By Victor Davis Hanson
Tuesday, February 09, 2016
The racial spoils industry survives on several requisites.
One, Americans must be readily identifiable as being non-white or white. Two, once non-white claimants pass the racial litmus test, they must think and speak in a particular progressive manner, in dutiful obeisance to those who set up and perpetuate the racial spoils system. And three, racialism must remain defined as a one-way bias.
The problem with the first criterion is multifold. America today truly is a multiracial, intermarried society in which the old rubric “white” no longer equates to “of European descent.” Obama’s racist former minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright appears whiter than many Americans of Mediterranean heritage.
Lots of Americans of various hues are de facto classified as white, either by themselves or by the government that refuses to make them eligible for affirmative action. Over the years I had hundreds of students who were clearly non-white in appearance, first-generation Americans of Arab, Armenian, and Punjabi background, who did not qualify for any racial set-asides. The vast majority of them were as dark as or darker than third-generation Mexican-Americans who did.
Many whites of European descent are indistinguishable from so-called Latinos. Certainly a Sicilian-American can look more “Latino” than someone of Mexican or South American descent. If Ted Cruz took his mother’s name, no one would know that Ted Wilson was Latino. If George Zimmerman had used the name Jorge Mesa, the Trayvon Martin confrontation never would have made front-page news. Such a rigged system cannot even defend its own biases. Accordingly, it retreats toward the subjective category “diversity” to make up prejudice and its remedies, in ad hoc fashion, on the basis of career and political expediencies.
The Latino Marco Rubio could claim ancestry from anywhere, while former presidential candidate Bobby Jindal appears clearly of Indian ancestry. In our sick racial-spoils system, Rubio qualifies as a minority and Jindal does not. Is the reasoning that Rubio will encounter more white-generated prejudice than the darker Jindal, or that Rubio’s ancestors in Cuba suffered more than Jindal’s in India?
Much of the liberal press has ridiculed Rubio and Cruz, either because their appearances and Cuban ancestry do not quite make them authentic “Latinos” or “Hispanics,” or because their conservative politics disqualify them as deserving minorities and instead make them seem ungrateful to their liberal benefactors. In this unhinged way of thinking, a quite dark Clarence Thomas, who grew up destitute in the old Jim Crow South, is not as authentic an African-American as Barack Obama, who is of half-Kenyan ancestry and was raised by his upper-middle-class white grandparents and schooled at Honolulu’s most exclusive prep school. Make Obama right-wing and Thomas left-wing, and journalists would question Obama about everything from his prep school to his name change at age ten.
In truth, government efforts to racialize Americans — mostly for the benefit of tribal careerists — have failed and have left behind utter chaos, rank opportunism, and dangerous cynicism.
Eager for government-promoted racial advantages, and aware that appearance is no longer necessary for socially constructed racial status, a number of white careerists have reinvented themselves as minorities to gain job traction. Senator Elizabeth Warren was Harvard Law School’s first “Native American” faculty member on the basis of her grandfather’s high cheekbones and unsubstantiated family lore. Ward Churchill, with beads and headband but without an earned Ph.D., became a “Native-American” tenured campus activist at the University of Colorado Boulder. Rachel Dolezal teased her hair a bit and reinvented herself as the president of the local NAACP chapter in Spokane. Shaun King altered his patois, claimed he was black, and became a national spokesman for the Black Lives Matter movement. Note well: None of these people claimed that their ancestry was really Italian, Punjabi, Jewish, Korean, or Arab. Apparently, invented “diversity” status of that nature would not win career advantages.
So who is deserving of special set-asides? Take the case of multimillionaire Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who fled Mexico’s censorship and came to America to establish a lucrative career under the singular protection of the U.S. Constitution as a self-appointed advocate against supposed American nativism. Has America been so unkind to Ramos that his children will have to have special help getting into college, while the progeny of an out-of-work coal miner in West Virginia or an Armenian farmer in Chico cannot qualify?
Sometimes just changing names is all that is necessary when politically correct race is in doubt. When children are unsure that the state knows their racial IDs — and since the government has not yet issued yellow, star-shaped DNA badges — they must amplify their tenuous heritage through language. (We forget that Hitler’s problem in the racist Third Reich was that he had built a career on demonizing Jews as parasites and then discovered that most Germans could not distinguish German Jews in their midst without Nazi-issued lapel badges, often the work of genealogists and pseudo-race-studies hacks in the university.)
So a Susan Smith with a Mexican grandmother becomes Susan Lopez-Smith, while a German-American would not become Susan Schmidt Wilson. A Rick Smith becomes Ricardo Smith, and with that change gains a hundred or so SAT points as a bonus. As a general rule, the more exotic the name, and the less white and less American it sounds, the more one’s career is aided. Certainly, a prep-school kid called Barry Dunham or even Barry Soetero would not have the career trajectory of Barack Hussein Obama. A Barry cannot claim to be the victim of American nativist prejudice; a Barack can.
But even nomenclature goes only so far. One can lose even specially crafted minority profiles by the wrong politics. Were Obama to have a political revelation and turn conservative, his half-black status and exotic Middle Eastern/African names would be the stuff of ridicule. He would suffer the fate of a Ted Cruz or a Marco Rubio and be branded as a sellout opportunist — in a way that he currently is not, despite all the time spent on tony golf courses, Martha’s Vineyard vacations, and Hawaiian junkets, and despite the Goldman Sachs campaign gifts.
