Why Did the Smithsonian Call Capitalism, Christianity, and the Family Aspects of ‘Whiteness’?

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On Monday, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) sent a scathing letter asking the leader of the Smithsonian to explain himself after the institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) published a horrifying graphic about “whiteness.” The graphic suggested that a work ethic, delayed gratification, being polite, and getting to meetings on time are aspects of a “whiteness” culture that must be deconstructed and rejected. The document also suggested that capitalism, science, the nuclear family, and Christianity were also nefarious relics of white supremacy.

Hawley noted that many of the aspects NMAAHC associated with “whiteness” are universal across races in American society and he challenged Lonnie Bunch III, the secretary of the Smithsonian, to explain why the institution ever endorsed the idea that politeness, for example, is exclusively white.

“Does the Smithsonian agree with the proposition at the heart of the American way of life that ‘all men are created equal?’ Does the institution agree with the timeless principle espoused by Dr. King that people should ‘not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character?'” he asked.

The Smithsonian’s NMAAHC has withdrawn the graphic, but it still recommends books teaching critical theory and the idea that America is inherently racist.

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“The ‘Talking About Race’ website claims the material is meant to provide an ‘opportunity to engage in thoughtful, respectful, and productive conversations’ about race in America. However, the materials published under this initiative – some of which have recently been removed after public scrutiny – appear to embrace ideas likelier to foment racial division than mutual respect and understanding,” Hawley noted.

Included in the recently deleted materials were assertions that white culture, as distinct from the cultures of other races in America, is defined by commitment to the following ideas:

“Self-reliance”
“The nuclear family”
“Objective, rational linear thinking”
“Hard work is the key to success”
“Plan for the future”
“Quantitative emphasis”
“Intent counts”
“Be polite”

The senator noted that “the claim that these qualities and commitments – ideas Americans of all races have traditionally celebrated and strived to teach to their children – are distinctive to white Americans would be troubling enough given its implication that they are foreign to Americans of color.”

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whiteness infographic from the Smithsonian on "white culture."

Smithsonian screenshot of whiteness infographic.

Yet the Smithsonian’s position “as suggested by the materials prior to their removal, appeared to be even more troubling: that these attributes are actually emblems of ‘structural racism’ in American life to be rejected rather than embraced.”

Hawley noted that the Smithsonian quoted from “controversial educational materials dating back to 1990 that the Smithsonian cited uncritically” and from the work of Robin DiAngelo’s cultish work “White Fragility.”

“I am curious as to the manner in which the Smithsonian sourced these materials given the wide range of opinion and scholarship that would reject the assertions of the exhibit about the ostensibly racial distinctiveness of characteristics more commonly understood to have nothing to do with race,” the senator wrote.

Although Hawley said he was “pleased” to see the Smithsonian had removed “some of the most offensive content,” he urged Bunch to “conduct a full review of this initiative to remove similarly concerning content and to review the process by which this material escaped the review of your leadership team.”

“Why did the Smithsonian suggest that self-reliance, the nuclear family, objective and rational thinking, hard work, planning, quantitative emphasis, concern about intent, and politeness are distinctly ‘white’ qualities? Did the Smithsonian mean to suggest that Americans of color are deficient in such qualities, and that anti-racist efforts necessarily entail a rejection of these qualities?” the senator asked.

“Does the Smithsonian believe the nuclear family to be a construct of white supremacy that should be deemphasized? Please elaborate on what the nuclear family’s presence in these materials was meant to suggest,” he added.

“Why did the Smithsonian suggest that white people believe ‘wealth is worth’ and ‘bland is best,’ that white people are uniquely capable of ‘decision-making,’ and that white people are characterized by a drive to ‘master and control nature?'” he pressed.

Hawley asked Bunch to identify any “senior leaders” at the Smithsonian who “reviewed these materials before their publication” and demanded to know how these offensive materials survived the approval process. He also asked if Bunch personally reviewed the materials and whether or not he condones them.

The “whiteness” graphic emerged as protests over the horrific police killing of George Floyd devolved into deadly riots across America. Many rioters seemed inspired by critical theory, and especially the noxious ideas of The New York Times‘s “1619 Project,” which teaches that America’s true founding came with the arrival of the first black slaves, rather than with the Declaration of Independence. Since America is foundationally racist, so the thinking goes, it must be uprooted in order to achieve racial justice.

For this reason, Claremont’s Charles Kesler suggested Americans should “Call them the 1619 riots.” The 1619 Project’s founder, Nikole Hannah-Jones, responded (in a since-deleted tweet) that “it would be an honor” to claim responsibility for the destructive riots. Indeed, some rioters spray-painted “1619” on a statue of George Washington after they had toppled it.

In a November 9, 1995 op-ed, the 1619 Project founder condemned Christopher Columbus as “no different” from Adolf Hitler and demonized the “white race” as the true “savages” and “bloodsuckers.” She went on to describe “white America’s dream” as “colored America’s nightmare.” Just this week, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) expressed a similar sentiment when she called for the “dismantling” of America’s “economy and political system,” in order to root out supposed racist oppression.

Yet the “1619 riots” have destroyed black lives, black livelihoods, and black monuments. At least 22 Americans have died in the riots, most of them black. Just as the idea that “self-reliance,” a work ethic, and “politeness” are aspects of whiteness would arguably harm black Americans who reject these positive qualities in the name of race, the anti-American sentiment of the “1619 riots” is concretely harming black Americans.

Hawley’s letter seems harsh, but this entire tragic episode should be a wakeup call. The noxious critical theory on race that the Smithsonian endorsed needs to be exposed as false and rejected wholesale. The senator is right to demand answers.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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