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The War on Anti-Racism: The Mainstreaming of Social Movements, and the Emerging Backlash

Anthony DiMaggio

The murder of George Floyd was a major catalyst event for the Black Lives Matter movement, motivating large numbers of Americans to take to the streets to spotlight structural racism in American policing. Subsequent polling found that as many as 10 percent of Americans reported attending protests for racial justice in the summer of 2020, totaling an estimated 26 million people.[1] This mass turnout led The New York Times to conclude that “Black Lives Matter may be the largest movement in U.S. history.”[2]

Such a historic turnout presented social scientists with an incredible opportunity to study the role of social movements in the empowerment of the masses in enhancing American democracy, beyond the confines of political institutions that social scientists find to be biased in plutocratic ways in favor of upper-class and business interests.[3] There were plenty of opportunities to study rising public participation in social movements throughout the late 2000s, the 2010s, and into the 2020s, with mass uprisings becoming a regular phenomenon in the U.S. As I argue in my book, Rebellion in America, protest in the U.S. has been mainstreamed in the modern era, via a second wave of mass movements that parallels the last wave of popular activism from the 1950s through the 1970s, including the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, and the environmental movement, among other forms of citizen activism.

In the 2010s, protest was inextricably linked to American politics. By 2018 57 percent of Americans indicated that they had become “upset” enough about some issue that they were willing to protest as a result.[4] On the American right, the Tea Party, Trumpism, the “alt-right,” the “Reopen” protests during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the January 6 insurrectionists demonstrated the rising popularity of protest movements as a form of political participation. On the left, many movements emerged to challenge corporate power and social injustice, including the 2011 Madison protests of Governor Scott Walker’s attack on unions and collective bargaining, Occupy Wall Street, the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter (BLM), #MeToo, Antifa, the anti-Trump protests, and the renewed environmental movement. Of all these movements, BLM has demonstrated the most staying power, with protests that began in 2014 following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and continuing with countless other killings and successive waves of protest throughout the 2010s, up through George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020 and the latest wave of demonstrations.

Despite mass mobilizations seeking to combat the systemic practices of racial profiling and police brutality against people of color, powerful societal forces have mobilized against BLM, seeking to blunt this popular force for change. These include rightwing political actors and their supporters, and center and “left” intellectuals and academic professionals who seek to deter public attention toward progressive social movements. I devote the rest of this essay to documenting this multi-front effort at suppressing BLM’s anti-racist political cause.

On the American right, the effort to defang BLM has been the most transparently pronounced. States have led the charge to eliminate any discussion of structural-institutional racism within the United States from elementary, secondary, or college course curricula, and to suppress these important discussions entirely. In Iowa, House Bill 802 represents an Orwellian Big Brother-style effort to censor educators seeking to identify and discuss the ways that American social, political, and economic institutions operate to discriminate against people of color. The law officially prohibits public school teachers and college professors from raising discussions or assigning works that analyze or address in any way how “the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systematically racist or sexist” in their design and orientation.[5]

In Tennessee, the state passed Senate Act 493, which prevents any “public charter school” or “LEA” (Local Education Agency) public school “teachers” or “employees” from promoting “concepts as part of a course of instruction or in a curriculum or instructional program” that offer the position that “this state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist”; that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously”; or that “[promotes] division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people.”[6] Simply summarized, Tennessee has outlawed any discussions of white and male privilege, structural or institutional racism, and any other potentially divisive content related to race, sex, and religion – however “divisive” is interpreted by state and local officials doing the censoring.

In Idaho, officials are equally Orwellian in establishing that the legislature, not teachers, will be responsible for deciding what can and cannot be taught in the classroom. Through Idaho’s House Bill 377 and “the intent of the legislature,” the state has officially deemed that the “tenets” of “critical race theory” (CRT) are such that they “exacerbate and inflame divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or other criteria in ways contrary to the unity of the nation and the well-being of the state of Idaho and its citizens.”[7] The law dictates that “no public institution of higher education, school district, or public school,” and “no course of instruction or unit of study” will compel students “to personally affirm, adopt or adhere to any of the tenets” of CRT. With CRT representing a broad and loose set of principles that vary significantly across the scholars and teachers utilizing them, the Idaho law opened many possibilities for abuse by way of an expansive application of a statute that was thin on details in defining CRT but pronounced it its condemnation.

