Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale


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Between Yale and Me

We’re only young and naive still
We require certain skills
The mood it changes like the wind
Hard to control when it begins –”Young Blood,” The Naked and Famous

“A story can take you through a whole process of searching, seeking, confronting, through conflicts, and then to a resolution. As the storyteller and the listener, we go through a story together.”
―Maxine Hong Kingston

BD Days

It all started with a book and FOOT.

Before incoming freshman move onto campus and get oriented during a week known as Camp Yale, many opt for one of Yale College’s multi-day preorientation programs. The offerings include living on a farm, hiking in the woods, a program for international students, and a “Cultural Connections” option that is more campus oriented. Given that I was a suburban kid of untapped country heritage, I opted for one of the six-day Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trips (FOOT) to the Berkshires, located near the northern end of the Appalachian trail in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts.

It was great fun. We stowed away watches and phones, set up camp in the woods, hung our food to keep it from bears, climbed waterfalls by day, and lay beneath the stars at night. The group, my first social circle at Yale, was as effortlessly diverse as my group of friends in my majority-minority Virginia high school. One of the two upperclassman leaders was a black guy; the other a white girl. The freshmen included a Sikh, a Muslim, some Asians, Jews, Christians, and a broad range of colors. Our cultural differences were many and great, and it was fun to explore them. I learned the phrase “hella,” which I now use overmuch; about the awkward zoo (including old favorites: awkward turtle and inappropriate llama); and of the existence of curious shibboleths of American affluence like hummus, nutella, veganism, and Whole Foods.

It was only much later I learned that even this early, innocent decision of preorientation trips was fraught with demographic tension. You see, apparently, “students of color” go to Cultural Connections (which used to exclude white students) and affluent white kids do FOOT, so some contingent of people saw in the latter program’s existence another chapter in the endless book of segregation, privilege, and systemic racism in the whole ordeal. And, of course, I was on the wrong page.

I stumbled upon this delightful chapter sometime after a mandatory freshman orientation event in Woolsey Hall, where some 1,400 new Yalies were forced to endure the desultory ravings of the black president of Spelman College (my deepest condolences to those poor, unfortunate souls) who declared all white people racist by definition. Incoming freshmen had been required over the summer to read her book to this effect, and to this day, I distrust any assertion linked to the claim that Yale avoids talking about race. Subsequently, I had the eye-opening experience of explaining that black kids did not uniformly or even largely agree with or relate to that speaker’s opinion to a mostly white group of fellow freshmen and a senior or two who were employed by Yale College as freshman counselors (a position as vaguely and imperfectly analogous to an RA as a residential college is to a dormitory).

In so many instances of the “conversation about race” we always seem to need even as we keep having it, I noticed claims of debilitating systemic racism on campus often came back to “institutional” factors like the demographic split among preorientation programs, the purported cliquishness of FOOT leaders, supposed bigotry in fraternities, or the differing reactions (and range of offense) at that mandatory “white people are eo ipso racist” reading assignment and presentation. The familiar dynamics of recent campus discussions (especially if you swap out the reading assignment/presentation with the Halloween emails), suggests the divide in perspective on this issue yawns as widely as ever.

Which brings us to the controversial allegations against SAE.

Among the oddest and more taxing recurrences in racial discussions are the spectacles of ludicrously improbable tales that do not hold up under scrutiny. The latest such instance, the obstinately bizarre tale of a “white-girls only,” anti-gay party at SAE strikes a particularly personal chord. Relatively responsible media have reported on why the alleged incidents likely never happened. But for my part, it seems prudent to tell why the stories were never believable in the first place, except perhaps to those largely ignorant of Yale fraternities or who desired to thread an insidious mythology of oppression through the malleable fabric of wounded souls.

When I first came to Yale as a prefrosh (our term for prospective student) during Bulldog Days (our midweek welcome period for admitted students), I had never consumed an alcoholic drink, attended a fraternity party, or even stepped foot in New England. Fashioning myself a curious and bold adventurer, I wanted to kill all those birds with a single three-day trip. I do not recall where I got my first beer, but I do remember that I wound up at SAE that night feeling less bold and adventurous and more awkward and stomach-achey.

Several brothers and their friends came bearing copious bread (an excellent resource at parties) and effusive, welcoming conversation about their own experiences and how well I would fit at Yale. I had never felt more like a group of virtual strangers wanted me to belong among them. I attended many dozens of fraternity parties over four years, from massive, crowded ragers to summer rooftop gatherings with brass monkeys and cornhole. I had amazing and raucous times at Sigma Chi (my neighbor for a year), AEPi, Sigma Nu, Sig Ep, and elsewhere. But SAE was a perennial favorite, stemming from that first Bulldog Days encounter.

