Diversity and Racial Conflict:

A Reply to Michael Sullivan

by George Greene greeneg@cs.unc.edu

One of the more important abilities needed to properly navigate our current ocean of media content is the ability to recognize evil when you see it. Sullivan's article on diversity and racial conflict was evil. Perhaps the most evil thing about it was his willingness to take evidence that implies that people of color need more protection from this society's prevalent oppression, and use it to oppress them further. A style calculated to imply professional academic support for such an agenda greatly compounds the crime.

Exhibit A:

3. Because of its salience and the ease with which irrational generalizations along racial lines may occur (Allport, 1954, DeCarvalho, 1993), it can be argued that based upon the psychological literature, the risk of widespread pathological transference effects along these lines within any multiracial political entity should always be considered both real and immediate by the citizens, leaders and guardians of said entity.

Well, of course it can be argued, and of course the risk should be considered. What Sullivan either does not appreciate or is at pains to hide is that his own article's primary purpose is to further the spread of these pathological effects. The crocodile tears he sheds in claiming to care about ameliorating those effects are tragically typical propaganda, to put it charitably.

People of color in America, especially black people, are at risk of being pre-judged negatively because they are visibly associated with a group whose group norms for wealth, income, education, health, and avoidance of criminality are significantly lower than those of the white group. Among the many reasons for the existence of this group disparity is that white Americans, especially (though by no means exclusively) in the South, have for centuries endeavored to make mere membership in this group a badge of shame.

Black people are not the only Americans who have suffered from such invidious forms of classification and discrimination. Queer Americans have suffered from them as well. For some of them, the closet was a defense against their effects, but having to live a lie, just to escape the effects of narrow-minded bigotry, has a psychological cost that is arguably too high to pay, especially in a free country whose constitution has an equal protection clause. A societal message that they should be ashamed of who they are has led vastly disproportionate numbers of queer youth to underachievement, drug abuse, and suicide. Encouraging lesbian, bisexual and gay Americans to take pride in their identity has therefore been absolutely necessary not only to their self-esteem, but to their self-*defense*.

In light of that obvious fact, it should come as no real surprise to anyone that "Black is Beautiful", in 1966, began to play a role similar to the one that gay pride would play a decade later. Prior to that time, the very language as well as the value structure and cultural aesthetics of this nation had *equated* beauty, worth, and dignity with whiteness. The first woman (of any color) in America to become a millionaire, Madame C.J.Walker, did so by patenting a chemical process by which black people could straighten their hair -- i.e., make it look more like white people's -- even at the risk of occasional scalp burning. To Sullivan, the avoidance of "racial conflict" has apparently now become so important that black people must return to that mindset.

Such an opinion is obviously racist and bigoted on its face, so Sullivan does not claim it directly. Instead, after a willfully distorted definition of "Idealized Multicultralism" (saints preserve us from those multiculturalists who have not yet achieved this "ideal"! -- since Sullivan will claim that even the ideal form is tragic), Sullivan claims to be concerned about black students' academic achievement:

Exhibit B:

2. A negative effect of IM ideology can clearly be argued to be the resultant racialization of American students, or the aggravation of preexisting racialization tendencies, where due to the increased emphasis upon racial group membership[a], accurate perceptions of unique individuals are progressively reduced[b] while pressure to conform to racial subgroup norms is increased[c]. Indeed, looking more closely at the proclaimed advantages of racialization, such as increased ingroup self esteem and hoped for increases in academic performance (Cheatham, Slaney & Coleman, 1990)[d] along with decreased violence within a given ingroup (Soriano, Soriano & Jimenez, 1994), strong evidence is suggesting that the consequences of racialization are actually a decrease in objective test performance (Steel, 1997)[d]. Further, it has long been known that any reduction in ingroup violence achieved by simply emphasizing ingroup homogeneity would come at the price of an increased probability of violence and hostility aimed at a perceived outgroup (Dion, 1973)[e].

That this crock of hate speech made it into The Ethical Spectacle is disturbing. The points I must make in rebutting it would be too obvious to merit belaboring, had their denials not been validated by appearing above. In approximate chronological order of the contested assertions:

[a] IM ideology has absolutely no racialization effects on American students. American students know what their race is because their birth certificate says so, because their parents' birth certificate says so, and because an oppressive racist culture says so. American students know their race because their elder kin knew *their* race -- *and* their "place". "IM Ideology" (Sullivan's invention) does not place "increased emphasis upon racial group membership". What increases "emphasis" upon racial group membership is each and every change in the overall society that results in wider disparity in outcomes (in wealth, in imprisonment, in illegitimacy, in infant mortality, in academic test scores, in father-presence in the home) between pre-existing, pre-defined racial groups. As it becomes more blatantly True that being black makes one more likely to be different, we cannot avoid it also being more widely Believed that being black is being different, in a way that must be respected as significant. The mere existence of race and its emphasis as a determining factor of anything are both consequences of a political ploy to divide and conquer the working class by convincing part of it that being "white" made it appropriate to compete (and win, because whiter is better) versus the other part, as opposed to co-operating in solidarity to vote for economic justice. Given that this has been political reality in America for 300 years now, the claim by people in despised races that their race matters and that they can take pride in having survived discrimination, in having fought successfully for what little achievement opportunity they now have, does not constitute further "racialization". It is merely a demand that ethnicity stop being used to stigmatize and divide. But pretending that ethnicity is not important is not the right way to stop it, because that invites people of color to throw away what is best in their heritage, while excusing white people for what is worst in theirs, and of the moral obligation to atone for the error (which is of course Sullivan's, and Mississippi's, primary agenda)

. [b] "Accurate perceptions of unique individuals are progressively reduced"?? WHO in the heck is Sullivan talking about here? Does he really think ANY white person has ever suffered in ANY context because accurate perception of him as an individual was "reduced" by someone caring too much about the fact that he was white?? The only context in which that is even credibly allegeable is in college admissions (where white students with higher test scores have been rejected while black students with lower ones have been accepted), and even here, white admissions committees were not denying anyone's individuality: they were pursuing diversity on their campuses and they were, *morally appropriately*, attempting to *atone* for the inequality of educational opportunity that was in many cases *responsible* for disproportionately lower test scores among their black applicant pool. Sullivan has no standing to whine about his or anyone's individuality being subsumed in whiteness, since every white person on this planet has, over the course of his lifetime, BENEFITED rather than suffered from such classification. It is certainly true that individual academically-achieving non-violent law-abiding middle-class black individuals have been damaged by being associated with a group for which these attributes are not generally believed normal, but that is not the fault of ANY black person's position on the salience of his OWN racial identity: it is rather the fault of the white judges who choose to over-generalize. The morally proper cure for that, regardless of what is psychologically typical, is for white people to seek a cure for their mental illness of over-generalization and bigotry, not for black people to stop recognizing the importance of their racial identity.

[c] Pressure to conform to racial subgroup norms would not be a problem if the norms were above the larger societal norm rather than below it. Evidence of the relevance of this problem is tragically anecdotal, anyhow. White students (especially girls in math and science) can also be duped into under-achieving by the fear of being branded or ostracized as behaving inappropriately by their primary peer-group. Black nerds can at least prove to their peers that they are pioneers, that they are carrying a standard for the race, in a race-conscious environment. I have been in a position to know how black students react to the one of their peers who is managing to hold on in AP calculus. In most places, they really do have sense enough to respect that. To the extent that they don't, it is absolutely morally incumbent upon the adult black and non- black adjacent communities to provide black achievers in this position with the kind of support that will enable them to maintain their level of achievement WITHOUT thinking that it is incompatible with "being" black. Most black people of ANY level of achievement do in fact know that they will "be" black in the eyes of the state and the culture, and especially of Michael Sullivan and his advisors at Mississippi State, REGARDLESS OF ANY ingroup attitudes about whether they are black enough, or whether they are "Oreos" -- EVEN Clarence Thomas. The issue here is not about the minority of black children who would've behaved better if only they hadn't succumbed to ingroup norms and peer pressure. The issue here is about the majority of black students, and why the ingroup norm and peer pressure that they supply is toward bad, rather than good, behavior.

[d] The self-esteem issue was addressed earlier, but please note the utter contempt (this is how you can tell you are talking to an overt racist) reflected by Sullivan's choice of words: the "proclaimed" advantages of "racialization". In the first place, supporters of multiculturalism as a group are supporting pride, not "racialization" -- "racialization" is purely a consequence of the external polity's definitions and policies. In the second place, that (other things being equal) increased self-esteem will improve academic performance is obvious. It does not need support. What needs explanation is what other things did NOT remain equal, if self-esteem went up while academic performance went down. Black sociologist William Julius Wilson wrote a book on "The Declining Significance of Race" with respect to economic opportunity, but he wrote it before the Reagan revolution was entrenched, and even if that correlation declined, it remained brutally high in some places, and in fact got worse in others as a result of the rise of the crack economy in the inner city. Since Reagan was elected in 1980, the country's commitment at large to social justice for the poor, to a safety net, to adequate funding of poor school districts (never mind why "poor" districts are even allowed to exist under a constitution with an equal protection clause) has continually declined. It should surprise no one that these changes in social policy could cause BOTH academic performance loss AND a FACTUALLY CORRECT perception among students of color that race matters, that their color is causally related to their greater suffering from poverty. For Sullivan to advocate intentional blindness to factual truth in the name of "avoiding racial conflict" (or any other good) is precisely the SAME kind of feel-good falsehood for which HE would normally be condemning multiculturalists who distort the history of Egypt! This is simply morally contemptible.