State efforts to ban CRT stem from former President Donald Trump’s initial efforts to discredit BLM and efforts to combat systemic racial inequality. Trump sought in full authoritarian flair, and in vain, to mobilize the military to suppress BLM protesters in American cities.[8] He railed against “left-wing indoctrination” in schools against teachers who highlighted the problem of racism in America, instead demanding “patriotic education” and a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history,” which he sought to impose through executive order and the creation of his “1776 Commission.” The commission, which had no basis in American historical scholarship and was widely recognized as a propaganda effort of the right to promote nationalistic indoctrination, never really got off the ground,[9] as it was terminated by the incoming Biden administration. But between the establishment of the commission and Trump’s announcement that he was denying federal funds to racial sensitivity training for federal contract workers,[10] it was enough alongside Trump’s attacks on BLM to send a signal to the Republican base and Republican officials that it was time to push back against America’s rising anti-racist movement.

Seeking to capitalize on state efforts to ban CRT, Trump published his own op-ed in Real Clear Politics outlining his dystopian vision for the future of “education” straight out of the pages of Orwell’s 1984, elevating discussions of systemic or institutional racism to the level of thought crime. Trump envisioned a comprehensive effort to ban CRT, writing: “every state legislature should pass a ban on taxpayer dollars going to any school district or workplace that teaches critical race theory…and Congress should seek to institute a federal ban through legislation as well.” Such bans, of course, would require a Herculean enforcement and mass surveillance effort, involving the recruitment of countless children and parents across the nation, which was precisely what Trump had in mind to report on and scare teachers into line, and coerce them into silence and complicity:

Parents have a right to know exactly what is being taught to their children. Last year, many parents had the chance to routinely listen in on classes for the first time because of remote learning. As students return to the classroom, states need to pass laws requiring that all lesson plans have to be made available to parents — every handout, article, and reading should be posted on an online portal that allows parents to see what their kids are being taught. Furthermore, in many places, there are rules preventing students from recording what teachers say in class. States and school boards should establish a ‘Right of Record.’

For those teachers and professors who challenged the CRT bans, Trump also had an answer: termination. As he demanded in the op-ed: “States need to break the tenure monopoly in public K-12 schools…Educators who are alienating children from their own country should not be protected with lifelong tenure; they should be liberated to pursue a career as a political activist.”

To sell his nationwide ban on CRT, Trump relied on his own dystopian rhetoric depicting a pervasive and all-encompassing threat from teachers and a “left” boogieman set on destroying America. This rising danger was positively existential, according to the former President:

Make no mistake: The motive behind all of this left-wing lunacy is to discredit and eliminate the greatest obstacles to the fundamental transformation of America. To succeed with their extreme agenda, radicals know they must abolish our attachment to the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and most of all, Americans’ very identity as a free, proud, and self-governing people. The left knows that if they can dissolve our national memory and identity, they can gain the total political control they crave.

This sort of rhetoric extends well beyond traditional conservatism, the latter celebrating American heritage, traditions, and customs for their own sake and (alleged) value, without framing those with which one disagrees as a threat that needs to be stomped out. Trump’s language draws on fascistic and eliminationist style ideology that envisions his political “enemies” as a fundamental and foundational threat to the nation that needs to be uprooted and burned away. In this case, the eliminationist politics he is calling for don’t involve concentration camps and gas chambers, but instead a youth and parental coordinated Big Brother mass surveillance state that will destroy freedom of critical thought, inquiry, and expression.

It would be easy to end this essay by lamenting the right’s assault on free inquiry, but the reality of the matter is that they are only the most prominent and vicious front in the war on academic freedom of thought and speech. A more subtle threat to free inquiry also exists in the form of moderate and liberal intellectuals who discovered long ago that the easiest and most effective way to destroy critical thinking is simply to indoctrinate the professional scholarly class into dismissing social justice concerns. To put it bluntly, there is little concern in the social sciences, broadly speaking, in democratic and leftist mass social movements that seek to empower disadvantaged groups. Such forces have seldom figured into the calculations of prominent scholars when determining their research agendas. I document this problem in detail in my book, Rebellion in America. Although I make the case in the book that progressive-left social movements – not elections, officials, or political parties – are the most important force to democratically empower disadvantaged groups of Americans, there is little interest in putting them at the center of scholarly analyses in the social sciences.

In my chief areas of inquiry – Political Science and Sociology – the attention to contemporary social movements has been meager at best to non-existent at worst. In the decade from early 2008 through mid-2018, the three flagship journals in American Political Science – American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, and Journal of Politics, didn’t devote a single research article between them to any of the social movements or populist political uprisings of the 2000s, including the Tea Party, the 2011 Madison protests, Occupy Wall Street, BLM, Fight for $15, Bernie Sanders’s populist electoral campaign, or Trump’s populism.[11] These journals’ most common focus was elections and voting, followed by secondary foci on political parties and legislatures, and to an even lesser extent emphases on federalism, intergovernmental relations, constitutionalism, executive politics, judicial and legal politics, and the news media. Virtually no attention was paid to social movements, or to intersectionality as a form of analysis that relates to racial, gender, and class-based identities, which as I show in Rebellion in America are vital to understanding modern social movements.

