After media scrutiny about all the white men in the University of Kentucky administration, two women and a Hispanic male are named finalists in the provost search. Can a public emphasis on diversity undermine the goal?
Eighteen colleges are now on the mascot pariah list of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Three are Braves. Six are Indians. Four identify as specific tribes -- Seminoles, Utes, Chippewas, and Choctaws. Carthage College calls itself the Redmen. The University of Illinois has created its own tribe, the Fighting Illini. The last university on the list -- Southeastern Oklahoma State -- doesn't beat around the bush or go for modifiers. Its team name is the Savages.
American Indian leaders and activists have objected to their tribes' use as sports mascots since the 1970s, but the public has shrugged its shoulders and gone on cheering for its favorite Indians and Redskins, a term one linguist compared to Darkies. It is hard to have a serious public discussion about sports mascots because most of us don't know enough history to put the debate into historical context. Native Americans know this history. These are their family stories.
American Indian sports mascots exist under a double bubble of mythological padding. One layer is the mythology that surrounds, in this case, college sports and the "student athlete." The other consists of the deeply planted myths we have absorbed about American Indians. Under all this mythological wrapping, our thinking tends to get fuzzy. Fake Indians don't seem problematic because they are so very normal, just part of our "cultural wallpaper," in the words of Jay Rosenstein, who made the documentary film In Whose Honor?
The mascot debate is actually the latest in a long series of battles over who controls American Indian culture. Since most of us never learned the history of white/Native relations in our country, the issue seems to have sprung out of nowhere. Until I wrote a book about sports mascots, I never knew the history of forced assimilation. But culture was as much a battleground as land. The U.S. government conducted a strenuous campaign to wipe out American Indian cultures, religions, and languages. American Indian children were forcibly taken from their families to boarding schools where they were physically punished if they spoke their tribal languages or tried to maintain their religious observances. In a country that prides itself on religious freedom, the First Americans had none until 1934. Before this, Native people faced sanctions even when trying to conduct ceremonies and dances on their own reservations. One of the few historical incidents many of us do know about, the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee, took place because American Indians were gathering to dance at a religious ceremony that the government was determined to suppress.
At the same time that we were trying to destroy American Indian cultures, non-Native Americans loved to dress up and play Indian. What could be more American -- we've been doing it since the Boston Tea Party. Mascot performances like Chief Illiniwek, a fictional chief who dances at Illinois on the 50-yard line at halftime or Osceola, who gallops in at Florida State University games carrying a burning lance, trace their origins to the Wild West show, traveling big-tent performances that were part of the American circus tradition. This is why mascot performers and Indian profile logos almost always feature feathered headdresses, no matter what tribe they represent. The feathered headdresses are typical of Wild West performers, who were recruited from the Sioux Nation. Buffalo Bill, the best-known Wild West ringmaster claimed, just like modern universities, that his show was both historically accurate and morally uplifting.
Buffalo Bill's signature acts -- the Indian attack on the settler cabin, on the circled wagons, and on the stagecoach -- survived after the circus era as film and television clichés. Wild West shows were filmed and evolved into Westerns. When Americans flocked to Wild West shows, they believed they were seeing the last vestiges of a dying culture. It was true that Native populations were declining. But this idea, that American Indians would disappear like dinosaurs, became so embedded in American mythology that even today many non-Native Americans are startled to encounter a flesh and blood Native person. Boy Scouts were told it was their patriotic duty to learn Indian songs and dances lest they be lost forever. Thrilled by the Wild West performances, college boys and Boy Scouts emulated the showbiz Indians when they created Indian sports mascots, many of which date from the 1920s.
The college boys and Boy Scouts, despite their good intentions, were working under an enormous misperception. Native American people survived. Their populations rebounded. Having paid dearly to save what is left of their cultures, religions and languages, they want to control how they are used and passed on. Understandably, they resent how lightly colleges appropriate their cultures for entertainment at sports events and it is particularly hurtful that this happens in higher education. The United States Commission on Civil Rights pointed this out in April 2001 when it urged non-Native colleges to retire American Indian imagery and names in sports.
Public symbols that use other minority groups have mostly disappeared. They make us all uncomfortable. Can you imagine the Washington Darkies or the Florida State Chicanos? At Sonoma State University, when Jewish groups objected to the Cossacks nickname, they became the Seawolves within two years. If students were to stage minstrel shows, as they did in the 30s, the students would be justifiably criticized. But when America discusses race, the terms are usually black and white. Native Americans say they feel invisible.
The strong attachment students feel for their mascots or nicknames is not instinctual; it is promoted. Students are indoctrinated into a campus cult of racial stereotyping. Critical thinking on the subject of the mascot must be discouraged and the school has to promote an anti-educational, anti-intellectual reaction. This is even more disturbing because it takes place in a setting of talk about "honoring" Indians. But Indian mascots are fantasy figures, firmly stuck in the past.
One parallel symbol is Aunt Jemima, the slave cook who loved the plantation so much she didn't want to leave when she was freed. She is a white fantasy that denies and betrays the real history of slavery, just like the mascot Osceola. The real Osceola fought against American expansion into Seminole land and was betrayed when he came in good faith to a peace council with American soldiers. But his mascot reincarnation is happy to welcome Florida State fans.
Knowing this history, Native people find it hard to explain to us why mascots are so offensive. We can't hold up our end of the argument. It's like the modern teenager who looks at the Aunt Jemima syrup bottle, sees a positive depiction of a smiling African-American grandmother, and says, "What's the problem? It's so positive."
