Lost in the Labyrinth of Race

The Sotomayor Nomination and the Politics of Racial Identity

One of the unexpected results of the Sotomayor nomination is a refocusing on the politics of racial identity and the fossilized institutions of affirmative action-or the belief that the U.S. government should use its vast power to ensure an equality of result rather than a fairness of opportunity.

In the last fifty years, United States has evolved into a complex multiracial state. Race no longer is necessarily an indicator of income or material success-as the record of, say, Japanese-Americans or, indeed Asians in general, attests.

And what criterion constitutes race itself nowadays, when almost every family has someone who is half-Hispanic, a quarter-Asian, one-half black, or part Pakistani? What percentage of one's lineage ensures purity of race, or qualifies for minority status? Are California Hispanics minorities, or so-called whites that are now a smaller percentage of the state population?

And what constitutes racial authenticity? Lack of income? An absence of success in the American rat race? Is the fourth generation upper-class Cuban an "Hispanic" who should qualify for affirmative action because his name is Hillario Gonzalez? Does the one-quarter aristocratic Jamaican qualify for American redress on account of his partial blackness?

And how does affirmative action-or even the fuzzy notion of "diversity"- adjudicate all this without mirror-imaging the statisticians of the Old Confederacy who could precisely calibrate the 1/16 drop of black blood? The university where I taught was full of South Americans and Europeans with Spanish surnames that allowed their various departments to be considered "ethnically diverse," while others, having Russian émigrés, or the foreign born from New Delhi, Israel, and Egypt, struggled to satisfy the dictates of diversity czars.

In other words, affirmative action, and the racial identity politics that fuel it, are swamped by their inherent racialist contradictions-and made irrelevant by the dynamism of popular culture of the last three decades in which intermarriage, assimilation, and integration have challenged the notion of racial fides itself.

What are we left then with?

A mess. And a rather mean and nasty mess at that.

So It Is Past Victimization?

Consider the growing Orwellian logic of affirmative action. Is it based on the notion of past grievance? Apparently to make up for historical bias, we are to give a nudge to the present generation of minorities to overcome generations of discrimination.

But wait, the University of California system has been caught in the past trying to dream up ways of reducing Asian representation while bolstering the numbers of Hispanics and blacks. Yet some Asians had parents who were put in camps during World War II by Earl Warren, FDR, and the efforts of the liberal McClatchy newspapers. Asians in the 19th century were denied housing, zoned out of cities, and treated terribly as laborers.

So the reason a Melinda Tanaka might not receive a boost surely is not because she cannot claim victim status in the past. Indeed, why should a Barack Obama qualify for special consideration in college? His mother was white; the grandparents who raised him were as well. His absent  father was African-and not part of the historical American trauma of racism and discrimination accorded African-Americans.

Again, a first -generation African immigrant from Jamaica or Nigeria in theory should not tap into special treatment on the basis that his parents or grandparents had suffered in America.

So It's Present Racism?

All of which leads us to the second pillar of the new discrimination. If it is not necessarily always a claim on historical suffering in the past, then the defense for special consideration must be present racism and lingering discrimination?