Sticky Labels


Unless you've been living under a media-deprived rock, you probably know that America is cracking up, mostly along racial lines. Pick up any newspaper, turn on any TV news show, and the stories are there: Jimmy Breslin hurls racial epithets at an Asian-American colleague. Black youths in Brooklyn yell anti-Korean slurs and attack three Vietnamese men, leaving one hospitalized with a fractured skull. Milwaukee alderman Michael McGee calls for blacks to take up arms if their economic situation doesn't improve by 1995. Campus after campus is riven by racial conflict. What is going on?

In a sense, we asked for it. With the best of intentions, we turned our institutions, public and private, into racial label-makers that assign identities and privileges on the basis of color. We thought we could plan our way to racial harmony, could manipulate neatly labeled individuals into the outward form of an integrated society, with every group proportionally represented in every situation.

It was a fatal conceit, at least as flawed as the concept of economic central planning. We have become an officially race-conscious society, all the while telling individuals that they shouldn't notice racial differences and certainly shouldn't talk about them. This combination is highly unstable, and it is starting to bubble, boil, and emit noxious gases.

Picture today's college students—or, for that matter, today's inner city youths. They cannot remember a world in which legally enforced segregation existed. Neither can they comprehend the idealism of the civil rights movement, the idea that Americans of all races would stand equal before the law and each other.

Given the world they've grown up in, this notion must sound hopelessly naive, a proposition for suckers who understand neither power nor privilege. For their entire lives, young people have been classified by race—not just by other individuals but by their schools, their employers, their government.

Categorizing people by race is hardly a new venture in American society. What is new is the competition to be victims. My first week in college, we all had to take a writing test. Given a choice of four or five topics, nearly everyone I knew settled on the same one. It asked something to the effect of: Are you a member of a minority group that is put upon by other people? If so, how?

It was remarkable how many oppressed minorities we turned up: Jews, women, Southerners, even Californians. I imagine that somewhere in the class of 1,000-odd Princeton students, somebody wrote a defense of nerds. What we were actually saying, of course, was that we wanted to be seen, and appreciated, as individuals. But since we couldn't have that, we opted for the glamour of victimhood and the comfort of self-pity.

The unending pursuit of victim status is not only self-indulgent, it is dangerous. It hurls accusations at everyone the would-be victim comes into contact with, or at least everyone outside the victimized group. It creates distrust and makes everyone thin-skinned. It undermines individual choice, personal responsibility, and self-determination.

As essayist Shelby Steele writes, "Social victims may be collectively entitled, but they are all too often individually demoralized. Since the social victim has been oppressed by society, he comes to feel that his individual life will be improved more by changes in society than by his own initiative. Without realizing it, he makes society rather than himself the agent of change."

To be a victim is to be helpless. But it is also to have license—license to insult, license to goof off, license to burn down Sal's Pizzeria and call it "the right thing." And so we are told to see every young black criminal as a victim of his race's oppression, rather than an insult and a threat to his law-abiding black neighbors.

These pathologies extend to white males. Many racial epithets, offensive "theme" frat parties, and racist (or sexist) graffiti that we find on college campuses are not examples of "insensitivity" but of rebellion and outrage. Young white men feel oppressed. Whatever benefits their race and sex may actually convey in daily life, they have spent their entire lives officially marked "undesirable."

Told to see people who are given preferential treatment as victims, they become enraged. Told that their anger is a sign of bigotry, they decide they must be bigots. And once they've done that, they have license to indulge any truly racist impulses they like—up to and including physical attacks. "Consciousness-raising" or "sensitivity" training designed to submerge honesty in a goo of psychobabble and political indoctrination just exacerbates the problem. Forcing people into reeducation sessions only confirms their status as victims.

Having spent the last 20-odd years seeking integration by categorizing each other by race, we come to 1990 and find our newspapers, TV screens, and movie theaters filled with stories of racial violence and confrontation. There is truth in these stories, and consequences we ignore at our peril. But these stories do not tell the whole truth.

Despite the headlines, we seem to be moving, albeit slowly, to reclaim a more individualist vision. The courts have begun to take a dim view of racial quotas. More importantly, people from across the political spectrum are beginning to recognize the unintended, and decidedly unpleasant, consequences of sticking everyone in boxes and granting benefits to whomever seems the most victimized or yells the loudest. No longer do intellectuals who question affirmative action find themselves voices crying in the wilderness.

And among nonintellectuals, there has never been much love for affirmative action. Nobody wants to go through life feeling like the game is rigged against him, or like everyone thinks she got her job through favoritism instead of merit. Americans are suspicious of racial classification; a lot of people rebelled against the census forms that demanded to know their race.

When I walk on the UCLA campus or go to student hangouts in Westwood, I see clutches of students—whites, blacks, and Asians—sitting together, talking, studying, eating. Not every group of friends presents the kind of demographic balance a campus recruiting brochure might set up, and there is, of course, peer pressure for people to stick to "their own kind." Nevertheless, the place hardly looks like a setting for nasty racial confrontations.

Yet this very school makes every list of "problem" campuses. And there have been serious incidents at UCLA: The suspension of the editor of the student paper for publishing a cartoon poking fun at affirmative action. Protests over the failure to tenure an Asian-American professor. A racially divided student election marked by violence and stepped-up security. Tensions obviously exist.

But generalizing from such incidents to portray a permanently divided society is all too convenient. It certainly makes for dramatic news stories and compelling movie plots. More significantly, the people who have invested their careers, their faith, and their intellectual capital in the politics of victimhood will not retreat without a fight. They will use racial conflict to justify more of the policies that encourage its very existence.

The Civil Rights Act of 1990 offers them a way to roll back the Supreme Court's decisions and enshrine quotas into law. Student newspapers, reports Student Press Law Center director Mark Goodman, find themselves threatened with censorship for "even raising issues like reverse discrimination." In the academic equivalent of holding his breath till he turns blue, Derrick Bell, the black Harvard law professor, has gone on strike until the school tenures a black woman—any black woman, apparently.

Most really nasty confrontations are political, battles over group entitlements rather than individualized bigotry. And when individual acts of racial brutality do occur, as in Bensonhurst or Howard Beach, they immediately become political tools for opportunists. That fact, alone, ought to make us skeptical of the "wave of racism" we see on TV.