Race to the Bottom
The conservative fixation on racial categories
It's been a strange season for race relations in America.
A black man wrote a long, serious autobiography that sold faster than any book in history. He called it My American Journey. It neither wallowed in nor downplayed past segregation and continuing prejudice; they were insults, serious but surmountable, in the course of a successful life. People of all races stood in line for hours to get his autograph and a sentence of greeting. They begged him to run for president.
A young white woman who murdered her children and tried to frame a mythical black carjacker was found guilty by a small-town Southern jury. The local sheriff–wiser than either the national media or the Boston investigators of the Stuart case a few years back–had known better than to buy such an improbable story.
Led by a black businessman, the University of California Board of Regents voted to end affirmative action in admissions and hiring.
And, of course, O.J. Simpson was acquitted.
In a place where rich paricides can confess yet hang a jury, where police brutality or riotous mayhem caught on videotape can win acquittal, no one should have been surprised that a beloved celebrity who maintained his innocence would be found not guilty. But we were.
Some Americans cheered, relieved that a wrongly accused man would go free. Others gasped, horrified that a vicious murderer had beaten the rap. And the cheering and the horror broke down, overwhelmingly, on racial lines.
Too many analysts have been too quick to see the Simpson trial as the one and only indicator of the state of race relations in America, which it is not. Colin Powell's cross-racial popularity is as real as the verdict; so, for that matter, is the box office success of Seven and Devil in a Blue Dress. Race relations are too complicated to be reduced to a single variable, to the differing views blacks and whites hold of the trustworthiness of police.
And too many analysts have been too quick to see the Simpson trial as only an indicator of the state of race relations in America, which it also is not. For drama and star power, the Simpson case may have been "the trial of the century." But it wasn't exactly Nuremburg. It was, at its heart, about murder and domestic violence, not politics. The jurors fervently maintain that their verdict was based on reasonable doubt, not on sending anyone a message. We may wonder about the reasonableness of their doubt–I certainly do–but they've had ample opportunities to make political speeches and have declined to do so.
The Simpson verdict does, however, abet an unfortunate political trend. Conservatives, who largely determine the shape of American politics today, are in retreat from the principle of individual treatment–the principle on which our justice system, and our system of free government more generally, depends.
Just six months ago, it looked as though conservatives were going to lead the country toward a reaffirmation of individualism, rather than group identity, as the basis for public policy. Following conservative arguments, the Supreme Court was questioning racially gerrymandered congressional districts. The citizens of California were ready to overturn state-enforced affirmative action policies. Transracial adoption had become a cause célèbre, pitting the lives of individual black children against the racial ideology of black social workers.
Six months ago, it looked as though we would have a serious discussion about whether labeling people by race is the best way to advance fairness and equal opportunity–about whether we can achieve a colorblind society by constantly defining people by color. That discussion, however, depended on the good faith of conservatives. And it's hard to lead a crusade for treating people as individuals when you're busy lumping them together by race.
Consider the portions of Dinesh D'Souza's The End of Racism which National Review and The American Spectator chose to excerpt in October. Both contain some important truths about black life–that successful blacks feel rage at perceived disrespect, that blacks more than whites look to government to create jobs, that a higher proportion of blacks than whites commit crimes, that blacks who excel academically face ridicule for "acting white." But the articles wallow in stereotypes and omit countervailing experience. Addressed to an overwhelmingly white audience, they seem designed not to elucidate the complexities of race in America but to justify readers' preconceived notions of black inferiority.
In the Spectator excerpt, for instance, D'Souza draws at length from books by and about L.A. gangster Kody "Monster" Scott, relishing their almost pornographic portrayal of a murderous black man. Nowhere does D'Souza cite the devastating Atlantic article in which Mark Horowitz debunks Scott's portrayal of his life as indicative of the black experience: "Apart from a few brief mentions, [Kody Scott's siblings] Kevin, Kim, Kendis, and Kerwin are nowhere to be found in Monster. They don't fit Monster's version. Kevin became an actor and lives in Burbank. Kim joined the Air Force and is currently stationed in Japan. Kendis raised her family and is studying to be a data processor. Kerwin went to work for the 32nd Street Market. Only Kody and Kershaun became gang members." Neither acting nor the Air Force–and certainly not working in a grocery store–would fit easily into D'Souza's picture.
Nor does D'Souza include L.A. writer Leonce Gaiter's heartfelt response when Kody Scott's editor characterized the gangster as a "primary voice of the black experience." In the L.A. magazine Buzz, Gaiter wrote: "To me, this is a white man who thinks that a monster who butchers African-Americans is a major voice for all African-Americans, a white man who thinks of all blacks as less than human, as a murderous sub-species. I am an African-American man, and I have killed no one. My parents worked, educated themselves, and raised their children. I graduated from Harvard.This is the black experience."
Gaiter's anger didn't make it into the Spectator. Indeed, the only source of middle-class black anger D'Souza recognizes in that excerpt is "the frustration of pursuing unearned privileges and then bristling when they do not bring something that has to be earned–the respect of one's peers." Gaiter, one might suppose, is angry simply because he knows he didn't deserve to go to Harvard; having patronizing white liberals lump him in with murderers, because he shares their skin color, has nothing to do with it.
The whole point of the National Review excerpt is that such stereotypes are justified. "Only because group traits have an empirical basis in shared experience can we invoke them without fear of contradiction," writes D'Souza. "Think how people would react if someone said that 'Koreans are lazy' or that 'Hispanics are constantly trying to find ways to make money.' Despite the prevalence of anti-Semitism, Jews are rarely accused of stupidity. Blacks are never accused of being tight with a dollar, or of conspiring to take over the world. By reversing stereotypes we can see how their persistence relies, not simply on the assumption of the viewer, but also on the characteristics of the group being described."
The most amazing thing about this passage isn't that D'Souza wrote it. The most amazing thing is that to reinforce the notion that blacks are stupid (or–the subject of most of the article–criminal), William F. Buckley's once-fastidious magazine now blithely insinuates that "shared experience" and the "characteristics of the group being described" suggest that Jews are not only tight with a dollar but conspiring to take over the world! And people think militias are wacky.
By contrast, in an excerpt published in The Washington Post, D'Souza concludes that Americans should unite behind "a universalist ideology that regards 'race' as a trivial aspect of identity and that seeks to transcend it with policies that are not based on color or ancestry." That excerpt–which includes critical portrayals of overt white racists, including sometime National Review contributors Lawrence Auster and Samuel Francis–was not one that conservative publications chose to reprint. It would have undoubtedly disturbed their readers.
You cannot get to a colorblind society by constantly reinforcing racial categories. You can't get justice by playing the race card. Conservatives make those arguments when they oppose affirmative action or denounce the Simpson verdict. They don't, however, appear to believe them. And that is America's loss.