By Kenny Xu
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Awareness of the rise of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public schools and how it has shaped our education system took the U.S. by storm over the last few years. Parents truly became aware for the first time how deeply entrenched CRT was in the classrooms, and their eyes were opened to the insidious agenda thoroughly embedded in public schools. As a result, CRT and parental rights in education became some of the most explosive issues facing Americans today.
Kenny Xu is a perceptive and relentless critic of CRT and our culture’s war on meritocracy. And now, in School of Woke, Xu exposes how CRT is transforming public schools and having a destructive impact on our children’s education—and their future.
In School of Woke, Xu provides historical context to the rise of Critical Race Theory in education, tracing it back to elite graduate schools in the 1970s and showing how the ideology became institutionalized and credentialed. Xu covers the battles taking place in the most problematic and contested school districts in the nation, including Loudoun and Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia and Santa Barbara High School in California. He also exposes the lucrative business model behind the diversity consulting industrial complex that is instrumental in the curricular wars, revealing how educators and administrators have been gaslighting the public about the prevalence of this radical ideology in the classrooms, where children as young as five are being segregated in the classroom by race and are being taught that whiteness is inherently evil.
A work of colorful reportage, historical analysis, and cultural commentary, School of Woke reveals what it will take to extricate our next generation from the destructive trends in our once-vaunted public school education system.
What Is Critical Race Theory?
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is the idea that racism is inherent in America’s laws and institutions insofar as they continue to perpetuate divides between whites and nonwhites, particularly Black Americans.1 It questions America’s moral progress and the color-blind foundations of our liberal order.2 Meaning, CRT is skeptical that America has truly eliminated racism as triumphalist versions of American history proclaim, and cites our continuing disparities between white and Black people as evidence. Hence, CRT teaches that racism is present and should be uprooted even in institutions that explicitly profess no racism—such as schools—as long as the outcomes between Blacks and whites continue to be unequal.
Some variants of Critical Race Theory place an emphasis on each American’s individual responsibility to confront racism. “Racist and antiracist are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment,” writes Ibram X. Kendi in his popular primer on racism in America, How to Be an Antiracist. People who believe in Kendi’s logic, which he calls “inspired by Critical Race Theory,”3 are encouraged to track down racism in institutions so that they can prove they are on the “antiracist” side of history—an ally against racism, so to speak.
Other variants emphasize the ways in which racism has wormed its way into the minds of white people through our education system. “White people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview,” Robin DiAngelo claims in her number one New York Times bestselling book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. According to some prominent Critical Race Theorists, even when racism is not explicitly stated or evidenced, it is still present in the thoughts and feelings of white people, nourished by schooling that deemphasizes race and mistakenly teaches that we are a color-blind country and that racism barely exists. Gloria Ladson-Billings, the author of an article entitled “Just What Is Critical Race Theory and What Is It Doing in a Nice Field Like Education?,” claims that our current educational system is reinforcing a “white supremacist master script.”4 This master script controls the narrative about America and convinces white people that they are morally neutral people when in reality they are complicit actors in the fight for or against racism based on their schooling and conditioning.
There is no one definition of Critical Race Theory, but all variants assume that racism is somehow present in our national institutions and that injustice will prevail until we root it out. It is the intellectual progenitor of the activism that is currently dominating our discourse about “systemic racism.” That includes our education system.
THE INVERSION OF THE SCHOOLS
Ground Zero for Critical Race Theory
In America, we’re taught to not be on the side of the guys holding the pitchforks. So when a throng of parents from wealthy Loudoun County, Virginia, showed up at the county school board meeting on June 22, 2021, waving signs and talking about removing objectionable material from their school classrooms, one could have been forgiven for thinking “town of Salem” or “Hester Prynne.”
The Loudoun County school board would certainly like you to think that way about the parents. “I’m deeply concerned about the rise in hateful messages and violent threats aimed at progressive members of the school board,” said the board president, Brenda Sheridan, to the Washington Post about the parent protesters surrounding the Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) offices.1 Her use of the words “hateful” and “violent” was intentional. It was meant to draw our attention to the age-old trope that the guys holding the pitchforks are reactionaries preying on marginalized peoples.
But the story is deeper than the LCPS spin. Loudoun County is not Hicktown, USA. It is educated, blue-ish, and rapidly diversifying—mostly with new immigrants. The high level of splendor in the county brings with it certain expectations of academic excellence, particularly from upwardly mobile, striving middle-class families who have the most to gain—and lose—from the public education system. They have real jobs: they wouldn’t just waste their time protesting at a school board meeting unless the stakes were very high. Clearly, whatever had happened in LCPS over the previous months—perhaps years—had sparked a profound sense of concern among the county’s industrious residents.
