Commentary Magazine


Topic: race

Time to Eliminate Ethnic Studies?

Earlier this month, word broke that the Black Student Union at the University of Michigan is demanding that racial and ethnic studies required as part of the core curriculum for the College of Literature, Science and Arts be also required at the university’s other component colleges, such as the College of Engineering. The student government president supported the new requirement, according to a Daily Caller report:

It would be helpful for economics students to study “poverty, inequality and labor through the scope of race,” he [Sagar Lathia] suggested. Activists hope that any proposal approved by the administration would assert identity-based themes — such as gender, sexuality, immigration status, religion and race — as a core focus of the curriculum at each of the university’s colleges.

Frankly, the opposite might be truer: It might be comforting to students who seek education simply to amplify their political beliefs—after all, that is pretty much the effect if not the purpose of most racial and ethnic studies courses—but engineering courses would teach a discipline of thought and the difference between fact and theory that would enhance any Michigan student’s education, even if they lowered the grade-point average of those more accustomed to being marked on effort rather than result.

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Earlier this month, word broke that the Black Student Union at the University of Michigan is demanding that racial and ethnic studies required as part of the core curriculum for the College of Literature, Science and Arts be also required at the university’s other component colleges, such as the College of Engineering. The student government president supported the new requirement, according to a Daily Caller report:

It would be helpful for economics students to study “poverty, inequality and labor through the scope of race,” he [Sagar Lathia] suggested. Activists hope that any proposal approved by the administration would assert identity-based themes — such as gender, sexuality, immigration status, religion and race — as a core focus of the curriculum at each of the university’s colleges.

Frankly, the opposite might be truer: It might be comforting to students who seek education simply to amplify their political beliefs—after all, that is pretty much the effect if not the purpose of most racial and ethnic studies courses—but engineering courses would teach a discipline of thought and the difference between fact and theory that would enhance any Michigan student’s education, even if they lowered the grade-point average of those more accustomed to being marked on effort rather than result.

Perhaps the University of Michigan—and other prominent schools—should go further, however, and eliminate race and ethnic studies courses altogether, at least at the undergraduate level, because they are hopelessly narrow and deny students the broader base and context they would need to address race and ethnicity in a serious way. There is nothing wrong with African-American history, Latino studies, or gay studies, but they are by definition compartmentalized, more suited for a final thesis project or a Ph.D. concentration than the broader base a bachelor’s degree should afford. To use an area studies metaphor, limiting oneself to any specific ethnic group in the context of U.S. history is akin to studying Jordanian or Palestinian history without studying Islam, Christianity, broader Arab history and, for that matter, Ottoman history and Iran. Or, perhaps in the world of medicine, the analogy would be to studying gynecology without studying physiology, anatomy, or chemistry.

Perhaps the students taking race and ethnicity courses believe that U.S. history isn’t adequately reflective of their own experience, but embracing a willful ignorance of broader American history isn’t the way to further either knowledge or citizenship, nor is it the way to acquire the perspective to understand the difference in importance between Cesar Chavez and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This does not mean minorities or women should be ignored in history. But certainly social history classes and, where appropriate, political or diplomatic history classes as well, might incorporate them.

Ethnic studies do a disservice to many of those immersing themselves because it promotes intellectual ghettoization to the detriment of education. And while feminist theory, gender theory, and racial theories might sound good in narrow academic jargon, too often they become a cover to supplant research with politics. Simply put, theory is for people who don’t have libraries. Two cheers for the Black Student Union at Michigan for starting a debate. But now that debate is opened, perhaps it can be pursued to the opposite conclusion, one that prioritizes educational rigor over politics and inclusiveness over separation.

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School Punishment According to Race, not Behavior

Sometimes the mind just boggles. The Department of Justice has issued a letter informing schools about federal laws against racial discrimination. Consider this paragraph:

Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race. Examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation (e.g., ticketing or other fines or summonses) upon any student who commits a specified offense — such as being tardy to class, being in possession of a cellular phone, being found insubordinate, acting out, or not wearing the proper school uniform.

