Charlottesville, Race, and the Mishnory Road

Many of those who would recoil in horror at racist notions find similar notions strangely beguiling when they are dressed up in more genteel language.


"To oppose something is to maintain it," wrote Ursula K. Le Guin in her classic The Left Hand of Darkness, a sci-fi novel that anticipated our gender-bending age by nearly half a century. "To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road."

Those words seem especially apt now, after Charlottesville—because so many of those who oppose the white supremacists have fallen into the same trap as the white supremacists. They have embraced the same fallacy; they are caught in the same harmful patterns of thought.

Before discussing how this might be, a pre-emptive cringe: What follows is not meant to imply any sort of moral equivalence (let alone that of Donald Trump's awful "many sides" statement on Saturday). The man who pushes a pedestrian into oncoming traffic and the man who pushes a pedestrian out of a speeding car's way might both be engaged in the act of pushing a pedestrian—but the acts they commit are, morally speaking, vastly different.

So. The white supremacists who caused so much misery in Charlottesville drew anger and contempt from nearly everyone in the country. But much of the anger and contempt was reflexive, and it might help to step back and ask why. What precisely do they espouse that gives such great offense?

Racism, obviously. But what does that entail?

At its most basic, racism consists of denying a person his or her individuality. To be racist is to view members of one demographic cohort as essentially all alike within the group, and essentially all different from all other people outside that group. The racist believes the essence of a black man is his blackness, and the essence of a white woman is her whiteness, and those two essences are not merely distinct but discordant.

In fact (says the racist), the difference between those color-coded cohorts is so great that it overwhelms whatever differences might exist within the cohorts: Colin Powell, Ben Carson, Condoleezza Rice, Jean-Michel Basquiat—no matter how accomplished such individuals might be, they are still, in the end, just mud people. Untermenschen. N-words. And therefore, they have less intrinsic worth than some illiterate, swivel-eyed yahoo doing a 20-year stretch for raping his little sister. "I might be an illiterate, swivel-eyed rapist," the yahoo can tell himself, "but at least I'm better than them."

To all right-thinking people, this is lunacy.

But many of those who would recoil in horror at such notions when espoused by a gap-toothed moron wearing a Confederate flag find similar notions strangely beguiling when they are dressed up in more genteel language.

It is not a fresh new insight to note that many of those on the left—especially in academia—are consumed with the politics of identity, and that this obsession has led us to places that, in a different context, would have white supremacists nodding in approval: separate graduation ceremonies for black students at Harvard, separate housing for black students at UC-Davis, a blacks-only student orientation at the University of San Diego. These phenomena—and many more like them—are promoted as beneficial to minorities. But they also convey a message: The minorities need to be separate because they are different.

Now in those cases the difference is situational, not genetic: As victims of discrimination, blacks need different treatment, goes the reasoning. In theory, that might someday change—whereas the bigot thinks racial differences are immutable and eternal. But note the fallacy underlying even the modest situational assumption: "Everyone in this color-coded cohort shares certain key characteristics that matter more than their individual differences."

And the assumption starts to look less modest when the subject turns to diversity, a value so universally praised today that few dare question it. The premise behind diversity is that people can be sorted into distinct groups according to certain demographic characteristics—gender, color, ethnicity, etc.—and that those characteristics define them in ways that inevitably overwhelm whatever traits they might possess as individuals.

Moreover, this is the case not just because some people happened to have faced discrimination in the past; it is true of everyone, and always will be. Therefore, color-coding and sorting always will need to be used to determine the correct demographic composition of juries, boardrooms, freshman classes, and so on. Within the framework of diversity, an approach that is procedurally fair to all the individuals involved (such as a color-blind admissions process) nevertheless can be unfair—depending upon its effect on particular groups.

This is not the racism of the bigot, with his hate-filled heart and his need to feel superior to others. But it does entail a racial essentialism, a focus on demographic categories rather than individual identities, that the bigot would find familiar.

And maybe that is still necessary to an extent. When a pedestrian has been pushed into traffic, you don't want to outlaw all pedestrian-pushing while he is still in the path of the fast-moving car. But (to mix metaphors), we also should ask how long it's necessary to stay on the path to Mishnory. How long can we fight negative racial essentialism with positive racial essentialism?

At some point, we need to find a different goal, and walk a different road.