On the surface, it’s difficult to view Rachel Dolezal as anything but yet another depressing example of just how far the left’s push for the deconstruction of meaning and fact can go. Her fraudulent attempt to pose as a black woman and a victim of discrimination may not have stopped with lies on official applications but might even have extended to false claims of harassment. Yet yet her masquerade has not been greeted with universal condemnation. With the much-publicized acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner as a woman, many are asking why we can’t treat race — which is to some extent a social construct rather than a rigid divide between people — as similarly malleable. If she wants to think of herself as black, who are we, the thinking goes, to tell her she can’t? Understandably, many African-Americans as well as others are not prepared to accept this willingness to treat issues of identity in such a cavalier fashion. But is there something in this argument that might point the way toward a better society? If there is, it completely undermines the entire politics of grievance to which Dolezal has dedicated her life.
A strong argument against the Dolezal equals Jenner formula comes today from black author Tamara Winfrey Harris who writes in the New York Times to protest Dolezal’s actions. According to her, the real problem with her bizarre journey from white to black was made possible by the legacy of segregation and racism in which a “one drop” rule allowed anyone with even partial African ancestry to be viewed as black. She’s right about that since most African-Americans, to one extent or another, have both black and white ancestors. Though such laws are thankfully consigned to the country’s sordid past, the persistence of racism in any form, however marginal to mainstream culture and political reality (i.e. a black president and a black female attorney general) makes many blacks still wary of anything that harkens back to those memories. The problem in her view is that while Dolezal might be able to get away with pretending to be black, it is still impossible for most blacks to pretend to be white. And so long as that is true, such impersonations strike her as a vestige of racial privilege rather than a free choice that should be respected, if not honored.
As Harris writes:
Being able to shift one’s race is a privilege. Ms. Dolezal’s masquerade illustrates that however much she may empathize with African-Americans, she is not one, because black people in America cannot shed their race. We cannot proclaim the black race a nebulous concept, while strictly policing whiteness and the privileges of that identity. I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her.
She has a point. But if the goal of our society is, as Martin Luther King Jr. memorably put it, to judge people by the “content of their character rather than the color of their skin,” why can’t a more enlightened America drop the entire effort to divide people by race? Harris would answer that racism is too great an obstacle and even in its much-diminished current state, it’s possible she’s right. Much as we would like to say that in a free country, every person should be able to choose their race as easily as they can choose their religion, blacks are not white and persons as Caucasian-looking as Ms. Dolezal was before she began darkening her skin and altering her hairstyle are still white.
But let’s leave appearance aside for a moment and ask ourselves if we would like to live in a country where race was a matter of choice rather than something imposed on us. That may strike many of us as being as counterintuitive as a man wanting to be a woman but if Rachel Dolezal truly wants to be a black woman, neither society nor the law should seek to interfere with her so long as she doesn’t do so in a manner that harms others or consists of telling or swearing to lies.
But in that theoretical world in which that might happen, it is precisely the sort of race-baiting activism that Dolezal (who was an active participant in the Baltimore protests over the killing of a black man by the police) has engaged in that makes such a goal unattainable. Ironically, rather than working to create a post-racial society in which the barriers between the races are demolished, Dolezal and many of her adopted comrades in what now styles itself the civil rights movement seek to entrench the divides between us and even to enshrine them in law. It is the advocates of affirmative action and other counter-productive race entitlements that hold onto the notion that America is a country primarily motivated by old hatreds long after such notions have become marginal or altogether discarded. Rather than the virtually non-existent supporters of Jim Crow being the problem, it is the Al Sharptons and their lesser-known acolytes such as Dolezal who do the most to render us a nation divided by race in 2015.
The point here is that a society that would be prepared to treat Rachel Dolezal’s white origins and identity as a mere detail that she could discard at will is one in which the racialist cause to which she seems to have dedicated herself makes impossible. Though there is much about this story that has the flavor of a troubled mind rather than a coherent vision of a better society, those who either condemn or support Dolezal would do well to ponder just how much the sort of racial hucksterism that many of her comrades in the civil rights movement does to make the rigid divisions between Americans permanent.