The following excerpt is taken from the new book, “America’s Cultural Revolution: How The Radical Left Conquered Everything,” by Christopher F. Rufo, (July 2023, Broadside Books, HarperCollins)
There are few places on earth where political radicals and their children ritualistically burn the American flag and chant “Death to America” — Tehran, Baghdad, Beirut, Kabul, Ramallah, and Portland, Oregon.
The city of Portland, a grim and cloud-covered metro on the south bank of the Columbia River, has developed a reputation for the colorful sloganeering of its political protestors. Anarchists, communists, eco-fascists, and a variety of other agitators regularly denounce the police, politicians of both parties, and the American state itself; flag-burning has become part of the regular syntax of the protest movement.
During the summer riots in 2020, teenagers associated with the Youth Liberation Front escalated the rhetoric with chants of “Death to America” and months of violence to avenge the death of George Floyd. Children as young as three or four years old marched with the crowd to the federal courthouse, raising the Black Power fist and chanting “F*** the Police! F*** the Police!”
The irony isn’t difficult to identify: Portland is famously the “whitest city in America,” and yet it has become the headquarters of race radicalism in the United States. The city has elevated white guilt into a civic religion. Its citizens have developed an elaborate set of rituals, devotions, and self-criticisms to fight the chimeras of “systemic racism” and “white supremacy.” The ultimate expression of this orthodoxy is violence: street militias, calling themselves “anti-racists” and “anti-fascists,” are quick to smash the windows of their enemies and burn down the property of anyone who transgresses the new moral law.
It might be easy to dismiss this as the work of a few harmless radicals who are “keeping Portland weird” and, for the most part, represent a minority coalition of the malcontent and the mentally deranged — a quick glimpse through the Antifa mugshots released by the Portland Police Department will confirm this impression. But in recent years, the underlying ideology of Portland’s radicals has become institutionalized. The city government has adopted a series of Five-Year Plans for “equity and inclusion,” shopkeepers have posted political slogans in their windows as a form of protection, and local schools have designed a program of political education for their students that resembles propaganda.
The schools of Portland have self-consciously adopted Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” as their theoretical orientation, activated it through a curriculum saturated in critical theory, and enforced it through the appointment of de facto political officers within individual schools under the cover of “equity and social justice.” The internal documents from three local districts — Tigard-Tualatin School District, Beaverton School District, and Portland Public Schools — reveal this revolutionary shift. Administrators and teachers have combined theory, praxis, and power in service of Left-wing political activism.
The results are predictable. By perpetuating the narrative that America is fundamentally evil, steeping children in the doctrine of critical pedagogy and lionizing the rioters in the streets, the schools have consciously pushed students in the direction of revolution. In the language of the Left, the political education program in Portland-area school districts could be described as a “school-to-radicalism pipeline” — or, more provocatively, as a training ground for child soldiers.
This is not hyperbole: some of the most violent anarchist groups in Portland are run by teenagers. Dozens of minors were arrested during the long stretch of the George Floyd riots. They have attached their political cause to climate change, anti-capitalism, anti-fascism, and Black Lives Matter — whatever provides the pretext for violent “direct action.”
The movement is unmistakable: out of the schools and into the streets. And contrary to those who believed that the end of the Trump presidency would usher in a “return to normalcy,” the social and political revolution in Portland has not stopped with the ascendance of President Biden — it has only accelerated. On the day of Biden’s inauguration, teenage radicals marched through the streets of Southeast Portland, smashing the office windows of the state Democratic Party, and unfurling large banners with their hand-painted demands: “We don’t want Biden, we want revenge”; “We are ungovernable”; “A new world from the ashes.”
The children of Portland, intoxicated by revolution and enabled by their elders, have escaped the chain.
Tigard, Oregon, is a placid suburban city southwest of Portland. The city’s historic main street is a pastiche of coffeehouses, boutiques, repair shops, and small-town restaurants. Historically, the city’s political squabbles have been focused on zoning and land use issues, with developers fighting the city, preservationists fighting developers, and neighbors fighting one another — in other words, the typical political patterns of an affluent, predominantly white American suburb.
