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Works and Days

The Confessions of a Confused Misfit

December 4th, 2012 - 12:01 am

Race

I have been studying the recent national conversations on race — from the Susan Rice matter to Joseph Lowery’s whites-in-hell rant — and talking to as many minority friends as I can. I think I have almost figured it out.

There are two things going on: affirmative action and diversity. In the first case, it is not a matter of minority or majority populations. Here in California, so-called Latinos are a majority. Nor it is necessarily a matter of skin color. Rather, finding an edge as a deserving group eligible for federal and state advantage hinges on one thing: self-identification as a Latino, African-American, or Native-American who has historical claims against the collective white majority. Elizabeth Warren taught us that one can land a Harvard professorship not by a proven Indian pedigree, but by assertion now and then of “high cheek bones” — and by association the inherited trauma from Wounded Knee to the Trail of Tears. I am still confused, however, as to why Ward Churchill, who went to so much trouble to adopt Indian dress, nomenclature, and tribal affinities, was ostracized as a rank faker (inter alia), while the multimillionaire, elegant Warren pulled it off, with blond hair and business suits to boot. True, Churchill fudged federal affidavits, but so must have Warren, who never quite had a law license to boot.

I know a lot of proverbial Bob Smiths these days with Latino mothers. They look no different than Italians or Armenians. They have a rougher time proving aggrieved status than do Juan Lopezes whose mothers are Anglos. Two of my students married Mexican-Americans and divorced, and kept their names to apply (successfully) as minorities for fellowships. And why not? After all, do we want to get in the racial pedigree business to determine that the applicant Linda Martinez is actually Welsh and Linda Jones is actually one-half Mexican-American — if we can’t tell by talking to them or examining their bank accounts?

Ethnic emphasis of any sort helps — a trill, accent, native dress, or exotic spelling. Self-identification is important, along the lines of a pony-tailed Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell that conveys quite a different notion that being born one Benny Campbell. I saw a bumper sticker the other day for Cuesta JC. It now reads Cuésta College — a little PC flair is all it takes. Had I only been name Thor, with a middle name Ragnar, and changed my spelling a bit — Thor Ragnar Hansson — I think I could have pulled off the Swedish exotic thing. I once had a used Volvo 544 and a used Electrolux, and ate Rye crackers.

Diversity is another matter. My Punjabi friends, far darker for the most part than Latinos or Native Americans, complain that they get no help, even as diverse peoples. Even rich Portuguese can piggyback onto the Latino edge. But there is nothing for Pakistanis or those of the Hindu faith. I investigated all this on numerous occasions for students (one of my Egyptian students got caught, against my advice, checking “African-American” — too literal or too northern). Armenians, Greeks, or Arabs don’t qualify. So skin color, appearance, and economic status matter little.

Still, honorific diversity is a consolation prize. There is a larger community of  hyphenated Punjabis, Japanese, Koreans, and Arabs who don’t receive affirmative action and who by name and race count as “diverse,” which in the words of liberal post-election commentators meant that they are not old white guys and thus the stuff of a new coalition in America. That was the brilliance of Obama and ultimately his legacy: he redefined America by uniting rich Japanese-American orthodontists, affluent Cuban-Americans, Oaxacan illegal immigrants, African-American students, Indonesian taxi-drivers, and all sorts of others as “us” and not “them” — with the even more brilliant qualifier that for the shrinking white majority there was still one last opportunity for salvation by loudly announcing one’s Obama sympathies and deploring rampant racism. At least I think that was what all the “civility” was about — “punish our enemies,” “nation of cowards,” the Trayvon Martin and Skip Gates commentary, “my people,” “put y’all in chains,” “got your back,” white people in “Hell,” and on and on.

Still, don’t ask me for consistent rules about who is qualified for affirmative action, or about who is part of the diverse community, given that even universities can’t figure it out: again, just note Senator Elizabeth Warren — now our first Native American female senator.

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