The Yale chapter of SAE had always been a diverse and friendly group for as along as I’d known of them, and it showed in every one of the innumerable gatherings I attended there. One of my first gay Yale hookups began with stolen kisses on their dance floor. A wonderful bond with an attractive Latino friend of a friend from Princeton blossomed over multiple summer nights in their backyard. I carried home a belligerently drunk friend, who is utterly delightful when sober, from their porch in the wee hours. I’ve conquered and been vanquished at beer pong in their basement in as many episodes as there are hidden gargoyles on a New Haven campus. A Vaseline wrestling party I helped organize as an elected class councilmember (long story) came to life in their living room. I took my own prefrosh to their Bulldog Days parties every year, because I knew I could trust the environment and its keepers without fail.

When a black SAE brother and fellow Southerner noted, after the infamous fiasco at the Oklahoma chapter, that he found such racism unimaginable at his home in the Yale chapter, my outsider experience corroborated the sentiment. I’ve told friends for years that were I to do Yale all over again, I would rush SAE. (I have a closer personal connection to the Virginia chapter of Phi Sigma Kappa, but their Yale chapter shuttered long ago.) That is as true now as it was back in 2009, when I realized, with familiar upperclassman horror, that I never got around to joining all the groups I liked.

The slander against SAE is certainly not the first time college kids have invented incidents of oppression to buttress peculiar narratives about institutions. The black student body president at Mizzou announced confirmed KKK sightings amid racial protests on campus, only to later admit his sources made it all up. There was the libelous Islamophobia hoax at a the George Washington University. Also the rush to declare leftover decorations a hate crime in Delaware. And the homophobic receipt hoax. And the fake racist vandalism at Claremont McKenna. And fake hate crime and sexual assault reports elsewhere. The list goes on. And on.

I would not necessarily compare the probable non-victims of SAE to the aforementioned bigotry hoaxes—maybe these were vaguely sincere, alcohol-fueled misunderstandings. But if, as racial protesters at Yale and elsewhere say, these claims supposedly contribute to a broader narrative of truth, why would their likely nonoccurrence not do the same? To say nothing of the incidents of racial harassment against nonwhite people who complicate the prevailing narratives (see: SAE brothers inveighed as race traitors, “social justice” protesters spitting on black kids, etc.). What is it about the mythology of systemic oppression that makes it so conducive to fabrication and slander?

I do not know the answer to that question, but such notions haunted me at Yale, where I would encounter frequent double standards and doublespeak about supposed microaggressions and vestiges of racism/sexism/bigotry. They taunted me when other aspects of my cultural heritage were publicly attacked, as in that memorable debate when a certain liberal leader of the Yale Political Union dismissed military officers as cowards and parasites. That this particular gentleman (ahem) obviously lacks the intestinal or moral fortitude to put on any uniform is par for the course. They chided me when (usually white) female students from the Northeast denounced as “sexist” and “chauvinistic” various behaviors I had learned were manners from the women (and men) of my family and community who would regard their omission as barbaric.

Such questions percolated amid instances of the insidious classism, ironic parochialism, and smug tribalism that permeate jokes about the kind of people who shop at Walmart (read:my people) or feel comfortable around guns (also my people) or tell racist jokes as a way to mock racism (my people, again) or join the military or believe race-based affirmative action is deleterious to nonwhite people or talk seriously about virtue instead of rote “solidarity” signaling, no matter how absurd (still my people). These questions arise whenever people, especially administrators, talk of “cultural appropriation” as though reasonable people can actually be expected to agree that such a concept is coherent, has any merit, or is undeserving of contempt. Or when Yale assumed all minority students needed “ethnic counselors” and to be added to email lists to get “ethnic” campus updates because we are apparently that different from other “ethnic” people or whites, who evidently could not be “ethnic.”

Since it need be said, and said again, demographic groups are not monoliths, not at Yale or anywhere. I had—and may still have, if my Yale-enhanced upward mobility hasn’t yet compromised my roots—more in common with peers from middle- and working-class families in the South and Midwest, whatever their color, than with affluent black activists whose obtuse Sith mind tricks around their staggering privilege inspire revulsion or frustration rather than solidarity. I learned in grade school that Puerto Rican food isn’t spicy, many American Latinos don’t speak Spanish, many Amerindians don’t care about the Redskins (or are fans), black African immigrants (who are disproportionately well-educated) are often more culturally like Europeans than black Americans, homemade Korean barbecue and Ethiopian food are much better than commercial variants, and countless other nuggets of my multicultural background that many Yalies from much more segregated upbringings might have found useful in thinking about diversity, culture, and campus.