“Stand up, Virginia!” the parents chanted at the brick administrative offices. Some climbed onto makeshift stages and gave speeches. Others exchanged phone numbers, networked with other parents, even did work while waiting to get into the board meeting. It was part protest, part tailgate, part business conference. These were novice protesters armed only with megaphones and a sense of conviction.
Who are these parents who stood at the doors of LCPS, the center of a national controversy over Critical Race Theory? What did they want from the school board? And why would Brenda Sheridan take the unusual step of actively campaigning against her own constituents—not just chiding them but also accusing them of being fundamentally “hateful” people with bad intentions?
These are just some of the questions that were swirling on that muggy day in June, when a local parent protest lit up the discourse about schools and exposed to a national audience—finally—what our trust in the magnanimity of the public education system for the past fifty years has brought us.
In 2021, Loudoun County’s reputation for excellent schools was already going downhill. The district’s budget in 2021 was $1.56 billion, which was double what it had been just thirteen years previously.2 The district was getting more money from the state (specifically, from its Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, and his successor, Ralph Northam) than it could possibly spend directly on a child’s education. In fact, even adjusted for inflation, the per-child spending in Loudoun went up 29 percent in just the thirteen years between 2010 and 2022.3
Yet over that period of time, Loudoun County math and science scores remained stagnant. Between the years 2012 and 2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic made scores even worse), the county’s grade 4 standardized test scores barely budged.4
Seeing that test scores were not improving and that school districts were not doing anything substantial with the exorbitant budgets they had been given under three governors—including Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrats Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam—one could reasonably ask what the Loudoun County superintendent of schools had been doing over those years. But one would not get a straight answer from the school district: the truth is that the superintendent manages an educational empire, complete with business contractors, government liaisons, lawyers, nonprofit grifters, and, somewhere below all these people, teachers. And when this empire stagnates or fails to deliver, a superintendent’s job is to try to find ever more ingenious ways to paper over the district’s failure so that it can present the most glossy appeal for government funding.
Critical Race Theory and wokeness simply help superintendents and school boards deflect blame from themselves. What’s in it for them? The answer is that evangelizing CRT allows them to blame “society” and “white people” for their own mismanagement. Stagnation in outcomes? Blame it on “racism.” Lower scores for Black kids? It’s the fault of implicit bias. In response to research that found that Loudoun County’s Black kids continued to struggle compared to their white peers, LCPS published a report blaming the issue on “a low level of racial consciousness,” encouraging the schools to individually publish statements denouncing white supremacy.5
So Loudoun County’s progressive school board, presiding over a stagnating system, was licking its lips indeed at the possibility of injecting CRT into the lifeblood of its curriculum. Finally, the ultimate unaccountability machine had arrived—blaming everything on racism and white people.
Loudoun County’s crusade to imprint CRT in the school system started in earnest in early 2019 with the enlisting of a local activist named Michelle Thomas. Thomas, the chapter president of the Loudoun County NAACP, had spent a long time being a Black rights activist. Her raison d’etre was activism: as a child growing up in Reverend John Lewis’s district in Atlanta, Georgia, she participated in marches sponsored by Reverend Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King. Her biography says that her track record as a “revolutionary thinker, business innovator, prolific communicator and prophetic voice has established as a leader of leaders.”6 But journalist Luke Rosiak’s investigation of Thomas’s boastings reveals that her business achievements came from “money from government contractors (which are required to subcontract some of their work to minority-owned businesses). Though it was an IT-related business, MCA’s (now-archived) website was comically primitive.”7 In other words, she knew how to take advantage of the racism narrative for her own personal gain. And as president of the Loudoun County NAACP, her promise to her donors and nonprofit friends was that she would turn Loudoun County into the site of a racial turf war in the middle of which she could put her favorite person—herself.
These were the mutually aligned incentives facing both the woke ideologues and the school system based on the racism narrative. All either side needed was an opportunity. And in early 2019, it came. Or, more precisely, Loudoun County giddily manufactured it.
