Commentary Magazine


Race Fever

American universities are aflame with race fever. Official committees on “racism and cultural diversity,” departmental commissioners of moral sanitation, and freelance vigilantes are in a state of high alert for signs (real or alleged) of “racism.” Their Argus-eyes maintain unrelaxing surveillance of statistical charts documenting failure to meet racial quotas in hiring and enrollment, of verbal insults by “white” students against “people of color,” and of classroom remarks by professors imprudent enough either to risk generalization about a group or to declare that generalizations about groups tell us nothing about individuals.

Such diligence rarely goes unrewarded. Since many American campuses have “populations” larger than hundreds of American cities, it is hardly remarkable that incidents of behavior less than saintly, including racial harassment, should occur. What is remarkable is the way in which such incidents are now regularly exploited by political opportunists, people Joseph Epstein has labeled “the intellectual equivalent of ambulance-chasers.” A few instances should suffice to illustrate the general pattern.

At Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas earlier this year, a freshman was “reported to university officials” for singing “We Shall Overcome” in a “sarcastic manner” during a late-night dormitory discussion. The campus was still vibrating from this shocking violation of the school’s “racial-harassment rules” when it learned of a still more flagrant one, in which a white graduate student “was reported for calling a Hispanic classmate a Mexican in a derogatory manner after an intramural football game.” Although the student whom the New York Times dubbed “the victim” of the slur received an immediate apology from the culprit, apology was also demanded, and received, by the university’s judicial board and then by its “intercultural affairs office.” But since Big Brother (very much like his omnipresent Big Sister, ever watchful for sexism) is not easily placated, this triune apology had to be supplemented by penance in the form of thirty hours of community service to minority organizations in Dallas.

In 1986 SMU had established a course called “Black and White.” Its purpose was, as one satisfied student enrolled in it declared, to teach that “whites must be sensitive to the African-American community rather than the other way around.” Sensitivity traffic is heavy, but it flows in only one direction. Any suggestion that members of a formerly despised and mistreated group may be capable of wrongdoing is punished with utmost severity. “The spirit of improvement,” wrote John Stuart Mill in a famous understatement, “is not always a spirit of liberty.”

There is only one sense in which these courses in sensitivity training conform to old-fashioned ideas about liberal education: their main purpose seems to be to ventilate the moral sensibilities or, if I may change my metaphor, to flex the moral muscles in an imaginary gymnasium rather than to put one in touch with the truth about the actual world. At Emory University in Atlanta, a black student gained national attention in March when she reported several incidents of racial harassment, including the ransacking of her dormitory room, the scrawling of racial slurs on its walls, and the receipt of death threats in the mail. These threats, so Sabrina Collins alleged, caused her to curl into a fetal ball and to lose the power of speech. But by June, local prosecutors reviewing the case concluded that it was all a hoax, and that the only Emory student who participated in the harassment of Sabrina Collins was Sabrina Collins herself. Her imagination, it seems, had been fueled by an eagerness to impede an inquiry into suspicions that she had cheated in a chemistry class. This fiasco, however, did nothing to dampen the zeal of those who had been lashing the university authorities for their failure to combat the racism that had victimized Collins. “It doesn’t matter . . . whether she did it or not,” said the president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, “because of all the pressure these black students are under at these predominantly white schools. If this will highlight it, if it will bring it to the attention of the public, I have no problem with that.” No problem, that is, with falsehood, with fraud, or with the doctrine that members of an oppressed group are incapable of doing wrong.

Innocents who wander into these modern Salems will quickly discover the profound truth of Abigail M. Thernstrom’s description of the universities and colleges as “islands of repression in a sea of freedom.” In the 1970 revised edition of Beyond the Melting Pot, a study of race and ethnicity in New York City, Daniel P. Moynihan and Nathan Glazer wrote that “Race has exploded to swallow up all other distinctions, or so it would appear at the moment.” Yet even Senator Moynihan must have been surprised by the incendiary effect of his saying to the students of Vassar College, in a February lecture, that “the United States of America provides a model of a reasonably successful multiethnic society.” The blundering ear of the Vassar thought police heard Moynihan say that the U.S. was “a model of ethnic cooperation,” and construed this alleged remark to be racist. For good measure they alleged (and Moynihan denied) that he had told a Dutchess County (N.Y.) official who is from Jamaica to go back to that country if he didn’t like the U.S.