As such, I shared many bonding moments with white, black, and Latino Yalies about such things as our common Southern childhood anthem, “Go out back and pick a switch” (for the record, I abhor corporal punishment); or getting checked for ticks at dusk after playing in the woods, while our parents chatted over lemonade or iced tea on the porch; or the cake bizarrely masquerading as cornbread in the dining hall; or how to wash and iron clothes. (Believe it or not, there are a disturbingly large number of Yalies who cannot do their own laundry.) And I recall with particular fondness a senior-year Thanksgiving day in Virginia when some black family friends from Arkansas shared a dinner joke at the expense of a black family in New Jersey about the inadequacies of Northeastern cooking.

I’m also reminded of a conversation I had with a white Mississippi belle of the Yale Political Union’s Tory Party—and later with the racially diverse members of Yale’s Southern Society—about how curious it was that Yale Dining served fried chicken and definitely-not-your-mama’s collard greens on the holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. More saliently, I remember the time I helped a white, middle-class farm boy prefrosh from Wisconsin navigate the insidious intricacies of financial aid policy at elite schools, which allowed him to secure a better aid package from Yale and convince his parents that their remaining contribution was a worthwhile investment. That particular conversation, and the consequent friendship, was only possible in the first place (he was the prefrosh of a friend who introduced him to me) because of how profoundly we shared the disorienting experience of being middle-American pioneers on alien terrain.

One could suppose I was the most out of sync with the zeitgeist of Yale when I was the most insistent that we not define ourselves or make assumptions about others based on race. But I do not believe this is true. The late unpleasantness, notwithstanding, I have always believed—and still do—that the spirit of Yale, if there is such a thing, is committed to free inquiry, the battle of ideas, and honest engagement with different perspectives and ideas, whatever the background of people who hold them. When I think of the crippling failures of Yale, I think foremost of mental health, not systemic bigotry, and I hope with eyes wide open that the University improves mightily on that front. But I cannot do justice to the conversation that topic well deserves in a paragraph, though I would recommend you read this article.

In the end, I choose to believe that, at its core, Yale remains the beacon of the search for truth pulsating through the inspiring visions of Master Christakis, in his thoughtful homage to the principle of charity, and the defenders of the Woodward Report, which holds sacred the academic principles of free speech and vigorous debate. I do not recognize the oppressive, racist, paranoid Yale the protesters represent and describe with eloquently aggrieved incoherence against refreshingly thoughtful critics like Conor Friedersdorf. And I take comfort in my conversations with countless Yalies who believe, as I do, that it does not exist.

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Where the Safe Things Are

“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” –Tennessee Williams

“Though when pushed on what exactly makes them feel unsafe or to point to specific incidents of crimes or physical harm on campus, they yielded no answers.” –Casey Breznick

YPU debates affirmative action

This is what a revolution looks like.

In light of the emotion and confusion over recent protests at Yale, one might think I would sympathize with the idea that racism persists on campus. In truth, I do. When I see videos of the protesters at Yale and Mizzou and read articles from their supporters, however, I most strongly feel a range of emotions from pity to furious contempt. I could not help but think how embarrassed my parents or family would be to see my shrieking profanities in the face of a remarkably patient administrator—let alone the Master of my residential college. (For the record, I was in Timothy Dwight College, Silliman’s geographically smaller neighboring rival that is culturally and morally superior in every way.) I could not help but feel revulsion at how unlikely all these white “allies” would condone such churlish behavior among their racial peers, or were the races of student and master reversed.

But he was white, and she was not, so we are supposed to stand in solidarity with the black student. Full stop. So it goes at Yale, Mizzou, Ithaca College, Claremont McKenna, and however far the silk road goes.

The funny thing is, nonwhite people vary as richly and profoundly as white people. This note may seem obvious, but I know of too many nonwhite people afraid to speak out about how these “solidarity” protesters do not speak for them to omit it. I likewise know too many white people who think they are agents of tolerance and diversity in shoring up the “solidarity” narrative that marginalizes so many nonwhite voices.

The disconnect is in part a necessary consequence of a precious yet besieged reality: There is no such meaningful category as a “person of color.” The very idea of it is at best troubling and at worst the strange and sour fruit of a tree poisoned with the wicked roots of a slavish past. The indomitable River Tam, the pseudonym of a brown female Yalie who posts biting criticisms of received “wisdom” on social media, makes the point well in a post I highly recommend reading in its entirety:

The second problem with the “students of color” rhetoric is that it elides the tricky business of non-white students enacting problematics [5] against other non-white students. When you say “students of color feel unsafe,” the implicit message in that sentence is “because of stuff that white students are doing.” [6] But on a campus where 40%+ of students are not white, this charade is hard to maintain.

