Chelsea Follett: Hi. Joining me today is Erec Smith. He is a Visiting Scholar of Politics and Society here at the Cato Institute and an Associate Professor of Rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania. Although he has eclectic scholarly interests, his primary work focuses on the rhetoric of anti-racist activism, theory, diversity and pedagogy as well as the role of rhetoric in a free, pluralistic and civil society. His most recent book is A Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, and we’re going to discuss rhetoric surrounding racial issues, attempts to address racism, and his thoughts on both the current problems and the most effective way forward to promote genuine empowerment, respect, empathy, justice, civility, curiosity and so on. Erec, how are you?
Erec Smith: I’m well. How are you?
Chelsea Follett: I’m well. So before we get into what you see as the current problems and solutions, could you just give an overview of the kinds of changes and trends that we’ve seen in recent years in regards to the rhetoric used to discuss race and race relations and racism, attempts to address racism in the United States?
Erec Smith: I think the biggest difference is our inability to talk across differences. People have stopped even trying these days. You’ll often hear that people who have the most radical ideas refuse to explain them or debate those ideas. That’s not always because they’re afraid, it’s often because they don’t see the point in it. They don’t see the benefit of it. They think it’s a waste of time, and they also think it may be dignifying the other side with a response. So that’s where we are now. We’ve gone from arguing to not talking at all. I prefer to argue.
Chelsea Follett: What are some of the ways that the rhetoric has shifted, because just in my lifetime I feel like there’s been a big shift in how people talk about these things. It used to be… And this is now very old-fashioned, but people would focus on a sort of color-blind worldview, or they’d say things like treat everyone the same, race doesn’t matter. And now there’s more of a shift towards seeing race as a very critical part of one’s identity and seeing that as more significant. So just the way people have talked… Sorry, are talking about these things, has changed, as a non-rhetoric person, that’s what I’ve noticed. But I’m curious, as an expert in this, how you would describe this big shift we’re seeing in how people are talking about these things?
Erec Smith: Well, first of all I have to say that it saddens me to think that color blindness is old-fashioned. I think that’s a mistake, and if it is old-fashioned we need to bring it back. The difference between color blindness and how it’s perceived today and how it was perceived five, six years ago is that color blindness is seen as not seeing someone’s color at all, by extension not seeing racism. That’s not the case. Color blindness simply means whether I like you or not doesn’t depend on your skin color, it’s other aspects. It’s other parts of your personality, your character and things like that. That’s all it’s ever meant.
Erec Smith: The spinning of this into not seeing race at all, which really means not caring about race or racism, that is a strategic tactic used to gain power and kind of wrestle power from people who they perceive as having it all the time. So it’s a tactic, really. The people who say colorblindness means you’re not seeing racism, they know you’re seeing racism. This is a rhetorical strategy for their own purposes. So that’s what’s going on there. A lot of this is basic politics, rhetorical tactics, fallacies used purposely to wrestle power from others.
Chelsea Follett: And the people who are proponents of that would see this wrestling of power as a good thing that’s equalizing people?
Erec Smith: I suppose so, yes. It’s the old ideas of talking things through and things like that, they have little faith in that. The major players in critical race theory will tell you they’ve lost faith in liberal values like reason and dialogue and things like that. They’re not doing anything. If anything, they maintain the status quo. And I can sympathize with that, it gets frustrating when changes don’t come quickly enough, changes that shouldn’t be waited for at all. So I get that.
Erec Smith: At the same time, if you get rid of those things, if you get rid of a belief in deliberation, the primacy of reason, society will just devolve into something even worse. And a lot of people don’t seem to mind that. They think society needs to fall in order to be rebuilt into something better. I believe in reform. I believe in the power of rhetoric. I’m not just saying that because I get paid to believe in the power of rhetoric. I do believe in it. I believe in the efficacy of conversation and civil debate, and that’s why I’m fighting for it. That’s why I’m here at Cato.
Chelsea Follett: Right. Obviously, we’re both working in a think tank because we believe in the power of ideas and words to change the world and that… Okay. So there’s been this big rhetorical shift, but before we get into your thoughts on solutions, what do you see as some of the problems with the current rhetoric?
