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March 3, 2021 Reading Time: 5 minutes

I don’t think anyone needs a reminder that social justice is a touchy subject in higher education. As someone who spent three years at my alma mater working under the Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, I would know. As someone who also was and still is highly involved in Classical Liberal and Conservative intellectual circles, I was in the odd middle ground of people who didn’t care much about taking sides. I just wanted people of all backgrounds to get a quality education. 

I certainly saw the need for more diversity on campus whether that was ethnic, cultural, financial, or intellectual. I’m sure we can all agree that that kind of diversity is the spice of life. You should be able to go to college and truly open your mind to the world, whether that be partaking in interesting cultural experiences or learning about the biggest ideas, be it Karl Marx, Aristotle, or Friedrich Hayek. I don’t care if you want to party all day at a frat or stage a protest for gender-neutral bathrooms, college should be whatever you want to get out of it.

Without getting into the details, my ideal vision of college is a place where all sorts of people can come and flourish, either intellectually, professionally, or socially. Having diverse groups of people feeling like they belong and can contribute is surely part of this vision. If achieving this goal was what racial justice activism on college campuses was all about, I’m sure we would all be united in support of this vision. The problem, of course, is that it’s not. 

Racial Justice and Maoism 

The hard reality about social justice activism in America and in my opinion, its greatest setback, is that it is undeniably inspired by Maoism. The Guardian explains that in short,

“Maoism is a set of contradictory ideas that has distinguished itself from Soviet guises of Marxism in several important ways. Giving centre stage to a non‑western, anti-colonial agenda.”

Sound familiar to anyone? The controversy of “Western ideas” and “decolonizing college campuses” is easily disguised as a well-intentioned effort to point out the wrongs that the West has done to the world. Although that discussion is certainly important, it is even more important to point out that the main motivation is geared towards radical revolution, not simply providing a fuller picture of history. This is of course extremely unproductive because framing social justice on a college campus around overthrowing and stamping out the ideas of John Locke and Aristotle is going to be a point of tension, but that’s the whole point, unfortunately. 

If the tactics and demands of those that purport to stand for racial justice sound suspiciously authoritarian and far left, that’s because they are. The fusion of racial justice activism and Maoism dates back to the Civil Rights era if not earlier. A publication titled AfroAsia notes,

“In Harlem in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed as though everyone had a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, better known as the ‘‘Little Red Book.’’ From time to time supporters of the Black Panther Party would be seen selling the Little Red Book on street corners as a fund-raiser for the party.”

China Daily, a publication run by the Chinese Communist Party notes in an article detailing how China has always supported African-American liberation struggles, 

“In May, 1959, Mao met with visiting African-American civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois. On China’s National Day celebration on Oct 1, 1966, Robert Williams, another civil rights leader and a revolutionary, was invited to speak at Tiananmen Rostrum, with Mao standing at his side. In 1971, then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai met in Beijing with Huey Newton, leader of the Black Panther Party.”

This is the part of American history that gets left out of the textbooks. Social justice activism was not simply everyday Americans wishing for their fellow man to be held to the same standards as themselves. Although that may have been the message that won, one of the main motivating forces was a revolutionary, anti-Western, and anti-capitalist agenda. This is exactly why this tradition still remains in college campus activism and why calls for racial justice are often so radical. 

I am willing to admit that during my college days I dabbled in this sort of social justice activism before becoming highly disillusioned. One of the common complaints we had was that racial justice was being “White Washed.” The Huffington Post explains some of what that means here. What many activists want is not simply equality under the law and social acceptance, but radical economic and social reorganization. 

Why This is Unproductive

It should be common knowledge that Marxism failed miserably and countries that embraced liberty and markets succeed. These are ideas that are not exclusive to but often associated with the West. Specifically the Dutch Revolt. There is absolutely nothing wrong with studying or even embracing Maoism and other radical leftist ideologies. I’ve taken courses in critical race theory and found them fascinating. The problem is that they are not conducive to running a system of higher education or a cohesive society in general. Far-left tactics like shutting down free speech and political indoctrination disguised as initiatives to create more inclusive spaces are not a recipe for success. 

Struggle sessions, a common tactic used by activists today and during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in which a mob coerces individuals into espousing their alleged sins, tear apart our social fabric. An article featured in Inside Higher Ed, highlights how one activist noted,

“She personally experienced racism on campus and said although Rice administrators frequently spoke about its commitment to diversity and inclusion, the university’s structure was not “built with diversity and inclusion in mind.”

Of course, one of the main demands this activist insisted on was more stringent “hate speech” restrictions and a reduced campus police presence. It doesn’t take a degree in political science to link demands for hate speech restrictions to authoritarian inclinations for the censorship of ideas they don’t like. To highlight one example of many, in June of 2020 UCI Law School received backlash from its students for highlighting the school’s Federalist Society chapter on its social media channels. The Volokh Conspiracy notes,

Commenters referred to the Federalist Society as “racist, sexist, white lawyering,” and “anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ, and fascist.”

The Federalist Society is the nation’s largest network of Conservative and Libertarian attorneys and law students. As a mainstream organization that has placed multiple judges on the Supreme Court, I would hope that they are not a “fascist” organization. Obviously, it’s not and this reiterates the radical political ends that motivate too much of racial justice activism.

Key Takeaways 

Social justice will always be a complicated topic. It’s possible that much of the progress we have made as a society would not be possible without the help of radical left-wing activists. At the same time, there comes a place where we need to understand what demands actually forward some semblance of progress and what demands are a shameful leveraging of racial identity for authoritarian ends. Efforts to introduce restrictions on free expression, indoctrination programs, and overall endorsing politically motivated aggression masking itself as social justice not only hurt the cause but also the students they purport to help.

Moving forward, those who actually want to make efforts to forward amiable goals like diversity, equity, and inclusion should distance themselves from radical far-left doctrines in favor of one that does not seek political domination while using minorities as a wedge.

Most importantly, the conversation should be open to input from all sides of the political spectrum, with special care towards affirming individuals before doctrines. If that cannot be done, it would be understandable for demands for social justice to be thoroughly rejected by those who wish to preserve the integrity of higher education.

Ethan Yang

Ethan Yang

Ethan Yang is an Adjunct Research Fellow at AIER as well as the host of the AIER Authors Corner Podcast.

He holds a BA in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations with minors in legal studies and formal organizations from Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut. He is currently pursuing a JD from the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.

Ethan also serves as the director of the Mark Twain Center for the Study of Human Freedom at Trinity College and is also involved with Students for Liberty. He has also held research positions at the Cato Institute, the Connecticut State Senate, Cause of Action Institute and other organizations.

Ethan is currently based in Washington D.C and is a recipient of the 13th Annual International Vernon Smith Prize from the European Center of Austrian Economics Foundation. His work has been featured and cited in a variety of outlets from online media to radio broadcast.

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