently in the media. Scholarly writers, op-eds, artists, poets, fiction writers, it runs the gamut.
We also have a journal of Free Black Thought in which we take submissions, vet them, work with authors, and finally publish it on our website. Same principle, it’s about viewpoint diversity, letting people realize that people of color, specifically black people, are not a monolith and they have different things to say, and here’s a place where they can say it. So we’re pretty dedicated to that.
The future may hold something like a podcast or a panel discussion, we’ve co-sponsored those already. So, I mean, the ball’s already rolling on that, but right now we have the compendium, we have the journal, and we have opportunities like this to talk about it.
Allen That’s excellent. I might be a little bit biased on the podcast front, but I would say do it if you can.
Allen It’s a great resource for individuals. Well, as I read some of your work, Erec, I found myself realizing you really have a theme that I feel like runs throughout a lot of your thinking and that’s encouraging people to think for themselves.
Allen: To actually use their mind, to maybe question some of the narratives that we’re hearing about things like racism or wokeism or justice and what those things mean. Do you think that that’s a pretty fair assessment of something you’re trying to do?
Smith: Definitely. I just recently taught Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in a course I teach called American Philosophical Thought. It’s called philosophical thought and not philosophy because there’s some people we have in that class, some authors we’re reading, that aren’t technically philosophers, but they have thoughtful pieces and I have my students read them.
We just went over “Self-Reliance,” which is all about thinking for yourself and not feeling like you need to conform, embracing nonconformity and everything that is the opposite of what seems to be happening among anti-racist circles.
… And there’s a poet named—well, he was here, I don’t think he’s alive anymore—Joseph Brodsky, who basically said that the cure to evil is individualism. Groupthink is evil’s best friend. But individuality and somebody who is originally themselves, authentically their idiosyncratic self, that person’s harder to incorporate into your strategy. So I really felt that and I feel that.
And I recall reading Emerson when I was 18 and carrying that book around like the Bible, because it really spoke to me. It said what I had been feeling but couldn’t articulate at the time.
So I am not surprised at all that you gleaned that thread throughout all my writing. We don’t appreciate individuality the way we should. Communal thinking is a good thing. We have to do it and many would say we’re hardwired to do it. But if we’re not individually sound, we’re not going to be the best members of a particular group, especially if that group is a nation. So yes, I want to make individuality cool again.
Allen: I love that. Wow, you’re taking me back to my college days here. I read a lot of Alexis de Tocqueville and that’s something he talked about, that individualism is actually kind of a safeguard for democracy, which is very, very fascinating.
So you are a professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania. Do you find that the young people you’re teaching in your classes are open to these other perspectives? Are they coming in eager to use their brains and to think or reason, or are you really having to challenge them to do that?
Smith: Well, to be fair, in the time of COVID, they’re a little distracted by other things. What’s more, there are students who are sophomores right now, but it’s their first year in a classroom. So they’re supposed to be farther along than they are socially on a college campus, as well as understanding the dynamics of a college classroom. So that has a lot to do with it, but regarding open mindedness and resistance to anything I’m talking about, I haven’t really encountered that.
I did do a talk two days ago on the detriments of critical social justice in the classroom and got some significant pushback, including from a dean who told me I was lying. My dean didn’t believe that a conference like Parents [Unite], like this could exist because there aren’t people who are up arms because it isn’t happening. So I want to send him this recording, send him a recording of the whole conference. No message, just the link. Yes, I can’t wait to do that. But yes, I mean, there is some pushback, but in general, it’s not that bad.
Allen: That’s good. That’s encouraging to hear because I think there’s a lot of talk about college students and the next generation coming up. How do we empower students to think for themselves? What do you think as a professor are some of the greatest challenges that students are facing right now? And then for you as a professor, what are some of those challenges that you’re facing and trying to help your students navigate through?
Smith: Last semester, spring semester, I taught a course in which the primary text was Benjamin Boyce’s docuseries on Evergreen State College. That was a deep dive into what was going on regarding race-based activism on a college campus. I’m not scared that that will happen on my campus, not to that extent anyway, but I’m concerned because some students said to me—and I got this from the writings of other students, so I could glean that—that they thought they were missing something.
The illogic that is inherent in a lot of anti-racist activism is illogical and it is absurd. But when they looked at this and made that interpretation, they insisted, “I must be missing something. It must be my positionality or something like that. This can’t be this absurd.” And trying to tell them it is is hard because you want them to come to their own conclusions. So biting my tongue and not saying, “No, it’s absurd, you’re right,” was difficult for me. And looking at this illogical way of doing things is difficult for them. They don’t know how to process it immediately.