Erec Smith: It’s disempowering, and I’ve been a broken record about this for the last four or five years. What they’re calling empowerment is really disempowerment and microaggressions, for example. Anything can cause harm now these days. That’s not an empowering thing to be told and to believe that there’s harm around every corner, that words are harm, that if somebody asks a question it’s always already racist. Critical social justice is really the ideological driver of all of this. People say critical race theory, but it’s really critical social justice more accurately.
Erec Smith: And the primary tenet of critical social justice is this. The question isn’t did racism happen. It’s how did it manifest in that situation. So racism is always already in the air. It’s always already a part of a conversation. Somehow this is racist, our conversation right now, somehow. That is a problem. But of course, if you’re trying to usurp power and you’re using the evil of racism, then the more racism the better for you, which is why you get people who are making $20,000 to talk for an hour or half an hour via Zoom. You get Kendi proposing a department of anti-racism at a government level which in order to justify such a department you need racism. So this is the issue going on here. It’s ultimately disempowering to empower a very small group of people.
Chelsea Follett: Let’s get into your book, A Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment. The first section deals with the primacy of identity, the sacred victim in your words, and the semblance of empowerment. So let’s unpack those one by one. What do you mean by the primacy of identity?
Erec Smith: It’s all about me and who I am. It’s not about higher ideals. It’s not about other people’s experiences. It’s about I am filling the blank, hear me roar. So which is to say there are certain things that come with that. Like you can’t really ask questions. When somebody tells a story you can’t ask questions. You can’t say, “Well, wait a minute, this part doesn’t make sense,” because you’re basically saying they don’t make sense. It’s all about the person not that person’s ideas. So if you critique a person’s essay you’re critiquing that person. If you propose a policy that is not ideal for a certain person you’re attacking that person.
Erec Smith: It’s all about the person and not ideas and not experiences and things like that. So that’s what the primacy of identity is. And by extension you can’t ask questions. You have to always believe stories instead of asking for elaboration or clarification or something like that. And the more downtrodden you are, the more downtrodden intersections you have. The more ethos you have, the more credibility you have. So I am Black and that gives me credibility, but I’d have more credibility if I was a Black woman, I’d have more credibility if I was a Black woman who was disabled. You see how it’s going, right? So that’s what I mean by the primacy of identity.
Chelsea Follett: Right. That’s part of that big rhetorical shift we were talking about. I know you also wrote a book about the politics of persuasion and Barack Obama, and famously there was a time when a bunch of his supporters were chanting “race doesn’t matter” when they were supporting him, and that’s very far from the current rhetoric where identity… Your identity in terms of how you belong to different groups is considered more and more significant. And we’re now at the point where there was a special on Sesame Street, which is aimed at very young children, where the puppet characters were saying that race is a very important part of who you are, which is about that primacy of identity. Are there any examples, though, that you’d like to note about how we’re seeing this shift toward placing identity into a more important location?
Erec Smith: My biggest issue is the essentializing that goes on. People saying, well… Sesame Street saying, “Well, race is a huge part of people’s identities.” Says who? Nobody asked me about that. Is that a general consensus across all groups, all races, things like that? There’s this idea that all Black people think the same, all Black people agree with that idea. That is not the case at all. So to be told, to hear somebody telling people about me, without my say or anything like that is… It’s not just insulting, it’s scary. Because you’re having something projected onto you based on an immutable quality, your race, which is technically, in the old sense of the term, racism. So that’s the mind-blowing aspect of all of this to me.
Chelsea Follett: Tell me about what you call the sacred victim.
Erec Smith: Yes. So this is by no means my idea. The sacred victim is something that’s been talked about for decades, really, if not much longer. This idea that… Of being the victim, being the underdog, gives you this kind of special status. You’re always centered because you’re the victim, to the point where being a victim is beneficial in a lot of situations. The victim is everything. I’m being victimized, therefore I’m the protagonist in this story, therefore you need to listen to me or else you’re a bad person, you’re a victimizer otherwise. So that intertwines a bit with the primacy of identity as well. If you can prove that you’re somehow a victim, then you can get a lot out of that. It is a benefit. It’s a strategic ploy. So that’s what I mean by that.
