To many, to even ask these questions directly is to be either naive, insensitive, or a racist. This, and the uproar over this year's admissions figures in general, raises a number of questions which signal two tragic detours which strong currents in African-American thought have taken.
One of these detours is traceable, ironically, to something miraculous, the forced desegregation of the United States in the 1960s. It is historically unprecedented that a disenfranchised group effect an overhaul of its nation's legal system to instantaneously abolish centuries of legalized discrimination. The country as a whole can congratulate itself on this, as well as the Affirmative Action programs established to ensure that this worked.
One result of this situation was that it set up a context in which black Americans were free to confront whites with their indignation and frustration on a regular basis and be listened to. White Americans have surely learned some long-needed lessons from the endless harangues they have had to suffer at our hands over the past thirty years ÷ I grew up watching my mother, who had participated in sit-ins in segregated Atlanta, taking active part in this throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and I'm glad she did it.
Where this has become a problem has been in combination with something else, a post-colonial inferiority complex. After centuries of degradation and marginalization, it would have been nothing less than astounding if African-Americans had not inherited one, and the very need for a Black Pride movement pointed this up. However, genuine pride comes from accomplishment in the present tense, and after a mere thirty years we naturally have a way to go. One of countless ways this reveals itself immediately is in the battle cry "You're still black!", often hurled at an African-American who appears to question their membership in the group for one reason or another. The implausibility of a Jew telling an assimilated child or acquaintance "You're still Jewish!" points up the heart of "You're still black!" ÷ the statement implies that being black is in some fundamental way a stain, incommensurate with the hubris perceived in the addressee, and the fury in the delivery makes this even clearer.
Strawberries are great, but not marinated in crushed garlic. In the same way, the privilege of dressing down the former oppressor becomes lethal when combined with this inherited inferiority complex. Encouraged to voice umbrage on one hand, and on the other hand haunted by the former oppressor's lie that black is bad, many African-Americans have fallen into a holding pattern of wielding self-righteous indignation less as a spur to action than as a self-standing action in itself. This behavior is a strategy to detract attention from the inadequacies we perceive in ourselves by highlighting those of the other. An analogy, partial but useful, is the classroom tattle-tale, ultimately motivated less by a desire to improve the student body than personal insecurities. My debt here to Shelby Steele's The Content of Our Character is obvious, and the quick dismissal of his book by so many black thinkers was, in its way, a sign of its accuracy.
I in no sense mean to imply that we need not sound the alarm, and loudly, at remaining strands of racism. However, when the whistle is frozen at a shrieking level while the conditions which set it off recede ever more each year, it becomes clear that what began as a response has become more of a tic, endlessly retracing the same cycle like a tripped off car alarm. In other words, Orlando Patterson is correct in identifying a cult of victimology which has infected a great many African-American thinkers, characterized by a quest to tease a racist interpretation out of every possible interracial encounter in America, while fiercely downplaying signs of progress or harmony.
Of course, many feel that racism actually does persist on the virulent level which the victimology cult claims, but all indications are that it simply does not. Housing segregation is now a marginal phenomenon, much of it now due to harmless and ordinary self-segregation by working and middle class blacks. Even when I was a child in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the "interracial couple" was a curiosity, their children automatically "torn". Today, black-white relationships and marriages are nothing less than common in many parts of the country, and George Jefferson's hostility towards the "zebra" couple the Willises on the 1970s sitcom The Jeffersons looks downright quaint to many modern teenagers. The proportion of black men in the prison population is a horror, but the implication often drawn from this by victimology hounds that all black American men labor under a shadow of potential imprisonment is a fiction: these statistics are skewed by the tragic state of the underclass who, let us recall, constitute less than 3% of all black Americans. African-Americans now hold so very many top-echelon positions in American public life that they barely bear listing, all unthinkable as recently as thirty years ago. Police brutality and harrassment is one of the most recalcitrant problems, but because even this is now increasingly reported and condemned, this shows all signs of being yet another facet of institutionalized racism gradually on the wane. Overall, the idea that "racism is the same as it was 50 years ago ÷ it just went underground", no matter how gracefully expressed, is a gravely ahistorical statement which does not begin to fit reality.
