How to Make Sense of an Incoherent America
The United States can be quite an incoherent place at times. Here are a few examples.
Sometime in the 1990s the growing contradictions of affirmative action in a multiracial society became problematic. Ethnic ancestry was often neither easily identifiable nor readily commensurate with class status, and so gave way to a more popular term: “diversity.”
Under diversity, it no longer mattered so much how wealthy or poor one was. Nor was it a concern exactly who one’s grandparents had been -- at long as, in some vague way, one was non-“white.” If so, one was diverse. That was deemed in and of itself a good thing. We no longer worried as much whether someone enjoying affirmative action status was upper middle-class or the child of a surgeon.
Nor did it matter that one was only one-quarter “Latino” or, in fact, took the rarer Elizabeth Warren or Ward Churchill route of fabricating ethnic ancestry out of whole cloth. Those were written off as the bothersome details used by reactionaries to jeopardize the noble objectives of affirmative action.
But with “diversity,” that incoherence supposedly abated, and how one looked or how one spelled or accented or hyphenated one’s last name was about all that was needed for some sort of redress or compensation.
The theory of “disparate impact” became a valuable tool of diversity. If an entire field -- Silicon Valley techies, employees at the DMV, or school administrators -- did not reflect “diversity” (e.g., was more than about 70% “white”), then whether conscious or not, whether accidental or deliberate, the impact, not the intent, was all that mattered, and was by nature bad. Adjustments -- legalized discrimination on the basis of race -- followed. At least in theory.
Diversity became also a haphazardly selective idea. Some of the highest-paid and most celebrated jobs in America are found in professional sports. Yet the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and National Basketball Association are increasingly the most un-diverse employers around, at least sort of. The owners are mostly white; the players in the majority mostly not.
On the flip side, college swim teams and the National Hockey League are disproportionally white. What strangely exempts these organization from the charge of “disparate impact” -- or the idea that these disequilibria need not be deliberate to have a negative impact?
After all, think of the consequences. There are lots of gifted Asian basketball players and African-American hockey players that might enrich the mosaic of these sports and energize non-traditional audiences. Diversity dictates that ipso facto things improve the more we appear differently. Would not a team of basketball or hockey players reflecting the ethnic make up of the country be more inclusive or at least fairer?
I think we know the answers. Money and more money. Owners are billionaires and professional athletes are multimillionaires. Both are free-market, up-by-your-bootstraps advocates of merit or at least their own privilege. Players believe their hard work and natural ability earn them the right not to be discriminated against by mandating replacements of some of them by others with less proven success, but whose appearance and cultural background would "diversify" both the team and its audience.
Owners agree -- and all but imply their business brains and work ethic won their riches and with them the right to own anything they want. Finally, society agrees because sports are its de facto religion in a way that university faculties and the Post Office are not. Would you rather watch the 49ers, or hear a classics professor lecture on enjambment? And so we have few black hockey players and few Latino basketball players because the public, in classically liberal fashion, demands racially blind criteria as the sole adjudicator of participation. Ethnic over- and under-representation are not terms that apply to lucrative sports leagues.
Also note the issues with critical industries that we count on for our safety. Take airline pilots: Al Sharpton is badgering the tech industry to become more diverse, but not the pilots association. Eric Holder will not seriously sue the airlines for “disparate impact,” apparently because passengers demand the assurance that the person in control of 300 lives at 30,000 feet, like an NBA basketball star, has a superior, and identifiably superior, record of achievement. Sports and safety demand that perceived merit trumps diversity. Again, these are the truths we dare not speak, but collectively assume and apparently insist upon.
Women in Danger
Lots of college campuses are in so-called dangerous neighborhoods. East Palo Alto is not far from the Stanford campus. New Haven can still be a perilous place for Yale students. Many of the Cal State campuses are in iffy neighborhoods. Women alone walking to cars or apartments in these environs can often be targeted by criminals.
Why, then, is there not a greater campus awareness campaign about the dangers of the street, or at least more attention to insist that felons and convicted rapists are not released early in college neighborhoods? Instead, more emphases recently have been focused on date rape and other college students. The apparent greater dangers to female students are not violent felons on parole or previous offenders, but campus frats and jocks -- even to the point of suggesting that campus rape statistics are astronomically higher than those found among the general population, as if it were more dangerous to go to a USC dorm party than to walk through South Central or Watts.
Why the disconnect? Criminal statistics about rape can be politically incorrect, in that persons of color are statistically on a per capita basis more likely to commit such crimes than so-called whites. For campuses to suggest that a convicted felon of an adjoining inner city is the more likely danger than an arrogant, full-of-himself conservative frat boy is largely an exercise in what the president, in another context, called acting “stupidly” or “stereotyping.”