One of the perpetrators of the Yale Halloween Blackface Scandal of 2007 was a well-meaning non-white international student who was trying to dress up as a shadow. The only time I ever heard an actual racial slur directed at me during my time at Yale came at the hands of a non-white student. A Lebanese-American Yalie dressed as an Indian Chief for Halloween. (our Native American classmate told him off for it). I witnessed a black girl telling off an Asian girl for dating a black guy using the old “stealing our men” reasoning. Jokes about Chinese people eating dogs, Hispanic kids knowing how to mow lawns, black kids being better at basketball. I heard it all. And not from white kids.

[…]

My final point is a simple one: ‘people of color’ is an ugly euphemism because it’s a euphemism of an ugly concept. I prefer the term ‘non-white people’ because that way, the concept can live and die in the daylight. The term ‘non-white’ was purportedly abandoned because it was white-centric. But the problem was never that the WORD is white-centric, the problem was that the CONCEPT is white-centric. The euphemism conceals this – it perpetuates a white-centric model of racial identification and a view of the world that pits white people against everyone else. That’s why I keep using the term non-white – it’s an ugly word born of an ugly dichotomy and I want it to die in the daylight.

I was called an “Uncle Tom” and worse at Yale, including less savory permutations of the term, “house Negro.” (My critics, to their deficit of credit, were polite enough to refrain from spitting on me.) Dear friends—white and brown—told me how much unlike a “typical black person” I am for, among many other things, not being as hung up as they were on “oppression.” I’ve had affluent white liberals lecture me with varying degrees of condescension on the plight of “people of color,” gays, and working-class people in America. (Mind you, I was a progressive-ish Democrat at the time, so the disputes were not partisan.) That a lot of these people came from segregated backgrounds—whereas mine was near the pinnacle of diversity—made it all that much more deliciously ironic. But irony is one of the few consistencies of our eternal “conversations about race.”

Had I been on campus during this late unpleasantness, I might well have been another black kid spat on by the obstreperous victims in need of “safe spaces” and “validated experiences.” To say that I feel alienated from a culture where such views are elevated to “the voices of people of color” is to describe the Pope as a Catholic bachelor.

Detractors of the email Silliman Assistant Master Erika Christakis sent in response to student concerns like to say the broader “discussion” and protests were about more than an email or the alleged SAE incidents. This may well be true, but these issues are nonetheless informative in precisely the opposite ways the protesters and their comrades argue. Rather than showing examples of systemic racism and cultural sensitivity at Yale, the protests and their defenders betray profound flaws in the entire worldview of their argument.

The Halloween email dispute was not, as a South Asian friend furiously reminded me, about allowing or encouraging students to be offensive. It was about the gray areas where reasonable people of any color and ethnicity might reasonably disagree or express concerned confusion in fear of administrative or other forms of harassment. From the Christakis email:

As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it. I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.

Building on this point, my friend and fellow Yalie Kate Maltby adds further perspective:

That’s not to say that everything I encountered at Halloween was comfortable, though there are already university directives for dealing with clear-cut racial mockery, like blackface. But it was complicated: take my fellow international student, a black man from Africa, who dressed as a tribal demon from his homeland, only to be confronted by African Americans for looking too much like a racial stereotype.  Or drag: the Halloween drag of straight frat boys was mincing misogyny on display; the carefree, joyous cross-dress of queer students experimenting was a liberal celebration. Do we ban both?

I could add my own stories, like one of a Native American friend who preferred to don feathered headdresses and shoot bows and arrows while the rest of us were shooting guns. Are we to believe he is “appropriating” Amerindian culture or otherwise helping to marginalize somebody somehow? We could go on. The issue was not blackface but what counts as offensive (and what “cultural appropriation” even means), who gets to decide, and what happens if administrators dislike a student’s attire. Critics like to note the original email was a request or advisory that entailed no enforcement mechanism, and I hope they remember that thought when they receive “friendly suggestions” from their boss or parents or anybody with the resources to make their lives difficult. Sometimes, as they say, the power dynamic itself is sufficient cause for concern.

A related and arguably more damning flaw is the strain of insidious misdirection—what some might call “invalidating lived experiences”—of racializing the contours of dispute to erect a wall of false consciousness through manicured demographic narratives. Detractors of the Christakises purport that nonwhite people stand with them, and their dispute is with the unreconstructed insensitivity of whites.

Obviously (ahem), this is not true.

But the proponents of that view take pains to promote it, even to the point of willful dishonesty. Take as an example this Medium article criticizing the insightful Atlantic article Conor Friedersdorf wrote about the email ordeal. The anonymous author explicitly parrots the paradigm of ignorant and harmful whites, who are apparently demanding the right to be offensive, besieging marginalized nonwhites who seek only sensitivity and understanding in denouncing the email. I happen to know the author knows this split to be false. The quote “sympathize one iota with” comes directly from a Facebook post I made about exactly the (non-email-related) situation described in that paragraph, though neither my name nor race are mentioned. It is visible only to my friends, who would also be able to see I, among so many others, posted and effusively endorsed the very Friedersdorf article the author argues is endemic to how white people think.