Nevertheless, the educators at the Tigard-Tualatin School District have gone all in on radical pedagogy and the social justice trinity of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
In 2020, at the height of the George Floyd riots, Tigard-Tualatin superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith and board chair Maureen Wolf signed a proclamation “condemning racism and committing to being an anti-racist school district.” The preamble to the document recited the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, which has become a penitential rite in social justice circles, then confessed that the district’s “students of color, and Black students in particular, still regularly experience racism in [their] schools.” To rectify this situation, the superintendent pledged to become “actively anti-racist,” “dismantle systemic racism,” implement a “collective equity framework,” establish “pillars for equity,” deploy “Equity Teams” within schools, create racially segregated “Student Affinity Groups,” and use “an equity lens for all future curriculum adoptions.”
The following month, the district announced the creation of a new Department of Equity and Inclusion and installed left-wing activist and critical pedagogist Zinnia Un as its director. Un quickly created a blueprint for overhauling the curriculum at Tigard-Tualatin schools. The document explicitly called for adopting Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed.” Following Freire’s categorizations, Un argued that the Tigard-Tualatin School District must move from a state of “reading the world” to the phase of “denunciation” against the revolution’s enemies and, eventually, to the state of “annunciation” of the liberated masses, who will begin “rewriting the world.” For Un, the first-order targets of denunciation were not capitalism and colonialism, as they were for Freire, but the new set of targets for the modern West: “whiteness,” “color blindness,” “individualism,” and “meritocracy.” These are the values of capitalist society, to be sure, but more deeply, they are the values of white society, which, to the second generation critical pedagogists, is the primary axis of oppression.
What is the solution to pathological whiteness? According to Un and the Tigard-Tualatin School District, the answer lies with a new form of “white identity development.” In a series of “antiracist resources” provided to teachers, the Department of Equity and Inclusion circulated a handout of strategies for “white identity development,” which were designed to “facilitate growth for white folks to become allies, and eventually accomplices, for anti-racist work.” The process, which is couched in the language of personal development, begins with the assumption that all whites are born “racist,” even if they “don’t purposely or consciously act in a racist way.” In order to move beyond this state, white students must do the work of reformulating their identities according to the dictates of “anti-racist” ideology. The first step is “contact,” in which white students are confronted with “active racism or real-world experiences that highlight their whiteness.” The goal is to provoke an emotional rupture that brings the subject to the next step, “disintegration,” in which he or she feels intense “white guilt” and “white shame,” eventually admitting: “I feel bad for being white.” Once the emotional hooks have been established, the training outlines a process of moving white students from a state of “reintegration” to “pseudo-independence” to “immersion” to “autonomy,” in which whites can finally serve as “allies” for the oppressed.
This is an explicitly political project: at the early stages, the district encourages students to participate in activities such as “attending a training, joining an allies group, participating in a protest.” Later, white students are told to analyze their “covert white supremacy,” host “difficult conversations with white friends and family about racism,” and use their “privilege to support anti-racist work.” At the final stage, the trainers plumb the depths of the students’ individual psychology to ensure that pathological “whiteness” has been banished from their psyches. Students must answer a series of questions to demonstrate their final commitment: “Does your solidarity make you lose sleep at night? Does your solidarity put you in danger? Does your solidarity cost you relationships? Does your solidarity make you suspicious of predominantly white institutions? Does your solidarity have room for Black rage?”
This is not a pedagogy of education; it is a pedagogy of revolution.
Christopher F. Rufo is a writer, filmmaker, and activist. He has directed four documentaries for PBS, including America Lost, which tells the story of three forgotten American cities. He is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of the public policy magazine City Journal. His reporting and activism have inspired a presidential order, a national grassroots movement, and legislation in twenty-two states. Christopher holds a BSFS from Georgetown University and an ALM from Harvard University. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three sons.
Reprint by permission from HarperCollins and Broadside Books.
This chapter excerpt is taken from America’s Cultural Revolution: How The Radical Left Conquered Everything, by Christopher F. Rufo, (July 2023, Broadside Books, Harper Collins)