The problem isn't this particular logo, but the long pattern of denying the history of slavery that the original Aunt Jemima, with the ads depicting her life history, represents. In addition to slavery, there is another reality we have swept under our historical carpet: how we acquired this land we love so much. When you sweep something that large under the rug, you get bumps. Mascots are bumps in our historical carpet, something we are trying to rearrange and deny to make it more appealing. In our version of the story, American Indians just disappeared and our mascots commemorate them with respect and honor.
But American Indians are not gone and they don't want to be commemorated with a halftime Wild West show by fans that know nothing of their culture. Universities' and fans' proprietary insistence -- this is ours and we'll keep it no matter what you say -- is offensive. When the two sides clash on campuses, the racial hostility gets ugly.
The mascot/nickname/logo issue is about how the majority depicts the minority, so if you go to a reservation and interview people randomly, they may say it's not a concern for them. But listening to Native people who have spent time on the campus at Illinois or at the University of North Dakota, I usually hear strong feelings of frustration and bitterness. In those places, everything Native exists in relation to the mascot or nickname. And because American Indians nearly always oppose the mascot, the hardline students who support the mascot become anti-Indian.
Although the mascots are not intended to be hostile or abusive, the campus climate around them certainly can be, especially for Native students. Native leaders and educators, including the American Congress of American Indians, list mascots and anti-defamation as one of the important issues facing Native people. Native people want to be in our institutions of higher education, not as mascots and sports souvenirs, but as equals and contemporaries -- as students, faculty and staff. They want their history taught truthfully in the classroom, not presented in a false pageant of white longing.
It is not easy to retire a nickname or mascot. The attachment of fans, their identity as Seminoles or Indians, runs deep. Generations of alumni come out of the woodwork, write letters, threaten to withhold money, bring lawsuits. Education is usually a popular enterprise and educators are taken aback at this kind of controversy. The NCAA has given these schools a perfect opportunity to say, "had to do it, couldn't hobble the sports program." I congratulate the NCAA for declaring that American Indians are not an exception to the non-discrimination policies of higher education and college sports that benefit other minority groups. Name and mascot changes can go very smoothly when the campus leadership is united and when they hold to their resolve that a new sports identity is best for the institution. The NCAA policy will have a ripple effect on high schools, another positive result.
Southeast Missouri State avoided the pariah list by changing its nickname this year. In October I spoke at the ceremony when the Southeast Missouri State Indians were retired, to the sounds of Mohican musician Bill Miller's haunting flute music. Everyone in attendance was positive about the future. Everyone was ready to cheer for the SEMO Redhawks. There's a lot of talk in college sports about respect. I felt it that day.
As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King this week, we recall his famous wish that Americans be judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin. How are we doing in fulfilling that dream?
Well, I am amazed at how frequently I will read a news article in which a school district or college will declare that it is essential to hire more teachers of this or that skin color or national origin. The faculty must mirror the student population, we are told, and students of each race and ancestry need “role models.”
Two recent examples: The Indianapolis Star ran an article headlined “Schools intensify hunt for minority teachers,” with the subheadline “Metro-area districts struggle to make faculties mirror growing diversity of student enrollments.”
Likewise, the Leadership Alliance -- which is a coalition of 29 higher-education institutions that was established 13 years ago to bring more minority students into mathematics, science, engineering, and technology -- held a conference in Washington. At the meeting, speakers cited the “need to increase the number of faculty of color who can serve as role models.”
One more example, that came across my desk as this piece was being edited: The Boston Globe ran an article about Randolph, Mass. headlined, “To reflect students, town woos minority teachers.” The school committee chairwoman was quoted: “It’s providing role models for the kids.”
It is understood that, in order to achieve this greater diversity, skin color and ethnicity will be considered in the recruitment and hiring process. And so, inevitably, some candidates will be given preferences, and others disfavored, because of these external characteristics. It cannot be denied: If race is given weight in the search, then you are no longer looking for the best candidate, regardless of race.
I’m amazed at the news stories because the role model justification for hiring preferences is so clearly (a) illegal and (b) bad policy.
And, really, they shouldn’t even need a lawyer to tell them that the role model approach is wrong.
For starters, universities, colleges, and schools should ignore skin color and national origin and simply hire the best professors and teachers they can. Period. It’s hard enough to get competent teachers at any level without disqualifying some and preferring others because of irrelevant physical characteristics.
Show me a parent who would say, “I’m willing for my child to be taught by a less qualified teacher so long as he or she shares my child’s color.” As for research and writing, hiring anything less than the best qualified minds will inevitably compromise the school’s or college's academic mission.
Second, it is ugly indeed to presuppose that one can admire -- one can adopt as a role model -- only someone who shares your skin color and, conversely, that a white child could never look up to a black person, or a black child to a white person, or either one to an Asian or Latino or American Indian. Does this also mean that men cannot admire women, or a Christians admire a Jew, or the able-bodied admire someone in a wheelchair?
When President Bush was asked who he wanted to grow up to be when he was a boy, he replied without hesitation, “Willie Mays.” And why not?
Third, the notion that our schoolteachers and professors must look like our students leads into some very undesirable corners.
As Justice Powell wrote in Wygant, “Carried to its logical extreme, the idea that black students are better off with black teachers could lead to the very system the Court rejected in Brown v. Board of Education.”
And if you have a school district that is all-white, does that mean that it is all right to refuse to hire blacks? If you have a school district that has no Latino children, does that mean you should avoid hiring Hispanic teachers? And if your school district’s students are only 5 percent Asian, should that be your ceiling for Asian teachers?
Likewise, are Idaho universities entitled to avoid hiring African Americans, Maine colleges Latinos, and Nebraska schools Asians -- to ensure that those states’ natives are not taught by someone who may not look like they do? Should Ruth Simmons have been disqualified as president of Brown University, on the grounds that she is an unsuitable role model for the white male students there?
Yes, sex will rear its ugly head, too.