The trend doesn’t appear to be all that different in Sociology, although the discipline is better known for emphasizing social movements than Political Science. A closer look at recent evidence shows that establishment Sociology journals have not focused on contemporary movements. As I document in Rebellion in America, from early 2008 to mid-2018, the American Sociological Review devoted just one research article to Occupy Wall Street, the 2011 Madison protests, and BLM. The American Journal of Sociology devoted not a single research article to BLM, Fight for $15, the Madison protests, or Occupy Wall Street during this same period.[12]

The above method of self-censoring is obviously nowhere near as heavy handed or authoritarian as a means of limiting pedagogical inquiry in suppressing critical examinations of social movements. Nonetheless, inculcation and indoctrination via acceptance of elitist “professional” norms of scholarship within the academy has proven a brutally effective method for cutting the guts out of any serious effort to open up the social sciences to serious explorations of how to promote anti-racism and social justice. Milquetoast “liberal” academics voluntarily abdicate their responsibility for studying and understanding social movements and their vital import to democracy. They’re also acting as censors and deterring important national discussions about how to grow progressive and democratic social movements in an era of rising inequality and rampant racial profiling and police brutality. Be it the more totalitarian-style methods of suppression preferred by Orwellian Republican censors, or the voluntary “free” version preferred by “liberal” intellectuals, both represent serious threats to critical inquiry at a time when protest movements are being rapidly mainstreamed in American politics. Contempt for protest movements suggests a rapid divergence between politics, the academy, and the masses, as officials and academics work in their own unique ways to marginalize the existence of modern social movements – particularly those geared toward promoting racial justice – while protests in the streets continue to grow. Intellectuals continue to ignore, and officials move to marginalize these movements, at the risk of destroying one of the few bright rays of democratic light in the plutocratic era.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is the author of 9 books, including most recently: Political Power in America (SUNY Press, 2019), Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.


     [1] Liz Hamel, Audrey Kearney, Ashley Kirzinger, Lunna Lopes, Cailey Munana, and Mollyann Brodie, “KFF Health Tracking Poll – June 2020,” Kaiser Family Foundation, June 26, 2020, https://www.kff.org/racial-equity-and-health-policy/report/kff-health-tracking-poll-june-2020/

     [2] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html

     [3] Gilens and Page; Carnes

     [4] Hart Research Associates/Public Opinion Strategies, “Study *18164: Social Trends Survey,” NBC/Wall Street Journal, March 2018, https://www.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/wsjnbcpoll0314final.pdf

     [5] Kim Reynolds, “House File 802,” Office of the Governor, June 8, 2021, https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislation/BillBook?ga=89&ba=hf802

     [6] Bill Lee, “Senate Bill No. 623,” State of Tennessee, May 25, 2021, https://publications.tnsosfiles.com/acts/112/pub/pc0493.pdf

     [7] Legislature of the State of Idaho, “House of Representatives House Bill No. 377,” Ways and Means Committee, 2021, https://legislature.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/sessioninfo/2021/legislation/H0377.pdf

     [8] Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan, Paul Sonne, and Josh Dawsey, “Pentagon Chief Balks at Trump’s Call for Active-Duty Military Force on U.S. Citizens, and Mattis Rips President,” Washington Post, June 3, 2020,

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/despite-suggestions-from-trump-pentagon-chief-says-he-does-not-support-invoking-insurrection-act/2020/06/03/8e8dad2e-a59e-11ea-8681-7d471bf20207_story.html

     [9] Michael Crowley and Jennifer Schuessler, “Trump’s 1776 Commission Critiques Liberalism in Report Derided by Historians,” New York Times, January 18, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/18/us/politics/trump-1776-commission-report.html; Gillian Brockell, “‘A Hack Job,’ ‘Outright Lies’: Trump Commission’s ‘1776 Report’ Outrages Historians,” Washington Post, January 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/01/19/1776-report-historians-trump/

     [10] Andrew Soldender, “Trump Launches ‘Patriotic Education’ Commission, Calls 1619 Project ‘Ideological Poison’” Forbes, September 17, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrewsolender/2020/09/17/trump-launches-patriotic-education-commission-calls-1619-project-ideological-poison/?sh=55488244155a

     [11] Anthony DiMaggio, Rebellion in America: Citizen Uprisings, the News Media, and the Politics of Plutocracy (New York: Routledge, 2020): 8.

     [12] DiMaggio, Rebellion in America, 2020: 8-9