In other words, punishment for bad behavior must be meted out according to racial quotas. If the school is one-third black, one-third white, and one-third Asian, then each racial group must receive one-third of the punishments. If two-thirds of the infractions are committed by one racial group, then so what? That’s discrimination and discrimination violates federal law.

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Sometimes the mind just boggles. The Department of Justice has issued a letter informing schools about federal laws against racial discrimination. Consider this paragraph:

Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race. Examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation (e.g., ticketing or other fines or summonses) upon any student who commits a specified offense — such as being tardy to class, being in possession of a cellular phone, being found insubordinate, acting out, or not wearing the proper school uniform.

In other words, punishment for bad behavior must be meted out according to racial quotas. If the school is one-third black, one-third white, and one-third Asian, then each racial group must receive one-third of the punishments. If two-thirds of the infractions are committed by one racial group, then so what? That’s discrimination and discrimination violates federal law.

It is highly unlikely that each group is going to misbehave equally, for exactly the same reason that it is highly unlikely that the boys named John, the boys named David, and the boys named Robert will misbehave equally: the world doesn’t work that way. If actually enforced, this edict would require schools to do one of two things. Either they will have to let some miscreant students in one racial group go unpunished, because that group has reached its quota of punishments, or will have to hand out punishments to innocent students in other racial groups to keep the punishments racially balanced. The first alternative almost guarantees disruption and a poor learning environment, the second is simply grotesque. Should the schools bring back the Roman practice of decimation, and use lots to pick the innocent students to be expelled?

Where does such nonsense (in the literal as well as figurative meaning of that word) come from? It comes from the left’s obsession both with race and with groups. There are no individuals on the left. It is not little Johnny Jones who brings a frog to school and puts it in a girl’s desk, it is just a white boy who does so.

How dehumanizing can you get?

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The Disparate Impact of Holder’s War on Private Schools

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the civil-rights milestone will continue to loom large in the ideological media. The right will talk about how much progress we’ve made, the left will talk about how far we have to go, and the president himself will give a speech marking the occasion this week in which he’ll talk both about the progress and the ground that must still be covered. His speech will be all the more powerful for the obvious symbolism, though the speech text will likely be thoughtful and somewhat moving in addition.

It is also a speech to which the president’s attorney general, Eric Holder, should listen carefully. His latest crusade is to sue the state of Louisiana for giving black students in failing public schools vouchers to attend better schools on the grounds that the voucher program is resegregating Louisiana’s public schools. That is not an exaggeration, and I have to admit to being somewhat hesitant to even write about this for fear that Holder is kidding–because, well, he has got to be kidding.

Here, for example, is the Holder DOJ’s logic, as expressed in a petition to get the district court to enjoin the state from awarding additional scholarships to students from school districts still under federal desegregation orders:

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As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the civil-rights milestone will continue to loom large in the ideological media. The right will talk about how much progress we’ve made, the left will talk about how far we have to go, and the president himself will give a speech marking the occasion this week in which he’ll talk both about the progress and the ground that must still be covered. His speech will be all the more powerful for the obvious symbolism, though the speech text will likely be thoughtful and somewhat moving in addition.

It is also a speech to which the president’s attorney general, Eric Holder, should listen carefully. His latest crusade is to sue the state of Louisiana for giving black students in failing public schools vouchers to attend better schools on the grounds that the voucher program is resegregating Louisiana’s public schools. That is not an exaggeration, and I have to admit to being somewhat hesitant to even write about this for fear that Holder is kidding–because, well, he has got to be kidding.

Here, for example, is the Holder DOJ’s logic, as expressed in a petition to get the district court to enjoin the state from awarding additional scholarships to students from school districts still under federal desegregation orders:

For example, in 2011-2012, Celilia Primary School in St. Martin Parish School District enrolled a student body that was 30.1 percent black, 16.4 [sic] percentage points lower than the black composition (64.5 percent) of St. Martin Parish School District as a whole. In 2012-2013 Celilia lost six black students as a result of the voucher program, thereby increasing the difference between the school’s black student percentage from the district’s and reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.