Schoolteachers remain a disproportionately female profession, but students include as many boys as girls. Does that mean that schools ought to be granting a preference to men when they hire faculty?
The truth of the matter is that the “role model” claim is just another made-up excuse to engage in the politically correct discrimination that is so fashionable among so many of our so-called educators.
This discrimination is illegal, unfair, silly, and harmful. Whenever a school is distracted from looking for anyone other than the best possible teacher, it is in the end the students who will pay the price. Hire by content of character, not color of skin.
Roger Clegg is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity.
This past week the roof collapsed on my professional life. You’re tottering along, a bit woozy but still standing, minding your own business, dreaming of the summer which is right around the corner, there’s a lightening of the mood and the weather begins, gradually, ever so subtly, to turn, you decide to open your storm windows, you go for a walk in a “Fall” jacket, and then, in the words of the annoying cleaning commercial: KABOOM!
In short order, I woke up from my honey-colored dream of lazy summertime barbeques and short pants and sultry Big Eastern City days and nights with Mr. Gordo to discover several outstanding bill collectors on the phone: a conference paper due forthwith (like yesterday!), students clamoring for extra credit work because they bombed your midterm, the usual meetings and minute-taking, long-postponed paperwork rearing up, not to mention tax time and the suddenly desperate need to see your CPA before he himself is overwhelmed. But by far the most demanding task at hand has been the need to write my year-end report on activities for my dean, the time for which I severely underestimated because this is my first year at this particular college. So underestimated, in fact, I didn’t even know it was due, until I received (again, out of the blue), a polite note from my chair. I fear I am becoming the very model of the bumbling professor who forgets his car keys in the refrigerator.
In essence, my “book report” is a catalogue of my activities in the three well-known subject areas: research, teaching, and service. And there is a certain empirical quality to the task that is reassuring: Yes, Virginia, you are exhausted for a reason! Committees and meetings, abstracts and conferences, works-in-progress and works forthcoming, student evaluations and syllabi, e-mails and phone calls, lectures and events. I have been, um, busy this year, contrary to the stereotype of the academic as social parasite, so eloquently paraphrased by my girlfriend La Connaire tonight who said, “I thought the whole point of academia was not working hard,” followed by the sound of a stream of smoke blown into the telephone mouthpiece. As most academics would tell you, the stereotype bears little relationship to the reality of most tenure-line professors. However, this cataloguing of the minutiae of quotidian academic life has gotten me to think of the differentials in experience for faculty across the broad spectrums of race, gender, and sexuality.
As a professional, I obviously covered the unholy trinity with some aplomb, if not utter success in all three. Given what has been thrown at me this year in terms of workload, I feel I did very well, as undoubtedly will my dean, who has been nothing if not incredibly supportive. However, the differential I am thinking about here is the double duty that faculty of color, some women faculty, and some lesbian or gay faculty, perform in their role as symbolic capital for the profession. For we are not only meant to perform as scholars and teachers and colleagues, we also have to be role models and mentors and supportive persons, lifting as we climb, each one teaching one, until we reproduce ourselves like some sort of crazy neo-Fabergé Organics Shampoo commercial.
This notion of symbolic capital is one that is both forced upon us by institutions looking for the diversity fix, and nurtured within ourselves, by varying degrees of gratitude, guilt, regret, and sadness at the price of our success. We are the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop, those who struggled and worked, only to find ourselves marooned as tokens whose value is unclear, both to ourselves and the profession we serve. I am reminded of Toi Derricote’s story in The Black Notebooks, of meeting the “other” black woman professor at the college were she taught, only to discover that this woman was as light-skinned (i.e. completely passable as white) as Derricote herself, and how this causes a crisis in her thinking about why they were hired, and what is the symbolic value of having two black faculty members who look white?
Ironically, tonight in my race class, upon discussing with my students Fanon’s The Fact of Blackness, my eyes fell on this quote:
It was always the Negro teacher, the Negro doctor; brittle as I was becoming, I shivered at the slightest pretext. I knew, for instance, that if the physician made a mistake it would be the end of him and of all those who came after him. What could one expect, after all, from a Negro physician? As long as everything went well, he was praised to the skies, but look out, no nonsense, under any conditions! The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. I tell you, I was walled in: No exception was made for my refined manners, or my knowledge of literature, or my understanding of the quantum theory.
To which all I have to say is: Ain’t it the truth? Faculty of color can never be sure how close we are to disgrace, to the knife-edge of outliving our usefulness, our symbolic capital. Seemingly, we can never be appreciated as intellectuals alone. We must always have some other value, some point to our presence, aside from simple qualification. We must be, in the truism, 200 percent good. And never, ever, make a mistake, for it's not just our personal mistake, but a mistake for every person of color, past present and future. If we simply think of this differential in terms of labor, then perhaps the contours will come more sharply in focus.
While I appreciate my white colleagues for the support they provide, they are not expected to “liaison” with Latina/o students and student organizations. They are not expected to be role models of appropriate behavior. They are not expected to be present at every little thing that might concern race, whether interesting or not. They are not expected to be experts at the drop of a hat, nor responsible to others of their same race who might have particular critiques of authenticity for which they have to answer. No, my beloved white colleagues get to be themselves, be individuals, and go home and sleep soundly. So for me, this is not only about the incredibly problematic racial dimensions of role modeling or each one teaching one. This shit is also about work, cause believe me, this is work.
As any faculty of color, nay person of color, could tell you in an unguarded moment, the illusory community fostered by 60s social movements is exactly that: fleeting and utopian. Academics of color in particular suffer from the vertiginous histories of racial trauma that are predicated on the unintelligibility of the subject of color: the very fact of our theoretical stupidity. Living in a post-race society means that we are finally, blissfully allowed to be ourselves, individuals in a society that prizes individualism. Needless to say, we aren’t there yet.
