I've rarely come across a more socially regressive book than Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education by Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo (of White Fragility fame). DiAngelo especially is often viewed as the new face of the far-left, but the truth is that the ideas in this book are neither new nor especially liberal. Most of them are just warmed-over 1950s racism, given a new face and some new jargon to justify them.
Here are three big (and bad) ideas that animate and underlie the book.
Bad Idea #1: Race Essentialism
The biggest problem with Is Everyone Really Equal? is that it endorses race essentialism. In Chapter 1, the authors lay out a few quotes that they disagree with. One such quote is, "People should be judged by what they do, not the color of their skin." For DiAngelo and Sensoy, this idea is "predictable, simplistic, and misinformed."
It's hard to overstate how wrong this is. Throughout much of American history, we did judge people by the color of their skin rather than their accomplishments. That's how we got slavery, Jim Crow, rabid anti-immigration sentiment, and more. It's an unfortunate fact of American life that some people are still judged by the color of their skin. But as a society we have made enormous progress towards seeing people as humans rather than considering them as lesser because of their immutable characteristics. Why on earth would we want to roll back that progress, and return to a world where we consider a person's skin color to be more important than their accomplishments or actions?
But that's the vision that DiAngelo and Sensoy push.
For them, your individual traits matter a whole lot less than your group membership. "In Western society," they claim, "we are socialized to prioritize our individuality. Yet, although we are individuals, we are also—and perhaps fundamentally—members of social groups. These group memberships shape us as profoundly, if not more so, than any unique characteristic we may claim to possess." (emphasis mine).
For DiAngelo and Sensoy, our immutable characteristics are the most salient thing about us. We are white (or black, or Chinese, or gay, or straight, etc.) first, and human beings second. Martin Luther King Jr. famously proclaimed, "I have a dream that 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." DiAngelo and Sensoy would call this dream "misinformed."
It's not just that DiAngelo and Sensoy obsess over skin color. They also say some pretty damning things about minorities. In one section, they list the traits held by "individual[s] from the DOMINANT GROUP [sic]" (for example: men, straight people, white people; any group the authors view as being on top of society) and contrast those with traits allegedly held by, "individual[s] from the MINORITIZED GROUP [sic]" (for example: black people, gay people, women; any group the authors view as being on the bottom of society). They argue that dominant group members are the ones who, "initiate, manage, plan." By contrast, they claim that minority group members "lack initiative."
The racial essentialism here is deeply disturbing. Among the traits the authors list as held by "dominant group" members: "presumptuous, does not listen, interrupts, raises voice, bullies, threatens violence, becomes violent." Among the traits the authors list as held by "minoritized group" members: "feels inappropriate, awkward, doesn't trust perception…finds it difficult to speak up, timid."
That is: white people (and men, and straight people, etc.) are violent bullies who don't care about the perceptions of anyone not in their group. Black people (and women, and gay people, etc) are timid children.
The entire list is worth reviewing, because it's truly horrifying how much DiAngelo and Sensoy think your immutable characteristics say about you.
Bad Idea #2: Minorities Can't Get Ahead
It's not just that DiAngelo and Sensoy think your immutable characteristics determine who you are. They also think these characteristics determine your destiny. In a telling passage, they describe the intellectual origins of Critical Social Justice (an umbrella term encompassing Critical Race Theory, Critical Gender Theory, etc):
"The logic of individual autonomy that underlies liberal humanism (the idea that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) was viewed [by the founders of CSJ] as a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structural systems of inequality."
Essentially, the authors argue that the idea that you can create your own outcomes in life is a myth used to keep minorities down.
A common metaphor for the varying obstacles that people face is a road. Some roads are bumpier than others, but ultimately most are traversable. This metaphor highlights the fact that many minorities deal with obstacles that members of the dominant group don't face, while also acknowledging that every individual still has the agency to move forward.
DiAngel and Sensoy choose a different metaphor: a birdcage. They argue that each instance of oppression is like a single bar of the cage, and multiple bars interact in ways that trap minorities. The difference between a birdcage and a bumpy road, of course, is that a road can be traversed whereas a birdcage is inescapable.
For DiAngelo and Sensoy, this is the point.
