A Misguided “Take the Pledge” Campaign at University of California, Irvine

The Rev. Martin Luther King had a dream that in my youth I came to share wholeheartedly, “[T]hat my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” To my disappointment, my university now has a counter-dream of elevating race-consciousness on campus through a “Take the Pledge” campaign, which challenges long-espoused cherished values of all universities.

Past Stark Racial Schisms

I grew up in North Carolina in the 1950s where I regularly faced one of the most egregious symbols of segregation—two water fountains, side-by-side, labeled “White” and “Colored.” I freely drank from the same water jug that Black farmworkers did in fields at my home, an all-White Presbyterian orphanage with 225 disadvantaged children ages two to eighteen (hardly a recognized seedbed for “White privilege”), but I couldn’t share a water fountain with the same workers at the Belk department store in downtown Statesville, three miles away. I played with the Black workers’ kids during summers but couldn’t ride the same bus with them to the same school. The disparities of racial treatment were not lost on my pre-woke generation.

Many others and I saluted and internalized the dream of protesters of the 1960s, that Blacks and Whites could together outgrow the shame of prevalent stark contrasts in racial treatment, and I welcomed the then imagined future in which people would no longer be judged by skin color.

Since the Reverend King majestically proclaimed his Dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, I’ve done my darnedest to work with people based on the “content of their character” (and scholarship). I understand that skin color is hard to ignore, but I’ve taken King’s admonition seriously, as have hordes of others, especially in universities. By the standards of the 1950s, I have lived through substantial (if not enormous) racial progress—I say with gratitude and relief.

On-Campus “Woke Racism”

Yet, my dream of shared color blindness is suffering because of my university’s relentless insistence on giving skin color— “blackness” or “anti-blackness”—priority in people’s on-campus interactions. Administrators, from the chancellor on down, regularly make sweeping pronouncements, suggesting that those in a non-minority—translated, “Whites”—should be suspected of “systemic racism,” whether they are “conscious” or “unconscious” of their affliction. It’s as if those side-by-side “water fountains” have been reintroduced in disguise, cloaked in the rhetoric of “inclusive excellence.”

The irony in such claims is that (non-Hispanic) Whites on campus are a distinct minority, at 15 percent of the 36,000-student body (and 36.6 percent of California’s total population). Granted, Blacks represent a tiny minority of on-campus students, 2.1 percent (but also only 5.8 percent of California’s population, with only 13 percent of Blacks seeking a college education). Nevertheless, administrators seem convinced that Blacks’ small share can be attributed, to a non-trivial extent, to pervasive on-campus anti-Black racism, with rare reference to other explanations, including admission standards and Blacks wanting to attend other universities with more Blacks and, maybe, fewer Asians (the dominant on-campus ethnic group).

Campus “inclusive excellence” proponents seem unaware that they have been countering one form of racism with another—dubbed “woke racism” by Columbia University linguist John McWhorter—and are thus aggravating on-campus divisions. They seem equally oblivious to the prospects of sowing seeds of exclusion (and resentment) under their mantra. They also appear unconcerned that some on-campus Blacks have tired of being denied, through promotions of special considerations for them, full credit for thriving on their own at a demanding major research university.

The “Take the Pledge” Campaign

In explaining on-campus “woke racism,” I offer exhibit 1, the university’s step-too-far, a campaign to persuade, or intimidate, all in the university to “Take the Pledge.” You might think that the pledge is dedicated to some academic honor code or a fund-raiser. No. The campaign is devoted to making skin color key to developing a campus culture of “inclusive excellence,” where “Black people can thrive at UCI,” a goal no one contests (if applied equally to all others). To do that, however, all in the university have been implored repeatedly to pledge to:

  • Acknowledge the existence of anti-Black racism
  • Understand your relationship to anti-Black and micro- and macro-aggressions
  • Recognize uncredited labor that Black people expend to manage the effects of unconscious and conscious acts of bias, prejudice and bigotry
  • Confront anti-Blackness to build a thriving culture for Black people

The pledge effectively seeks signees to confess to their own non-deniable original sin of inculcated systemic racism. It concludes, “I recognize that a whole university response is required to build a culture where Black people thrive at UCI and beyond.” Nice words, I grant.

The message is clear: Set aside a transparent fact of campus life, that a large percentage of all students in the country’s most highly diverse student body are first-generation college students, many are from humble backgrounds (a third are Pell Grant recipients), some are from oppressive foreign regimes—and all are no less deserving of a culture free of blanket claims of on-campus racism by non-Blacks and Blacks alike.

What is remarkable for an elite public research university that has long prided itself on the extent of its data-driven scientific studies is that the “Take the Pledge” campaign has been vigorously pursued without a scintilla of documentation, not even a single recorded data point of an anti-Black racial incident on campus. No one has even considered the extent to which anti-Black incidents are greater or lower than anti-Asian incidents by non-Blacks or Blacks.

Not that such incidents haven’t occurred. The point is that the campaign promoters have not done their homework. Instead, they have followed the path of the racists they have criticized: They have caved to their prejudices, a key one being that because (as promoters have professed on video) racism was self-evident in Charlottesville’s violent protests and the George Floyd murder, all members (or some unknown subset) of my university community must harbor a racial animus toward Blacks, which is to say, they are guilty by racial identity or just administrative fiat. By the breadth of their racial claims, promoters do more to signal their own self-proclaimed racial virtue than they do to solve (or just avoid aggravating) what they present as a vaguely defined social-justice problem.

On-Campus Racial Reeducation Programs

At the beginning of the “Take the Pledge” campaign, pledgers were not pressed to reveal their identities. Now, signers are asked to provide their names, email addresses, and UC-Irvine affiliation (which means promoters can tabulate and track those who have and have not signed the pledge, which should be worrisome). They are also asked to give permission to use their names and testimonials in future “marketing materials.” And they have begun to promote the signees’ testimonials, which, to date, represent a tiny fraction of those considered in the university community (students, faculty, staff, alumni, extended supporters, and who knows?). No one should be surprised if signing becomes mandatory. Indeed, count on it. The proponents are missionaries.

Within a day of the jury in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial in Wisconsin handing down its not-guilty verdict, the chief inclusive-excellence officer on campus cited the verdict as yet another reason for all on campus to take the Pledge, officially declaring for the university, “[T]the verdict conveys a chilling message: Neither Black lives nor those of their allies’ matter.” The officer’s message is even more chilling, given how such an official university pronouncement could easily stoke on-campus racial divisions, as it likely has.

Administrators are apparently concerned that many pledgers will need corrective reeducation and have provided a fourteen-week course, the UCI Inclusive Excellence Certificate Program, which covers on-campus “racial bias,” “White supremacy,” “mechanisms for devaluing Black people,” and rationales for the Pledge. Pledge proponents seem intent on having non-Blacks seek absolution by confessing to their racial sins and then attending reeducation camps (tactics reminiscent of those commonly employed by oppressive regimes and groups the world over, not in scholarly communities).

* * * * *

Wouldn’t a pledge to uphold King’s sentiments—or the Golden Rule—more effectively promote “inclusive excellence”? The loss in this well-intended but misguided take-the-pledge campaign is an unrecognized affront to King’s dream that one day people will be judged by the “content of their character,” not their skin color. That day has, sadly, been postponed at my university.

Richard B. McKenzie, author most recently of The Selfish Brain: A Layman’s Guide to a New Way of Economic Thinking (2021), is the Walter B. Gerken Economics Professor emeritus in the Merage Business School at the University of California, Irvine.
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