And then, as I am thinking about this and taking a break from writing this post and perusing the Internet while wolfing down a quesadilla, I come across this little ditty, which linked from here, both of which sadly and ironically prove my point. The most inflammatory quote from Michael A. Livingston’s post on race and law school faculty is a bombshell:
Because it is so costly to dip below the required minimum of diversity faculty, in practice almost anything has to and is done to ensure that they are happy. At my school, I have watched sadly as one after another of the unwritten faculty rules -- the level of publication expected, the expectation that one's work would be presented to the faculty before tenure, even the assumptions regarding physical presence at the law school -- were compromised or abandoned to accommodate female or minority candidates who the law school simply could not "afford to lose" under the new dynamic. Once these principles are given away, of course, the same concessions are demanded by other professors, so that the entire system of expectations that cements a faculty begins to come crashing quickly down.
Good grief! So not only are we not smart enough to be hired on “merit” (the odious false consciousness of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, apparently) but we also simultaneously threaten the very foundations of the institution. For as tenuous a hold as faculty of color have in the profession, we seem to wield an incredible amount of power in Livingston's analysis. While it is true I have known some "playas" (as in players, not beaches) who have worked out some pretty impressive deals on next to nothing, by far the vast majority of the professoriate of color (and professoriate in general) works, day in and day out.
In fact, faculty of color are incredibly vulnerable not only through the typical utilitarian nature in which they are hired (as tokens) but also to the risible racism and real disgust revealed in Livingston’s quote. If anything, Livingston’s critique reveals more about the unscrupulous ways in which institutions will go out of their way to hire "dummies of color" to avoid hiring contrary to racist type (e.g. with intelligence) than the general qualifications of a vastly diverse class of people, who after all have earned doctorates and J.D.s, right? If we trace Livingston’s critique to where it originates, this isn’t just a critique of hiring and retention practices, it is questioning the very ability of people of color to hold advanced intellectual and professional degrees. And people wonder why race is still important?
The evidence is writ before you in Livingston’s post. Race still matters, and not only for red state academics or conservatives, for liberals and leftists hold similar, if more holistic, views. The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. One wrong move, and you’re toast, baby!
Self-assessment is hard, this I know after struggling with it this past week. But it might be time for the profession to take a real self-assessment of its own. For instance, when, if ever, will faculty of color be real intellectual members of the community, and not just tokens of diversity and tolerance? When will the university and its faculty and administrators stop considering us as detriments to its intellectual mission? Why, if universities are so committed to "diversity," can't they sustain and support faculty of color in double or triple digits? When can we stop the fiction of pretending just because student X is “brown” and I’m “brown,” we automatically understand each other, like dolphins? When, in other words, will our years and years of labor be appreciated for what it is, hard and good and honorable work? When, in other words, shall we breathe the fresh, clean air of individualism, which includes the noble as well as banal? When can we be normal, neither Sydney Poitier nor Step ‘n’ Fetchit? Not, apparently, any time soon.
Oso Raro, who is writing under a pseudonym, teaches cultural studies, literature and film at a North American university. A version of this essay first appeared on Oso's blog, Slaves of Academe, which concerns itself with academe and racial and cultural politics.
Going to hear Walter Benn Michaels during a convention of the Modern Language Association is an unusual experience. I'm not sure I can do it justice. There are sessions one attends with, so the speak, a pair of toothpicks in hand -- one to prop each eye open. Not so in the case of Michaels, who is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He generates some kind of force field. The audience will include students and admirers, of course, but the effect is not quite that of the aura surrounding the big-name celebrity mystagogues of literary studies. Enraptured awe is the least of it. Much of the ozone crackling in the air comes, I suppose, from the electrified brains of audience members who are arguing with him in their heads as he speaks.
Many arrive pre-provoked. For a quarter century now, Michaels has been staking out positions in literary scholarship it would be somewhat trivializing to call "contrarian," but which certainly have had the effect of catalyzing discussion. In the early 1980s, he was co-author, with Steven Knapp, of a major statement called "Against Theory." It was not polemical, exactly, at least not in tone. Rather, it offered a rather painstaking challenge to various (then-new) approaches that defined literary scholarship in terms of processes or structures unrelated to authorial intention.
The tenor of the essay was rather low-key. But the authors went about their argument in a way that seemed exhaustive -- almost aggressively so. It left the people engaged in "doing theory" with an obligation to respond. Which they did, of course, at some length. The effect of "Against Theory" proved rather paradoxical. Somehow it both defied the "turn to theory" and reinforced it at the same time.
There was something paradoxical in the effect of Michaels's own criticism, as well. Paying attention to authorial intention did not mean endorsing it on the author's own terms. Analyzing late 19th and early 20th century American literature, Michaels contended that authors who seemed to be criticizing elements of U.S. society (its commercialism, racism, provincialism etc.) were actually tying themselves all the more tightly to its deepest presuppositions.
It was not the kind of work likely to appeal, say, to the literary neoconservatives over at The New Criterion, who in general prefer the "now let us speak of the pleasures of reading Longfellow" sort of commentary. At the same time, Michaels's work seemed to be making a broad hint about the academic left -- that, however fortified with critical theories, however committed to challenging the dominant order, professors might end up reinforcing the status quo, in ways they never wanted.
You can see how that would provoke some people. But not (let's be clear) the general public. Carefully argued advocacy of neopragmatist literary theory -- or close readings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman -- do not reach Oprah's ears, let alone her audience.
That could change with the publication by Metropolitan Books, early next month, of The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. It is meant for a broad readership, with the clear intention (for authorial intention must be factored in) to stimulate serious thought via cogent argument and profound irritation. Parts of it are brilliant. Other parts make you wonder what planet Walter Benn Michaels lives on.