Yet in a recent New York Times article, Manning Marable grimly intones that "a segment of the minority population moves into the corporate and political establishment at the same time that most are pushed even further down the economic ladder" (emphasis mine), drawing a parallel with South Africa. If Marable is committed to the full enfranchisement of the race, we would think that he would be carefully following the figures over the years, rejoicing in the steady progress they display, even while remaining vigilant that the progress continue. But his confident dissemination of this distorted, self-indulgent cartoon leads one to suspect that in the end, he has little interest in this progress. What appears to drive people of this frame of mind is the cheap thrills of perpetual self-righteous indignation, dragging new generations of gullible students into the same self-defeating holding pattern of paranoia and insecurity.
This kind of talk is often depicted as a fringe phenomenon, wielded by a few melodramatic loudmouths for purposes of power. However, this frame of mind in fact percolates downward into every crevice of black American society, where it is felt fiercely and deeply, not simply "put on" for utilitarian purposes. To be considered "authentic", all African-Americans are expected to subscribe to these statistics simplistically conflating underclass conditions with the lot of the race as a whole, even those driving Lexuses and eating gourmet pasta.
One vignette will illustrate the lay of the land here. I will never forget seeing a black undergraduate at Stanford in 1991 stand up during a question session after a speech by a visiting black college president to recount a white mathematics professor telling her to withdraw from a calculus course because black people were not good at math. This professor may well have told the student that she couldn't do math, but I frankly cannot believe that anyone with the mental equipment to obtain a professorship at Stanford would, in the late 1980s in as politicized an atmosphere as an elite university, blithely tell a black student that black people cannot do math. Even if he were of this opinion, he would have to have been brain-dead to casually throw this into a black student's face, risking his job, reputation, and career. Yet the student felt free to tell this story to an auditorium of black students, and was vigorously applauded for airing this demonstration that nothing has changed ÷ by hundreds of black students who owed their very admission to Stanford to the massive societal transformation they had been taught to dismiss. This was a nothing less than typical event; I have witnessed countless similar episodes over the past fifteen years.
Things like this illustrate a conviction among a great many African-Americans that virulent racism in America is eternal. What people of this mindset seem to miss is that in a transition between one phase and another, there will inevitably be transitional points. The underclass is a tiny segment of the African-American population who are now caught in a self-sustaining tragedy; most African-Americans have benefitted from desegregation, and two generations are have now lived entire lives with an upward mobility, a freedom of travel, and a richness of social life unthinkable even in 1970. Because we are at a point of transition, nasty episodes, although increasingly occasional, are nothing less than inevitable ÷ the glass ceiling black executives often encounter, racially motivated hate crimes, Abner Louima. These things must be identified, condemned, and stamped out. That is what we are doing. However, there are no logical grounds whatsoever for reading these things as a slide backwards, as so many seem so inclined, even anxious, to do. If someone puts down mothballs in their house, if they encounter a couple of moths in a closet a couple of days later, they do not claim on this basis that mothballs do not work. The professional pessimism maintained by so many African-American people of influence in the face of a miraculous social revolution has fallen so starkly out of sync with reality that it reveals itself to have become a self-perpetuating cancer. Many of our thinkers and educators are simply not interested in the good news, because it is out of step with the agenda, which has, oddly enough, become to carefully collect the bad news ÷ in order to maintain an image of white America as an implacable enemy.
This victimology cult is crucial to fully understanding the atmosphere at Berkeley this spring, where it has deeply colored the reception of the news from Admissions.
First result: Many blacks consider Affirmative Action necessary out of a sense that black Americans in 1998 are still engaged in an interminable struggle against pervasive race-based discrimination, and view the ban as part of a general racist "backlash" (in which case the legions of white professors and deans working overtime at UC schools trying to figure out how to preserve diversity on their campuses despite the ban must be among the most consummate actors the world has ever known).
Second result: The abolishment of Affirmative Action is automatically interpreted as callous neglect of the disadvantaged, the assumption being that most African-Americans are being "pushed down the economic ladder" while the tens of thousands of middle class black people driving, shopping, walking, riding trains, eating in restaurants, at the movies, or comprising most of Berkeley's black undergraduates are all "exceptions".