Included in both of Governor Kristi Noem’s now somewhat watered-down bills purporting to fight “critical race theory” and “political indoctrination” is one thought Noem deems “divisive” and thus unteachable:
Meritocracy or traits such as hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex [House Bill 1012 Section 1(7) and House Bill 1337 Section 1(7), both as amended by House Education, 2022.02.09].
Before we analyze this specific idea, we should note that if the state has any business banning ideas from schools—and that alone is a big, hairy if—the state must demonstrate that promoting the idea will do more harm to public welfare than banning discussion of the idea will do to free speech and other basic rights.
I’m comfortable saying the state has an interest in preventing schools from promoting factually incorrect ideas. We can’t have teachers telling kids that the Nazis won World War II, that the earth has infinite supplies of fossil fuels, or that face masks cause carbon dioxide poisoning and don’t reduce the spread of contagious diseases. Instilling such factually incorrect ideas produces misinformed citizens who cannot respond appropriately or effectively to real-world conditions.
But is the claim that meritocracy or “hard work ethic” are racist or sexist or were created by white men to oppress women and racial minorities factually incorrect?
When Max Weber formulated the Protestant work ethic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he was trying to explain differences in economic outcomes between Germans and Poles as results of “racial differences” and used that thinking to promote “stronger Germanisation of the eastern parts of Germany.” And we all know how twentieth-century German nationalism turned out.
There’s more obvious evidence that the Protestant work ethic is factually incorrect: slaves worked really hard in America for 250 years and never got ahead. Abraham Lincoln and a bloody Civil War emancipated those slaves, and those slaves and their descendants have worked pretty hard for civil rights ever since, yet they still haven’t achieved basic equality in education, the economy, and elections. Minorities have to work twice as hard to get half as far because they must overcome racist prejudices and other obstacles that never impede white workers’ progress. Meanwhile, white guys like Donald Trump who have never done an honest day’s labor enjoy all sorts of wealth and power, thanks to institutional favoritism.
The Protestant work ethic isn’t even consistently Protestant. Lutheran theology says we are saved by grace, not works. Conflating hard work and any resulting material gain with signs of God’s favor—not to mention viewing poverty and suffering and God’s just punishment for sloth and washing one’s hands of any obligation redress poverty and suffering and their root causes—is a recent capitalist co-optation of Christianity that gets Luther and Jesus flat wrong.
Many institutional factors reduce the effectiveness of individual hard work. The idea that people can get ahead by hard work alone—and the inimical contrapositive, that people who aren’t getting ahead aren’t working hard and thus deserve their poor outcomes—diverts even well-meaning citizens from inquiring into systemic obstacles to equality and prosperity. Thus, when those systemic obstacles include racism and sexism, and when the idea of the “work ethic” prevents us from talking about and carrying out solutions to systemic racism and sexism, one can reasonably argue that the idea of the “work ethic” props up racism and sexism and prolongs the oppression of minorities and women.
That notion understandably stirs debate. But Noem’s HB 1012 and HB 1337, bills seeking to ban “divisive concepts” from our curricula attempts to declare that debate over and won for her side without allowing teachers and students and ultimately the community at large to have that debate. Perhaps she fears that if we have that debate, people might realize that the facts of history and current events are not on her side.