Debunking Charlie Kirk (and Turning Point USA) on victimhood and race

Matthew Boedy
Apr 12, 2018 · 12 min read

Charlie Kirk, founder and executive director of Turning Point, uses the word “victim” a lot, though usually in a derogatory fashion.

For example a April 11, 2018 tweet:

The “left” creates victims, offers their followers and others an identity of grievance and complaint and, as the second part of the tweet implies, victims play to their victimhood and don’t “overcome.”

Kirk ties this into his attack on colleges by suggesting colleges are allowing and encouraging these “victims.” [I have written previously about Kirk’s attack on colleges. See here, here, and here.]

For example, a FOX Business segment from April 2016 where he notes that colleges are “creating a generation of victims who are being trained to be offended by something…”

In the Fox segment, Kirk connects victimhood to entitlement, suggesting the more one “plays the victim card” the more one feels entitled. He then gives examples of entitlements such as “free education.” Victimhood leads to entitlement which leads to a lack of work ethic. And then demanding more from the government, including free education. All in the “left’s” plan.

[I should note here that Kirk is mocking those who are asking for free college. He seems to have no problem, as far as I can tell, with free K-12. Also I should note that on the training to be offended, Kirk trains his Turning Point USA followers to be offended by political correctness.]

Kirk also ties this into his attack on government, big and usually “left.” For example, he wrote for Townhall.com in February 2015 that President Obama and the Democrats create a “religion” of “dependency” to get the votes of young people, particularly the “unmeasured pour of student loans...” [I have previously debunked Kirk’s “game of loans” attack on student loans here.]

The Ironic Use of Victim

In that same Townhall column (and implied in the Fox segment), Kirk calls millennials “damaged” and “victimized.”

Of course it is not all millennials.

He wrote for Townhall.com in April 2014 this:

“As a card-carrying member of the millennial generation, I, myself, am most certainly a victim. I am a victim of a barren job market, an expensive and constraining healthcare law, a national debt that imperils my future, and a politically correct culture which censors and makes exercising free speech akin to navigating mine fields. Now having established my victimization bona fides, let me suggest to my college peers that they stop seeking redress for grievances and start looking for ways to use their own personal skills to better their own world. They just might discover that they will lift the boat of others in the process.”

And here is the rub, the irony, the key contradiction at the heart of Kirk’s use of victim status: he disavows that status for anyone not like himself, those not naming or supporting his particular grievances. And as much as he tries, Kirk’s grievances can’t be separated from race.

First, let me unpack his quote.

Kirk identifies the victim on the “left” as someone who is aggrieved like him but someone who feels “entitled” to something they didn't earn. We see this in the lower part of the quote: “stop seeking redress for grievances and start looking for ways to use their own personal skills…”

He tweeted a similar statement on March 13, 2018:

Who to Blame?

If Kirk indeed is a victim of “a barren job market, an expensive and constraining healthcare law, a national debt that imperils my future, and a politically correct culture which censors” free speech, he is blaming the “left” for that victim status.

For Kirk, “blame” stops the ability of response. He of course has answered those who are to blame with his Turning Point USA. He created his own job as director of an organization which fights back against the other things in the quote that aggrieve him.

He moved from blame to response by a work ethic logic. And so according to Kirk other victims respond in error by being lazy or not working in the same way he did.

What is Kirk’s example of millennials on the “left” who doesn’t respond properly to their victim status?

In that Townhall.com in April 2014 column Kirk about a student protest at Dartmouth. Students staged a sit-in in the president’s office, wanting the university to address, according to Kirk, “a variety of issues on the campus, all of which relate to some perceived victimization of themselves or other students (victims whose parents kick-in over $60,000 per year for their education).” Kirk called the protesters and those like them “pampered, petulant and privileged youth simply screaming to the world ‘notice me…’”

The sit-in happened after the group asked the school’s president to respond in detail to certain funding priorities. They judged the response inadequate and so protested. The president described the grievance this way: “Their grievance, in short, is that they don’t feel like Dartmouth is fostering a welcoming environment.”

The protesters — a group of racial (mainly) minorities — tied their protest message to Martin Luther King, Jr., writing their “freedom budget” was “focused on redistributing power and restoring justice for communities who suffered economic oppression at the hands of rich, white power structures.” They hoped their budget would “transform oppressive structures,” not merely make “for better interpersonal interactions.”

Kirk noticed this link to King and opined that while King sought “only to have persons judged on the content of their character; not the color of their skin” and “addressed issues of manifest discrimination that prevented an entire race of people from enjoying freedoms promised by our Constitution,” the protesting students at Dartmouth “seem to be protesting that they are victims of living in an imperfect world!” [original emphasis]

The students were protesting they faced systematic (or a culture of) racism at an Ivy League school and Kirk called them “pampered” and “privileged.” They enacted a sit-in like the protesters in the 60s and Kirk called them “petulant.”

