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Lost in the Labyrinth of Race

Lost in the Labyrinth of Race

By Victor Davis Hanson - May 31, 2009

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 Asian 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?

But here again we get lost in the labyrinth of race. I know dozens of Punjabi immigrants who are far darker than South Americans. Many Filipinos I taught were more easily identifiable as minorities than many half-African-Americans in my classes. Yet none qualified under the racial rubrics of affirmative action. Indeed, if a Bobby Jindal were to be President, I don't think the Left would be much interested in his "special" story, at least as much as they are now with that of Sonia Sotomayor's.

If America is still a racist country, and if we still overtly discriminate on the basis of physical appearance at odds with supposed white norms, well then it is a funny sort of racism. Are we to assume taxi drivers, landlords, and employers supposedly examine nearly-black Indian-Americans, dark southeast Asians, or Spanish-speaking Cubans, and say, "Hmmm, you're OK,"-and then make it hard for Costa Ricans and Guatemalans because they have accented names or trill their r's, or more closely replicate the status of Mexican-Americans?

Is there a racial Czar somewhere who has clay tablets that say:

"Only those with 51% demonstrable African-American blood or Mexican-American heritage-or those from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America who can best emulate them-whose present incomes are less than the American mean, and who can cite three recent examples of racial discrimination, are equal for preferential treatment"?

If neither past collective, nor present individual, racism is a logical guide in adjudicating who receives affirmative action, then perhaps we can consider three other criteria. And here we begin to find our way a little through the frightening labyrinth of race.

There are, I think, some unspoken rules of race and racial advantage in America today.

Does Poverty Qualify?

One, you must have some claim, even if the most flimsy one, to a minority group whose average per capita income is below that of the so-called white norm-on the theory that racism, not cultural practices, entirely explains success or failure in contemporary America.

Indians, Basques, Greek-Americans, Arab-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and Chinese-Americans-regardless of their appearance or superficial distance from the dominant "white" tribe" -are probably not going to receive special consideration to trump strict criteria like GPAs and test scores when applying to medical or law schools. American-Indians, Mexican-Americans, and African-Americans are. That any individual of the former group might in fact be far poorer than any member of the latter group matters not at all. That any of the former cadre may also be more instantly recognizable as non-white matters likewise not a whit.

Is It Politics, After All?

How else can we explain why the son of a light-skinned African-American general or orthodontist receives extra consideration and the dark daughter of a Kurdish taxi-driver does not? I had a Coptic student with an Egyptian name from a poor family who tried to suggest that he really was "African-American"-and was laughed out of the university's affirmative action office.

Second, the claimant at some point during his cursus honorum should clearly identify himself as proud of his tribe and liberal in persuasion. The conservative TV newsreader named Joe Lopez, who does not trill his r's, and is politically inconspicuous, will not be given as much preference as the ‘Latina' who pronounces Spanish-names with Spanish accents, adds accents to her own name, and is prominent in liberal causes. Consider the antithetical treatment accorded to a Miguel Estrada versus Sonia Sotomayor, or a dark conservative Clarence Thomas versus an Eric Holder of Barbados ancestry. Estrada, remember, was targeted by the left precisely because he was Hispanic.

Leftwing minorities apparently are seen as authentic-in the sense of being thankful and obliged to their liberal patrons for their heroic efforts at ‘leveling the playing field'. Right-wing minorities who do not consciously embrace racial identification are typecast as being bitter, unappreciative, and perhaps a little crazy.

Do We Just Make This Stuff Up?

I had half-Mexican-American students who had Hispanic first names and fathers-something like a Horacio Dominquez or Jacinta Guzman-who were fully assimilated, upper-middle-class, did not speak a word of Spanish, but were active in La Raza-like groups and, presto, were seen as authentic enough to be given the benefits of unspoken affirmative action. In turn, I also had trouble convincing graduate schools to give affirmative action consideration to those like a Bill Smith or Larry Butler, who had Mexican-American mothers and spoke Spanish. In California-given the mixed ancestry of Cherokee intermarriage of many in the Oklahoma Diaspora-a sort of parlor game among white students was to claim, often accurately, 1/4, 1/8, or 1/16 "Native-American" racial heritage.