Got that? The school had a “racial identity” as a white school, and the state of Louisiana awarded scholarships to a group of black students to get them out of the white failing school and into a better private school. According to Eric Holder’s Justice Department, the Louisiana voucher program gave private school vouchers to too many black students. What this means in practice is that Holder would not challenge them on segregation grounds if, merely because of their race, the state allotted fewer vouchers to black students in favor of giving the scholarships to white students.

But the DOJ wasn’t done. The Justice Department wants to appear to be an equal-opportunity offender, crushing the hopes and educational futures of children of all races. So the DOJ found a school that the United States federal government says has too many black students and criticized the voucher program for selecting white students:

Similarly, the Independence Elementary School in Tangipahoa Parish School District enrolled a student body that was 61.5 percent black, which was only 14 percentage points greater than that of Tangipahoa Parish School District (47.5 percent black), but it lost five white students as a result of the voucher program and, thus, increased its black student percentage away from the district-wide black student percentage, again reinforcing the racial identity of the school as a black school.

But of course Holder isn’t an equal-opportunity offender: black students are absorbing the brunt of the Justice Department’s crusade against education. As the state explained:

While the federal petition would let courts approve vouchers in those school systems next year, Brian Blackwell, attorney for the Louisiana Association of Educators, said it likely would take a lot of time, effort and evidence to persuade the judges.

State Education Superintendent John White took issue with the suit’s primary argument and its characterization of the program. Almost all the students using vouchers are black, he said. Given that framework, “it’s a little ridiculous” to argue that students’ departure to voucher schools makes their home school systems less white, he said. He also thought it ironic that rules set up to combat racism were being called on to keep black students in failing schools.

Almost all the students using vouchers are black, according to the superintendent. This is a program largely designed to find ways to get black students stuck in failing schools an education. The government’s public-school monopoly, designed to enrich union bosses, is failing. The Louisiana government, under the leadership of Governor Bobby Jindal, isn’t willing to give up on those students, and is throwing them a rope. The United States Department of Justice, under the leadership of Eric Holder, will do anything to cut that rope.

The left likes to talk a lot about disparate impact. In ruling against the NYPD’s stop and frisk program, Judge Shira Scheindlin even found a new term for it–“indirect racial profiling.” So imagine what Democrats would make of a policy that disproportionately harmed black students trying to get a decent education if the partisan roles were reversed. In some ways, then, it’s appropriate that this incident coincides with the anniversary of a key moment in the fight for civil rights for black Americans. No one watching the behavior of this Justice Department, after all, could claim there are no longer government-sanctioned obstacles in their way.

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Deconstructing Reality and Zimmerman

On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder, in addressing the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, reiterated that the Department of Justice is considering filing federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman in the aftermath of his acquittal. Mr. Holder went on to say, “I want to assure you that the Department will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law. We are committed to standing with the people of Sanford, with the individuals and families affected by this incident, and with our state and local partners in order to alleviate tensions, address community concerns, and promote healing. We are determined to meet division and confusion with understanding and compassion – and also with truth… We will never stop working to ensure that – in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community – justice must be done.”

What an ironic formulation for Mr. Holder to use. Set aside the fact that Attorney General Holder, who considers America to be a “nation of cowards” on race, has done more than his fair share to divide us along racial lines. Set aside, too, the fact that Mr. Holder’s relationship to the truth is often tenuous, including when he’s testifying before Congress on matters ranging from the Fast and Furious gun-running program to the Department of Justice’s investigation of Fox’s James Rosen.