As is often the case in such incidents, what actually happened was far less important than the keen desire of the race-obsessed witchhunters to exploit what was alleged to have happened. Leaders of the Black Student Union at Vassar demanded an apology from the college administration for the remarks they themselves had foisted on Moynihan and his removal from the Eleanor Roosevelt professorship, under which rubric he had given his lecture. As the handbook of student activism clearly states that bullying, however satisfying to the militant spirit, must never be its own reward, small wonder that demands soon were also made for the establishment of a task force on racism, for the creation of a black student center, for the opening of an intercultural center, and for bountiful provision of the other desiderata of progressive race-thinking. Students who declined to join the demonstration, even if they supported its demands, were denounced by its leaders as—surprise!—racists too. One of these leaders announced, with touching candor, that he and his fellow tribunes had for some time been seeking a way to bend the college administration to their will: “This was the perfect catalyst.”

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To witness an outbreak of race fever at first hand is to have an experience, not soon forgotten, of just how lethal is the mixture of aspirants to victim status with pretenders to guilt, who compound for sins they are inclined to by damning those they have no mind to.

The University of Washington in Seattle, with 34,000 students and over 2,500 faculty, is one of the largest on the West Coast. It has had considerable experience of spectacular confrontations over the issue of race. In March 1970 the Black Student Union and the Seattle Liberation Front (led by the future editor of Tikkun, Michael Lerner, and described by then Washington State Attorney General—now U.S. Senator—Slade Gorton as an organization “totally indistinguishable from fascism and Nazism”) accused the university of complicity in racism because it refused to cancel an athletic competition with Brigham Young University, a Mormon school. A mob composed of members of these two organizations and their followers invaded six university buildings, brutally beating over a dozen instructors and students who disobeyed the order to strike. Nowadays far greater results can be achieved with less arduous methods.

Like any university that cherishes its credentials as a progressive institution, Washington encourages its administrators to search out manifestations of racism and use them as occasions for reeducation of staff and faculty. In my own department (English), in March 1989, the chairman, after diplomatically settling an altercation between a white secretary and a black one, urged us all to attend a program on “Exploring Diversity,” in which the campus Office of Human Rights would enlighten us respecting the “new consciousness about diversity, about the changing demography of our institution and our society.” His memo was positive in tone, and avoided all denunciation. This, it turned out, was a colossal error. He was immediately “reprimanded” by unnamed “colleagues” for the “indirect, insensitive” language of his memo—the insensitivity consisting, of course, in his failure to brandish the talisman of “racism.” Instead of throwing said colleagues out of his office with a warning never to return again, my chairman at once sent out a much longer memo, which thanked the censorious colleagues for revealing to him his own “insensitivity,” mentioned “racism” repeatedly, and apologized profusely for the use of “language that encourages just the kind of action that resulted in the need for this meeting.” Again, even more insistently than before, he urged everyone to attend the scheduled “workshop.” (Wasn’t it Kingsley Amis who said that “If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop”?)

It soon turned out, however, that this departmental unpleasantness was but a local skirmish in a larger struggle. On May 3, 1989, William P. Gerberding, president of the university, stepped on a mine while addressing an awards dinner for minority students. He made a very small “ethnic” joke while conferring the Hispanic American Recognition Award on a student in civil engineering. Perhaps, jested Gerberding, the student had acquired his interest in the highway system while “driving down the highway at 70 mph in the middle of the night to keep ahead of immigration authorities.”