The Trouble With Diversity is a short and snappy book. It is also quite repetitious. That combination may be a virtue: The ability to make the same point a dozen different ways has its uses in public life. While complaints about multiculturalism are a standard part of the culture wars, they usually come from the right wing. Michaels's critique of diversity-mindedness is quite different. His way of cycling through his argument over and over again may be strategic -- an effort to avoid occupying other people's foxholes by digging his own trench.
There are moments when he sounds very much like a paleo-Marxist -- one who had discovered the dark secret that multiculturalism is a plot by the extremely wealthy to befuddle everyone else. "The commitment to diversity," Michaels writes, "has turned liberalism into a program for making rich people of different skin colors and sexual orientations more 'comfortable' while leaving intact the thing that makes them the most comfortable of all: their wealth."
The belief that cultural diversity, as such, is a valuable thing has taken hold in American society over the past two or three decades -- precisely at the time economic inequality has not just increased, but accelerated its growth. In 1982, according to one study Michaels cites, the ratio between the income of a CEO and that of a worker was 42 to 1. By 2003, it was 301 to 1. A year after that, it was 431 to 1. "If the federal minimum wage had grown at the same rate as CEO pay," he notes, "it would have been $23.03 in 2004, instead of $5.15."
Such realities do not get discussed very much, however. Instead, there is an unrelenting emphasis on what is usually called "cultural difference" -- which in Michaels's reading is for all practical purposes just another name for race. (A concern with diversity also normally attends to differences in gender and sexuality. But racial distinction, he argues, serves as something like a template for how other categories of difference are understood.)
In his more scholarly work, Michaels has examined how, sometime after the First World War, a shift took place in American public life that de-legitimized the old-fashioned racist doctrine of biological distinctions between groups. But the belief in fundamental differences did not go away: It was now seen as a matter, not of genetics, but of each group having a distinct "culture" -- which proved just as powerfully determinate as biology had once seemed.
To a large degree, Michaels says in his new book, " culture is now being used as a virtual synonym for racial identity." It seems difficult to dispute this point. ("The multi in multiculturalism," as he puts it, "has nothing to do with some people liking Mozart and other people liking the Strokes.")
For his part, Michaels will have none of this repackaging of racist pseudoscience as "anti-racist" cultural relativism. He draws a hard line: "Either race is a physical fact, dividing human beings into biologically significant differences," he writes, "or there is no such thing as race, whatever it's called."
If one chooses the second option -- as Michaels does -- then the unrelenting American emphasis on race as a fundamental basis for defining identity begins to look very strange. The belief that each "cultural identity" should be defended, respected, and celebrated rests, in that case, on a more or less accidental association between certain traits or cultural artifacts, on the one hand, with certain genetic phenotypes, on the other. And the reality is that an awful lot of "cultural identity" gets transferred, or played with, by other groups. (Michaels might have bolstered his case here by quoting Chris Rock's profession of astonishment at the implications of Tiger Woods and Eminem: What's happening in America when the best golfer is black and the best rapper is white?)
By setting up a stark dichotomy -- treating "cultural identity" as either (1) a fancy name for hard-wired biological differences or (2) a socially constructed yet meaningless phenomenon with no objective status whatsoever -- Michaels has arguably taken a rhetorical short cut. There are other ways of framing the issue. (See, for instance, the work of Paula Moya or Linda Martin Alcoff.)
But what Michaels sees as a more or less arbitrary emphasis on cultural differences is no accident. "We would much rather get rid of racism," he writes, "than get rid of poverty. And we would much rather celebrate cultural diversity than seek to establish economic equality."
We honor the range of cultural identities, the better to ignore the realities of class. An emphasis on diversity makes it easier to pretend that our institutions (particularly our educational institutions) are meritocratic in nature.
And a belief in meritocracy, in turn, makes it easier to accept the neoliberal economic order - the arrangement in which social resources are allocated according to the demands of the market. After all, if different cultural groups are equally honored and diversity prevails, then extremes of wealth and poverty are, in some sense, just the unfortunate byproduct of an otherwise fair system.
But it really isn't fair at all -- nor can all the Kwanzaa cards and Gay Pride floats in the world hide that reality. Class society is not a meritocracy: It rewards people who have the good sense to be born to affluent parents.
"The entire U.S. school system, from pre-K up, is structured from the very start to enable the rich to outcompete the poor," writes Michaels, "which is to say, the race is fixed. And the kinds of solutions that might actually make a difference -- financing every school district equally, abolishing private schools, making high quality child care available to every family -- are treated as if they were positively un-American."
The virtual impossibility of raising such policies now, even for discussion, is quietly reinforced in countless subtle ways. Michaels returns repeatedly to the idea that the left is as much to blame for that as the right -- perhaps more so.
For it is the left that has made diversity and multiculturalism into the measures of progress toward a just world: "Its commitment to the idea that the victims of social injustice today are the victims of racism, sexism, and heterosexism (the victims of discrimination rather than exploitation, of intolerance rather than oppression, or of oppression in the form of intolerance) is a commitment to the essential justice of the market."
You may not think so, as you assign your students the collected works of bell hooks and use the phrase "white capitalist patriarchy" on every suitable occasion. But that -- in Walter Benn Michaels's view -- is what you are doing in any case.
That is the argument, then, in broad outline. (For a sample of it in purer form, check out this excerpt in the liberal political magazine "The American Prospect.")
It is stimulating, and it is bewildering. To anyone who has ever been irritated by the purely obligatory reference to class in the famous "race, class, and gender" trinity, there may be something exhilarating about the whole performance.