What I had in mind is that in this case the facts, the truth, and the law all point in the same direction: George Zimmerman was not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter–and racism was not a factor in the death of Trayvon Martin. The prosecution team said as much. (Angela Corey, the special prosecutor in the case, conceded, “This case has never been about race.”) So did the jury. (One of the jurors in Zimmerman’s state trial told CNN on Monday that she did not think Zimmerman racially profiled Martin. “All of us thought race did not play a role,” said the juror.) And so did Chris Serino, the Sanford Police Department detective who headed the shooting probe. He said the fatal shooting was not based on Martin’s skin color, nor was Zimmerman considered to be a racist. That doesn’t mean what Zimmerman did wasn’t misguided or a tragic error (see William Saleton’s piece here). But it does mean that (a) he wasn’t guilty of a crime according to Florida law and (b) the Department of Justice needs to give up meddling in this case since there was not a shred of evidence presented in the trial showing Zimmerman is racist or that his shooting of Martin was driven by racial bigotry.

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On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder, in addressing the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, reiterated that the Department of Justice is considering filing federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman in the aftermath of his acquittal. Mr. Holder went on to say, “I want to assure you that the Department will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law. We are committed to standing with the people of Sanford, with the individuals and families affected by this incident, and with our state and local partners in order to alleviate tensions, address community concerns, and promote healing. We are determined to meet division and confusion with understanding and compassion – and also with truth… We will never stop working to ensure that – in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community – justice must be done.”

What an ironic formulation for Mr. Holder to use. Set aside the fact that Attorney General Holder, who considers America to be a “nation of cowards” on race, has done more than his fair share to divide us along racial lines. Set aside, too, the fact that Mr. Holder’s relationship to the truth is often tenuous, including when he’s testifying before Congress on matters ranging from the Fast and Furious gun-running program to the Department of Justice’s investigation of Fox’s James Rosen.

What I had in mind is that in this case the facts, the truth, and the law all point in the same direction: George Zimmerman was not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter–and racism was not a factor in the death of Trayvon Martin. The prosecution team said as much. (Angela Corey, the special prosecutor in the case, conceded, “This case has never been about race.”) So did the jury. (One of the jurors in Zimmerman’s state trial told CNN on Monday that she did not think Zimmerman racially profiled Martin. “All of us thought race did not play a role,” said the juror.) And so did Chris Serino, the Sanford Police Department detective who headed the shooting probe. He said the fatal shooting was not based on Martin’s skin color, nor was Zimmerman considered to be a racist. That doesn’t mean what Zimmerman did wasn’t misguided or a tragic error (see William Saleton’s piece here). But it does mean that (a) he wasn’t guilty of a crime according to Florida law and (b) the Department of Justice needs to give up meddling in this case since there was not a shred of evidence presented in the trial showing Zimmerman is racist or that his shooting of Martin was driven by racial bigotry.

But that hardly seems to matter to some of those on the left and in the media, who are determined to turn this case into an example of a hate crime. Consider NBC News, which doctored recordings by Zimmerman in order to make him appear to be a racist. Here’s how NBC’s March 27, 2012 Today show’s abridged version of Zimmerman’s comments (made the evening of February 26, 2012) went: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” And here’s how the real conversation went:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.

Dispatcher: OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

So what’s going on here? Part of the answer is that liberals long to use a case like this to transport them to an Atticus Finch-Tom Robinson, Edmund Pettus Bridge moment. They want things like the Zimmerman trial to be at core about a great civil rights struggle, even if it’s actually not. Which leads to my second observation.

What we’re seeing from the left is post-modernism on full display. The facts, the truth and objective reality are subordinate to the progressive narrative. In this particular instance many liberals so want the killing of Trayvon Martin to be driven by bigotry–which would serve as both an indictment of racial attitudes in America and turn a horrible mistake into a “modern-day lynching”–that they will make it so, even if it requires twisting the truth into something unrecognizable. What matters, after all, is The Cause. And everything, including basic facts, must be bent to fit it. This kind of systematic deconstruction of truth is fairly common in college liberal arts courses all across America. But when it becomes the primary mode of interpretation in a murder trial, it is something else again.