Chelsea Follett: So then you go on to talk about the semblance of empowerment, which is obviously a very important part of your work, it’s the subtitle of the book. What do you mean by the semblance, the mere semblance of empowerment?
Erec Smith: Well, it goes back to the sacred victim. If you can prove your victimization, then it gives you a sense of power, which seems to contradict itself. It doesn’t seem… It seems counterintuitive, and mainly because it is. But in presenting yourself as powerless, you’re gaining… You feel like you’re gaining power. In my field particularly, students are being told that they’re being oppressed by being taught standard English. This is a valuable tool. It is not replacing a dialect, you’re adding a dialect so that you can have it if it does come in handy, which it probably will in civic and professional contexts. So you’re disempowering them by telling them that this valuable tool is a bad thing. So that’s a specific thing going on in my field, one of the many ways that students are actually being disempowered. So it feels like you’re sticking it to the man, but really you’re hurting yourself. So it’s a semblance of empowerment.
Chelsea Follett: So what is true empowerment as you would define it?
Erec Smith: I abide by empowerment theory, which is a psychological and sociological… Well, it’s used in social work as well, an idea and methodology and a process and an outcome that defines empowerment as the confluence of three components: The interpersonal, which is all about your intrinsic value, your intrinsic motivation, how do you talk to yourself. That’s how I render it as a rhetorician. How we… The nature of our internal dialogue to help us self-manage, self-regulate, manage our emotions, be self-aware, mindful and things like that.
Erec Smith: The second one is interactive or interactional empowerment. And that is just knowing your context, knowing the values, attitudes and beliefs of a particular context and acting accordingly. Now, if you have your interpersonal empowerment intact you’re better able to be interactional with your empowerment, because you’re there and you’re present. You’re not projecting other things onto the present situation. You’re not projecting your reflections and your anxieties onto something. You’re there as open as possible, open mind, heart and will, as I like to say.
Erec Smith: The third component of empowerment is behavioral empowerment, which basically means how do we work together to get along? How do we work together to produce generative benefits to everyone involved? How do we notice our superordinate goals, the goals that we have in common, although we may be very different, and how do we work together? If you have the interpersonal and the interactional components of empowerment intact, you’re better able to do the behavioral. Now, according to this theory you need all three to be truly empowered. And I think that’s missing from a lot of DEI work, a lot of anti-racist pedagogy and activism outside of the classroom. I think that is being totally ignored, and I think that’s a problem, especially the interpersonal component.
Erec Smith: Even the most well-intentioned diversity trainers skip that one. It’s all about how do we get along with other people. We’re not asking how do we get along with ourselves. How do we understand ourselves first and foremost so that we know who’s interacting with those other people. We know the buttons that can be pushed and how they can be pushed, and to be aware of that. Self-awareness. We need to look at that first and foremost, and we’re not doing that. So that’s what I mean by empowerment.
Chelsea Follett: I think that’s very profound. And you mentioned pedagogy. Could you tell me about disempowerment and what you call code-meshing pedagogy?
Erec Smith: Well, that’s not my term either. Code-meshing. It means something different in linguistics, in rhetoric and composition. It basically means putting two dialects together, using them simultaneously. There’s a term, Spanglish. I don’t know if you’ve heard that, as people who go back and forth, Spanish and English, that’s code-meshing. And the idea is that we should allow students to code-mesh in every situation. My thing and the thing of anybody who rightly calls himself or herself a rhetorician is that whether you code-mesh or not depends on the audience and your message. It depends on the rhetorical situation.
Erec Smith: There will be times where code-meshing is the best way to go if you want to be as persuasive as possible. That’s what rhetoric is all about, persuasion. There are times when it won’t help you. You have to discern that and act accordingly. Now, the idea with a lot of anti-racist pedagogy is that discerning the rhetorical situation and acting accordingly is to succumb to oppression. You’re succumbing to white supremacy by doing that. You’re not thinking rhetorically. You have a colonized mind and that’s why you’re doing that. This is all absurd. The point is to gauge your situation and act accordingly.