Churchillism-As In Ward...

So affirmative action, as the chameleon-like scoundrel Ward Churchill demonstrated, can easily devolve into a conscious and often artificial construct of careerist self-identification. Take away his locks and beads, and his mumbo-jumbo chants, and Churchill was more or less a poorly educated white male teacher that had no refuge in the university as recompense for his questionable scholarly pedigree.

Half-Hispanic and very affluent William "Blaine" Richardson, former Presidential candidate, had he a Hispanic pedigree on his father's side, or had he used his mother's name, or, better, had Latinized his first name, could have much more easily reinvented himself as Guillermo Marquez-a more authentic minority -despite his family money and rather exclusive prep-school background.

Had Barack Obama kept his assumed name Barry, and used his mother's maiden name-logical, given the Dunham family's exclusive caretakership of young Barack-a Barry Dunham might have appeared far less exotic and authentically black than Barack Obama.

Do the ‘Okies' Count?

There are even more absurd incongruities. Poor white grandchildren of the Oklahoma Diaspora in places like Ceres or Bakersfield have still not attained parity with other groups. Yet, the fact that they are "white" ends discussion. Their race ensures that they are not due any of the exemptions accorded other minorities-despite the fact that poverty, grammatically poorly-spoken English, and cultural stereotypes against "Okies" , can ensure that they are discriminated against as much as Latinos and blacks-especially from the white elite classes. The abjectly poor, straight-A son of Oklahoma-accented cesspool-pumper Travis Thornberry from Tulare, California will probably find it far harder to get into Stanford than the B+ children of affluent, highly-educated African-Americans.

Instant Victimhood

Illegal immigrants likewise reveal the absurdities of the government entry into racial spoils. A Yolanda Trevino who crosses the border at sixteen illegally; by eighteen is eligible for federal affirmative action when applying for college-even though she has had no prior pernicious experiences in the United States-on the dubious theory that entering America in 2009 guarantees the same subordinate status as those who came in 1920. Again, the illegal alien will get deferential treatment not shown the second-generation Chinese-American.

What Are We Left With?

Note here I am not arguing that in many cases affirmative action, the diversity industry, and identity policies do not result in some sort of understandable corrective action, or draw on the logic of recompense. Instead, I suggest that in far too many cases they simply do not-and that the exceptions, distortions, and inconsistencies associated with affirmative action and identity politics have now reached enough of a critical mass to end this once utopian experiment once and for all.

Elite White Guilt

Indeed, creating, recreating, and emphasizing racial identity, especially among elites, currently involves so many contortions that it has descended from the absurd to the outright pernicious-and is becoming a sort of racism itself. One gets the uncomfortable feeling that the perpetuators of the present system-mostly elite whites-find some sort of psychological absolution in such a system that allows them to alleviate guilt without living among poorer people of color, or sending their own children to the "diverse" public schools-two concrete steps that might quickly indeed ensure better neighborhoods and better education for the "other." In any case, most white elites count on their own connections, wealth, and education, to find exemptions from the unfairness of racial identification. A Ted Kennedy, after all, had affirmative action well before it was based on race.

Unfortunately, unlike a Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, or Alberto Gonzales, President Obama has embraced identity politics in unprecedented fashion-and we are reaping what he has sown. In these first days of the Sotomayor nomination, we are not discussing Justice Sotomayor's judicial competence as much as her Latina identification-and the political ramifications of such tribalism.

But then only in these race-conscious times could a Barack Obama have entered the racial labyrinth as a well-educated youth of mixed and foreign ancestry, and middle-class prep school lineage, and exited as a representative totem of the African-American underclass.

By virtue of that metamorphosis it matters not at all that he once subsidized the racial hatred of Rev. Wright's Church, carelessly tossed out the epithet ‘typical white person', stereotyped the white working class as ‘clingers,' had his privileged Attorney General call Americans "cowards" on matters of race, and nominated a candidate for the Supreme Court who, despite all the tortured exegeses of exculpation, declared that white males could not possess the judicial wisdom and temperament of someone of her own race and gender.

You see, in matters of racial politics, we deal now only in fantasies rather than reality.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is The Savior Generals from BloomsburyBooks. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com.

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