Someone raised in poverty who rejects the liberal creed is stamped inauthentic while someone far better off but solidly leftwing is approved of as legitimate. The noted philosopher, scholar, and economist Thomas Sowell was raised in utter poverty in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s. Somehow he is not deemed a proper representative of the pre–Civil Rights black experience, while the college-dropout and racial provocateur Ta-Nehisi Coates is, despite growing up in relative middle-class security during the age of affirmative action. Coates writes autobiographies damning white America for problems in the black community; Sowell offers data to urge self-help and inner reflection. One is useful for claims on government assistance, the other antithetical to that effort. Thus Sowell is considered not really black. “Ta-Nehisi” sends a tingle up the leg of a white liberal in a way that “Tom” does not.
The wealthy and mostly white cultural elite set up this Byzantine racial-spoils system, and it understandably reflects their prejudices and moral emptiness. They assumed that their own class privileges and insider leverage would allow themselves and their offspring to navigate around minority set-asides quite easily. Certainly on their own academic merits, the huge Kennedy clan did not all qualify for Ivy League admission. Had an Appalachian kid sent in the same test scores and GPAs as Al Gore, John Kerry, or the Kennedys, he would surely never have been admitted to any Ivy League college. Having a Latino name is valuable for getting an edge into Yale, but still not as valuable as having a grandfather who was a Wall Street–groomed government adviser or an alum mom who helps run Citibank.
The architects of affirmative action also envisioned racial rubrics as a form of personal medieval-style penance. By bestowing some of their own privileges on selected minority categories, liberal grandees helped assuage their own guilt over their de facto apartheid and material privilege. Wealthy white liberal America, the engine that drives racialization, usually does not live, go to school, or engage in leisure activities among those minorities it selects for racial advantages.
Hollywood may agonize over the racial and ethnic makeup of its Oscar nominees, but Malibu is for the most part a lily-white fortress, where affirmative action does not translate into subsidized public housing for the poor on the Pacific Coast beaches. Mark Zuckerberg is a multi-billionaire progressive activist, but that fact only empowers him to stealthily buy up his neighbors’ homes to form a de facto moat around his compound.
Of course, the old liberal wealthy white American class was politically savvy and self-interested, and so it glued affirmative action onto its own progressive politics. Those who bestow advantages demand obeisance in return. Nothing enrages a wealthy white liberal more than when someone of minority status, after receiving an affirmative-action edge, evolves into thinking that the entire race-based system of classification is rotten to the core. A black “turncoat” becomes a pariah in a way that even redneck gun owners or the Palins do not. It is fair game to slander Ted Cruz as an inauthentic Latino, while the Left believes that Barack Obama, of equally half-minority status, is a trailblazing minority candidate. The media quiz Cruz on his Spanish-speaking ability, while they would not the non-Spanish-speaking Julian Castro, the current liberal heartthrob.
Considerations of class are anathema to the racial-spoils system. Who would approve of the children of dirt-poor whites in rural Tulare County gaining an edge over the offspring of Jorge Ramos or Eric Holder? For the 0.01-percenter white liberal, poor whites conjure up Duck Dynasty and Ice Truckers, strange folk who can be used to represent untoward white privilege, but who lack, on the one hand, the romance of the minority poor and, on the other, the cultural tastes of the white elite. Much of the left-wing hatred of evangelicals and the NRA is due to the perception that these are cultural hubs of tastelessness, whose disparagement is cheap, easy, and of some value in broadcasting liberal credentials to minority elites. Sexist attacks on Bristol Palin are hip, but not so questions about how Chelsea Clinton somehow became worth $15 million.
Finally, racial prejudice is a circular firing squad now. Blacks lament the lack of Oscars but not the racially disproportionate NFL, NBA, and their commensurate MVP awards. In sick 21st-century America, lamenting the lack of black Oscar nominees logically leads to calls for an all-black Oscar alternative, where no one but blacks (not even Latinos) can be nominated. I suppose the theory is that blacks can spot authentic African-Americans, perhaps borrowing the one- or two-drop rule of the Old Confederacy. Putting de facto quotas on Asian-Americans for college admissions is okay; after all, such bias won’t hurt successful, grade-grubbing Asians, who are too enamored of capitalism even if they espouse liberal politics. Wondering why the meritocratic NFL is vastly disproportionately African-American is taboo; wondering why meritocratic UC Berkeley is disproportionately Asian-American is politically correct.
The Latin American experience is far more racialized than is even the European. Mexican immigrants tend to display biases against blacks that other groups do not, and they have a sophisticated color-coded self-screening that is unknown in el Norte. For truly despicable racist caricatures of Barack Obama or Condoleezza Rice, consult what the Arab world and the North Koreans have spouted. Jeremiah Wright was an anti-Semite of the Farrakhan stripe. Strip away liberal indemnity insurance, and Obama’s “typical white person” is or is not as racist as Joe Biden’s description of Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.” Because the race industry is ideologically driven, its rules are logically inconsistent and ultimately incoherent.
The termite-ridden foundations of the racial-spoils temple are crumbling, as they have dissolved earlier in our 19th- and early-20th-century past. Soon the entire rotten edifice will collapse under the weight of its own inherent contradictions and illiberal prejudices.