Most of us, when we hear the words “justice must be done,” believe that what is right, reasonable, fair and in accordance with the facts be done. But some on the left have something else in mind. For them, justice is a tool in a larger political struggle, a means to an end. Justice can be at odds with reality if reality is at odds with liberalism. Which is why the efforts to turn the Zimmerman verdict into a racial miscarriage of justice is so discouraging and so damaging.

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Liberals and the Race Card

In response to the GOP opposition to Ambassador Susan Rice potentially being nominated to be secretary of state, liberals are doing what is by now second nature for many of them: playing the race card. Never mind that the opposition is based on the fact that Ambassador Rice misled (knowingly or not) the nation about the lethal attacks on the Benghazi consulate. Never mind that Republicans who are critical of Ambassador Rice were supporters of Condoleezza Rice when she was nominated to be secretary of state and, before her, Colin Powell. Never mind the fact that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is admired by many Republicans and most conservatives — and has been treated maliciously by the left.

Those facts don’t fit the libel, so they’re ignored.

The Susan Rice episode is part of a deeper malady. During the presidential campaign liberals time and again accused Republicans of being racists and of using “dog whistles.” They wanted to put African Americans “back in chains,” in the words of Vice President Biden. If a Republican criticized President Obama on his retreat on welfare work requirements, it was motivated by racism. It reached such absurd levels that some liberal commentators like Chris Matthews and John Heilemann argued that referring to Chicago was evidence of racism. (Mr. Heilemann has recently graduated to making gay jokes about Republican senators. Classy.)

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In response to the GOP opposition to Ambassador Susan Rice potentially being nominated to be secretary of state, liberals are doing what is by now second nature for many of them: playing the race card. Never mind that the opposition is based on the fact that Ambassador Rice misled (knowingly or not) the nation about the lethal attacks on the Benghazi consulate. Never mind that Republicans who are critical of Ambassador Rice were supporters of Condoleezza Rice when she was nominated to be secretary of state and, before her, Colin Powell. Never mind the fact that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is admired by many Republicans and most conservatives — and has been treated maliciously by the left.

Those facts don’t fit the libel, so they’re ignored.

The Susan Rice episode is part of a deeper malady. During the presidential campaign liberals time and again accused Republicans of being racists and of using “dog whistles.” They wanted to put African Americans “back in chains,” in the words of Vice President Biden. If a Republican criticized President Obama on his retreat on welfare work requirements, it was motivated by racism. It reached such absurd levels that some liberal commentators like Chris Matthews and John Heilemann argued that referring to Chicago was evidence of racism. (Mr. Heilemann has recently graduated to making gay jokes about Republican senators. Classy.)

About this I wanted to say a couple of things, the first of which is that the left in general — and MSNBC and the Congressional Black Caucus in particular — have used the charge so recklessly and promiscuously that it’s been drained of virtually any meaning. That’s terribly unfortunate, since at some point when the accusation fits, it won’t be nearly as potent as it should be. But to hear someone in politics accused of racism these days is more likely to elicit from a reasonable person a roll of the eyes than anything else. For some liberals, every Republican is George Wallace or Bull Connor. (Both men, by the way, were Democrats.)

My second observation is that I’m more inclined than in the past to believe that the left actually believes the charge. That is, in past years I felt like reflexively accusing conservatives of racism was a political weapon — a charge the left knew was false but which they thought might be politically advantageous. I’m now more of the view that those on the left actually view conservatives and Republicans as animated by malign intentions. For them, the personal is political. It’s not enough to disagree with Republicans; they cannot help but demonize those who hold views different than their own. Politics pits the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness. It is all very adolescent and very Manichean, and it is all quite harmful to politics.

This mindset exists among some on the right, to be sure, and where it does it should be confronted. But as a general matter conservatives tend to ascribe less cosmic importance to politics than do progressives. In any event, the bile that emanates from many liberal quarters is getting worse, not better. It is a consuming rage. And over time, it disfigures the heart and soul of those who are imprisoned by it.

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