by Victor Davis Hanson
NRO’s The Corner
Is It Going to Be Race and Resentment — All the Time?
Michelle Obama is now weighing in on the Sotomayor nomination, and I think it will prove a serious political mistake, since she is reverting back to her “me too” campaign mode, in that she emphasizes both race and the anonymous “they” who are not nice or not sufficiently accommodating to the Other.
So Michelle Obama describes the fear that Sotomayor felt at Princeton — and its lasting effects to this day — and then compares it, of course, to Michelle’s own ambiguous feelings toward the same Princeton campus (cf. Michelle’s thesis for the details), that one is willing to put up with for the education and prestige it gave, but does not really like for the presence of apparently so many stuck-up, rich, preppy kids and their ubiquitous exclusive campus culture.
Three or four observations:
- Many Americans were terrified about our first year in college. Some left farms for sophisticated urban environments and were lost; others were the first in their families to go to colleges, and so on. The Ivy League is by definition snobbish to all outside its traditional insular orbit, whether white, black, brown, country folk, foreigners, etc. But by predicating such common discomfort on their own race and gender, Ms. Obama and Judge Sotomayor deprecate a universal human experience, and instead claim it as something unique to identity politics;
- Once more we see the schizophrenia of affirmative action, diversity, and identify politics — the university is both obliged to select students on the basis, at least in part, of race, class, and gender, but then almost immediately faulted for a climate that, in the eye of the recipient, stigmatizes those to whom it gives unusual consideration (what is the answer? — no race/class/gender consideration at all?; constant race/class/gender consideration that begins at admission and continues through graduation?; damned if you do, damned if you don’t?);
- And the remedy for feeling separate at elite colleges is apparently to reemphasize separatism based on identification with the tribe (e.g., Justice Sotomayor’s senior thesis, like that once written by Ms. Obama, is predicated on ethnic and racial grievance).
All this should disturb Democrats because it fuels a general and growing perception (cf. Sotomayor’s white-male references, Eric Holder’s “cowards” remark, the serial Obama apologies abroad, the confusion about America being an important Muslim nation, etc.) among the public that something very strange is going on — a sort of generic anger being expressed at the highest levels of government that seems fueled by long past resentments against a perceived establishment that at times apparently is to roughly characterized as white, or white male, or rich, or Christian, or something other than poor, of color, or female?
One would have thought with the presidency, or nomination to the Supreme Court, or with the office of Attorney General, or First Lady, such hurt feelings and old grievances might wane; but instead the resentment seems to be ubiquious, and growing, and the lectures will be with us for the next four years in almost every imaginable circumstance. If the administration is not careful, millions of Americans are going to begin feeling that they are caricatured pretty much as those once were in rural Pennsylvania.
The Affirmative-Action Aristocracy?
The Sotomayor nomination — since the media focused on her ethnic profile rather than her solid credentials — has had the unintended effect of reminding the nation how strange the politics of racial identity have become, especially in a society where social status and material well-being are not necessarily predicated on being “white” (cf. per capita incomes of many Asian minorities), and the notion itself of “race” is now problematic with so many Americans of 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 racial heritage. Are we really to believe that Geraldo Rivera’s high profile on Fox News lends “pride” to those who are of 1/2 Puerto Rican background, or does he resonate as Gerald Friedman with the Jewish community for his half-Jewish ancestry? Or is he just Geraldo, whose background is immaterial?
One wonders whether affirmative action and diversity preferences are any more predicated on past collective suffering? If so, why has the UC university system in the past tried to find insidious ways of limiting Asian “overrepresentation” (given ample bias against Chinese and Japanese), or why is a Barack Obama, of half-African ancestry, a beneficiary of efforts to offer recompense to those of the African-American experience?
Or perhaps the problem instead is supposedly present individual discrimination? Yet does a Justice Sotomayor encounter today more bias than does a dark-skinned Punjabi, Egyptian Copt, or Syrian-American — members of groups that do not warrant special consideration and preference? If the past prejudice of the Mexican-American experience justifies race-based preference, to what degree do other Hispanics — Cubans, Brazilians, Spaniards, Costa Ricans — piggy-back and find themselves counted as “minorities” to meet “diversity goals,” as if a university is relieved that no federal agency checks to see whether a well-off, blue-eyed Spaniard immigrant like José de la Cruz is actually not Mexican-American.
No need to cite the obvious — a Travis Thornberry living in Bakersfield, part of the Oklahoma Diaspora, poor and without educated parents, is entitled to no affirmative-action exemptions, but perhaps an illegal alien who crossed the border yesterday does become a “minority” by the very loose association with the Mexican-American experience? So we use increasingly baffling circumstances to dictate who and who is not deserving of special consideration.
In theory, the children of a Eric Holder and Colin Powell could prove racially-based handicaps that call for government intervention while, say, far poorer children of Punjabi and Arab-Americans parentage — in some cases more readily identifiable as non-white — could not. From past experience in the university, I can attest that the darker-skinned Mexican-American student of mixed parentage who spoke Spanish, was poor, but had an Anglo father and no desire for tribal identification — resulting in a name like a Joe Baker — had a harder claim than a lighter-skinned Latina, whose Mexican fides were on the paternal side and who sought such bumper-sticker identification, such as a Yolanda Trevino. The scoundrel Ward Churchill reminded us how such faux-identities can be constructed for careerist purposes.
In short, with so many races, so much intermarriage, so much mixing-up through popular culture, so much disconnection between class, status, and race — and so much evidence from Iraq, the Balkans, and Rwanda about the perniciousness of tribalism — the industry of racial identity should have long ago been shut down, especially since it is often championed by white elites, who, not putting their own children in the public schools and not living in racially mixed neighborhoods (both very concrete ways of helping the “other”), seem to find psychological atonement in advocating diversity preferences, while assuming their own wealth, connections, and education ensure their own privileged offspring the same exemptions. The children of someone like a Ted Kennedy, after all, enjoyed affirmative action long before it was predicated on race.
Seeking a racial identity in “diversity” has become like Marxism in the old Soviet Union — a doctrine that everyone praises, while privately realizing that it has devolved into a useful tool for careerist advancement.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson