In 2016, Dr. Wilfred Reilly debated a white nationalist at Kentucky State University.
The associate professor of political science was then one year into his tenure, and the event made headlines.
It happened in the midst of a national discussion about free speech, especially whether colleges should allow speakers such as Jared Taylor, Reilly’s competition, to speak on their campuses.
Reilly, 38, debated Taylor on the merits of diversity in America, with Reilly arguing that racial diversity is a strength for America. Taylor, whom Reilly called “the intellectual founder of the alt-right,” argued that diversity actively harms society.
“I think Jared Taylor is wrong about virtually everything, but we have a tendency in the USA right now to try to silence speech,” Reilly said at the debate. “If you think something someone says is totally nonsensical, you should go argue with them about.”
At that debate Reilly’s main target was to his political right.
Over the past few years, though, Reilly has risen to prominence as a sharp critic of the American left, particularly in the way that it views race.
“I think of my work as fact-checking,” Reilly said. “I'm interested in testing ‘Sacred Cow’ theories. And you get a lot of this because of siloing. So what percentage of sociologists are liberal, maybe 97? What percentage of military studies people are conservative, maybe 94? Because of this siloing tendency, you have a lot of theories that are very influential without really being tested at all.”
Reilly describes his own politics as “center-right” and said that he is a registered independent.
In his first book, “Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War,” Reilly is critical of liberals who were quick to sound alarms about the rise of hate crime incidents and overall racial animus in the U.S.
In his latest release, 2020’s “Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About,” Reilly takes a similar tack. He challenges conventional arguments on the left about gender, police violence and Black crime rates.
A public intellectual
In the past year, Reilly’s star has risen in conservative media.
The 1619 Project’s aim was to reframe American history in a way that further emphasized Black contributions as well as the consequences of slavery, which was introduced to what would become the United States in 1619.
The 1619 Project includes essays on history, art, health and more. It also has been integrated into some school curriculums, prompting President Donald Trump's strong criticism as well as creation of a "patriotic education" commission.
Some of the project’s initial claims about the centrality of slavery to American history have drawn criticism from Reilly and other scholars with 1776 Unites, particularly the claim that the American Revolution was fought in part to preserve slavery. The 1776 Unites project, founded by prominent Black conservative Robert Woodson, mostly features essays by its contributing writers.
Since the 1776 Unites first major event in February at the National Press Club, Reilly has become a more frequent guest contributor on conservative television, written media and podcasts.
With two Fox News appearances — including one on Tucker Carlson's show in the wake of actor Jussie Smollet’s high-profile fake hate crime incident — and several interviews with conservative podcasters and show hosts, it's safe to say that Reilly's audience leans conservative.
Those are the types of people more willing to hear Reilly's criticisms of "woke" politics, though he said he wishes he could reach both sides more.
In November, he penned an op-ed in USA Today to that effect.
He said that, at least for him, he finds conservative media to be less about “scripted beatdowns” than left-leaning media. Reilly found a home for his first book with the popular right-leaning press Regnery Publishing.
Reilly said that he pitched his book to several publishers of varying political bents.
“One thing I was told pretty openly by literary agents was, ‘Well, this honestly looks like a good book; it's a little edgy and you’re tenure track professor, but there's no way we can ever publish this,’” Reilly recounted. “And It wasn’t because there was any doubt at all that what I was saying was true.”
Though much of his energy has been spent criticizing the left, often about its position on race, Reilly doesn’t deny that racism has played a role in the inequities that shape America’s social and economic landscape.
“The issue is that there are more poor Black people, and only a racist would deny this is because of past ethnic conflict in America,” Reilly said. “There are legitimately different perspectives on how to resolve that. I actually don't have a huge problem with some of our attempted resolution systems like affirmative action for another 20 years or so. Other people might say reparations, and other people might say to hell with it.”
Reilly speculated that if he towed a more strictly conservative, pro-Trump line, he might have a bigger audience. But to do so, he said, wouldn’t be genuine.