The height of this supple illusion comes with favorably trafficked articles and posts about nonwhite students detailing unpleasant but nonviolent experiences they encountered—from costumes they find offensive to wishing they had more [insert demographic group] friends at a party—and proclaiming to feel “threatened” or “unsafe.” But rarely is anything resembling a realistic threat ever mentioned. An old lady asking old-lady questions about the number of black students at Yale is less imposing than the homeless people Yalies encounter daily. Likewise, finding it unpleasant to be the only [race/ethnicity] person in the room (a situation I know well) likely speaks more to your familiarity or relationships (or lack thereof) with the people in that room—and not to any propensity for them to hurt you. I am not aware of any campus epidemics of white students attacking lonely minorities. Violence would of course demand police and other intervention. In lieu of that, however, what exactly is this demographic fear, and why is it any more reasonable or less damning than someone crossing the street to avoid a black or Latino stranger because of stereotypes?

I realize words can hurt and bad assumptions can be uncomfortable. But somebody telling me I’m not like “a typical black person,” being surprised to learn that I can swim (passably), or wondering if I can offer the “black” perspective on something does not qualify as a threat. (I’ve heard all such things and more, including analogous LGBT comments.) It is at best an opportunity to correct a misconception (the old wisdom of winning hearts and minds) and at worst a nuisance that by no means defines my daily experience or conception of the world. Nor should it.

It would be one thing if those using the language of safety and threats on campuses across the country could point to crime statistics and incident reports highlighting an actual trend of danger particularly for nonwhites. Or if they could show a demonstrable trend of racially discriminatory grading or academic/administrative sanctions. (No, a professor insisting on standard grammar does not count.) But they rarely do, at least not at Yale. Instead, we get mobs besieging unaccompanied administrators, accosting members of the media, forcing or demanding prominent resignations, and spitting on nonwhite people (when not inveighing racial epithets) whose views and perspectives are apparently less worthy of respect or validation.

We are told (as we always are) misbehaving protesters are isolated incidents which yield no broader narratives. Minorities are simply too hot with passion for civility, reason, or self-control in the face of the kinds of difficulties millions of people somehow endure without flying off the rails. Yet, respectfully civil emails and highly dubious incidents are heralded as symptoms of a great disease. Memorials to 9/11 are “unsafe” because racism. I don’t get it. Moreover, I don’t believe I should get it. If I am pained and uncomfortable about all this, it’s because a University I love has been hijacked by a fever dream of doublespeak and aggrieved illiberalism, and there are still white people telling me not to “disenfranchise” nonwhites while my nonwhite friends feel alienated and marginalized by a “diversity” culture that appropriates their experience without representing it.

Which brings us to the third flaw in the protesters’ worldview: There is little “courage” in what they are doing, and it is nigh on Orwellian to say people who bait accolades, sympathy, and supine administrative attention have sacrificed anything by telling tales (whether true in reality or in a certain point of view) of pain. Sure, some media may (rightly or wrongly) mock them, but what of it? The privilege of Yale or another alma mater does not evaporate upon a few critical stories arguing different points of view.

I do not see courage in a privileged black student screaming profanities at a mobbed college Master while he patiently tries to engage with the respect she and the crowd refuse to reciprocate—to say nothing of the authoritarian demand for his firing. I do see courage in the Master’s patient engagement and perseverance. I do not see courage in feigning KKK threats or having conniptions over people taking pictures with people wearing uninspiring costumes. I do not see anything to encourage in demanding exams be cancelled or crying when “sensitive” policy debates aren’t rescheduled because students lack the discipline, fortitude, or self-respect to be composed and endure what the warriors of real civil rights struggles—from Selma to Stonewall to ISIS—would probably see as a pride den of origami lions.

I do not see courage in the masses of the “marginalized” physically repelling the eyes of the media or attacking free speech—which irony is not lost on those aware of the critical symbiosis between freedom of the press and the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement. I do see an admirable example in the widely beloved Mizzou professor who implored his class to stand up to bullies and defeat them—and in the Mizzou administrators who rejected his resignation when “marginalized” voices somehow mustered the social heft to marginalize him. I do see courage in the editorial board of the Claremont Independent standing up to the insanity of the scalp-claiming racial delirium at Claremont McKenna.

What I see in the ill temperance and deficient perspective of the protesters and their horrifying applauders is the soft bigotry of low expectations that I hate with more intensity than any microaggression could ever sting. But we all, I suppose, were children once. Some of us even grow up.