Chelsea Follett: Right. Education’s not as productive if you’re doing it in that way. Can you tell me about what you call… And again, I’m not suggesting these are terms you invented, but what you refer to as the soft bigotry of anti-racist pedagogy?
Erec Smith: Yes. Well, the biggest example of that is… Well, the most egregious, I guess, in my mind, is the equitable math movement, right? This idea that… Expecting Black students to get the right answer is inherently racist. You should reward them for trying. And that’s just one of the egregious tenets of equitable math. Teaching, the teacher knowing the knowledge and instilling it into the students, that’s somehow racist as well, because it’s paternalistic. Yeah. Those are just two of the more mind-blowing tenets of equitable math that is a soft bigotry of anti-racist pedagogy. I think the students can get the right answer. Perhaps their teachers need to do a better job of teaching them, not not teaching them and calling it teaching, right? So that’s just one example of what I mean by that. There are others as well in various different fields. But yes, it’s this demonization of rigor and merit when it comes to students of color, not other students.
Chelsea Follett: Right. I think that if by equity in math or education, what is meant is raising everyone up to the same level and eliminating disparities that way. Everyone agrees with that. But what we’re seeing or what you just described is actually saying, “Well, we can’t raise everyone up to the same level of scoring, so we’re just going to take away advanced classes in some cases.” How widespread is that, though?
Erec Smith: That’s a good question. I’ve heard stories from teachers and administrators that their schools are being taken over by this idea, but those are just the people I know, right? Those are just the people who I’ve met and talked to and things like that. I don’t know how widespread this is. You can go online and find several articles about this happening in actual schools across the country. But how many, I honestly don’t know.
Chelsea Follett: Where I live in Northern Virginia, you see a lot of headlines about this with local schools. And one of the main stories is also that the percentage of Asian students at some schools is actually going to be lowered, it seems, under some policies in the name of racial equity. Do you have any comments on that?
Erec Smith: Yes. It’s embarrassing as a Black person, that that’s happening. I talked about this in front of the Supreme Court building, not… Wasn’t inside, about this idea and about the fact that all this is being done in Black people’s name, right? My biggest fear is that in the very near future, somebody’s going to say, “Why? Why did they just try to get rid of all the Asian students? Why did they ignore the accomplishments of all those students? What happened?” And my biggest fear is the answer being, “Well, they had to let the Black kids in somehow.” They had to have the Black kids maintain some kind of dignity somehow, right? So it’s being done for us. These students who are working hard, who deserve the accolades of being at the top of their class, they deserve the rewards for that, scholarships and things like that, they’re not getting it because we’re so dumb, right? I mean, that’s basically their message. And I can’t have that. If anything, if I could only fight against one thing right now, it would probably be that.
Chelsea Follett: Yeah, that’s an incredibly disempowering message.
Erec Smith: Right.
Chelsea Follett: So you also have a chapter where you discuss what you call the victims, the tricksters and the protectors. So tell me about that division. Who are the victims, who are the tricksters and who are the protectors?
Erec Smith: Oh, yeah, I forgot about that chapter. [chuckle] You think about the victim… We talked about the victims already, the sacred victim and how there’s kind of a sense of power in self-victimization. The tricksters are the people who… I guess people would call them cynics as well. Kenneth Burke would call them people working through the tragic frame. These are people who know this is absurd, but they’re doing it anyway because they can gain power from it. Grifters, they’re also called. That’s what I mean by that.
Erec Smith: So there are people in my field who are fighting against racism, but the last thing they want is for racism to end, right? Their whole career is that, they won’t have anything else to write. They don’t want it to go away. They want it to perpetuate. That’s what I mean by the tricksters. And the protectors, that’s a very specific thing. The protectors are the people who… White people, or at least non-Black people, who are uncomfortable with educated Black people.