A PE teacher at Madison’s Trust Elementary School, in Loudoun County, had given the class an “Underground Railroad” obstacle-course assignment in which the children’s objective was to “assist each ‘slave’ to complete the obstacle course without ringing any attached bells, which would alert ‘catchers,’” according to a sample lesson plan.8 Now, for most students, the exercise was playful and completely nonthreatening. In fact, it was standardized and published in several educational-games textbooks as an antiracist exercise—hence the reason the school district was discussing it. However, for one Black student, the exercise was not funny. The PE teacher happened to assign this student the role of the “slave.” Aggrieved, the student complained, and the complaint somehow reached the Loudoun County chapter of the NAACP—and Michelle Thomas.
Immediately, Thomas hastened to expose the incident to the Loudoun Times-Mirror and other local publications. “We are in a racism crisis in Virginia, and the school is where it starts,” Thomas complained to the paper before admonishing the district in person at the school board meeting on February 12, 2019.9 “Slavery was not a joke; you don’t get to choose!” she exclaimed with righteous indignation. “Stop giving those insensitive exercises to our children. They don’t need to relive slavery—they’ve done enough; they’ve paid enough.”10
Sadly, the elementary school principal listened to Michelle Thomas. Shortly after the Underground Railroad incident, the Madison’s Trust principal created an “equity and culturally responsive team” to reteach the Underground Railroad lesson and future lessons in a more inclusive manner. He vowed that the team would be made up of “school staff and parents.”11
But the LCPS administrators, seizing the opportunity, did not keep this vow. Instead, the district attempted to find “professionals” to advise the school about racism—professionals who were expert CRT agitators. The LCPS superintendent at the time, Eric Williams, sent his assistant superintendent, Ashley Ellis, as an envoy to meet with an “outside facilitator” group called the Equity Collaborative about professional equity trainings. The LCPS signed sight unseen with the group, paying a grand total of $314,000 over the course of one school year, a sum that would pay the annual salaries of at least five teachers.12 LCPS then spent $120,000 of that $314,000 to produce a “Systemic Equity Audit” that described the state of “systemic racism” in Loudoun County.13
The audit of LCPS, naturally, found shocking structural racism embedded in the county. “School site staff, specifically principals and teachers, indicate a low level of racial consciousness and literacy,” the consulting group wrote.14 It shared anecdotes of parents who bashed LCPS teachers with “racism” allegations and gave teachers no opportunity to respond to the claims. The report also attributed the startling 50 percent increase in hate crimes between 2016 and 2017 to increased racism. (The real reason is likely because there was an increase in the reporting of hate crimes during those years.)
Oh, and you thought Michelle Thomas was out of the picture? Following the publication of the report (which, if you remember, was written at the directive of LCPS), she filed a lawsuit alleging “systemic racism” in LCPS—with the Equity Collaborative’s Systemic Equity Audit used as evidence of her allegations. That’s right: Michelle Thomas used evidence that LCPS commissioned and paid for against it in a lawsuit. It’s almost as if LCPS wanted the idea that it was a racist community to get out there without having to say it themselves!
But back up. What, in fact, was Michelle Thomas’s specific premise for her legal claim of LCPS’s “racism”? It was that Asian Americans were overrepresented at the top school in Loudoun County, the Academies of Loudoun, where they made up 48 percent of the student body, while Blacks made up a mere 2 percent. Her allegation was that the school system and Asian Americans were “structured” to deny opportunities to Black kids at the county’s top high school for gifted and talented students.
So incoherent is this point about racism that if you look at the admissions statistics for the Academies of Loudoun, you’ll find that white children are also underrepresented. Are Asians prejudiced against Blacks and whites? Any judge would have laughed this lawsuit out of court in normal times.
But these are not normal times, and this was not a normal lawsuit.
Pause here for a moment to breathe and reflect. Loudoun County could have avoided the sudden debacle it found itself in during the summer of 2019 if it had just responded to the Underground Railroad incident by saying, “We love and support our teachers and parents. We trust our teachers and do not believe they are racist, and any allegation that a PE teacher is peddling racism in a child’s game is ludicrous.” But it didn’t. It invited the racism narrative into its doorway. The county practically rolled out a red carpet for it.
The lawsuit’s sham premise wasn’t even the real point. Asian Americans became convenient scapegoats in the Systemic Equity Audit, designed to establish a legal precedent that LCPS was systemically racist. What’s even more unbelievable—or possibly conspiratorial—is that the state judiciary bought this argument.