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Rage Against the Correctness

“You can’t get anyone to agree with you if they don’t even listen to you first.” –Sally Kohn

If progressives want to burn bridges, who am I to judge?

If progressives want to burn bridges, who am I to judge?

In the aftermath of the battle royale of articles, tweets, blog posts, and other responses to Jonathan Chait’s infamous (and more than a little hypocritical) rally against the sinistral arts of political correctness, I considered adding my own vernacular garrisons to the fray. However, a friend went ahead and offered a guest post employing most of the essential points I would have marshalled and spared me some trouble. But in maneuvering through the battlefield of what has largely been internecine wrangling on the Left, it may be worthwhile to offer some comment as one disadvantaged by the intersectionality, as progressives might say, of several measures of privilege.

There is the curious phenomenon of encountering white (usually heterosexual and often male) liberals from affluent backgrounds and elite educations who are all too willing to lecture me on the profundities of the multimodal oppression that black, gay, and working-class Americans face in this country. I will spare you, my audience, a Terri Lynn Land moment and just note that this recurring phenomenon tended to derail my attempts at having reasonable conversations with some people about how the Ferguson riots attacked black lives far more than the violence and vandalism “disrupted” any “paradigms” or “systems” of oppression. (Curiously enough, most of the black people in my social orbit somehow intuited this reality.)

To be sure, one does not need to be a member of a given underprivileged class to offer pragmatic insights into pertinent social issues. Indeed, non-members of minority-x might occasionally, possibly, maybe offer more insightful—dare I say, better—solutions than some (though certainly not all) members of minority-x in some circumstances, because societal groups and situations, liberal caricatures aside, are not monoliths. As such, though I have many disagreements with the first half or so of J. Bryan Lowder’s progressive attempt at an evenhanded critique of Chait, his broader analysis rang true on the following point:

“The problem with identity politics—in this particular manifestation, anyway—is that it assumes that just because a person claims a certain identity label, that person is necessarily empowered to be judge and jury on all issues pertaining to that category. The truth is, identity grants experience (and experience should be valued to a point); but it does not automatically grant wisdom, critical distance, or indeed, unassailable righteousness. To forget this is to turn individual people who possess a range of intelligences, backgrounds, self-interests, and flaws into two-dimensional avatars for the condition of humanity in which they happen to share. And, by corollary, to assert that it is impossible on some fundamental level for those who don’t share that condition to ever relate or speak to that person as merely another human being with ideas and opinions.

That logic is real, it is ridiculous, and it is truly tiresome. It deserves all the criticism it gets.”

But there is something insidiously unhinged about the self-aggrandizing fury in which many expressly “outraged” voices of “social justice” seem (perhaps ironically, if not surprisingly) more eager to comminate skepticism of progressively dystopian worldviews rather than seriously engage a broader range of perspectives and concerns (e.g. that #blacklivesmatter should extend to the black livelihoods immolated in the riots). In short, as even many progressives have noted, there seems to be a driving force underlying the worst abuses of P.C. culture that seeks to antagonize, conquer, and eradicate what are viewed as insufficiently progressive “problematic” strains of thought, by whatever means necessary and possible, casualties be damned.

To put it more bluntly, there’s a whiff of vengeance and exploitative power-dynamics about the whole exercise that approximates a mockery of the fight against ubiquitous hatred, fear, and power-inequality that avatars of social justice purport to represent. In this regard, Michael Brendan Doughtery seems to have grasped a key reality (his emphasis):

“Political correctness conflates normal slights, sincere disagreements, thoughtless cracks, and the verbal miscues of the uninitiated with actual oppression. In extremely crude terms, political correctness engenders (or really, embodies) extreme sensitivity to status. The victims of historic oppression were accorded a low status by their oppressors. Imposing a low status on a group is a way of granting yourself permission to abuse its members. And so some of the normal rough and tumble of human interaction can be mistaken (or willfully misconstrued) as an attempt to replicate the very hierarchies that cause oppression and genocide. A real ‘P.C.’ blowup leaves one person crying and feeling misunderstood and ‘othered,’ while it leaves another person feeling both defensive and offended that the crying person appears to be trivializing real oppression.

Political correctness looks like grasping aspirational privilege. Related to the above. The right not to be offended, or the ability to punish those who offend your finely tuned sensibilities, is a form of privilege. Without having conducted a detailed sociological study, my anecdotal impression is that ‘politically correct’ styles of engagement are most popular among a class of people that is in a similar position to the old petite bourgeoisie:college students and strivers whose primary class consciousness is not their relative privilege over, say, Appalachian whites or people in the developing world, but their lack of power and status compared with the haute bourgeoisie, which is composed of everyone from crass GOP-affiliated lax-bros that want to go into finance to the polished and tamed ‘liberal’ graduates of Sidwell to the real inheritors of privilege like the Bush twins.”

