17 July 2009

Race Without End

The President was in his element yesterday, and I don't mean the audience for his speech marking the centennial of the NAACP, but the fact of his making a speech. One sometimes suspects that he does indeed think that speech-making is his principal job as Chief Executive, but that's only because the daily nuts-and-bolts work is less telegenic. In any event, the news made the most of his remarks that chided people for using the history of racism as an excuse for not achieving or striving. His theme was that each individual is in control of his or her own destiny, but this is sometimes a controversial note to strike in certain audiences, whatever the color of the speaker. Chris Matthews noted that he could never say such things to a black audience, and even Bill Cosby has sometimes been criticized for saying those things. Behind the criticism, I assume, is an assumption that those who insists on individual responsibility are somehow saying that society as a whole doesn't need to change when the need for change still seems glaringly apparent to many.

Later in the evening, Pat Buchanan had a spirited discussion with Rachel Maddow on her commentary show on the subject of racial advancement and discrimination. Buchanan has pushed to the forefront of the opposition to Judge Sotomayor's appointment to the Supreme Court. He opposes her because, in his view, she has been chosen solely because she is a Latina despite having no qualifications that Buchanan acknowledges. He was unimpressed when Maddow noted that Sotomayor has more judicial experience that Justices Alito and Roberts, because he has his own standard of judicial qualification. Justices must be "geniuses" as demonstrated by brilliant scholarship, and in Buchanan's estimate Sotomayor's record is poor if not nonexistent. On similar grounds, he explained, he opposed the previous president's nomination of Harriet Meyers, though the commonality of his resistance to two female nominees did not occur to him. In any event, he offered this information to show that his opposition to Sotomayor wasn't partisan in nature.

Pressed by Maddow to account for the fact that Sotomayor is only the third non-white person nominated to the Court, Buchanan explained that white men dominated the nation for its first two hundred years, while admitting that the black minority was subject to discrimination. There are some who believe that some form of reverse discrimination is necessary to compensate for racial imbalances based on past injustice, but Buchanan rejects such thinking as unfair to individuals. He affects meritocracy, and although he acknowledges unfair treatment of minorities in the past, his remedy is an instant adoption of meritocratic principles. In practice, this means that degraded minorities now have a right to "earn" what generations of discrimination prevented them from either earning or having the capacity to earn, and that the same qualified group that oppressed them will still judge their qualifications and decide when they've earned entry into the exalted realms. More practically speaking, the best Buchanan offers anyone is a probationary period during which minorities may acquire the skills needed to earn true equality but can't actually have it until the traditional gatekeepers say so. In Supreme Court terms, that would mean no Latina justices until Pat Buchanan is convinced that they are geniuses comparable to the martyred Robert Bork -- though Buchanan's own credentials for judging juridical genius remain unknown.

It seems no more unjust to nominate or confirm justices on the basis of ethnic balance than it was in the past to choose them according to regional balance. As a historian, Buchanan has never been troubled, to may knowledge, by the appointment of one judge for the sake of sectional balance at the expense of a more qualified man from a state already represented on the court. But the appointment of a Latina while some unfortunate white genius goes begging breaks his heart -- a fragile organ already shattered many times over in the age of affirmative action. He howls for meritocracy but all such howling is disingenuous. As far as I know, most such howlers believe that meritocracy actually existed in the good old days when everyone else's inferiority to the white man was a given. Those who know history better know better than to adopt utopian principles that in practice preserve present stratifications of caste. Democracy assumes that competence for any position of responsibility is widespread, and is not so insistent upon "genius" as those who only find it in certain quarters.

But I can understand a populist objection to preferential treatment, whether it comes from working-class whites who see little proof that they've enjoyed preferential treatment in the past or from people who see the burden of reconciliation across racial lines falling on one group only. I felt something of the same objection when the new Harper's came in this morning and I read the novelist John Edgar Wideman's editorial on race. Wideman is on solid ground, as far as I'm concerned, when he writes, "Race is myth. When we stop talking about race, stop believing in race, it will disappear." But he continues: "In a raceless society color wouldn't disappear. Difference wouldn't disappear. Africa wouldn't disappear. In post-race America 'white' people would disappear. That is, no group could assume as birthright and identity a privileged, supernaturally ordained superiority at the top of a hierarchy of other groups, [etc.]"

In other words, there is a burden on "whites" to renounce an aspect of their identity (of varying meaningfulness, depending on the individual) that doesn't apply to anyone else. I understand that by "whiteness" Wideman means a sense of belonging to a ruling caste rather than notions of European heritage, but I question whether there is really no renunciation to be made by other groups, whether of fantasies of superiority (which are just as common among subordinated people as among ruling classes) or of potentially limitless grievances and demands for perpetual redress. Can there not be a time when a black man, for instance, would be expected not to assume that his blackness gives him a claim upon the United States for compensatory preferences when he wants a job, a house, etc.? My question isn't whether blacks should renounce such claims today, as Pat Buchanan might like, but whether they should ever be expected to do so by the rest of the country, just as the rest of the country rightly expects self-styled whites to renounce the notion that the nation is in some exclusive sense theirs. On this question Wideman sounds a pessimistic note: "Race, like religion, is immune to critiques of science and logic because it rests on belief. And people need beliefs."

To close my little circle, Wideman closes his article by taking up the issue of personal responsibility in the black community. The way he sees it, the problem with personal-responsibility rhetoric, whether it comes from Bill Cosby or the President of the United States (neither mentioned by name), is that it makes into a black problem what is really an American problem. "The urgent task of redressing the shameful neglect of American children gets postponed by hand-wringing and finger-pointing at feckless black fathers," he observes. Blacks, too, are guilty of thinking of the problem as a black problem, as Wideman notes. In their case, the result too often is to blame society (i.e. Whitey) for everything. Protests against the problem "become an occasion for shedding crocodile tears, washing our hands of personal as well as collective responsibility." Here he seems to acknowledge that whites and blacks alike must stop thinking in terms of race in order for everyone to share collective responsibility for solving the problem of ghetto poverty. That responsibility imposes obligations on everyone, both to renounce divisive identities and to affirm unifying ones. If we are, as we boast, a nation of individuals, we should lose nothing from trading one label for another, as long as our consciences are clear. But if we cling to labels as if they define us rather than vice versa, if we complain that one individual is preferred over another, not because some abstract principle is violated but because one of "ours" was passed over, then our boasted individual liberty remains open to question.

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