The Democratic Office of the Attorney General, under then governor Ralph Northam, decided to jump in to arbitrate a “conciliation” between the NAACP and LCPS. Now, we need to appreciate the political context of the moment. Donald Trump was president, already setting many liberals on edge. Virginia was reeling from the exposure of a blackface incident involving Northam at a party he attended in the 1980s. (Northam first admitted his participation, then later denied it, then still later said he wasn’t sure. At issue was whether he was pictured in a photo that showed two people at a party—a man in blackface and someone else in a KKK wizard costume. Whichever one he allegedly was, even in 1984, seems irrelevant.)15 After facing calls to resign, Northam refused. But to appease his critics, he vowed to do more for “diversity and equity” while in office. So after the blackface scandal, he was desperately searching for ways to look as woke as possible. He needed to regain the Black support he had deservedly lost in the midst of political scandal.
CRT in schools was the opportunity, he decided. After a year of deliberation, Northam asked his senior assistant attorney general, R. Thomas Payne, to issue a document called the “Final Determination of the Office of the Attorney General Division of Human Rights,” which it did on November 18, 2020.16 With titular finality, the executive branch of the Virginia state government recommended (read: ordered) Loudoun County Public Schools to comply not only with the admissions revisions demands at the Academies of Loudoun but also with nearly the entire scope of the organization’s demands.
These were among the orders:
• establish “mandatory equity trainings” for teachers;
• institute a “systemic racism audit”;
• change the name of the Hillsboro Academy to something else;
• hire more “diverse staff” across the county;
• change current “admissions practices” to a “merit-based lottery” system dictating bare-minimum criteria that would heavily lower the percentage of Asian Americans in the school; and
• lower the “discipline and office referral rates” for Black students.
You might think that there’s no way all these demands could be taken seriously in a court of law as a response to an admissions issue in one Loudoun County school. Sadly, the matter never made it to an evidence-based trial. The Northam government arbitrated the agreement itself, settling it out of court. The district was then forced to apply a “racial equity” lens to nearly everything it did. That meant preferential hiring and promotion practices were put in place in order to achieve “equitable outcomes” in racial representation among the workforce. That meant discriminating against Asian Americans in the admissions process for math and science programs designed for gifted and talented students—the imposition of a truly racist policy. That meant changing the names of schools and training teachers in the Equity Collaborative’s radical teaching philosophies. It also meant that the NAACP and the Equity Collaborative got everything they wanted and more. And Loudoun would need to report its progress directly to the governor’s office. This was back when many assumed that the Democratic governor-to-be, Terry McAuliffe, would arrive in office in January of 2022 and issue more directives to further plunge Loudoun County and the state of Virginia into the bath of antiracism. (The election of Republican governor Glenn Youngkin obviously upset this particular plan.)
CRT in schools had arrived.
The point of the Michelle Thomas lawsuit against LCPS was not to truly root out and fight real racism. The unverifiability of the Equity Collaborative’s report and the misguided assertion that the Asian kids in the Academies of Loudoun were evidence of “systemic racism” proves that point. Instead, the lawsuit was meant to provide an “in”—a means to get Critical Race Theory injected into the veins of Virginia’s educational system. That was the goal, and it worked.
The Immediate Consequences of the 2020 Settlement
The consequences of Loudoun County’s settlement with the NAACP under Ralph Northam’s supervision had the immediate effect of pouring CRT—and its corresponding labeling of white people as the “oppressor”—into the district.
One of the witnesses to this stark change was Xi Van Fleet, a Chinese American Loudoun County mom married to a white man. In an interview with me, she spoke about a young Loudoun County man close to her, most likely her son, but she referred to him as her “friend.” “In high school, he came back with comments like ‘America is awful,’” she said. “And he started to say, ‘White people!’ [in a derogatory sense]. I said, ‘What do you mean? Your dad is white!’”
Instead of being taught that all people are fundamentally equal and that you shouldn’t care about the color of a person’s skin, Xi’s “friend” was taught that white people had inherent privileges in society and that skin color is an ardent, stubborn fact about the way people treat one another. To be color-blind was useless and even racist, he sputtered to her. Xi would get into arguments with her “friend.” The arguments would turn nasty. They contributed to the gray hairs on Xi’s head. Every time Xi got the upper hand in the argument, her “friend” would retreat back to the pithy lines first delivered to him in high school classes. “You don’t understand race in America,” he would say to her. “You’re an Asian woman. How come you don’t see racism?”
“It’s because I’ve never faced discrimination in this country,” Xi retorted. But her “friend” wouldn’t buy it. He would insist that he, an Asian American man, was the victim of widespread systemic racism and that Xi was, too. He said she was too stubborn and drugged up on America—especially white people—to admit it. He had particularly choice words for the white man who literally conceived him.