Warning women of the rough areas in the vicinity means race and class issues turn against the speaker. Warning women of the drunken privileged campus jerk breaks in the speaker’s favor.
Which warning is more likely to keep women secure on campus from bodily harm?
Second, our culture has a tendency to obsesses on what we can influence, and ignore what we cannot: banning a fraternity and bringing wealthy lacrosse players up on campus charges are easily within our power; and it's easy for Lena Dunham or Rolling Stone to invent crimes of conservative college rapists.
But the pathologies of the inner cities are existential crises apparently beyond our imagination.
It is sort of analogous to central California. Out here, the authorities ignore zoning violations: they ignore 10 people living around a rural farmhouse in Winnebagos with porta-potties, Jerry-rigged Romex wire, and unlicensed and unvaccinated pit bulls wandering into the street, because it is far easier and less politically incorrect to focus on the suburbanite who sneaks in an extra lawn irrigation on a no-watering day. The former invites existential and unsolvable issues; the latter addressable inconsistencies that make the enforcer feel empowered and big rather than inconsequential, impotent, and incorrect.
Last week I saw the following: at the local Save Mart, the person ahead of me was grossly obese and in obvious poor health. She had two piles of quite different sizes on the checkout conveyor belt: one consisted of eggs, milk, bread, and diapers; she paid the small sum with her California WIC card. Her other pile that followed had Cap'n Crunch cereal, bags of Oreos, chips, and lots of regular Pepsi supersize bottles. She paid the far greater tab with three twenty-dollar bills. As I exited, she left in a new Honda Accord, with customized rims. Could she not have passed on the rims and the Oreos, and used the savings to spare the state the cost of her milk subsidy? Does she represent the downtrodden that our legislators insist are not served well by supposedly underfunded state agencies?
But why pick only on the supposed poor?
On the same day, I read a story in the local paper about John Welty, the former president of CSU Fresno. He had worked very hard and successfully at fundraising, and earned his sizable state pension -- in addition to a long-contracted year’s “transition” vacation pay of $223,000 to adjust to retirement. Now he is teaching one class at a San Bernardino CSU satellite campus that also entails some administrative duties that together pays $148,752.
His years in the hot seat in the unenviable position as a college president certainly should entitle him to a generous pension whose amount was undisclosed. His apparent administrative excellence may well justify such generous additional post-retirement compensations, given they were long ago contracted before the state’s fiscal meltdown and the across-the-board cutbacks at CSU. He surely has a right to work in his retirement to augment his income, even if it’s for the same state that is paying his pension. All of these are the deserved fruits of a successful administrative tenure that saw the CSUF campus infrastructure and grounds noticeably improve and its private fundraising markedly increase, which resulted in more student scholarships and opportunities.
My worries and yours: the classroom component of his job is not really a class, but is described as a “speaker series,” to coordinate others to talk to students rather than demanding his own prepping, lecturing, and correcting assignments. That is hardly “teaching.”
Two, the campus CSU branch that hired Dr. Welty also has recently hired his wife as dean, who, on his retirement from the Fresno campus, left with him to their new home in the Palm Desert area -- and then was rather promptly hired as an administrator at the nearby CSUSB branch campus.
Three, Dr. Welty’s spouse had earlier left CSUF under a cloud of some controversy because her return to recent administrative status consisted of a brief tenure as an interim graduate dean at CSUF, when her husband was campus president -- reportedly a result of a quick, in-house search in which there were no other candidates seriously considered.
It is difficult not to conclude that her husband’s administrative team hired her without a normally run search for a well-compensated administrative post; then the administrative team she became a part of had earlier also hired her husband for a post-retirement, well-compensated administrative/"teaching" post. Doing that once may not be nepotism at a local bank, but twice for elite positions at a public university?
As a professor at CSUF -- a public university with rules far different from those in the private sector -- I conducted seven searches, both for full-time, tenure-track and full-time temporary and fill-in openings. Every search, even for sabbatical replacements, was advertised and open. Each had an assigned affirmative action officer in addition to a committee of three faculty members, both to watch for biases and to adjudicate disproportionate impact. There were careful institutionalized timelines that mandated the process went on for weeks on end. CSU does many things wrong, but its faculty searches are usually transparent and conducted according to protocols, reflecting its status as a public university without the leeway of a private counterpart. Had the university hired someone without a normal search, without advertised announcements, and without an affirmative action officer, I would have been in serious trouble -- and from the president mentioned above. The point in both cases was not that laws were violated, but that the appearance breeds cynicism at government when government is already seen as cynical enough.
From the application of diversity remedies to the most efficacious ways of curbing campus sexual violence to the expenditure of state funds, this culture is incoherent.
(Artwork created using a modified Shutterstock.com image.)