by Bruce S. Thornton
For anyone familiar with the American university and its gospel of multicultural diversity, the revelation that Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren exploited her 1/32 Cherokee ancestry to pass as a minority is a dog-bites-man story. For decades now universities have depended on the superficially non-white “other” to fulfill and tout their “commitment to diversity” and their doctrine of “multiculturalism.” Meanwhile, the only diversity that counts, the diversity of minds and points of view, is ignored. Instead, the rigid leftist ideology of American historical wickedness and oppression is imposed on the presumed bastions of truth and free minds.
The phoniness of such “diversity” is evident on multiple levels. Warren’s ploy is not that much more egregious than the thousands of Caucasians with Hispanic surnames who pass as minorities in American universities. White Chileans, Argentines, and Mexicans come to American colleges and are transformed into “Chicanos,” a category that has little reality outside a college campus. Hiring Basques or Spaniards counts as increasing “diversity,” even though they have nothing culturally in common with the mestizo or Indian children of farm-workers. So too African or Caribbean blacks are hired not because they bring the unique perspective of their homelands to their intellectual work or teaching, but because they count as “black,” and thus are assumed to have some mystical connection with American black students and their cultural identity, which owes much more to American culture and history than to African.
Of course, socio-economic differences among American minorities are also ignored in the rush to promote diversity. A Mexican-American dentist’s or schoolteacher’s daughter who never cut a grape or washed a dish supposedly has some special insight into poor or working-class Mexicans. A light-skinned black son of college-educated parents who grew up in the suburbs gets to campus and suddenly has a rapport with the “brothers” and their experiences. An upper class Chinese is thought to be better able to relate to anyone designated by the meaningless category “Asian-American,” which obscures the fundamental differences and histories of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Laos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Hmong. The social capital that comes from education and wealth and that is used to define “white-skin privilege” suddenly has no value when it comes to the equally privileged ethnic “other.”
And don’t forget, no matter how poor or underprivileged, no white people have anything to bring to the campus diversity table in the eyes of diversity-mongers. Indeed, not even all the non-white ethnic groups get the same privileges given to those anointed as contributors to “diversity,” no matter how much their people have suffered. Punjabis darker than most black Americans don’t add “diversity” to campus. Armenians whose ancestors were slaughtered in the Turkish genocide, and who faced legal discrimination like real-estate covenants barring them from certain neighborhoods, don’t count either. Other groups like Italians or Poles faced discrimination and racist slurs in at the turn of 20th century, when General Francis Amasa Walker, president of MIT, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that such dusky immigrants were “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” possessing “none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government.” So pervasive were these prejudices that the 1924 immigration law effectively stopped such “unfit” people from coming to America. And obviously, despite their long subjection to anti-Semitism, exclusion, and mass-murder, Jews don’t add diversity either. Indeed, they’re fair game for campus prejudice and ethnic slurs. To the university, all these victims of historical oppression and exclusion based on their cultural differences are officially “white” with nothing to offer to campus diversity.
The diversity scam works by relying on a fraudulent concept of ethnic identity that submerges the individual into crude stereotypes and cultural clichés. Blacks all have “soul” and a special insight into the life of emotion, the body, and folk wisdom denied to uptight repressed whites. “Hispanics” all put greater value on the family and the collective, contrary to the selfish individualism so prized by American whites. Most of these stereotypes are merely modern variations of the old noble savage myth that for centuries has been used to compensate for the trade-offs and complexities of civilization. The denizens of complex civilizations can make themselves feel good by fantasizing about the simpler, more authentic, more fulfilling lives of the dark-skinned “other” free from inhibition and repression. Thus despite their stale, reductive crudity, these caricatures are constantly recycled, not just in the classrooms of ethnic studies or ethnic literature programs, but in novels, television shows, and the movies, where most black characters function as dispensers of wisdom and insight to inept dopey whites.
Worse yet, this phony ethnic identity is founded on the notion of victimhood and oppression generated by pervasive white racism and prejudice. Skin color and exotic surname thus signify this victim-status and the resulting privileges, institutional benefits, and special treatment that all comprise the reparations owed for those historical sins. No matter if the person has benefitted from education and a comfortable upbringing, he nonetheless deserves special privileges based not on his personal experience but on the accident of his ethnicity. Look no further than Barack Obama, who by any objective criterion has nothing in his life that makes him “black” other than a genetic accident. The only thing that makes him “black” other than our illiberal racialist obsession is the assumption that he has been subjected at some level to racism and prejudice, even though his presumed ethnic identity has in fact been the source of advancement and privilege far beyond his deserts.
Finally, this victim identity promulgates a crude, dishonest version of history in which the West is the arch-villain, the perpetrator of colonialism, imperialism, exploitation, and racism. Thus students hear from their teachers all about Western imperialism, but nothing of the brutal Islamic imperial conquests stretching from Spain to China, nothing of the enslavement, slaughter, plundering, ethnic cleansing, and cultural destruction that accompanied the armies of Allah. Students incessantly hear about American slavery and its horrors, but learn nothing about the role of African kings and rulers in supplying the humans to be sold. They never are told that the Arabs took as many slaves from Africa, around 10 million, as the Europeans did, or that most of the males were castrated to serve in harems, with millions dying in the desert during the long march to the Mediterranean. The massacres of American Indians are obsessively told and retold, yet the brutality of the Sioux against other Indians, the grisly torture of captives practiced by the Iroquois, the slaughter, torture, and mutilation of white settlers are all ignored or rationalized as understandable responses to white treaty-breaking, land-grabbing, and oppression.
This melodramatic history is the antithesis of the only diversity that counts, intellectual diversity, for it reduces a complex, variegated, universally flawed humanity into cardboard villains and victims. But the point of multiculturalism has never been “diversity.” If true diversity were the aim, then the university would promote the diversity of religion, region, socio-economic background, and most important intellect and philosophy. And that’s what “diversity” of the sort that allowed a blue-eyed, blonde Elizabeth Warren to pass as evidence of Harvard’s “commitment to diversity” is really about: imposing a leftist ideological conformity predicated on America’s historical crimes and sins.
©2012 Victor Davis Hanson