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.
6. Politics of Race. Let’s face it—racial politics are primarily a liberal-Democratic domain. A politician or jurist such as Harry Reid, Judith Ginsburg, (on abortion) or Joe Biden gets a pass on insensitive language that an entertainer and commentator like Rush Limbaugh does not. I think the unspoken rule is something like, “I am so clearly progressive that any uncouth slip must be a slip,” versus “He is so clearly not progressive, that any uncouth slip is a window into his flawed soul.” (Note again, that had a white jurist, Sotomayor-like, said "As a wise white man" he would have been disqualified from the Supreme Court, or had he prefaced a speech [30 plus times in a few minutes] with "I am a white guy," "as a white man," "we whites," "I am white," "I don't forget that I am white," we would have nominated him for Klan service rather than the Supreme Court.) (Yes, I know the postmodern apologies about "power imbalance" and "historical contexts," but this is 2010, not 1965.)
Note too, how liberals are vicious to conservative minorities without worry over sounding racist. Clarence Thomas and Alberto Gonzales learned that. Gonzales was ridiculed by liberals as an affirmative action disaster in a way the far more inept Eric Holder is not. Indeed, the only politically-correct criticism of affirmative action seems to be in the context of a liberal’s efforts to deprecate a conservative Hispanic or black. Only then does “he didn’t earn it” seem to be legitimate discourse.
7. Politically-incorrect realities. When Obama foolishly entered the Skip Gates mess, he was shocked by the public ire. His own sermons on diversity and stereotyping got as much traction as his “clingers” speech or Holder’s “cowards” outburst. Why? Because a majority of Americans of all races feel that if the police do pull over African-Americans more than others it might just be due to statistically higher incidents of criminality, human nature being what it is.
In other words, almost everyone in some sense profiles privately, as I think Jesse Jackson once pointed out. When one walks to the car at night in LA, one takes precautions if the person behind you is black, male, and young, and not so much if Asian, female, and old. Age is a criterion, race another, gender yet another — as well as a general knowledge of average US crime statistics . That tragically is just the way it is.
When Joe Biden and Harry Reid gave their white-guy takes on Obama that he was “clean” and did not have a “negro” accent, I think they were trying to say that to the degree Obama sounded white and acted white, he reassured centrist voters. Everyone expressed ritual shock, and then quietly dropped it.
As liberals, they were exempt from the reaction that a Limbaugh encountered when his similar statements earned him censure from various sporting interests; but, in fact, they were simply echoing many in the black community who complain that those like Obama (who are not celebrities) are “sell-outs” who have to use special accentuation and strained parlance when speaking to black audiences that they are either unaccustomed to or never use elsewhere. (Note CNN Roland Martin’s advice to Obama to go “gangsta” on the opposition — a racialism that would have earned an Imus-like penalty for a non-black commentator.)
How odd that one reverts to the culture and parlance of the inner city to establish fides (like ritual attendance at the pulpit of the unhinged racist Wright), while rejecting those very ideas and values to "make it" in America. Close examination of that mindset will show how condescending, paternalistic and careerist it really is. (Why does not Obama speak in his normal tone when addressing black audiences, in the manner that won him advancement rather than use the parlance that is a hindrance to mainstream success?)
(Hillary, remember, at times changed her cadences and life experiences both to black audiences and to what she thought, as a remote Wellesley graduate, the poor white underclass would like to hear (cf. Obama's blast that she acted as if she were Annie Oakley).
So where are we? In one sense very far. The United States is a vast multiracial society that, despite multiculturalism, embraces one official language and still shares a common culture. Among the middle classes, race doesn’t matter all that much, and the society is not plagued by endemic racial and religious violence we typically see abroad.
But among the elite, where the lucrative jobs, prestige, and big money are — sports, entertainment, law, academia, medicine, high-power finance, big government and politics — our elites con each other. They often strain to find some sort of ethnic or racial or gender edge over the competition. Most Americans assume racial affinities and go about their business; elite utopians demand there be none — and then prove themselves far more racialist.
If white, the careerist elite professes to be liberal and a diversity proponent while himself conning to rely on his money, background and contacts to nullify the new diversity prejudice. Usually at universities, the white guy top administrator would surround himself with diversity appointments and talk down about the faculty’s lack of diversity. Most ignored the bottled piety and assumed the careerist dinosaur just wanted to survive. The white-guy leftist on television will talk ad nauseam about diversity on the assumption that such preemption shields him from the sort of diversity affirmative action salvo that might knock out his own job.
One of the reasons I liked farming (six contiguous neighbors — two Armenians, one Japanese, one Punjabi, one Mexican, one German) was that action not pretense mattered. And stereotypes were OK, if instantly backed by empirical evidence and if not pressed too far.
In contrast, one reason I disliked academia was that in such a dry, bored self-created landscape, pretense trumped action, and one’s tribe, not one’s essence, was the key to career advancement. I never heard a Mexican neighbor say he was Mexican or an Armenian vineyard grower talk of his vaunted heritage or the German claim privilege — they all succeeded or failed on their own ability, or lack of, to grow food at a profit.
In academic lala land, scholarship and teaching too often came second, bumper-sticker identification first — another sign that with supposed intellectual progress, so often comes moral regress.