Against the Bias
In praise of color-blindness
By Liz Murray Garrigan
SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:
"Liberals are sometimes the worst racists."
In the name of diversity, some Tennessee law schools will cut a black applicant a break, even if he's the child of a well-paid, well-educated Tennessee Supreme Court justice. But the child of a one-eyed Vietnamese janitor who cleans the state Supreme Court building at night probably wouldn't be offered the same sort of leg-up.
Recently, more than a dozen local schoolchildren felt the impact of that same system of preferential treatment. A few weeks ago, 14 students on the waiting list to attend Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School were turned away--and a teaching position at the school was eliminated--because those students didn't have the right color skin.
A court-ordered black vs. nonblack quota for the popular magnet school would have been upset if the 14 non-black students had been admitted. Thus, because they weren't black and because there were no blacks on the waiting list, the students were turned away altogether. Despite the fact that students of every color line up every year for a chance to attend the King Magnet School, 14 much-sought-after spots will remain vacant this time around, and the school will have one less teacher on its faculty.
And sometime this fall, Metro will have spent a half-million dollars on an independent study designed to determine whether the local government has shown discrimination or bias toward minority businesses in awarding government contracts. No one knows for sure yet what the study will say, but thoughtful government insiders predict it will show that minority businesses simply don't tend to bid on government contracts. If that's the finding, will it be worth the cost of the study?
Meanwhile, the local chapter of the NAACP has charged that Metro Government in general, and Mayor Phil Bredesen in particular, have acted "disparately" toward a black hotel developer by taking away the developer's exclusive right to build a hotel next to the downtown arena. The NAACP is making its accusations despite the fact that Metro officials have a documented list of deadlines they extended to the developer because he is black and because they want a minority-owned hotel downtown. Only after too many of the extended deadlines were missed did Metro invite others to bid on the project.
Group dynamicsAll of these scenarios have at least one thing in common--they involve government entities and other institutions making liberal political efforts to encourage racial diversity and provide opportunities to minorities. But all such efforts, a bold new political theory argues, are woefully misguided because they also encourage special treatment or discrimination.
Liberal Racism, a new book by former New York Daily News political columnist Jim Sleeper, tries to bring to its knees the liberal ideology that defends discrimination as long as it is discrimination that favors minorities.
Liberal Racism is an indictment of what has come to be accepted as the liberal approach to race relations in this country, but Sleeper by no means is issuing a conservative manifesto. Essentially, he questions how the traditional definition of a "liberal"--someone who believes everyone should be treated equally--has evolved so that liberalism now encourages discrimination, the social ill it tried to eliminate in the first place.
Sleeper tries to debunk the assumption that skin color gives someone an identity as part of a group. It is the assumption that suggests that every white student has an inherent advantage, even if he lives with his single mom in a trailer park on Dickerson Road. And it also suggests that every black child must be given special treatment if he is to succeed in life. Such an assumption, according to Sleeper, "drives the color-coding of American public policy and civic culture, and it is a colossal blunder."
In other words, just because the son of state Supreme Court Justice A.A. Birch is black, he is not automatically disadvantaged, financially or otherwise. After graduating from Harvard University, Birch's son was highly qualified and didn't need any special favors to gain admission to Vanderbilt Law School. By the same token, the fact that the 14 students on the waiting list for Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School are white doesn't necessarily mean their parents have more and better resources than their black counterparts. And the fact that they are white doesn't mean they can't add cultural diversity to the magnet school's student body.
"Sometimes, prompted by misdirected and self-congratulatory compassion, liberal racism patronizes nonwhites by expecting (and getting) less of them than they are fully capable of achieving," Sleeper writes. "Intending to turn the tables on racist double standards that set the bar much higher for nonwhites, liberal racism ends up perpetuating double standards by setting the bar so much lower for its intended beneficiaries that it denies them the satisfactions of equal accomplishment and opportunity."
Sleeper's book summons up local examples of the kind of discriminatory actions and principles the author criticizes. And it brings to mind plenty of groups and institutions that are far too willing to play the role of liberal apologist. Nashville's local papers, for example, were willing to join in with those who claimed a few weeks ago that the police shooting of a black drug dealer in Sam Levy Homes was racially motivated. Those claims of racism were stirred up by unsubstantiated charges that the drug dealer, Leon Fisher, was handcuffed before he was shot by a Metro Police officer. That charge briefly cast a shadow over the Metro Police Department until autopsy reports showed that Fisher's wrists were not bruised and that it was unlikely he was handcuffed and then shot.
Sleeper suggests that well-meaning but misguided liberals ought to pay more attention to their own words. "Since liberals often argue that other people's racism is all the more dangerous for being unconscious, one might expect them to be the first to suspect and uncover their own," he writes. "But instead of uncovering it, liberal institutions such as the Ford [Foundation] and other foundations fund it; activists and politicians pander to it; and The New York Times and other media disseminate its view of the world."
Everybody's talkingIn Nashville, liberal racism has surfaced in several different forms. Sometimes it simply manifests itself in the media's willingness to broadcast voices from the fringe, providing a platform for people who have no credibility. That was what happened in the case of the Sam Levy shooting and subsequent arson of the neighborhood Dollar General Store.
Television stations aired images of wailing women who blamed the Metro Police Department for the loss of their neighborhood store. In that case, Mayor Phil Bredesen deserves points for getting the facts straight and giving newspapers and television stations alike a tongue lashing for constantly promoting the emotionally charged messages of a small minority.
But Bredesen is the same person who helped resurrect Metro's Human Relations Commission, the purpose of which is to encourage diversity and, in some cases, investigate em-ployment abuses and discrimination. On paper, the commission isn't a bad thing. But the mayor has grown to be highly critical of the group for being too focused on its investigatory powers, which duplicate the functions of bigger, better-funded, and better-equipped agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
On occasion, the Human Relations Commission has lapsed into shallow thinking, paying slavish homage to political correctness. For months, members of the commission insisted that Bredesen appoint an "international" to the commission so that it could be properly integrated and be represented by every conceivable minority with any presence in Nashville.
For a while, the mayor resisted, saying that it wasn't necessary to have a representative from every Nashville subculture on the commission. Finally, though, he did, and the group has since busied itself with tasks such as talking about developing a list of vocabulary appropriate for use during its meetings. That proposal had Bredesen rolling his eyes.
Sleeper would probably suggest that, instead of documenting and making a point of identifying the different colors and cultural backgrounds of people in Nashville, groups such as the Human Relations Commission ought to be striving for common cultural ground. "This country's redemption has not and will not come through making race the organizing principle of our polity and civic culture," Sleeper insists. "Liberals must lead struggles against discrimination and abuse. But for those struggles to succeed, in all endeavors liberals must let race go."
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