Allen: Erec, you have also written a book, “A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment.” So in the book you address some of the detriments of anti-racist rhetoric. Just explain this a little bit further. Why do you see anti-racist rhetoric as detrimental?
Smith: Because it’s not rhetoric in a lot of ways. Rhetoric takes into consideration audience, rhetorical context, or what is called kairos, the confluence of time, place, subject matter, people. It doesn’t do that. Instead of gauging an audience and speaking accordingly, it’s more like, “I am, fill in the blank, hear me roar,” right?
There’s no sincere attempt to persuade. It’s an attempt to intimidate. It’s an attempt to just show people you’re here, you’re not going anywhere. It’s an attempt to acquire a sense of dignity. And you can acquire dignity without ruining the concept of rhetoric. And I’m seeing that happening within the field, rhetoric is being usurped for a specific purpose.
The teaching of rhetoric has to do with audience consideration. I mean, if you want to boil it down—well, I won’t boil it down, I’ll use Aristotle’s definition: “Rhetoric is the ability in any given situation to discern the available means of persuasion.” Meaning that you’re going to say the same message differently to one group than you are to another group. Anti-racists just say, “Forget about the groups. I’m just going to say what I’m going to say, because it’s the right thing to say.” That’s not quite what rhetorical education is.
Allen: Yeah. And here at the Parents Unite conference where we are, we’ve heard a lot about the importance of defining terms. So even saying something like “anti-racist,” people have a lot of different ideas and different definitions of what that is. How can we broadly think about that term? Maybe, how should we think about that term?
Smith: Yeah. We do need operational definitions, right? Agreeing upon certain terms before we even start talking about them. I just said anti-racism without qualifying it, assuming that you knew what I was talking about and your listeners know what I’m talking about, but I probably shouldn’t assume that.
Anti-racism on the surface is a good thing. Anti-racism through the filter of what many call critical social justice is not. That form of anti-racism is what you get with Evergreen State College and other small liberal arts colleges that are following suit. So anti-racism itself, good thing. Anti-racism in contemporary [critical social justice] terms, not so good. So that’s how I’m using the term.
Allen: Excellent. No, thank you for defining that. Ibram X Kendi, he’s the author of the book “How to Be an Antiracist,” and Kendi has really been driving much of America’s conversation on that modern definition, like you say, of anti-racism. Have you ever spoken with Kendi before?
Allen: You haven’t?
Allen: What would you want to say if you could sit down and have lunch with him? What would you like to talk with him about? And do you think that you-all could actually have a productive conversation?
Smith: I think he is civil enough to have a productive conversation, if he finds himself inadvertently in the room with me. I don’t think he’d go into the room, but if somehow by some accident he ended up in a room and I was there, I think he would be civil.
That being said, I would want to talk to him about this department of anti-racism that he seems to be pushing and its implications. … He’s talking about a branch of government, in order to have that, a branch of government, and justify an anti-racist branch of government, you need racism, you get a reason for it. So if you’re going to have a branch of government, that implies that you want this thing to last for a while, which is to say that you need racism to last for a while. So I would want him to explain his rationale behind this anti-racist department of government.
Allen: So in the same way that we have a Department of Labor, essentially, Kendi is advocating that we have a department of anti-racism within the government?
Smith: Yes, yes. And I find that very interesting.
Allen: That is very, very fascinating. Yeah, I think that would be a great question. I would also love to hear a conversation between the two of you talking about that.
Smith: So would I. It’s difficult to find people who may call themselves critical social justice activists or may abide by what people are calling critical race theory in practice. It’s hard to get them to talk. They refuse to do that. And they mainly refuse to do that because to talk to me is to dignify me, right? They’re dignifying my opinion by having the conversation, so they need to squelch the conversation altogether.
I mean, that’s a tactic, that’s not just individuals being afraid to talk to people who disagree with them, that’s a tactic. That’s in the playbook: Don’t talk to them. Just ignore them. And any kind of critical inquiry from them is defined as violence. That’s what we got to do. That’s in the playbook. So, I mean, I don’t think I’ll be able to talk to them anytime soon. I mean, if I do end up talking to them, then that would be a turning point in this fight.
Allen: Yeah, absolutely. And that may in part answer my next question about a piece that you recently wrote for Newsweek titled “Black People Who Oppose Critical Race Theory Are Being Erased.”