But when Michaels throws out a passing reference to living "in a world where most of us are not racist (where, on the humanities faculties at our universities, we might more plausibly say not that racism is rare but that it is extinct)," it is hard not to wonder if the man gets off campus much.
No doubt his peers are every bit as bien pensant in racial matters as Michaels thinks. But it would be interesting to know how many minority faculty or graduate students believe that racism is "extinct" among their colleagues. I suspect there is room for disagreement. Just as puzzling is what Michaels means by "the left" -- which, in his telling, greatly loves cultural identity and tacitly ignores economic inequality. It appears that he means "the academic left," for the most part. Certainly the book is lacking in any reference to the labor movement, or neighborhood activism, or other forms of political engagement not carried on in the pages of Critical Inquiry.
In consequence, a reader who didn't know better might get the impression that there was some big meeting - possibly around the time Ronald Reagan came into office - where people on the left said: "Well, sure, we could talk about economic inequality. But let's push this multiculturalism thing, instead."
The reality (alas) is that such either/or distinctions tend to have more force in rhetoric than on the ground.
Once upon a time, the American left was single-minded about economic equality. It talked about little else. And what form did that yearning for justice sometimes take? Well, let's just say that questions of "cultural difference" would indeed come up. The "egalitarian" rhetoric sometimes included the demand that a worker enjoy a standard of living "worthy of a white man" (unlike those servile Chinese immigrants or lowly black sharecroppers, who presumably deserved what they got).
Whatever the faults, distractions, and bad faith associated with multiculturalism, it is not some obstacle to pursuing the real politics of social justice. The capacity to respect groups very different from one's own is not just a form of politeness. Michaels's book is provocative, and I hope it helps revitalize the emergence of economic populism in this country. If that does happen, though, multiculturalism will not be a dispensible luxury, but rather an absolute prerequisite.
Conflicting pressures have put urban public institutions of higher education that serve large numbers of low-income and students of color in a straitjacket.
Major cities in the U.S. generally have higher concentrations of poverty, communities of color and immigrants than the suburbs do. The problems facing higher education in cities dovetail with other urban problems such as the quality of urban K-12 schools and the socioeconomic status of their students.
Consequently, state-supported urban institutions are being asked -- and have moral and long-term economic imperatives -- to provide more academic and student support services to students coming through pre-collegiate educational pipelines that have not prepared them for college than is true for many other kinds of colleges.
Compounding the problem, we are being presented with increasing performance and accountability mandates. All of this is happening at a time when state funding for those institutions is declining in a scandalous way, yet the pressure on them to keep tuition low is increasing. In short, we are being asked to do more with far fewer resources than ever before.
And the impact will inevitably fall onto our students, those who need it most. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said it herself in May: “In too many of our cities, the reality faced by minority and low-income kids is shocking.” Citing urban “dropout factories” and a 50 percent dropout rate for African-American, Latino and Native Americans, Spellings said, “We must ensure the same opportunities available to kids in the suburbs are available to kids in the city. If we don't, we will most certainly become a poorer, more divided nation of haves and have-nots.”
Parallels in Inequality
Many of our urban secondary schools are abysmal, it’s true. Equally unjustifiable, but perhaps no surprise, is that urban institutions of higher education have begun to endure challenges and inequities that mirror those faced by our feeder schools and districts.
In high schools, white students tend to be concentrated in well-performing schools in the suburbs while urban school districts, filled with lower-income and students of color, are deteriorating. At the postsecondary level, white students crowd the more selective state flagship and research universities. Meanwhile, if they go to college at all, students from traditionally underserved backgrounds often attend institutions with less stringent admission standards and lower retention and graduation rates, including community colleges and urban colleges and universities. The rate of college enrollment in the college-age population in cities is about half of what it is in the suburbs.
Options for low-income and students of color, in high school and college, are becoming separate but not equal to those for white students.
Colorado is a prime example of this distributing paradox. We currently rank in the top five per capita for college-degree holders, yet we’re importing our college graduates. The state ranks near the bottom in the number of low-income students and those from underrepresented backgrounds who go to college.
Part of this results from an educational pipeline in Denver that is more than just leaky; it is spitting out young people at an alarming rate. For example, roughly 30 percent of Denver Public Schools’ Latinos graduate from high school; in contrast, 70 percent of whites do. The student-of-color population, which is 80 percent at Denver Public Schools, drops to 48 percent at Community College of Denver, then to 24 percent at Metropolitan State College of Denver, my institution, which has the largest student-of-color population of any four-year institution in Colorado. In fact, Metro State has more students of color than the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University combined.
The Conventional Urban Student
Ethnic diversity has become the holy grail of colleges and universities; everyone is trying to get it. A high-achieving high school student of color is the most sought-after demographic in the college applicant pool. And our more prestigious schools are working to increase their matriculation rates of these students.
But what about the conventional student of color who graduates from an urban high school and whose achievements are more modest? These are the students -- place-bound, often of limited economic status and whose preparation for college is less rigorous -- who are largely served by our public urban institutions. In sheer numbers, they dwarf the students of color who attend the more prestigious institutions.
Urban low-income and students of color are coming to college with severe academic deficiencies, particularly in the areas of writing, mathematics and science. Furthermore, many students from economically challenged backgrounds lack college-going family precedent or role models. It is critical that these students have access to full-time faculty of the same ethnic background to serve as peer mentors, helping them navigate the transition from high school to college.
Postsecondary institutions serving large numbers of low-income and students of color are implementing various strategies to address these students’ academic deficiencies. Enhanced orientation programs, peer counselors, mentors, full-time faculty who teach classes at the freshman and sophomore level, learning communities, increased collaboration with urban high school districts and improved coordination with community colleges are all being implemented or enhanced to provide much-needed support for this cohort of students. However, many of these programs are in jeopardy because of limitations in state funding.
