Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley didn’t succeed in blocking Kiran Ahuja’s nomination to oversee the federal government’s human resource policy, but he managed to make the process as slow and painful as possible for the Seattle philanthropist.
Ahuja required a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris to clear the Senate on Tuesday with a vote of 51 to 50 to confirm her as the new director of the Office of Personnel Management, which serves as the federal government’s HR department.
Hawley sought to transform Ahuja’s confirmation vote into a referendum on critical race theory, an academic movement which examines racism in American institutions.
The three-word phrase, which was once confined to law school discussions, has become a dominant theme in cable news debates as Republicans around the country seek to prohibit the instruction of critical race theory in schools and combat its influence in corporate and governmental institutions.
Hawley, a former law professor at the University of Missouri, said he had observed the theory’s influence firsthand as a university professor.
“It is very influential. And it appears to have become the animating ideology of this administration. And that is a cause for great concern,” Hawley said in a floor speech Tuesday.
“Critical theory is an ideology that says the United States is rotten to its core. The leaders of this movement think our society is defined by white supremacy. They think our leaders are complicit at best. They think all Americans are either oppressors or oppressed.”
Ahuja, an attorney, previously served as director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during President Barack Obama’s administration before moving into a career in the nonprofit sector.
Hawley’s opposition to Ahuja stemmed largely from her promotion of the work of Ibram X. Kendi, the author of “How to Be an Antiracist” and the director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University.
Hawley pointed to Ahuja linking in a blog post to a 2017 New York Times column from Kendi in which he described former President Donald Trump’s election as an example of “racist progress.”
Hawley also took issue with another post Ahuja wrote in her capacity as CEO of Philanthropy Northwest, a network of charities in the Pacific Northwest.
“Last year, Ms. Ahuja wrote we must free the nation from ‘the daily trials of white supremacy.’ Those are her words,” Hawley said.
That post was about ways the philanthropic community could support Black, indigenous, immigrant and transgender communities.
Among the steps Ahuja suggested philanthropists take included practicing humility by listening to “Black leaders and communities, follow their lead and with their guidance apply the same nimbleness from philanthropy’s COVID-19 response to the public health crisis of racism.”
Hawley, who led the unsuccessful effort to overturn President Joe Biden’s electoral victory, has regularly railed against what he has called efforts to cancel or silence him in recent months — the termination of a book contract by his original publisher, a Senate ethics complaint from Democrats and media criticism.
Asked how his opposition to Ahuja’s nomination based on her promotion of an author he disagreed with was not a form of cancel culture, Hawley argued that he wasn’t seeking to silence either Ahuja or Kendi.
“She’s welcome to say whatever she wants. Dr. Kendi is a very influential public figure and I certainly support his right to speak and his right to publish his views and his right to be heard in public without recrimination at all,” Hawley said.
“But I think when you’re talking about promoting someone to be in charge of HR for the federal government, you want to make sure that that person is qualified for the job — and I don’t doubt her qualifications — but you’ve also got to make sure this is going to be someone who is going to be a uniter not a divider.”
The White House did not respond to a question about Hawley’s criticism of Ahuja. Hawley has opposed the overwhelming majority of the administration’s top-level nominees.
But in Ahuja’s case, he took a particularly prominent role in leading GOP opposition. Hawley blocked the quick consideration of Ahuja’s nomination earlier this month, delaying the vote by two weeks.
“I heard a lot of criticism about my position here today. I heard the corporate media and those on the left say that I misunderstand critical theory or that it’s not real, or that it’s not a real problem. I heard many say the United States is, indeed, built on oppression and remains a systematically racist place,” Hawley said.
“That is not the America I see and that’s not the America that I know. The working people of this country who have rallied to the nation’s flag in every hour of danger, who are the first to help a neighbor in need, who coach our little leagues and volunteer at our churches … these are liberators. These are not oppressors,” Hawley said.
But while the phrase “critical race theory” has become ubiquitous in recent months, Republicans are not uniform on how to define it.
Ahuja’s difficult confirmation vote comes just days after the Senate voted unanimously to establish Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery, as a new federal holiday.
Despite the universal support of Senate Republicans, 14 House Republicans opposed Juneteenth. Montana Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale, for example, decried the new federal holiday as part of a larger effort “to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country.”
Hawley, however, drew a sharp distinction between the celebration of Juneteenth, which calls for reflection on the history of racism, and the concept of critical race theory.
“Juneteenth is part of our history. That’s a fact that happened. That happened. It’s not a rewriting of our history. … I think it’s a really important date to mark, to celebrate, to remember what the civil war was about, to remember that slavery divided this country to the point of civil war, that we had to fight a war to overcome it,” Hawley said.
“I think celebrating our history, learning from our history, that’s something that draws us together. What I dislike about critical theory, what I think is dangerous is, is the attempt to rewrite our history.”