Politics Upside Down

A McCarthyite Attack from the Stanford Daily

Recently, the Stanford Daily accused me of being a racist for comments on the university in general that appeared here on Works and Days, and were later excerpted in the Wall Street Journal. Here is the passage I wrote now in question:

Diversity is Orwellian: the university is the most politically intolerant and monolithic institution in the country, even as it demands the continuance of tenure to protect supposedly unpopular expression. Even its emphases on racial diversity is entirely constructed and absurd: Latin Americans add an accent and a trill and they become victimized Chicanos; one-half African-Americans claim they are more people of color than much darker Punjabis; the children of Asian optometrists seek minority and victim status.

The Stanford Daily wrote the following:

At the risk of stating the obvious, we would like to point out this passage for what it is: absolute trash. If Hanson wants to engage in discussion about affirmative action or the role of race in higher education, we would applaud that and welcome his viewpoint. But this sort of homogenous denigration is no intellectual commentary. It is at best vitriolic ignorance. Combining the toxic assumption that all members of an ethnicity group act the same way with the mocking reference to “an accent and a trill” veers dangerously into bigotry.

And then this:

Hanson’s words, tragically, not only hinder this discussion, but deride stakeholders and concerned parties with callous and shrill remarks. If he was trying to draw attention to the topic, he has instead shifted the focus onto himself.

Worse yet, Hanson’s words reflect badly on Stanford through his association with a research center supported by this university and housed on this campus. The editorial board understands the Hoover Institution cannot be held responsible for all the public statements of its scholars, but strongly urges the institution to repudiate or, at the very least, review Hanson’s remarks. Surely, gross generalities couched in racially charged language cannot fit with Hoover’s mission.

It is worth stressing that the Hoover Institution includes preeminent scholars in a variety of disciplines. From Nobel Laureates to former high-level public policy officials and advisers, many of the foremost minds at Stanford and other universities contribute to Hoover’s work. These professors offer serious academic research that adds significant value to policy discussion and to the intellectual community on campus.

Hanson’s despicable words provide the Hoover Institution the perfect opportunity to clarify its role in American politics. Purposeful academic research or derisive, unfounded cheap shots: which will it be? The editorial board expects and hopes that an institution producing distinguished research to inform policy debates will wholeheartedly reject the sort of remarks Hanson made.

Thus, we issue this editorial as an open challenge to the Hoover Institution. If you find fault with Hanson’s grossly generalizing remarks and wish to be a leader in the discussion of modern American universities, then please: let us know.

If you do not, we hope you realize the damage you do to this university’s standing and to the well-being of higher education in America.

Note first that this unsigned and generally despicable editorial reflects badly on Stanford University. It is entirely ad hominem and provides no proof for its accusations. It simply does not address the point of my remarks, which suggested that universities in general are Orwellian in using racialist rubrics to attempt to correct past racism.

First, the university application of racial preferences has no definable or consistent logic, at least any that are readily understandable to the public that supports higher education. Preferences are not necessarily predicated on assumed contemporary racial prejudices based on skin color or necessarily an identity with an historically oppressed group.

Nor are racial or ethnic preferences necessarily class- or income-based. Hence my point that some people of color, such as Punjabi students, do not qualify for racially- or ethnically-based considerations, but those who are in part African-American do. Are not those with Spanish surnames per se often considered minorities for university purposes, regardless of national origin, ethnic background, or citizenship? Do the children of professionals qualify for special considerations based on their racial heritage? Would the children of Barack Obama in theory qualify for affirmative action? Did a middle-class younger Barack Obama, of mixed white and African heritage and without direct experience with the African-American ordeal, qualify for affirmative action — and if so, on the basis of race per se, membership in a particular group that experienced past racism, or economic need?

My examples were not cheap, toxic, or despicable, but drawn from my own experience with higher education over some 40 years as both student and professor, in which tragically the university often discriminated against students of all races and heritages by applying fossilized racial categories that have no place in 21st-century America.

Again, the too frequent defense of using race to categorize applicants and job seekers is to call critics racists rather than to present a logical and consistent defense of the so often illogical and inconsistent. That simply will not work anymore.

So I offer an open challenge to the Stanford Daily: either apologize for the baseless slur of racism and the cheap language (e.g., "trash," "toxic,""despicable"), or at least show how I was in error, and that, in fact, there are logical and consistent criteria that qualify some groups for racial preference in admissions and hiring in the university and not others. Second, if race is used as a criterion, what then qualifies one as belonging to a particular targeted race or group? Does one warrant special consideration if he is one-half, she one-fourth, they one-eight of a particular targeted lineage? Or is the distinction merely ad hoc and impressionistic? Does the university employ such percentages? If so, such usage has a nightmarish tradition dating back to the antebellum South. Simply invoking the generic idea of "diversity" does not mean, de facto, that racial profiling should not require some concrete, explicit rationale.

These are not racist inquiries, but genuine concerns, as I wrote, that universities themselves are race-obsessed in an increasingly multiracial society where intermarriage, immigration, and assimilation are making race an obsolete criterion for addressing past collective discrimination.

For the Daily to level charges as “despicable” and “cheap,” then surely it must provide proof that they are so. Note again, the anonymous authors of the editorial did not refute anything I wrote as untrue; they only stooped in McCarthyite fashion to invoke charges of racism and to challenge my institution to silence my views that they found unappealing. All that is beneath the daily newspaper of a great university.

But as a classicist and historian, I do not need lectures from the Stanford Daily about scholarship. As someone with a long familial relationship with Stanford dating back over 65 years, I do not need reminders about Stanford tradition and decorum. As someone who lives at the heart of illegal immigration from Mexico in Selma, California, with a racially diverse extended family, I do not need lectures about campus notions of racial insensitivity.

Just as Hoover is connected with Stanford University, so Stanford University is affiliated as well with the Hoover Institution; each conducts itself with logical argumentation rather than easy invective like "trash." A university newspaper that so easily casts charges of racism and wishes to silence the views of others is obligated to demonstrate why and how its allegations are true. The Daily did neither.