This is the case in point: Urban institutions are being asked to do more and more with less and less.
The ‘90s was a decade of dramatic growth in state revenues, yet there was a simultaneous shrinking of their colleges’ share of state budgets, as more programs and services began to compete with higher education for funding.
From 1970 to 2000, government appropriations per student for public higher education institutions increased 3 percent in constant dollars. During the same period, tuition and fees per student increased 99 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In Colorado, the percentage of the state budget going to higher education dropped from 22.4 percent in 1983 to 7.5 percent in 2007.
At the same time that state funding for higher education has been decreasing, the call for “accountability” in higher education is on the rise. State legislatures are expressing more interest in investing in the explicit results that come from public higher-education institutions, rather than investing in higher education itself. For instance, at a recent summit on higher education in Colorado attended by leaders from all the colleges, one proposal put forth would tie supplemental funding to schools proving they are more efficient than their peers and graduating better students.
With state funding squeezed tighter and tighter, many colleges across the country have been able to maintain the status quo only by raising student tuition and fees. However, in urban institutions that serve larger populations of low-income and students of color, the combination of decreased state funding and the continued imperative for lower tuition means a smaller pool of financial resources from which to draw to educate some of our neediest populations. Some institutions, like Metro State, have a statutory obligation to be accessible and keep tuition low with no corollary mandate for adequate funding to provide necessary wrap-around services for students from underserved backgrounds.
Additionally, in Colorado the relative funding by type of higher education institution has shifted. A recent comparison by the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee showed that in the last six years the amount of money, in general fund and tuition per student full-time equivalency, went up for all institutions in Colorado except Metro State, with only a negligible increase for the community colleges.
These relative disparities occurred despite the fact that the community colleges serve more urban and ethnic minority students than the four-year colleges combined, and Metro State is Colorado’s largest urban institution, most diverse four-year institution and educator of the second-largest undergraduate population in the state.
The Joint Budget Committee wrote, “(T)here has been a reallocation of resources among the higher education institutions, whether part of a clearly articulated statewide strategy or a happenstance of many unrelated decisions.”
State legislatures need to start addressing these kinds of inequities, and soon. Leaders in public higher education need to work together to create shared state visions among the research universities, the comprehensive colleges and the urban institutions, particularly to address how states are going to meet the needs of the growing segment of the population that come from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds.
This may seem to be just an urban problem, but it’s not because ultimately it affects all of society on a social and economic level.
For example, college graduates earn almost twice that of high school graduates, have greater purchasing power and produce higher tax revenue. In Colorado, if low-income and students of color graduated and were employed at the same rate as other students, it would annually generate an estimated $967 million in additional tax revenue, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher education. Obviously, it is through education that these at-risk students are able to lift themselves to a higher socioeconomic level. Otherwise, their options are limited to clawing and scraping their way ahead in menial jobs or worse.
The problems in our urban K-12 schools are deep and entrenched; they have been there for decades, for a multitude of reasons. Today our public urban baccalaureate colleges are headed down the same path, thanks to the lack of funding, an increasing number of students needing remedial coursework and the shrinking pipeline to good education available to low-income and students of color in this country. If these issues in higher education are not addressed now, they will become as intractable as those at the “dropout factories” Spellings derides.
One is left to wonder whether the precipitous decline of our public urban institutions of higher education would be allowed to happen if the student populations at these institutions were more affluent and more white.
Stephen Jordan is president of Metropolitan State College of Denver.
Imagine for a minute if student leaders at elite college campuses devoted themselves to mocking black people or Jewish people or gay people. I’m not talking about drunk students posting pictures of their offensive parties on Facebook, but student newspaper editors – thought of as being both smart and progressive – giving space over for the sole purpose of making fun of people because of their background. It’s hard to imagine. And yet recently this phenomenon of racial caricatures as "satire" has emerged with Asian Americans as the object of the jokes.
Why Asian Americans? After all, Asian American college students tend to make headlines as super students, attending prestigious private and public colleges at rates way above their state demographics (hence they are "over-represented") and as excelling academically above and beyond any other racial group, whites included. This "model minority" image is not new and has been around since at least the late 1960s, with Asian Americans often embraced as symbols of the merits of hard work and individual effort, all undertaken without complaint or political agitation. So ... shouldn't that mean that Asian Americans would be seen as well integrated -- academic and otherwise -- with white students?
Indeed, this image and the stereotype that all Asian American college students are high achieving have led to a belief that they are well integrated into higher education. I would go so far as to say this model minority image has also conveyed that racism and racial hostility are no longer issues for Asian American students. It is not uncommon for colleges to exclude Asian Americans from affirmative action recruitment efforts and services for "minority" students. Yes, it is true that unlike African Americans, Latinos, or Native Americans, many Asian ethnic groups -- though not all -- do not struggle with severe under-representation in college matriculation or retention rates. However, does this mean that they are not racial minorities and do not continue to confront racial issues on campuses? In my years as a student and administrator on various university campuses, I have been troubled by what I have observed to be the increasing exclusion of Asian Americans from "minority" student or diversity discussions. Asian Americans are not seen as contributing to diversity though, in and of themselves, they are extremely diverse. They are frequently not identified as being minority students; when I see conference papers, journal articles, or Web discussion on "minority" students, I look for any mention of Asian Americans, only to find, more often than not, their omission. The focus now seems to be on "underrepresented minorities" -- or code for "minority, but not Asian American." Asian Americans have been what I call "de-minoritized," erased from these discussions.