Inequality and Imperfections

Let’s be clear about what the students were protesting. In their words, they were “members of neglected and marginalized communities at Dartmouth” who were “receiving a separate and unequal education exacerbated by the administration’s refusal to structurally address issues central to our Dartmouth experience.”

It is a position the school itself agreed with in a 2015 report that addressed the climate on campus. A committee of students and faculty wrote that “Dartmouth has not done enough to foster a campus environment where all students feels safe, supported, and responsible for one another.” In response to the message of the protesters, the school outlined a “multi-pronged strategy for increasing and sustaining diversity and inclusivity at Dartmouth.”

I wanted to be clear about what the students were protesting because of Kirk’s dismissal of the issues as product of an “imperfect world.”

He elaborates on that: “At universities today, too many students are preoccupied with finding a perch from which they can call themselves afflicted with the malevolent intent of phantom ‘oppressors.’ They seek to gin up conflict and create a permanent state of unrest by reminding themselves and the student body that all is not perfect in their life and that imperfection is the direct result of deliberate actions of others. They are selling.”

This is the epitome of the rhetorically fallacy of painting with a broad brush. [And in the hypocrisy vein, Kirk also implies he is not “selling” anything.]

The Ivy Elite

It is important to note that Kirk’s aside about Dartmouth students — “victims whose parents kick-in over $60,000 per year for their education” — is not correct. While the tuition is that high or even higher since, about 50 percent pay it fully. According to a 2017 book by a Dartmouth assistant dean, 50% of students get some form of scholarship or financial aid (page 9).

Kirk also of course doesn’t focus or draw our attention to the race of the protesters, instead lumping all the concerned students together with others who aren’t protesting: “today’s Ivy leaguers.”

Racism and Imperfections

Let’s be clear on what Kirk belittles with “imperfection:” among other things, the protesters noted a climate of structural racism. This is not individual acts or individual racists but a systematic exclusion or, in the words of the protesters, systematic “unwelcoming” culture that privileges whites, particularly whites of certain economic status. This was King’s argument as well, despite Kirk’s inadequate summary of King.

Kirk only can note “manifest discrimination that prevented an entire race of people from enjoying freedoms promised by our Constitution,” and yet that still is not systemic or systematic for Kirk. He even went as far as to name “the Jim Crow laws that had been pervasive nationwide, and particularly in the South, since 1875.”

Kirk won’t admit systemic racism in the 60s, but he will admit individual acts of racism, noting that “King didn’t have to sell. Racism in 1960 America was real and the consequences dire for those who suffered under it.”

But today the protesting Dartmouth students “are not suffering. They want to feign suffering for attention and whatever spoils they might acquire from their collective whine.”

This not only dismisses the racial concerns but any concerns. Kirk returns to his attack on “ivy elites” as victims. But victims of a certain kind.

For Kirk the racism of 60s has become the vague “imperfections” of today. That word begs so many questions. What are Kirk’s imperfections today and how are those imperfections not a product of racism of the past? Or better, why would Kirk not call ‘60s racism “imperfections” if indeed he uses the term today to broadly call what the protesters call racism?

But more directly to the question of victim status, did not the students do exactly what Kirk applauded the “real” victims in the 60s for?

Kirk began his column describing the Woolworth’s sit-ins: “On February 1, 1960, four African American students from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, sat down on stools at the Greensboro Woolworth store; stools reserved for white patrons only. They asked to be served; they were refused. They were asked to leave; They would not. In fact, over time they were to come back again and again with ever increasing numbers of students until ultimately Woolworth would yield and permit the integration of its lunch counter.”

Kirk praises the students: “Those courageous students who staged that original sit-in were victims. They were victims of the Jim Crow laws that had been pervasive nationwide, and particularly in the South, since 1875. Their non-violent form of defiant protest stood strong against true discrimination and the blatant application of man’s inhumanity against man.”

And so, in Kirk’s words, the Dartmouth students should stop “seeking redress for grievances,” grievances of course Kirk thinks are “ginned up.”

But just for the sake of argument, if indeed both groups were aggrieved about real issues, shouldn’t the students in the 60s also have stopped seeking redress? In other words, which group of students are not “looking for ways to use their own personal skills…?”

Kirk defines the 60s sit-ins as a good form of seeking redress, but yet no one would label it as using “their own personal skills, as Kirk notes, to “better their own world…” The black students in Greensboro didn’t start an organization to tour Woolworths to talk about free speech.

As noted above, Kirk believes the Dartmouth student protesters — many of whom were black — are not real victims. There is no “man’s inhumanity against man” on campus to him. So he categorizes the Dartmouth action as the kind of action by a “fake” victim who feels entitled to something without working for it. But what are the Dartmouth students asking for, if not the same equal treatment asked for by the students in North Carolina in the 60s?

They were both asking for equal treatment.

Yet it is important to note that Kirk is not implying or directly arguing these minority Dartmouth students are being treated equally at Dartmouth.

So why is Kirk upset? He claims the grievances are fake — ginned up doesn’t necessarily mean completely fake, but it comes awfully close.