"In isolation," they write, "none of these barriers would be that difficult for the bird to get around, but because of their connections to one another, they are as confining as solid walls." (emphasis mine).
The authors seem to think we live in a world where minorities are trapped with no ability to get ahead, one in which the idea that a member of a minority group could "determine its own fate" is just wishful thinking.
Bad Idea #3: Zero-Sum Thinking
Why can't minorities seem to get ahead in DiAngelo and Sensoy's world? Because members of the dominant group work actively to keep them down. The authors posit a zero-sum world in which different identity groups are engaged in all-out war over a limited set of resources. In their view, not only do men actively oppress women, but we do so because their oppression benefits us. Straight people oppress gay people for the same reason. White people oppress black people because being an oppressor class helps whites.
As DiAngelo and Sensoy put it, "those in dominant groups are not disadvantaged by the oppression, but in fact benefit from it."
Why do DiAngelo and Sensoy see the world this way?
Critical Social Justice is essentially cultural Marxism. It draws heavily from Marx's thinking, and DiAngelo and Sensoy openly praise Marx. Marx posited a world where different groups battled it out in a zero-sum game over finite resources. For Marx, the relevant conflict was class based: he claimed that workers and capitalists fight like two dogs over a bone. Cultural Marxists embrace that same worldview, but suggest that the relevant conflict is cultural. They replace 'workers and capitalists' with 'men and women' 'white people and black people' 'straight people and gay people' etc.
The cultural Marxist worldview says that when one group gains, another group must lose. The converse is also true: when one group loses, another group gains. That's why "those in dominant groups are not disadvantaged by the oppression, but in fact benefit from it."
Of course, this is factually absurd. Let's take an example. DiAngelo and Sensoy state that men in the 19th century benefited from women's inability to vote. "Even if individual men believed women should have the right to vote," they write, "as men they still benefited from women’s exclusion." But the fact is that society got better when women could vote. Suddenly half of the populace, who often thought and saw things differently from the other half, had a voice in guiding the nation. That led to better politics and better policies. Since men benefitted from these improved policies, this helped men as well. Some men may have felt jipped that their vote was less important, but on net the improvement to the country helped everyone.
The fact is that we're all in this together, and excluding a minority group from the table doesn't "benefit" the majority group—it hurts both groups by denying the ability of the minority group to contribute.
People Are Monsters
The second reason for DiAngelo and Sensoy's zero-sum thinking is that they seem to assume that most human beings are monsters. For example, they correctly note that children in affluent schools will learn different things than children in poor schools, but then explain the continuation of this discrepancy like this:
"...because this system benefits the affluent child, she will be less invested in removing these barriers for others. In fact, she (and those who advocate for her) will most often resist removing these barriers."
It's true that rent-seeking is a real phenomenon, and some people do advocate for their own best interests at the expense of others. But the authors go much farther. They posit a world where the people on top genuinely do not care for those on the bottom, and in fact actively try to keep the latter group down.
Their commentary on how people with disabilities are portrayed is even more disturbing. They discuss the story of Canadian Olympic skier Alexandre Bilodeau, and how he told news outlets that he gets his inspiration from his big brother Frédéric who has cerebral palsy. Do the authors recognize this as a touching story about the love of two brothers? Hardly. They call Frédéric a "prop" used to advance Alexandre's career. "The brother with cerebral palsy is only mentioned in order to further the story of the heroic Olympian brother," they claim. "Frédéric becomes a prop to advance the story and privilege of Alexandre."
The authors seem to imagine a world where love and empathy don't exist, where family are just props to use for your own advancement and where those on top are incapable of caring about the pain of those on bottom. It's a monstrous worldview. It's also, thankfully, untrue; as the real story of the Bilodeaus (and thousands of other stories of people making heroic sacrifices for those who don't look like them) makes clear.
Where Do We Go From Here?
A key question to ask when reading a social science book is this: if we enact the author's ideas, what kind of society will that lead to? Racism and sexism are real problems, but the ideas of DiAngelo and Sensoy won't lead us out. Instead, they'll lead us to something resembling the 1950s: a society that is less tolerant, less cosmopolitan, and more obsessed with immutable characteristics as the defining feature of a person. We enact these ideas at our peril.