Erec Smith: I’ve had on several occasions white people express their discomfort with the fact that I have a command of standard English. That’s a white thing. So they’re trying to protect the white thing, right? They’re trying to protect what whiteness means. But… ‘Cause if I do it better than they do, then what’s the point, right? So that’s what I mean by protectionism. I don’t talk about that one very much. I mentioned it in that chapter, then moved away from it, because I feel like in order to really treat it, I’ve got to get some more evidence other than my anecdotal work. I have other evidence of it as well. I mean, it’s often called uppity, right? The term was uppity in the past, and it happened a lot more, you know, decades ago than it is now, but it’s still going on. So I want to get more real data about that before I dive into it.
Chelsea Follett: That makes sense. You also, in your conclusion, you call your conclusion Getting Over Ourselves and Centering Empowerment. Tell me about that.
Erec Smith: Well, what I meant by that is like the privacy of identity. You’re not over yourself. You’re way too [0:27:11.9] ____ of yourself. A lot of this is narcissistic in nature. So if we can get over our own petty issues and look at the bigger picture here, what’s good for society as a whole, then we can start moving in the right direction. That’s what I mean by that.
Chelsea Follett: Thinking back to when I was growing up, again, I think there was still rhetoric about the self and finding yourself and that kind of thing.
Erec Smith: Sure.
Chelsea Follett: But there wasn’t so much rhetoric about identity. It was more about finding yourself as an individual. I think that… You’re the rhetoric expert. Have you noticed a shift in that direction?
Erec Smith: Yes. It was about self-awareness, mindfulness, being mindful of your emotions, what triggers your emotions, being able to manage those ideas. That’s what it was about. Now it’s I am part of this race, so I get to say this, that, and the other thing, and you have to believe me because you’re part of that race, right? It’s identity as ethos or race as ethos, that’s different from identity as knowing who you are. Now it’s identity as I have credibility in this situation, and you don’t, and so that’s the big difference. What’s that?
Chelsea Follett: It’s about group identity?
Erec Smith: Yes.
Chelsea Follett: Or group…
Erec Smith: Yes, it is. It’s about group identity. It’s about group essentialism, right? Yes.
Chelsea Follett: Yeah. And you also devote a part at the end of the book which I think is refreshingly humble where you ask are you overreacting, and you request inputs. What kind of input have you received since publication of the book? I’m curious.
Erec Smith: Not much directly. I’ve gotten some emails and things like that. I’ve gotten people coming up to me and saying, “I can’t, this book was a godsend, ’cause I thought I was going insane, right? Turns out my intuition was correct, based on your book. So thank you very much for that.” It’s been a breath of fresh air for a lot of people. But that being said, the book’s not talked about very much in the field. I think that’s by design, you know? Even talking about how bad the book is is dignifying it with a response. So the idea is that it ignores existence completely, including my existence, ignoring that completely as well. So I haven’t gotten much feedback about this book, but the feedback I’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly good.
Chelsea Follett: So it sounds like you were probably not overreacting. Is that your conclusion at this point?
Erec Smith: Yes.
Chelsea Follett: Okay. Let’s get more into solutions. So you sketched out some of the problems with the shifts we’ve seen in rhetoric. What kind of rhetoric would you like to see more of to promote genuine empowerments and respect and tolerance and human progress?
Erec Smith: Two things. One, I want to instill the empowerment theory I was talking about earlier, and have people develop heuristics for exploring oneself, exploring one’s environment and understanding it and working together, collaborating, and all this overlaps substantially with emotional intelligence as well. Especially obviously self-awareness, social awareness, relationship management, teamwork and all the competencies therein. But also, I think we need to reemphasize and make explicit classical liberal values. I think classical liberalism is social justice if you do it right, right? Especially the primacy of reason, individuality, free speech, the concept of a deliberative democracy. I think all these things need to be reemphasized and there needs to be a… An explicit movement to do that, right?
Erec Smith: We don’t just talk about it, we don’t just assume that it’s in the air like we’ve been doing, right? We have to assume that people don’t know about it, and to be upfront and direct about the value of these ideas, especially individuality and free speech, especially now since we’re steeped in this race essentialism going on. And the idea that, you know, words are violence. Those get in the way of classical liberal values, and therefore in the way of pluralistic and civil societies. So we have to be explicit about that. So, empowerment theory and the renaissance, if you will, of classical liberalism.