It is a straightforward exercise in experience, empathy, or simple imagination to concede that an amorphous morass of systematic biases and (dis)advantages have accrued over time into what has come to be known as “privilege.” It likewise follows that the parameters of this privilege shift across various ethnic, cultural, geographical, socioeconomic, and other lines that impact different people in unimaginably complex ways. It is from this very complexity—and our avowedly universal belief in the value and dignity of individuals as such—that we ought to understand and accept that different experiences afford a broad array of perspectives that might not have occurred to us but perhaps should have. Some of these perspectives are more worthy of engaging than others, but where folks are wrong, it is generally worth considering that errors come from ignorance or misunderstandings than from malice. This is what is generally meant by the principle of charity, as my guest author noted.

A key ideological problem with the radical leftists whom Chait criticizes, some of Chait’s critics in turn, and even Chait himself is precisely this lack of charity—either in argument or in “live and let live” activism. You do not shout down or vituperatively impugn people whose views, motives, or reasoning skills you fundamentally respect. But once political opponents, or even skeptics, are deemed evil and perpetrators or abettors of evil—be it racism, sexism, classism, or whatever other forms of conscientious bigotry or stupidity are often ascribed to conservatives or the insufficiently progressive—then the desperate, venomous tactics of total-war activism become as natural and justifiable as the merciless socioeconomic quarantine we righteously impose on the most blatant antagonists of societal pluralism, from David Duke to Donald Sterling. Except, of course, people like Duke and Sterling are not remotely the norm.

In other words, the very folks who would have you believe that all their political or social theory critics—let alone actual opponents—are agents of animus, intolerance, and self-serving power dynamics (whether by pushing grannies off cliffs or promoting Taliban-style theocracy) are probably the same folks you should most suspect are projecting their own ignoble biases or motivations for their own agendas. Be wary of the activists and writers who demand that you heed their perspectives but have no use for anybody else’s. That is not to say that outrage is never good, reasonable, or worthwhile. Rather, those who demonstrate a sustained incapacity to refine rage at an ever expanding pandemonium of ills into a productive, conciliatory force that compels skeptics into constructive understanding instead of defensive recoil, are probably not going to be winning many wars you want to be part of.

Years ago, I wrote on the need to commit to the long-suffering project of tolerating those whose views we find abhorrent on even the most pressing issues of life and politics. In a similar vein, my friend Leah Libresco, a liberal Catholic blogger at Equally Yoked and The American Conservative, criticized the firing of Brendan Eich as a entropic salvo in a disturbingly segregationist trend of totalizing ideological warfare that threatens to transmogrify every aspect of our lives. That we are both openly LGBT people defending compassion for and patience with gay rights opponents whose views we would never want to see prevail is perhaps why those articles resonated across social and political divisions. The vast majority of Americans want to hear from and engage with those who manage not to believe the worst of them. The project of empathizing with sociopolitical detractors can at times leave even the best of us ineffably verklempt (to employ one of my boyfriend’s favorite words). Yet those situations in which empathy is the most elusive are precisely the ones in which it is most essential for all involved.

No, it should not fall on those afflicted by societal injustice to suffer the grating learning curves of those more privileged. Yes, engaging people where they are, defending the same colloquial liberties and philosophical charity for them that we would want for ourselves, and figuring out how to get them where we want them to be is the very mettle of social progress.

All that said, if you’ve read this post and happen to be an incorrigible progressive Democrat, feel free to ignore everything I’ve written here. Winning hearts and minds is probably racist anyway.


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The Ethnic Strategy, Part 2: Identity Politics in the Age of Obama

This post is part of a series on racism and identity politics in America. Find the full series here. Find The Daily Caller adaptation here.

“No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them” –Elie Wiesel

“It is undeniably the case that racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition and not the other.”

If the Republican Party isn’t racist and doesn’t rely on the racism of its constituents for electoral success or philosophical direction, then how do we explain the chasm of opinion and perspective between Left and Right?

The GOP has historically been the party of classical liberalism based in individual liberty—the bedrock of modern American conservatism. As such, themes like self-reliance, economic freedom, and equality before the law have been integral to Republican philosophy since the days of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In the past, these principles manifested in opposition to slavery and bigotry. More recently, they serve to check the engineering hands of an expansive welfare state and to ensure that government programs don’t become a hand down to ruin. The Republican Party is, as Lincoln put it, “for both the man and the dollar”, and its focus is on securing a robust economy.

