January 5, 2006

Wish away, wish away

Morgan Freeman recently had some advice for us all regarding racism. He said,
The only way to defeat racism is to stop talking about it. I am going to stop calling you a white man and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.
Joe Malchow waxes (and waxes and waxes) grandiloquent about this quote, but I won't pause to sigh over his lead-heavy metaphors. The content of Joe's post is sigh-worthy enough.
When I was a young boy, I didn’t know there was racism. Then I learned that there was racism, and it occured to me rather speedily that the best way to end racism would be to stop practicing racism. Unfortunately, the more misguided elements in our society have decided to take a different tack.
What Joe's soliloquy amounts to is irritation—irritation that race confronts him when applying to college or in the professional world. Irritation, in other words, specifically at "reverse discrimination." (I personally feel that those who complain the most about reverse discrimination secretly believe that whites are the only race that simply should never be discriminated against.) He seeks to remove that irritation by removing it from those worlds—academic, professional, and in the all-too-odd world of alumni relations. What he is utterly blind to is that those worlds are not all-encompassing.

We don't have racial self-identification check-boxes or official "historically marginalized group" status in our personal lives in any non-figurative sense. We live without personal waivers stating that we are a disadvantaged minority or cards like country club memberships proclaiming our whiteness. We don't need to—names, check-boxes, waivers are all hardly necessary to articulate between private persons. And because the professional, academic, and alumni worlds rest on personal interactions and because the personal world intrudes, obtrudes, and often obscures those other worlds, we cannot just concentrate real hard altogether and let racism just evaporate. It won't.

Take a look at the institution that is supposed to be the most fair, colorblind, and impartial in America—the court of law. Do I even need to find some statistics to illustrate the blatant racism of our "colorblind" policies at work? Can I send you a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird? It's oh-so-middle-school, but it depicts a real problem in America, and not just in the South, or in the past, but here and now, in New Jersey, in California, in Indiana, in New York, all over.

Seriously, if all it took was Joe's method—"the best way to end racism would be to stop practicing racism"—then you don't think men and women much smarter than Joe or I would have figured out a way to get that done? Joe suggests that it is liberals who are standing in the way of his beautiful plan to route racism and establish a world of peace and harmony. I find that to be a politically-driven evasion of anything meaningful about the question of race, but I just want to say one thing about this "solution."

I don't think Joe, or many other people who echo his solution, would be quite so eager to adapt that solution to war, for instance. "The best way to end war would be to stop practicing war." If Joe said that, he'd be the kind of soft liberal he derides. If he said that, he'd be soft on defense, soft on terrorism, soft on rogue nations and cagey superpower-wannabes. He'd be soft on Ahminedijad, on Kim Jong-Il, on Saddam, on Qaddafi.

My point is not that we should extend the Bush Doctrine into the problem of racism, because I don't think there are two opposing camps in the effort to end racism—those who want to end racism and those who don't. That white-black kind of thinking is exactly the kind that creates racism.

My point is instead that wishing a problem—like war, famine, genocide, poverty, racism, disease, a nuclear arms race—away is about as reasonable as believing as a fifth-grader that if your entire class refused to do homework forever, the teacher would just stop giving it.


  1. Is he fucking serious? That's one step above "but they wouldn't allow it if we had a national association for the advancement of WHITE people though HUH"

  2. Joe's post is another example of the idea that the best way to defeat an opposing argument is to ignore it completely and just keep repeating your own argument.

    Morgan Freeman's approach has something to it, and a sort of rhetorical appeal (See Martin Luther King and the "content of their character" quote). Look at people as individuals and don't saddle them with baggage, labels, assumptions, etc., because of their race. I assume that he's saying that the significance of race in thinking about people should become like eye color. I agree with that, but I think it's disingenuous to do as Joe does and push the argument without addressing its weaknesses.

    The strongest objection to affirmative action is not that it disadvantages whites, but that it's based on an assumption that minorities are inferior and less able to meet certain standards on their own. This is Clarence Thomas's main problem with it (at least as I understand it from his Ken Foskett biography and his dissents in the affirmative action cases). If you are a member of a race that benefits from affirmative action, others view your achievements as diminished or tainted because you were held to a lower standard.
    White high school kid: I got into Harvard!
    Friend 1: Congratulations. You must have worked hard and you must be really smart.
    Black high school kid: I got into Harvard!
    Friend 2: That's because you're black.
    Of course, this is an oversimplification, but that's the main problem. Joe's clearly barking up the wrong tree if he wants sympathy for the marginal white kids who don't make it off of the waiting list. To say that they--and not the minority kids--are somehow victims of racism is a little weak.

    Resenting minority people for having their own job fairs, for having schools roll out the red carpet for them if their SAT scores crack 1200, for being able to benefit from programs meant to compensate for their "disadvantage" even if they're the children of Barack Obama or Colin Powell... I think that's where Joe's line of argument comes from. It's not necessarily racist, but it's a little short-sighted. All of these types of programs are imperfect efforts to end racism and to prop up some groups in our society so that race isn't a proxy for poverty or lack of education.

    You might argue that these sorts of things are quick-fixes or cosmetic solutions and that the better way is to try to change how people think (as Morgan Freeman seems to argue) instead of redistributing money and education. But to just slap the "racist" label on them is just stupid.

    At the risk of beating a dead horse, the main debate in constitutional law about whether "equal protection" allows affirmative action is about whether "equal protection" embodies an "anti-classification" principle (no disparate treatment based on race, ever) or an "anti-subordination" principle (some race-based classifications are ok -- affirmative action good, Jim Crow bad). Joe would do better to address the difference between those ideas instead of merely saying that classification is subordination.