Chelsea Follett: I couldn’t agree more. You mentioned something interesting there about this rhetorical shift and its relationship to attacks on free speech were hampering dialogue. Can you expand on that?
Erec Smith: Attacks on free speech and hampering dialogue. Yes. Again, microaggressions. If you ask somebody what they do for a living it can be construed as racist. And in certain contexts, maybe it is, but not in every situation. And people are taking it as every situation. So now, if words are violence, if children’s books are being censored, there’s a trigger warning for Peter Pan now, there’s a class… I just read about this this morning. A professor put a trigger warning for Peter Pan because it may bring up some issues with gender that may offend adult readers, right?
Erec Smith: Beowulf. It may offend people because of animal cruelty, right? Grendel is an animal of sorts. So, things like that are not helping anyone, right? And if we abide by this, if everything is harmful, then obviously that’s going to affect the way we communicate. We’re going to be afraid to say certain things, right? And people will stop communicating because why even risk it, right? A lot of the implicit bias trainings make things worse because people learn that they should just shut up. They don’t, they don’t learn anything other than that. I’m just going to be quiet. That’s the best bet here, right? So people are talking less, and I think that’s a huge problem in a country that is, has been self-defined as a place of free speech. We’re losing that. We can’t lose that. We’ll lose ourselves.
Chelsea Follett: What are your thoughts on also policing very specific terms or words that previously were considered unproblematic, things like… I’ve seen lists of words that people say are now insensitive, things like, master bedroom or chess master. This is supposed to be potentially insensitive because it could make people think of slavery. I’ve seen calls to eliminate words like craftsmen and change it to craftspeople, otherwise it could be offensive to women. All of these ever more granular criticisms of word choice, this seems to be a growing trend. Again, from my outsider perspective, not being a specialist in rhetoric.
Erec Smith: Yes. And I mean, field, now. Have you heard this one? Field is bad. You can’t go out into the field as a social worker because that reminds people of the field in which slaves were picking cotton and things like that. So it’s getting egregious. Now, the people who are putting these things out there, many of them know how absurd this is. This is another way of usurping power, right? If we can make the tiniest thing offensive, then people will be tiptoeing around everything, and we can really, we can control people who are walking on eggshells all the time, right? So that’s kind of the strategy behind that. I don’t think it’s really picking up. The last couple of instances I’ve heard about this, people kind of walked it back later on after the backlash and the absurdities that are clear in those kind of proposed policies anyway.
Erec Smith: You can, again, I mean, you can pick any word and figure out how it could be offensive to somebody, you know? You don’t even have to go too far into its etymology to do that. You can just find a situation where it was used in a certain way and say, well, this is offensive to this group of people. It’s a gift that keeps on giving in that respect. And it’s ultimately disempowering. If words have that much of an effect on people, then that is not a very empowered group of people at all. That’s a very weak group of people, right? A group of people that is easy to topple. And unfortunately, I think for a lot of people, that’s the point.
Chelsea Follett: I think that is a good segue into the piece you just wrote for Cato on adaptation, where you talk about this trend in education that you describe as basically making students more fragile instead of teaching them to adapt and succeed in the world. And it ends with a line: “Happy and successful people don’t revolt and one’s ability to adapt correlates to one’s ability to be happy and successful.” Could you tell me about that piece and what’s going on with rhetoric in education? You’ve said many times, people are intentionally using this to gain control, but what’s the purpose of this? What’s going on?
Erec Smith: Well, adaption, adaptation means maybe you look at a situation and say, “Okay, I’m going to adapt my wording, my language, my references to this group so that I can get to them as clearly as possible, right?” Adaptation is considered a bad thing. It’s considered you’re submitting to a situation, right? You’re condescending or you’re being condescending to by this audience who expects you to talk in a certain way. That’s how it’s being looked at. It’s being looked as a lack of dignity for the speaker, identified person speaks the way he wants to speak all the time, dammit, right? Adaptation, to ask a Black person to adapt is white supremacy, right? Because that Black person’s home language, which is definitely Black English because he’s Black, right?