[e] One can only gasp at Sullivan's mention of "violence toward an outgroup" in the context of black people becoming more racially self-conscious. Black people are only 1/9 of the population, but they commit far more than 1/9 of their crimes vs. other black people. White people, on average, remain quite under-represented as victims of black criminals, despite the fact that there are more black men of college age in prison than in college and despite the fact the perpetrator of a crime against a white victim is disproportionately likely to be black (the point is, he is not AS disproportionately likely as the perpetrator of a crime against a black victim). This whole clause is nothing but a Mississippian's racist appeal to white people's fear of being victimized by black criminals, which is the single most blatant instance in all of American culture of people (by definition, mostly black people) being damaged because "increased emphasis upon racial group membership [is causing] accurate perceptions of unique individuals [to be] progressively reduced". That he would so blatantly practice this evil is loud proof of the hypocrisy of his having preached against it. Disparate rates of death prove that this society as a whole is very violent toward black people, especially young black men. The real fear of people who talk about black-on-white violence is not that it is literally excessive, but that it might rather rise to some significant fraction of a level that could be appropriately retaliatory. Stooping to exploit that fear at a time when violent crime is actually declining (and in a national cultural context where white-collar crime has long been far more damaging, BOTH in terms of dollars and deaths) is, well, typical.

PostScript: The article has another sub-chapter on race-consciousness as it relates to gerrymandering that does not bear rebutting (4 Supreme Court justices have already done that far better than I can), but it is no surprise that that sort of propaganda would accompany this. A slickly-crafted propaganda piece is *all* this article was, and it is surprising that it was not immediately recognized and dismissed as such. (The fact that it is in an academic style means that some journal of psychology may also get a chance to take this IQ test -- for the sake of the profession, we shall also have to monitor THAT outcome.) What might've caused this?

Perhaps it was a reasonable hope for national harmony. Even if a reader or two agrees that that harsher and more conservative social policy has really made race matter more, and that it is therefore reasonable for people to think that it does (pace Wilson), some might still think we could reasonably aspire to a goal of having race become less important as a defining feature of the average citizen's identity; that because of its history as a divisive, centrifugal force, race requires a centripetal counter-force to emphasize our common culture as Americans. If that has happened, it is unfortunate. Every person who thinks we need to get beyond racial divisiveness and stress our commonality is overlooking a whole lot of history: we have always had our Americanness in common. That does not require any work. What has required work is persuading white people that they are not more American and better Americans than everybody else.

In this generation, that persuasion has become more difficult, not only because more people are now coming of age for whom the civil rights struggle, VietNam, and Watergate are history rather than memory, and not only because people are now entering college after having spent their entire lives under the kind of conservative media indoctrination that re-elected Ronald Reagan, but because world-wide macro-economic changes have made this the first generation of white Americans to wind up poorer than their parents. Having spent her entire life in a legal climate in which what little discrimination the law *claimed* to tolerate was in *favor* of minorities, this class of young person cannot see being white as an advantage, unless she studies a lot of statistics and is willing to endure the contempt of her family and friends. Needless (almost) to say, young white people willing to endure all that in the name of truth are, even when they count themselves liberal on other social issues, tragically few and far between.

Our problem is not that we don't appreciate our commonality. It is that the general decline in living standards for young people has also been accompanied by a decline among the poor, and for the poor, the consequences of such a decline are more dire, are more life-threatening, are different, not "common". We do not need more appreciation of our commonality. The white student who sues the University of Michigan for admitting a black student with lower ACT scores already thinks that she and that black student have something in common: that if they work and study equally hard, they'll do equally well, and merit equal rewards. This white student thinks that she has outscored this black student primarily as a result of individual effort. Neither the white nor the black student in this case suffers from failing to appreciate commonality. The problem rather is that the white student presumes commonality (of ratio of merit to effort) where it is absent. Most black students have been born into poorer neighborhoods, gone to poorer schools, gone home to a culture that was more anti-academic, and, finally and most importantly, had to cope with the larger community reacting to them as black people (rather than individuals -- not because of their own heightened "racialization", but because of the culture's bigotry). These are things that most white people have not had to go through, and they have made a difference -- a difference from which Michael Sullivan wants very much to distract you.

If Sullivan et al actually cared about decreasing the negative impact of cultural differences, they would be trying to get more people into similar cultural milieus: they would be trying to desegregate neighborhoods and classrooms. If they understood the extent to which class differences exacerbate cultural ones, they would be trying to get black people out of the underclass. But they do not care about any of these problems. They are merely seeking ways to blame the victim for them so that the white people who benefit from the fact that poverty is disproportionately concentrated among the black (and from the fact that even poor white people, on average, get better education than poor people of color) will not have to suffer the loss of any of their advantages, or pay any taxes to alleviate them.

George Greene, A.B.'83 (Stanford), M.S.'95 (UNC-CH), is a computer-science doctoral-student/refugee from the corporate sector.