Belmont Club

The Essential and the Invisible to the Eye

When George Gershwin wrote, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”, it was still a social plus to have a received British accent even in America. “At the time, typical American pronunciations were considered less “refined” by the upper-class, and there was a specific emphasis on the “broader” a sound.” But not everyone could carry it off to advantage and woe unto him who tried to sound like Ronald Coleman only to wind up as James Cagney. Then not class but hilarity were added to the proceedings.

But if the right accent is no longer sought after as an aid to success, the right ethnicity is. Future historians may look back on the present as a time when you wore ethnicity in the same way you wore hats. But as with accents, some wear them better than others.

One person having difficulty getting a fit is Elizabeth Warren, a 2012 Democratic Senatorial candidate, who reacted to the reports that she billed herself as an ethnic minority in the 1990 by saying she had no idea she was presented as Native American until she read in the Herald that she had been touted by Harvard Law School as proof of their faculty’s diversity in the 1990s.

“For years, Harvard has claimed special minority status for Professor Elizabeth Warren as a member of a Native American tribe and their first minority hire,” said Jim Barnett, campaign manager for [Scott] Brown. [Warren’s political rival]”

Warren’s problem is a fashion one. She doesn’t look Native American. But then, race ain’t what it used to be. Take for instance the most infamous White Man in America: George Zimmerman. Zimmerman is descended from a mixed parentage which includes South American Indian and African. No matter, he’s White — a “White Latino” in fact.

But to the untrained eye Zimmerman looks a heck of a lot less “white” than that famous Son of Native America, Ward Churchill. Churchill, whose towering height and blond hair did not seem anything like the popular image of a Native American, argued that to require an actual genetic connection to a claimed ethnicity was tantamount to demanding a “blood quantum”, which he called a genocidal phrase.

The enlightened intellectuals of to-day know that race has nothing to do with race. Recently, Australian commentator Andrew Bolt was sued by Aborigines who claimed that simply because they had blond hair, blue and white skin didn’t mean they weren’t black. Only bigots would think that. The court agreed with them and ordered the newspaper to print the following notice on the site of the offending suggestion: that it was unlawful to suggest that “fair skin colour indicates a person … is not sufficiently Aboriginal to be genuinely identifying as an Aboriginal person.”

But if you didn’t have to be black to be black, neither did you have to be white to be white. Razib Khan, writing in Discover, notes that Eugene Volokh prophetic utterance is proving correct: Asians in America have become white.

About 10 years ago Eugene Volokh wrote How the Asians Became White. I think it’s aged rather well. Volokh starts:

Don’t believe me? A recent MSNBC news headline announced a “Plunge in Minority University Enrollment” at the University of California, with UC Berkeley reporting that “minority admissions had declined 61 percent.” Actually, the total percentage of racial minority students at Berkeley, Asians included, fell from 57% to 49%. If you exclude the burgeoning group of people who decline to state their race, the minority percentage fell only three percentage points, from 61% to 58%.

Fast forward, you see headlines such as Minority doctors in short supply in state. Here are the first two paragraphs:

A new study on physicians in California shows a glaring gap between the number of doctors of color compared with the state’s ethnically diverse population, especially among African Americans and Latinos.

At the same time, the state has a disproportionate number of Asian and white doctors, according to the UCSF study, which focuses on doctor ethnicity and language fluency.

So Asians are white after all. Khan is curious to discover how this transformation took place. He concludes that the term “white” was once a proxy descriptor for a number of positive attributes which included powerful, prosperous and skilled. He marshals tables of statistics to show how, over the years, the success of Asians has imbued them with many, if not all the attributes that were formerly correlated with the white race.

Asians and other groups had become powerful, prosperous and skilled. “But we don’t have a more complex narrative to go along with it” and so rather than abandoning as obsolete the old story of white supremacy and guilt, modern culture took the easier path: they simply redefined the races along the lines of accomplishment and money.

When Martin Luther King declared “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he didn’t get it quite right. What he should have said is “that one day we will live in a nation where the color of your skin is determined by the content of your wallet.” Racial classification as a concept, though overtaken by events, never disappeared. It was tormented into a new definition.

Native American


Native American

Australian Aborigine


Thus the blond, blue eyed individuals who have made ethnic studies their career, or who work in such professions as community organization can consider themselves “black” by virtue of their skillset, area of interest and political attitudes. On the other hand, people who fly airplanes, design rockets, perform brain surgery or make billions of dollars while minding their own business — whatever their actual ethnicity — are white simply because to regard them anything else doesn’t fit into the Narrative.

Perhaps George Gershwin had the right idea when he wrote his long ago song. What does it matter what you call a spud? Even then he knew that the difference in labels was not about the thing in itself, but about posturing, branding and one-upsmanship. When did the race for posh accents end? When everyone finally decided to call the whole thing off.

you say tomato, i say tomato
you eat potato and i eat potato
tomato, tomato, potato, potato
let’s call the whole thing off

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