“He became so embarrassed that half of him was white,” she said. “And he cut me off.” The two are no longer speaking—she and her own half-Asian “friend.”
Soon the Equity Collaborative had its fingerprints all over Loudoun County. CRT went right into the school curricula for a number of teachers in the name of “fighting racism.” At John Champe High School, English teacher Gurinder Badwal showed students a PowerPoint presentation called “4 Criticisms,” in which she specifically outlined four ways to analyze a text: Historical Criticism, Ecocriticism, Queer Theory, and Critical Race Theory.17 She called CRT “a lens that examines the appearance of race and racism across dominant cultural modes of expression.” Tying racism to “dominant cultural modes” is the modus operandi of CRT—to show that that the United States maintains a racist enterprise that suppresses the truth about its inherent racism. Critical Race Theory is de facto the only lens children are being taught about race and racism in Badwal’s class.
In a 2019 memorandum to district superintendents called Superintendent’s Memo #050-019, the Virginia superintendent of public instruction, James Lane, wrote, “Our leaders have left our communities hurt and left our students seeking deeper understanding.”18 To that end, he continued, “as educators, we have an obligation to facilitate meaningful dialogue on racism and bigotry with our students, staff, and school communities.” District superintendents were advised to include in school curricula various resources directly addressing perceived racism, such as White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, and Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education, coedited by Gloria Ladson-Billings. Under the description of the books, Lane wrote, as guidance to the state’s district officers, that “CRT has proven an important analytic tool in the field of education.”
In White Fragility, DiAngelo repeatedly makes the case that Black people are not to blame for their problems. Rather, white people must bear the burden of attempting to rectify the deep racism of our country and society: “It is white people’s responsibility to be less fragile; people of color don’t need to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate us as painlessly as possible.”19 And this is the lens from which district superintendents were instructed to analyze race and racism—one that shifts all the blame to white people and places no shared responsibility with Black people or the system’s own leaders.
And yet in 2021, the incoming Loudoun County school superintendent, Scott Ziegler, denied that Critical Race Theory was being taught in class, saying at a school board meeting, “LCPS has not adopted Critical Race Theory as a framework for staff to adhere to. Social media rumors that staff members have been disciplined or fired for not adhering to the tenets of critical race theory or for refusing to teach this theory are not true.”20
Ziegler, of course, was lying through his teeth. He was so wrong that even the previous superintendent, Eric Williams, contradicted him. Williams wrote in a 2019 memo, “While LCPS has not adopted CRT, some of the principles related to race as a social construct and the sharing of stories of racism, racialized oppression, etc. that we are encouraging through the Action Plan to Combat Systemic Racism, in some of our professional learning modules, and our use of instructional resources on the Social Justice standards, do align with the ideology of CRT.”21
The emphasis on do is his.
Across Loudoun County and all over Virginia, the term Critical Race Theory sprang from curriculum materials, school-official guidance, and academic conversation in and about schools. It did not simply emerge out of nowhere in 2020 and 2021; it had been lurking in the educational sphere for many years before then.
Depress to Possess
"Nowhere do Americans most prevalently feel our slide towards victimhood than in the field of education. Kenny Xu makes a compelling case that teachings of racial division are having a destructive impact on the very minority kids they claim to serve."—Vivek Ramaswamy, bestselling author of Woke, Inc., Nation of Victims, and 2024 presidential candidate
- "Over the past few years, the nation’s schools have been consumed by heated debates about race, gender, and parental rights. In School of Woke, Kenny Xu explains what’s at stake in these fights and offers an energetic and timely critique of progressive dogmas."—Frederick M. Hess, Senior fellow and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute
- "Kenny Xu’s book is a hard look at a big mess we have gotten ourselves into. A clarion call to reform the way we educate this nation’s kids."—Douglas Murray, bestselling author of The War on the West and contributor for The Spectator
- "Kenny Xu’s School of Woke is a crystal clear, no nonsense, and vitally important explanation of Critical Race Theory and its consequences. It is an indispensable guide to understanding what’s happening to our academies and with our youth. But beyond educating readers about Critical Race Theory’s history, the assault on merit and identity, and the glorification of victimhood, it will also teach you how to fight back. If you want to defeat this aspect madness that’s infecting our educational system, School of Woke is for you."—Peter Boghossian, How to Have Impossible Conversations
- On Sale
- Aug 1, 2023
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Center Street