We Have Race on the Brain

The Present Mishmash

What’s going on with race relations? I just read an account of racial tension at UC San Diego, involving largely white students  of a fraternity crassly parodying black history month. I remembered also that the Rev. Wright tapes were disturbing not just because of his lunacy, but due to the standing ovations from his congregation who were ecstatic in praise of his racist and anti-American hatred.

This week the Internet is alive with a tape of an elderly white Vietnam veteran duking it out with an African-American bully on an Oakland bus — with plenty of commentary and racial epithets from the observers on the bus. In Hawaii there is pending legislation to institutionalize racism against non-native Hawaiians, by creating reservation like federal sanctuaries to be governed by those of “pure” blood.

Yet in 2008 a multiracial electorate voted  for the nation’s first African-American president -- who, in terms of racial solidarity, could only rely on 95% of,  at most, 10% of the registered voters who were African-Americans.

If harmony is measured by high-profile offices, then the country perhaps is postracial. For the prior eight years the secretaries of State were African-American. We haven’t had a white male in that post since poor Warren Christopher during the Clinton era.

Why the progress and tension at the same time? Here are some of the contradictions in matters racial.

1. Fossilized categories and programs. We don’t quite know what “race” is anymore. Intermarriage and assimilation should have made racial lines almost meaningless. Barack Obama, Valerie Jarrett, and Eric Holder talk about being black; but they are not nearly so in comparison to my Sikh neighbors in the Central Valley, who both are darker and, I imagine, have had harder childhoods. (What constitutes being “black,” or are we back to the Old Confederacy for the one-sixteenth rule?)

2. Self-identification. Choice, or rather accident, seems to determine one’s identity as much as reality: a half-Hispanic Bob Jones (mother is Linda Ramirez) might have problems convincing an affirmative action officer that he is not Italian. His exact counterpart Bob Luna (father is Hispanic) seems more “authentic.” But then what is “Hispanic” — 50% (or less?) Mexican-American heritage that must earn recompense due to “historic oppression”?

So does that include Brazilian and Chilean immigrants? Does a day on American soil and an Hispanic surname entitle one to affirmative action? (In my experience they have.) Does oppression include the Chinese 19th-century experience, or the Japanese internment — or is the quiet truth that set-asides and "help" are predicated on group statistical failures to meet supposed norms of economic success? Darker immigrants from India don’t qualify, lighter Mexican-Americans do? And to what generation do we continue — all the way to the 4th-generation of an intermarried Hispanic, who is, in truth, one-sixteenth of Mexican heritage? Is racial identification to be passed on like 19th century water rights? Does a name vaguely Hispanic denote race?

3. More Incongruities. Then there are the contradictions that have reached the point of caricatures. The n-word is a felonious offense. OK — but apparently on the comic stump it can be easily voiced (only) by black comedians. (On the Oakland bus tape, the angry African-American calls his white opponent a N----r. ). We worry about the decline in the number of black baseball players, but not about the “overrepresentation” of Hispanics?

There is no affirmative action in the NBA. The point is that any attempt to seek proportional representation seems asinine. Whites who demand diversity are applauded as being more racially sensitive than those blacks who don’t. We can’t even get the politics quite right. For a hundred years a large block of the Democratic Party enforced segregation; for twenty years many Republicans were remiss and absent from pushing civil rights; therefore, the Democratic Party is the historically protective party of minorities?

I’ve noticed that when poorer Mexican-Americans intermarry there is rarely hyphenation. That is, Gracie Galindo happily becomes Gracie Becker; but the more affluent one becomes, the more attuned to the careerism of racial triumphalism one becomes, and the more liberal one professes to be, suddenly Gracie becomes Gracie Galindo-Becker. I leave it at that, since readers can fill in all the incongruent blanks from their own experiences.

4. An Entrenched Old White Elite? Then there is the role of diversity hypocrisy on the part of the white elite. In a perfect world, any advocate of affirmative action would swear off traditional influence peddling. The liberal lawyer who sues for diversity in the work place would not call the admission officer of his alma mater to seek heft for his son’s admission; the full professor of English who was hired sight unseen through word of mouth in 1974 would not predicate his hiring vote on diversity. In other words, many of the advocates for racial preferences assume that their own wealth, class, and influence will allow themselves and their clique exemptions.

5. Then there is the youth problem. Tens of millions were born after 1980, into a world of affirmative action with no recollection of the 1960s. They have had two antithetical experiences: one, today’s youth date, marry, "hang-out" without racial stigmatization: look at the mall gatherings or high school campus, everyone is mixed up (albeit less so with African-Americans on urban campuses); and yet, this generation is really the first to go through the race/class/gender indoctrination in our schools and the sermons on diversity. I don’t think the former phenomenon of easy integration (a product of immigration, popular culture, and demography) is connected to the latter. But our youth who live integration don’t like to be lectured about it — and their angst, if not push-back, is growing.