By no means do I want to detract from the critical issues of representation that persist for African American, Latino, and Native American students; under-parity is a serious signal of inaccessibility and hostility for students of color grounded in long and problematic history. However, I do not subscribe to the presumption that the opposite of under-representation (over-representation) means that a racial non-white group has achieved integration and full acceptance. In fact, in the case of Asian Americans, their over-presence in competitive institutions such as Ivy League colleges has heightened a sense of backlash that takes highly racialized overtones and contributes to a negative campus climate for this "high achieving" group. Enter the campus paper satire, the latest manifestation.
As many Asian American studies scholars have pointed out, Asian Americans are depicted as model minorities but they are also portrayed as foreigners, disloyal to America, and suspicious. Despite generations of citizenship in the United States (after years of denial of naturalization rights for Asian immigrants), Asian Americans are still seen as foreign and un-American, often as the "enemy" during economic and military crises, as during the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, during the 1980s economic recession and competition with Japan's automotive industry that lay the backdrop to the beating and death of Vincent Chin, and currently with post-September 11 depictions of South Asians and Muslims as terrorists. Dual images of Asian Americans as model minorities, people to be praised and emulated and embraced, and foreign threats, people to be watched, monitored, and distrusted, have long been a part of U.S. history.
Recently, Asian American college students have emerged in the media in this foreigner/ invading guise -- as the butt of "satirical" jokes published by college student papers. Whether or not these articles are "satires" or offensive representations is not my point. My focus is on the powerful and racialized imagery evoked -- the jokes that continue to depict Asian Americans as foreign, un-American, inscrutable, non-English speakers-- basically as anything but a regular college student on a university campus. And my focus is on the fact that often times not many people are laughing at these satires.
For instance, in October of 2006, Jed Levine published a "modest proposal for an immodest proposition" for the UCLADaily Bruin. Speaking as a white male, he identified as an "underrepresented minority" and pointed to Asian Americans as the real problem who took away admissions slots from Black and Latino students and proposed a solution to the "Asian invasion" as funneling "young Maos and Kim Jongs" into a new UC campus "UC Merced Pandas." In January 2007, the Daily Princetonian published its annual "joke issue" that included a satire of "Lian Ji", a twist on Jian Li, the Chinese American student at Yale, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department for Civil Rights claiming his rejection from Princeton was due to his ethnicity. The joke article, from "Lian's" point of view was written in broken English, complaining that Princeton did not accept "I the super smart Asian," and touting the stereotypical nerdy Asian American credentials of winning record science fair awards, memorizing endless digits of pi, and playing multiple orchestral instruments simultaneously for the New Jersey youth orchestra. Ultimately, "Lian" accepts his fate at Yale saying, "I mean, I love Yale. Lots of bulldogs here for me to eat."
Most recently, Inside Higher Ed reported on yet another satire in the University of Colorado at Boulder paper, The Campus Press, which resulted in controversy and a statement by the chancellor. In the satire, Max Karson, noticed the tensions that Asian American students exhibited towards whites. While pointing out the racial tensions on both sides, Karson deduces that Asians just hate whites, and it was "time for war." Such efforts included steps to find all Asian Americans on campus (easily identifiable by areas of campus they frequent and by their ability to do a calculus problem in their heads), forcing them to eat bad sushi with forks; and a test for them to display emotions beyond a normal deadpan (read: inscrutable) face. At the end, Asian homes will be redecorated "American" style, replacing rice cookers with George Forman Grills and the like.
My point here is not to argue over what is satire, freedom of the press, artistic license, or the "right way" to read pieces such as these. Rather, my observation lies in the continued pattern of Asian American students being a) the butt of such jokes, basically the punchline; b) that the jokes are heavily laden with racial stereotypes; and c) that these such essays reveal volumes about racial relationships, tensions, and perceptions of Asian American students as all being, in some way, the same -- foreigners, math and science nerds, and all around different from the regular average college student.
What does this recent rash of Asian Americans-as-satire articles tell us? Ultimately, that despite an image of Asian Americans as model minorities, super achieving students who thrive on college campuses, race continues to matter for Asian American students. Many Asian American students reject and challenge these depictions and stereotypes and seek campus policies that acknowledge and support their experiences. It tells us that higher education administrators need to look beyond Asian American model minority-ness and begin to reconsider a conception of "minority" student experiences beyond easily measured assessments of grade point average and SAT score, to recognize instances of racial alienation and marginalization embodied in these satires. It speaks to uncovering the experiences of Asian American students who want academic courses that reflect their histories and literature, to meeting their counseling service needs, to providing spaces of support through cultural centers and minority student services. It is to challenge the silencing and de-minoritization of Asian American students.
Many educational scholars demonstrate that campus climate measures go beyond statistical representation. These satirical articles reveal that something else is happening on campus regarding how Asian American students are perceived and represented and even reveals something in the sheer license felt to put forth such racialized representations of Asian American students at all. As campus parties where white students dress up like stereotypical African American or Latino caricatures seem to be in "vogue" these days, the preferred venue for Asian American figures seems to be in these campus pieces.
I end this essay aware that I am exposing myself to the response: "Asian Americans have it relatively made in higher education. What are you complaining about?" I have heard this response from students and administrators from all racial backgrounds. To those who would argue that other minority needs are more pressing and urgent, my appeal is to widen our working definitions and perceptions of "minority" students, to allow spaces for Asian Americans to enter and to work in coalition against such racialized hurtful images that affect all people of color. To those who don't see Asian Americans as dealing with race at all, my response is to complain, to challenge the presumptions and expectations that I, an Asian American woman, should be the model minority who works hard and doesn't complain. And I raise the question of these satires, what they mean, and how they can inform a better understanding of the experiences and needs of Asian American college students -- no longer as "objects" of satire but subjects of their own lives.
Sharon S. Lee
Sharon S. Lee is a doctoral student in educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.