But even if they have some basis in reality, Kirk argues they are not entitled to speak. The fact their parents are paying for school (however false that claim is, or allows him to sidestep the racial issues) and therefore free to the students — this fact demands or at least heavily suggests they don’t get to question the school. They should merely find some business to attend to.

In other words, victims of a certain kind don’t get to protest. They should just go (back) to work.

He is aggrieved that those who are getting a “free education” are protesting the quality of and culture in which that education happens. To paraphrase A Few Good Men, Kirk seems to be suggesting that, in the words of Colonel Jessup, that these students should not or do not deserve to or cannot demand questions about their “free education.” Instead, like the colonel says, “I would rather you just said “thank you”, and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to!”

Also that denial of speech by someone like Kirk who claims to defend “free speech” is important to note.

Racism and Work Ethic

Yet it is the racial undertones that Kirk ignores which are part of the victim status here.

This is why his quip about a lack of work ethic is important. For all his claims to know history, Kirk shows a lack of awareness of the connection of that phrase and racism against blacks.

And so even if somehow Kirk wanted to claim his use of this line of argument is not racist, he would need to qualify his use within the historical framework. That he is using it against an age group and not a race makes little difference because he is using it against black millennial students in this occasion.

As noted above, the claim of laziness has long been a racism marker.

For example The American Prospect notes:

With the civil-rights laws that made segregation illegal, and the death of Jim Crow in the South, this old-fashioned racism gave way to a “new racism” built not on laws but on racial stereotypes. This allowed whites to justify the persistence of continuing racial oppression on the grounds that blacks are lazy, for example. This type of racism posits that blacks have plenty of equal opportunity; they just need to take advantage of it as other Americans do. Certain code words often accompanied this new racism. In the beginning, the term “equal opportunity” was often paired with such code words and phrases as “law and order” and “welfare queen.”

And it hasn’t gone away.

The Religion News Service concluded this from a 2012 poll: “It may be 2014 and not 1964, but a majority of whites still see blacks as lazier or less intelligent than they are.”

And a 2017 survey showed similar issues. According to The Washington Post, “Over the last two decades, there has never been a bigger divide between white Republicans and Democrats when it comes to views of the intelligence and work ethic of African Americans.”

The Post reported that the survey asked whether African Americans are worse off economically “because most just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty?” A majority — 55 percent — of white Republicans agreed, compared to 26 percent of white Democrats. The Post noted that is the biggest gap since the question was first asked in 1977 — though the gap was similar (60–32) in 2010.

Kirk and Racism

Beyond the fake versus real victim status, Kirk clearly treats the black students who protested in the 60s different than the black students who protested at Dartmouth in 2014.

Why?

According to The New Republic, the “work of political organizing can’t be recognized as a legitimate form of labor. Denying the labor of black Americans reinforces white supremacy.”

Dr. Ray Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, told The New Republic: “White people will say, ‘Why don’t you black people pull yourselves up by your bootstraps. This is America, everyone is free to do what they want… But what was the civil rights struggle of the 1960s if not the greatest self-help movement in American history?”

Kirk doesn’t see the work of the 60s sit-ins as political organizing, only individuals fighting an individual law.

Yet to him the Dartmouth students are part of a collective grievance, not fighting anything as specific as an unjust law. And they are of course putting the blame on white, rich people or conservatives in general. [This begs the question as to why Kirk doesn’t see King fighting this same target.]

This is why many commentators have argued Turning Point’s main claim is, as the New Yorker noted, “conservatives are the true victims of discrimination in America.” See another summary of this move to victim status by Turning Point here. Kirk is merely responding to the fake grievances piled up at his doorstep.

And one should read conservatives here as (mainly) white. I say mainly because clearly there are some minorities involved in Turning Point.

Yet if indeed white conservatives are the victims of discrimination on campus — and Kirk’s whole mission is based on someone or some group that includes him being victims— what have Kirk and those who follow him done?

They have spoken out, rallied a nationwide and “celebrity” audience, even garnered harassment from others. I haven’t seen a Turning Point sit-in yet, though. In short, they are doing the same work as the protesters in 60s North Carolina and Dartmouth students.

Yet Kirk only sees real victimhood in himself and others like him. And let’s be clear, Kirk only reserves systematic oppression for his type of victim, not even the 60s black student protesters. If the “left” in Kirk’s eyes is not a systematic oppressor, I don’t know what is.

And Kirk only sees an appropriate response to being a victim in those who use their skills toward the better of all. In other words, Kirk refuses to see victims of systemic, systemic, or institutional racism. He only sees victims of economic problems.

Why?

According to Kirk, victims of racism — both today and in the 60s — implicitly only helped themselves. They didn’t “lift the boat of others in the process.”

That sad conclusion from Kirk’s words means he has not been taught how racism is a white problem, not a black problem. In other words, he hasn’t, in his own words, actually studied MLK. “Perspective and humility may follow.”

Matthew Boedy

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Professor of Rhetoric at University of North Georgia. My book “Speaking of Evil” http://bit.ly/2LB1ixa