An Answer To Ross Douthat’s White Washed Vision
I actually agree with one of Douthat’s claims, that the formation of a new, post-racial power structure will eliminate the need and basis for affirmative action. Where I — middle aged, privileged white man/member of the academic elite as I acknowledge I am — dispute Douthat is in his belief demographic changes in themselves lead to an end to discrimination.
Case in point, Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s arrest in his own home, after providing identification for the crime of having lost his keys. Gates, for those of you who don’t know, is not merely a member of the academic elite, but as the holder of a chair at Harvard; as a major author and editor recovering African American literature from its apocryphal status; as probably the best known and most influential scholar of African American Studies in this country; as a serial host of PBS broadcasts and ubiquitous interviewee — he is fully paid up member of America’s academic aristocracy. If you are familiar with David Lodge’s Changing Places novels, he is, in certain ways, (and I mean this as a compliment) someone that Morris Zapp would have called brother.
And yet, it appears, he is guilty of the crime of AWB — Affluence While Black. Would a white professor — would I — have been arrested in the same circumstances. The counterfactual is untestable, but I’ll venture a guess and say no.
And my point? It is that Douthat matches in ignorance of the real world all of his uninformed arrogance in his judgements passed on it, and on much more accomplished people than he will ever be.
Yes, it is true that affirmative action for the victims of discrimination can morph into the same back-room privilege that puts 20 somethings with a gift for reasonable prose into a series of posts in which his lack of real world knowledge does not disqualify from opining on whatever. In that context, I was struck in Douthat’s latest column by this remark:
It was a characteristic O’Connor move: unmoored from any high constitutional principle but not without a certain political shrewdness. In a nation that aspires to colorblindness, her opinion acknowledged, affirmative action can only be justified if it comes with a statute of limitations. Allowing reverse discrimination in the wake of segregation is one thing. Discriminating in the name of diversity indefinitely is quite another.
Douthat, proud possessor of a BA from Harvard (but no law degree) manages to dismiss Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in an almost Buckley-ian sniff of disdain. The little lady is “not without a certain political shrewdness.” How generous.
The Latina, of course, fares even less well:
It’s doubtful, though, that Sonia Sotomayor shares this view.
“It is firmly my hope, as it was expressed by Justice O’Connor,” she told Senator Kohl, “that in 25 years, race in our society won’t be needed to be considered in any situation.”
But O’Connor didn’t hope; she expected. And Sotomayor’s record suggests that there’s a considerable difference between these postures — that for the nominee, as for most liberal jurists, as long as racial disparities persist, so too must racial preferences.
Such fine parsing of hope vs. expectation; for one as blessed as Mr. Douthat, expectations do not fail but to be met.
How else does someone who has never worked a non-media job, never met a payroll, never worked a political campaign, nor, heaven-forfend, organized his community — someone who, by all that’s holy, has had even less contact with the real world than his NY Times predecessor, that self-made son, William Kristol — come to his conclusion, which is that Judge Sotomayor is part of the emerging rainbow conspiracy to use the fact of past discrimination to preserve illegitimate non-white power indefinitely into the future.
I don’t know if Douthat knows his own bad faith, or actually believes that his position in society was achieved without the exercise of advantage systematically denied to most — and differentially so for those of color.
I do know that he could not imagine himself in the position Professor Gates found himself in within his own home — and for good reason. As Graham Greene had it in Our Man in Havana (that rare double: a must-read book and a must-see film) the policeman educates the English expatriate on the distinction between the torturable and non-torturable classes, remarking that his own father had been an example of the former group.
Douthat is as firmly placed in non-torturable America as it is possible to be. Gates, for all his greater accomplishment, institutional affiliation, and unmeasurably more significant wealth of experience is not.*
And that’s why affirmative action has not run its course; why O’Connor’s expectation and Sotomayor’s more modest hope that by 2028 we will inhabit the post-racial society of Martin Luther King’s dream may not in fact be realized by that deadline. For all of Douthat’s insouciant assertion that Senator Sessions and his ilk are yesterday’s men, right now, today, those men and their ilk — and their scions, like Douthat himself — retain their privileged status where it counts: both in power and on the street.
Mere numbers do not alter the fact of American life, racially charged. Demography does rule, eventually– but only an actual end to discrimination, only the creation of a society where a black man being arrested for breaking in to his own home would actually be a surprise, will mark the point at which we may say for ourselves that we’ve finally put race behind us.
Don’t believe me? Go Skip Gates’s bail.
Update: I was out of town over the weekend and didn’t read Frank Rich’s Sunday column on Sotomayor and her interrogators until this morning. There Rich agrees with Douthat (or rather, Douthat follows Rich) in the claim — the hope, I’d say — that Sessions, Graham, Coburn and the rest are dinosaurs, old, racist, sexist, pretentious, unreflective, hypocritical, morals-for-thee-but-not-for-me buffoons who have not yet realized that they are merely the walking extinct. I share both writers’ hope; my expectation, however, is that powerful men know how to wield power, and that advantage will keep the kind of society that prospers such unworthy representatives ticking over for a while yet. For a stray reason why, consider this story from the WSJ as highlighted by DK contributor Jerome a Paris.
Update 2: Via Gawker, Gates is released with charges dropped after four hours in jail. With pix of Gates in handcuffs, being led from his own home.
*Gates’ experience, btw, is no anomaly. I have several black colleagues at MIT who, to a man and woman, have told me that (X)WB remains a pulling-over offense even here in the People’s Republic of Cambridge and its greater Boston environs. To put it bluntly, Douthat has given no evidence in anything I’ve read of his that he has any idea of what people outside his charmed circle actually experience. A wise Latina does in fact know better — but if Douthat is the standard she has to beat, it’s a very low bar.