Allen: Explain this a little bit further. How are those individuals—black individuals who oppose critical race theory—being erased, in your opinion?
Smith: Well, black people who don’t abide by the victim narrative or critical social justice ideology or things like that, they’re bad for the narrative. They’re bad for the movement because they kind of weaken the movement a little bit, especially since the movement tends to essentialize black people.
Nikole Hannah-Jones has gone as far as to split black people into politically black and I guess nonpolitically black, or something like that. But even that doesn’t hold water enough. So they have to get rid of people like me. So they have to erase what I represent and what I’m saying and replace it with something so absurd that they can say, “Look at this idiot.” …
It’s a combination of straw man and ad hominem, if you’re going to talk about fallacies. The biggest difference between erase and replace and a straw man is that you’re not just misrepresenting a person’s words, you’re misrepresenting a person’s character. So you’re doing both those things: I have to totally erase who this person is so that what he or she says is not taken seriously.
And I saw that happen to Angel Eduardo, who is a part of the “anti-woke movement,” or whatever you want to call this, and I didn’t like it. Nikole Hannah-Jones and some of her followers tried to erase and replace him via Twitter thread. I saw that, got upset, I wrote the article.
So what I was trying to do is have people say to themselves when they’re reading, “Is this an erase and replace situation? I should look into this myself and I should make sure to the best of my ability that this person is being represented fairly.”
Allen: Absolutely. And when we think about the culture that young people are being raised in right now, that we do have this moment in history where … critical race theory, all of these things are so present, especially in the field of education where you work, what needs to happen in order to really empower the next generation to be able to think critically, to understand that they can be victors, that they don’t have to be victims? I know that’s something you talk about, that need to really embrace that attitude of “I am a victor.” What do we need to do in order to empower young people?
Smith: Empowerment theory. That’s what I’ve been using. It’s a book I’m working on. It’s what I and Jason Littlefield will be talking about at the Parent Unite conference on Saturday.
Empowerment theory, it incorporates three different components of empowerment: the interpersonal, the interactional, and the behavioral.
The interpersonal is aligned with emotional intelligence, especially the components of self-awareness and self-management, so that you can enter into situations without being defensive. So that you can enter into situations with what Otto Scharmer calls an open heart, mind, and will.
The interactional is just that, interacting with other people in healthy ways. Understanding the concept of rhetorical context, understanding the detriments of projecting personalities on the people before you get to know them. And the interpersonal, interactional align in that if you are individually sound, socially aware, self-aware, self-managing, and things like that, you’re better able to not project onto other people and receive them as they are.
The behavioral component, the third one, is basically the ability to work with others to get things done, to do some generative work, some productive work, to make the world a better place, to improve. In fact, improvement science is a concept that goes well with the behavioral component of empowerment. You need all three of those to be truly empowered, according to the theory.
So what true empowerment does is also, it brings back the original conception of social-emotional learning. Social-emotional learning, or SEL, has gone woke, as of December 2020, officially. Casel, which is an organization that is dedicated to SEL, has put on their website that—well, go see it yourself. But the point is, it’s everything I just said, insofar as it supports critical social justice ideas.
We just heard at Parents Unite the use of mindfulness to soften kids’ minds so that they can be indoctrinated, that’s bad SEL. Good SEL is soften the mind so that you can receive people as they are and not as projections of some evil concept that you have. So that got twisted and empowerment theory is a way we can untwist that. And if Jason and I can get more people aware of that, then that’ll be a victory.
Allen: Thank you so much for sharing that. How can our listeners follow your work, get your book, keep up with your research?
Smith: Well, I’m on Twitter, @Rhetors_of_York. There’s also Free Black Thought: freeblackthought.com, that simple. And I don’t know, I guess there’s Google—I’m all over the place.
Allen: There’s a lot on Google. I can attest to Googling you and a lot coming up.
Smith: Yes, yes, yes. OK, fine, I’ve Googled myself.
Allen: We’re all guilty of that. It’s OK, we’re all guilty.
Smith: Just to see what’s popping up and things like that. And for what it’s worth, the last time I did, it was like two months ago. But even then I’m scrolling, I’m like, “Wow, I’m busy.”
Allen: You are busy.
Smith: So I mean, all you got to do is Google Erec Smith. Make sure you spell the Erec right, though. It’s E-R-E-C.
Allen: Great. Erec, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate you joining the show today.
Smith: Thanks for having me.
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