“I've actually been jokingly on the square told by agents that I would be about 10 times as well known if I identified as a strong Trump guy …, (but) I’m not a corny dude,” Reilly said.
He mentioned that he lost well over a thousand Twitter followers shortly after it became clear that Joe Biden would become president after tweeting “looks like Joe Biden is the next President.”
In fact, Reilly said that his next project will be called “Alt Wrongs,” as sort of an extension of his debate with Taylor, pointing out factual errors and inconsistencies in the arguments of the growing American alt-right movement.
Reilly’s path to academia wasn’t a straight shot. That much is clear from his mini-biography on Twitter.
It reads: “A college professor now, I am a former corporate executive, freedom rider, law student, and poor kid.”
Growing up in both Chicago and the nearby suburb of Aurora, Reilly described his upbringing as relatively normal. He was involved in athletics and some other extracurriculars, and, despite an initial urge to join the military, went to college.
He holds bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from Southern Illinois University, but he also got a law degree from Illinois University.
“I was about 22 when I got out and my focus had been white-collar criminal prosecution, to the extent I had a focus,” Reilly said. “I thought it'd be kind of interesting to go after the Enron guys as opposed to kids selling nickel bags of weed. But I didn't really feel ready for a sort of a licensed desk job at that point. I also just didn't want one.”
Then academia came calling.
“So I was looking around at what to do,” Reilly said. “And I actually got an offer to get a PhD.”
He returned to Southern Illinois to pursue his second graduate degree in political science with an emphasis on statistical research.
During that time, Reilly paused his studies and returned to the Chicago area to take care of his mother, who had become sick.
“My mom developed liver cancer,” Reilly said. “So I worked up there with her and did my best to take care of her for a couple of years, which really became then like five or six years to get the full degree. And during that time, I did a whole sort of range of things that helped shape my perspective.”
He worked as a sales executive for some time. He also worked as a “freedom rider,” canvassing in a professional capacity for gay rights in the Chicago area.
“I was actually a pretty strong backer of gay rights, and I did that for a couple of years,” Reilly said. “... I was one of our senior field managers in Chicago, and I took people to a couple locations around the Midwest — we’d round up eight people and go to the 'hood' or do a preppy suburb or wherever you hadn't been for a while and stand on corners rounding up support through these different initiatives. This involved a lot of arguing and even sometimes physical altercations with people. It's an interesting job.”
Arguing, it turned out, would be a relevant skill in his current job.
His dissertation at Southern Illinois University involved taking to task a statistic widely circulated to support the idea of white privilege.
“He asked a bunch of white guys in Queens how much they would have to get paid to be Black and the average answer was $50 million,” Reilly said. “His conclusion was that this represents the value of white status institutionally and structurally — that we live in a racist society.”
Reilly’s dissertation found that the average answer among minorities as to how much they would have to get paid to be white at the time was $80 million.
The dissertation, in part, helped him get his position at Kentucky State as well as a debate challenge from Taylor.
Reilly, who said he spends most of his time in Frankfort though he also has a place in Illinois, has taught several classes at the state’s only public historically Black university.
He’s partly used his J.D. to teach constitutional law. He’s taught several American politics courses, some in the behavioral sciences, and even cybersecurity.
Reilly said that he was once parliamentarian for the KSU Faculty Senate and currently serves as faculty ombudsman. He added that that he continues to be involved in conversations about how the university and the City of Frankfort might forge a stronger bond — a topic among city political leaders and university administrators for years.
Though he admits he might be politically to the right of most of his students, Reilly emphasized that he tries to make all students feel welcome in his classes. He said he finds most of his Black students are receptive to his and other Black scholars' arguments about race in America.
“I like our students a lot,” Reilly said. “And I think there is probably more tolerance of Black diversity of thought at a Black college.”
Emphasizing KSU's diversity as an HBCU in the greater Appalachian region, Reilly suggested that the school might benefit from branding that emphasizes that diversity both within Black intellectual circles and as a school that serves students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.