The honoree “didn’t know if I should take it as a joke or not.” But he soon received guidance from higher authority. The organization of Chicano students (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or MECHA), when it learned of the joke, informed the student that he certainly ought to have been offended. Ernesto Sandoval, the “Commissioner” of MECHA, summoning the indignation worthy of his title, complained that the university “had done nothing about this” and declared that an offense of such enormity could not be committed with impunity. He also stoked the fire of his wrath by remembering, now, that a year earlier Gerberding had publicly urged university students to work hard to keep pace with the Japanese—an obviously racist use of “the yellow peril.”

Within a few hours, Sandoval had received a letter of apology from President Gerberding. But the letter was deemed “unsatisfactory” because it was insufficiently contrite and self-abasing. Gerberding said he would “try again.” But again he failed: apology number two, though it amplified number one by heaping praise on the whole Hispanic population, still failed to utter the magical term “racism.” Besides, it was not a public apology: “If he offended our community in public,” said the Commissioner, “then he can apologize to us in public.”

Ever willing to try harder, Gerberding agreed to apologize, now for the third time, at a public forum to be held in the aptly named Red Square in the center of the campus. He also consented to participate in a seminar especially designed for administrators found to be inadequately endowed with “ethnic and racial sensitivity.” But if Gerberding thought that confessing to racism and agreeing to reeducation had opened the way to absolution, he was soon to be disillusioned. The 200 students (out of 34,000) who assembled to pass judgment on him were in no mood to be merciful.

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Gerberding recited nearly all the banalities his tormentors wanted to hear. He announced that the university’s true purpose is “the celebration of diversity,” which he defined (just as his audience does) entirely in racial terms: “Diversity includes all of you folks out in front of me, white, black, all in betweens.” Like them, he took it as self-evident truth that mind is a function of physiology, that the apparent fruits of intellect actually originate in genetics, and that all people belonging to a particular ethnic group either are, or should be, of one mind and will. Therefore, if you want intellectual diversity, you need a racial recipe that mixes “white, black, [and] all in betweens” in exact proportion to their presence in the general population.

Meanwhile, the assembled embodiments and celebrants of diversity were alternately heckling and chanting, in metronomically monotonous unison, the inspiring verses: “Hey, heyl Ho, hol Racism has got to go!” Their collective tooth-baring, their will to offend, to bully, to humiliate, comported oddly with the image of victim they so passionately claimed for themselves. Furthermore, however pleased the demonstrators might have been by Gerberding’s instinctive compliance with the psychology of abdication, they wanted something tangible. As one smarmy, self-righteous lout at the front of the mob put it: “Since you can publicly admit your insensitivities and shortcomings toward people of color and racial issues, we expect your support of the Ethnic Studies Requirement as a sign of your new awareness and of our needs.” Campus bullies, like Middle Eastern terrorists, hold to the conviction that no bad deed of theirs should go unrewarded.

For a year, a faculty-student Task Force on Ethnicity had been assessing a proposal that would compel every student at the University of Washington to devote one-quarter of the Humanities and Social Science credits required for a bachelor’s degree to Ethnic Studies courses. The ideal (if not the actual) purpose of such courses would be to “sensitize” the American majority toward this country’s minority groups and to build a curricular bulwark against the omnipresent evil of racism. But since Gerberding did not have the authority to force the hand of the committee, the anti-racism struggle now shifted to the final deliberations of the group, which the demonstrators were urged to attend (and to influence).

Whether it was by accident or by the intervention of invisible powers, I entered the spectators’ gallery of the crucial meeting just as the committee, which had already been in session for an hour, began to consider the Jewish question. Other “white” groups, such as Italian and Irish Americans, had, I learned, been denied most-favored-minority status at an earlier stage of the committee’s deliberations. Now it was the turn of the Jews to be measured. Are the Jews a minority in this country? Is anti-Semitism a form of racism? Hardly abstruse questions, one might suppose; and yet they aroused intense debate. The students, representing African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Chicano/Latino Americans—otherwise known as the “major” minorities—unanimously opposed the inclusion of Jews and anti-Semitism in the Ethnic Studies curriculum. They seemed genuinely bemused by the idea that people not in their political party should have the temerity to invade their turf and poach on the (very considerable) spoils of their anticipated victory. Their recommended solution—eventually approved by the committee—was to substitute the term “people of color” for the term “minorities” wherever it appeared in committee documents.