By contrast, you may have noticed that the 2012 Democratic National Convention placed something of a premium on social issues. References to abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and immigration permeated the show as the Democratic Party wanted to remind and impress upon you that the Republicans are on the wrong side of history, demographics, and the uncanny valley of humanrobot relations. By extension, you are to understand that proposals from the evil, benighted Right to resolve our national fiscal troubles cannot possibly be good for anybody who isn’t rich, white, male, and heterosexual.

As such, a recurring theme on the Left is that any attempts to reform or criticize welfare are to be dismissed as “dog whistles” for racist conservatives (but somehow are only heard by liberals). Yet, whatever one thinks about the rhetorical criticisms of welfare, the bipartisan Clinton-Republican reform of 1996 transformed a disastrous policy into an approach that saw minority poverty reach superlatively low levels in the 00s. In fact, blacks and Hispanics were less impoverished in 2010 and 2011, despite the Great Recession, than in pre-reform 1995. (By comparison, overall poverty in the Obama years reached the highest levels in twenty years.) This development is particularly incredible given that America has seen the highest black unemployment in decades—roughly double white unemployment—under Barack Obama’s governance.

Yet we are told the reformers are racist.

Even education reform gets racially coded. In the wake of the Tea Party Revolution of 2010, the Washington Post ran a widely circulated article by Stephanie McCrummen entitled, “Republican school board in N.C. backed by tea party abolishes integration policy”. Most of the first two pages extol diversity, inclusivity, and affordability in “one of the nation’s most celebrated integration efforts.” Meanwhile, the “new majority-Republican school board backed by national tea party conservatives” gets juxtaposed with “a 21st-century case for segregation” and an obligatory mention of Brown v. Board. (Did I mention this is in Dixie? You know, where minorities are miserable and oppressed.)

Accepting that diversity is valuable and progress is not painless, the benefits of the program were dubious at best—schools were increasingly overcrowded, most black and Latino students were not proficient in reading or math, and only 54% of poor kids were graduating. As a biracial mother of two Wake County students put it, “right now, it’s as if the best we can do is dilute these kids out so they don’t cause problems. It sickens me.”

Even the Republicans-abolish-integration article inadvertently makes a case for what Paul Fitts, a Republican candidate for Wake County Commissioner, would describe as achievement-oriented schools grounded in communal involvement. Namely, qualified poor and/or minority students were underenrolled in advanced math classes under the previous “integration” policy. The kicker: school officials say they’ve known about this problem for years, but many parents were left in the dark. In other words, sending kids to faraway schools stifles parental involvement and allows ongoing systemic problems to fester under the negligent eyes of self-interested bureaucrats.

But lest you think McCrummen was building to a more balanced analysis, her article ends shortly after ruminating on “irony in the possible balkanization of the county’s schools at a time when society is becoming more interconnected than ever.” Thus she joins the good company of liberal media that reflexively deride conservative concern for actual problems as racism.

Of course, the discussion of dog whistles and identity politics extends far beyond welfare and education reform:

“The virtually white, wildly enthusiastic throng that lined Reagan’s motorcade route waved Confederate and American flags. Reagan didn’t disappoint them. He punched all the familiar code attack themes, big government, liberals, welfare, and law and order. He punctuated his blast with the ringing declaration, “I believe in states’ rights.” […]

Romney and Ryan can’t openly espouse states’ rights as Reagan did. But they update the code themes by lambasting Democrats, wasteful big government, runaway deficit spending on entitlement programs, and their full blown assaults on so-called Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security programs, and labor unions.” [My emphasis]

I cannot fathom how we are supposed to have a productive conversation when just about every legitimate issue on the table is declared criminally unsubtle “code” for the resurrection of Jim Crow. But it’s a truism now that racism is an exclusively conservative phenomenon. Hence, Joe Biden telling a black audience in the South that Republicans will “put y’all back in chains” is definitely not race-baiting. However, Mitt Romney responding to this charge—and the president’s allies claiming Romney is a felon who caused  a woman to die of cancer—by saying, “Take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago,” is tantamount to “niggerization”. But an ad portraying a black man punching out white women has no racist or sexist undertones whatsoever, as the ad’s target is a Republican.

President Obama ascended to office on a wave of uproarious optimism, heralding a syncretic revolution of reconciliation and growth. There was much soaring rhetoric about a post-racial America where our leaders would be statesmen and our politics would be unitive, ennobling, and transparent. We were told there was plenty of Hope—An infinite amount!—and it was all for us. Yet here we are, bitterly mucking through the dregs of old antagonisms, as the president’s allies conquer an empire of division with an army of lies.

Welcome to the Promise of the Age of Obama. Feel free to move forward and vote for change.

Read the rest of the series hereFind The Daily Caller adaptation here.