Stolen Ideal

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn


  . . . historian. Author of Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution, Dr. Lasch-Quinn is professor of history at the Maxwell School of the University of Syracuse in up-state New York. Her prior book, Black Neighbors won the Berkshire Prize. Dr. Lasch-Quinn is also a frequent contributor to "The New Republic."

Audio Preview of Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn


The American Civil Rights Movement was hijacked, according to historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. She's discovered that extremist ideas about identity cross-fertilized with a culture of therapy (remember encounter groups?) Instead of harvesting the fruits of a transforming moral Revolution, Dr. Lasch-Quinn believes, America went for self-awareness movements, identity politics and social engineering in the form of diversity training.

      Dr. Lasch-Quinn is troubled that with this hijacking, we lost opportunities to develop the civic skills necessary to become a genuinely democratic society. She's concerned that citizens are now reduced to caricatures and we seem willing to settle for self-segregation instead of a truly just society. And she fears this is dangerous.

      Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn didn't go looking for a lost Movement. She was surprised when she found "identity" as a defining goal coming out of the Black Power movement of late 60s. At that same time, she found a culture of therapy and self-growth blossoming, courtesy of the Human Potential movement and its tell-all encounter groups. Dr. Lasch-Quinn is confident America's Puritan heritage was also a factor, but instead of the religious individualism which called people to reform themselves so as to improve society, self-obsession became the end in itself. The result of this brew, Dr. Lasch-Quinn believes, is 30 years of obsessive concentration on the individual.

      Enter "diversity training." The foundation of this pervasive and lucrative business, she discovered, is America's century-old taste for social engineering. Diversity training and trainers may have started out well-meaning, she would like to think, but Dr. Lasch-Quinn identifies strong authoritarian strains behind the apparent hyper-egalitarian posture which diversity trainers and multi-cultural educators take. She is also deeply skeptical of self-proclaimed race experts whose premises about race she believes are often simply wrong.

      Dr. Lasch-Quinn calls us back to the promise of The Movement, work we have not finished. A democratic society must face hard questions that go well beyond race, she's confident. What would Dr. Lasch-Quinn have us do?

      Stop obsessing about ourselves and learn to live together in an ever-more pluralistic society. Reclaim the hopeful, rich vision of citizenship that drove The Movement. Stop relying on unproven race experts. Dismantle diversity training. Then slow down and think about what we're doing. Seek out genuine moral authorities and find thoughtful leaders. Grapple with how we learn to live together as a community. Develop skills of civic cooperation. Finish the work to which millions of brave women and men dedicated their lives, worked for, died for: a Greater Good, beyond themselves, in a genuinely democratic society.

[This Program was recorded November 5, 2001 in Syracuse, New York, US.]

Conversation 1

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn describes the striking number of cultural movements that were happening simultaneously with America's Civil Rights Revolution for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Describing how she believes the "culture of therapy" eventually side-tracked the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Lasch-Quinn outlines The Movement's revolutionary progress through the 20th century.


Conversation 2

Dr. Lasch-Quinn describes what she believes is the pervasive and negative legacy of the 1960s' and '70s' Human Potential and therapy/recovery movements. She contrasts that legacy to the Civil Rights Movement's search for justice and a more democratic society. She expresses grave concern for how a therapeutic model now infects all aspects of current life. She gives examples. The goals the early Civil Rights Movement sought were revolutionary and transforming, she says, then summarizes how both whites and blacks derailed The Movement with identity politics. This was a mistake, she believes, siding instead with a richer vision of citizenship.


Conversation 3

Hope was once central to the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Lasch-Quinn reminds us. She describes how blacks and whites together diverted its course to more militant, often separatist politics, which she believes now characterize today's identity politics well beyond issues of ethnicity. She marvels at how rapidly America gave up on the vision of an integrated nation. She applauds remarkable progress toward integration on many fronts in America, then notes what she sees as a troubling trend toward self-segregation.


Conversation 4

The religious roots of the Civil Rights Movement gave it a strong spiritual dimension, according to Dr. Lasch-Quinn, who describes it as a moral revolution. She demonstrates how that American religious strain was preyed upon by the modern therapy movement. Adopting the idea of identity as the main goal, she says, stops short of where the religious conception of the Civil Rights Movement was leading. She expands, then calls us to think beyond race to hard questions about how we live together as a community, develop the skills of civic cooperation. She critiques the authoritarian bent she discovered in diversity/multi-cultural training and trainers.


Conversation 5

Acknowledging that many in the "diversity" business may have had good intentions, Dr. Lasch-Quinn describes what happens after major revolutions. She describes how "social engineering" once again won out in America, resulting in a multi-billion dollar diversity business. The most extreme views from the 1960s became institutionalized into the mainstream of American life, she says, and lists them. She draws examples from widely used diversity training materials. There's an alternative to social engineering, she insists, calling us to develop ways to live together in an increasingly pluralistic society. She objects to stereotypes and caricatures of all kinds.


Conversation 6

Dr. Lasch-Quinn offers a range of things we can do to reclaim the promise of the Civil Rights Movement. First, she would dismantle many existing diversity programs. Then she suggests we think hard about what we're doing and seek guidance from true moral authorities instead of self-proclaimed race experts and quick fixes.






The Maxwell School of the University of Syracuse in Syracuse, New York, made us welcome at every turn. We thank the School, and particularly Dr. Robert McClure, Senior Associate Dean and Professor of Political Science & Public Affairs, and Jill Leonhardt, Director of Communications and Media Relations.

In addition to our very high regard for Dr. Lasch-Quinn's book, Race Experts, the warmth and gracious welcome extended to us by her husband, Ray Lasch-Quinn, and their beautiful daughters, Isabel and Honor was also memorable. We thank each of them.


Related Links:

Dr. Lasch-Quinn's book, Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution, is published by W.W. Norton & Company.

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