Erec Smith: These are the ideas that are going on in my field right now and, unfortunately, they’re picking up speed. And I think it’s a bad thing. Adaptation is about gauging a situation and acting accordingly. And the more pools you have for communication, the easier it is to adapt, right? So education and rhetoric is a way of helping people navigate their way through the world and negotiate situations to the best of their ability. But if you say that very negotiation is just succumbing to white supremacy, then you’re again disempowering people, right? And you are, you’re more likely to have them be unhappy and unsuccessful and therefore willing to revolt.
Chelsea Follett: So, is that the motivation then? There’s a political or ideological motivation where teachers want students to oppose certain institutions or policies, and by disempowering them in this way, they can persuade them to join their ideological movement?
Erec Smith: Yes. I know that sounds like a conspiracy theory, but I’ve written about this a couple of times. There’s a figure in my field, a very prominent figure, who basically said Black students who want to learn standard English, to write in standard English are being selfish and immature. Because if they learn that they will have a skill that will help them succeed in a system that is bad, so that success will perpetuate this bad system, it will maintain the status quo, and that’s a bad thing. So they’re being selfish and immature, and those students should want to not write in standard English, right, to topple the status quo. So, and that was expressed clearly, I have a couple of articles in which I link to a video of, or audio rather, of the person saying these things. So yes, it’s a real thing, especially in my field.
Chelsea Follett: I don’t think it even sounds that much like a conspiracy theory to say that people try to persuade other people to share their worldview. I think that’s just a commonly known fact of human nature.
Erec Smith: Yes.
Chelsea Follett: Now, tell me about Free Black Thought, which is a project you’re involved with that tries to push back against some of these negative trends.
Erec Smith: Yes. Especially race essentialism. Free Black Thought is an organization and an online journal that tries to showcase viewpoint diversity among Black people, right, especially Black Americans, but really the Black diaspora. And we do this because there’s this idea that all, that Black people are monolith. They all think the same. They all have the same beliefs, the same values, same attitudes, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. So that’s the point of that organization. We have an online journal in which we try to publish viewpoints from Black people, but also about Black people, from people who may not be Black. We accept that too. And tries to put forth ideas that you don’t hear from Black people or about Black people in mainstream media. So that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to create a curricula for schools. We’re trying to create podcasts. We have a newsletter coming out very soon. We’re trying to grow the organization, but that’s what it is right now.
Chelsea Follett: That’s fascinating. You have a speech, if people Google you, they can find this on YouTube, where you talk about turning haters into motivators. This is obviously an extremely fraught and contentious topic to be working in. You are in academia, which leans more towards some of the ideas that you are opposing, and it must be very difficult. So how do you find the motivation to pursue classical liberalism and these ideas that unfortunately in some circles have fallen out of favor?
Erec Smith: Well, the haters and the motivators thing, I didn’t mean to do that, right? A few years ago, I was attacked on the prominent lister in my field for saying maybe we shouldn’t discourage students from learning standard English. Maybe say that the very presence of white professors is a problem. And this would, these are things that were said in a keynote address at a conference like the day before. I was attacked for that, and I was attacked by people who I thought were my friends. I was attacked by people who I thought were colleagues. People were lying about me and things like that.
Erec Smith: And I took that frustration and anger and channeled it into creating all the things I’ve created since, two books, my work with Free Black Thought, several articles, all kinds of different things. So instead of having all that silence me, which was the point, instead of having all that discourage me, which was the point, I spun it into being louder and encouraged. And that’s what I mean by haters or motivators, right? So that’s how I keep going. Whenever I get tired, I just think of all the people who tried to hurt me, and I say, “Well, I’ll show them,” and here I am.
Chelsea Follett: I think cultivating that kind of spirit, that’s true empowerment. Thank you so much for speaking with me, Erec. Everyone check out his work. It’s fascinating. We’ll link in the description of this podcast his book, and that article he just wrote for Cato. Thank you once again. This has been fascinating.
Erec Smith: Thank you. This is great.