The prize for semantic juggling was won not by the students, however, but by the two professorial representatives of the Ethnic Studies program itself, both of whom have also presided over Afro-American Studies. Professor Joseph Scott could not assent to the inclusion of Jews and anti-Semitism in the proposed scheme of courses unless other “Semitic” peoples, most particularly the Palestinian Arabs, were also included. Professor Johnella Butler also opposed inclusion of Jews because Jewish persons are not necessarily of “Semitic descent” and “anti-Semitism is not institutionalized in the country.”

These remarks brought a raising of the collective eyebrow and even some tittering. For it appeared that of the 37,000 who teach and learn at the University of Washington, the only ones ignorant of the fact that anti-Semites hate Jews and not “Semites” were the professors of Ethnic Studies, the officially designated historians and exorcists of racism. Some uncharitable observers, to be sure, suspected that if you touched the delicate, exotic fruit of this professorial ignorance, it would quickly lose its bloom and turn out to be not so much ignorance of the history as guilt of the sin of racism. Could the spiteful introduction of Palestinian Arabs into a discussion of American minorities be innocent? Could the assertion by a grown-up and heavily degreed woman that institutional anti-Semitism (as if that were the only kind) is absent from this country be indicative less perhaps of a susceptibility to balderdash than of a desire to make up for that absence? The more closely one observes the actions and the moral temper of the leaders of the campus campaign against racism all across this country, the more urgently does the old adage “Physician, heal thyself” rise to one’s lips.

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It is hardly a secret that a majority of the more assiduous practitioners of progressive race-thinking at the universities define themselves as Marxists. At first glance this might seem surprising, because Marxism traditionally sought to explain everything by the material motives of class and property, not biology. But Marxism, as Jacques Barzun and Gertrude Himmelfarb have pointed out, is itself essentially racist in form and effect, depending as it does on a depiction of the bourgeois as, in Barzun’s words, “not a human being with individual traits, but a social abstraction, a creature devoid of virtue or free will and without the right to live.”

The collapse of the Marxist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe, the embarrassing fact that the first truly working-class revolution in history has been made (by Solidarity) against a socialist government, may have dulled the luster of economic determinism; but they have not extinguished the deep-seated modern desire to reduce human spirit and culture to matter. “Drive out nature with a fork,” says Horace, “nevertheless she will continually return.” With a little job retraining, yesterday’s economic determinist becomes today’s race (and “gender”) determinist, seeking in physical origin and genes the key to mind, and excoriating colleagues who, in the already immortal words of Harvard’s Derrick Bell, “look black and think white.”

It is a sorry irony that “celebration of diversity” has become the slogan of self-proclaimed reformers of an institution called the university, a word whose origin and ideal meaning suggest that many parts have been “turned into one”—universum. If, as we still have good reason to believe, humanity is an infinitely varied repetition, then people of many groups, of diverse backgrounds, of a thousand dispositions can, if they practice tolerance and self-restraint, communicate with each other through the vehicle of mind. The university, in its ideal character, is predicated on the assumption that values which originate in the self or the group or the nation can be extradited and made available to those who share with the originators nothing except the human status. It aspires to Matthew Arnold’s ideal of disinterestedness, the free play of the mind, unhampered by sect or party, over “the best that has been thought and said in the world.”

That our universities have failed to achieve the perfection of this nobly inclusive ideal, no one should deny. But will turning it on its head in favor of the superstition that members of particular groups have one mind and live solely for a political purpose really extend cultural choice and individual rights? Do we really want our universities to become training schools for prigs and Pecksniffs who pride themselves on the ability to spot racism at a distance of twenty miles, who choose their professorial “role models” according to race, and who scan their reading lists for proportional representation by race, “gender,” and class, but who can no longer fathom the meaning and implication of Wordsworth’s definition of the poet as “a man speaking to men”?

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