Friday, May 04, 2012

Racism for Dummies: Naomi Schaefer Riley Edition

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, on Monday, the conservative journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley, who specializes in attacking academics, wrote a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post which she titled:

The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies: Just Read the Dissertations.

The kicker, of course, is that she herself did not read the dissertations. Or a chapter of each dissertation. Or an abstract of each dissertation. Of course not. (And no, she's not getting a link from me.)

Instead, she read a magazine article sidebar with brief descriptions of three (count them, three) dissertations. Having done that reading, Schaefer Riley feels entitled to 1) trash the content of the dissertations,  which she calls "left-wing victimization claptrap," 2) malign the intellect of the graduate students working on those dissertations, and 3) call for "eliminating the discipline" of black studies at all universities nationwide, on the basis of ... wait for it ... lack of rigorous intellectual standards.

Rigorous intellectual standards such as reading magazine sidebars, I suppose. I can't imagine what else would be required.

Riley has received a good deal of pushback; you can find excellent critiques, including a response from the students she maligned, here, here, here, and here. And there are excellent reasons for critique: her choice of targets who couldn't fight back, her claim that racism has not been a problem since 1963, and her attempt to blame "the problems that plague the black community" on "fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people," since of course, there has been no white-on-black racism in this country since 1963. Since Riley views all challenges faced by African-Americans since 1963 to come from African-Americans themselves, and condemns any implication to the contrary to be racist, then Riley must consider Martin Luther King, Jr. a suicide.

But the true racism here is in Riley's stupidity. Because that's what racism is: white people's entitlement to be dumb.

Racism means believing that anything you say, no matter how half-assed or ill-informed, is automatically smart and important because you're white. Racism means being able to mock people of other races as stupid and ignorant because they know things you don't. You can just assume that you know more than they do, because you're white and they're not. They've spent years doing primary research in a scholarly field. You have read a sidebar in a magazine. Obviously, you are the one who gets to judge their intellect.

Modern American racism masquerades as a defense of meritocracy. It is of course just the opposite. It is a defense of mediocrity and failure against genuine competition. Most racists who've been to college have learned how to be subtle about it. Riley is stupid and crude enough to give away the game. Racism promotes the presumption of intellectual and educational superiority, which means never having to prove your learning or intelligence. This is extremely convenient for white people who could not actually prove their intellectual superiority because they're barely intellectually superior to a cucumber.

In the kinder, gentler form of racism, blacks are considered intellectually inferior until they prove otherwise. In the purer, viler strain, which is much more common than it appears, proof doesn't matter: Barack Obama must be an intellectual fraud, African-Americans getting Ph.D.s don't count as "legitimate scholars." But even in the "nicer" form of racism, blacks only get grudgingly accepted as equals, and the white people have to concede that equality. Pat Buchanan gets to opine on whether Sonia Sotomayor is well-educated enough; who asked him? The idea that any given white person might not be as smart as a given black person, and that the white person doesn't get a vote on whether or not that's true, never enters the picture. This is a wonderful situation for the many, many, many white people who are not as smart as they want to think they are, including Naomi Schaefer Riley.

 (Riley's defenders will point out that she went to Harvard and graduated magna cum laude. This is true. But it doesn't mean Riley isn't a fool. Harvard isn't a credential I feel any need to bow down to. I have a  Harvard degree; it doesn't convey magical knowledge of things I haven't read. Going to a good college isn't the license to be an idiot for the rest of your life that some people take it as; a good education obliges you to continue educating yourself. "Magna cum laude" is not Latin for "don't bother reading anything else.")

Modern American racism makes a profound appeal to losers and mediocrities, people who have not achieved the success or respect they expected, counted on, and believed that they deserved. Some of these people do not look like failures from the outside, but fall very far short of their own vainglorious ambitions for themselves. Graduating from Harvard isn't a sign of failure, but if you think your magna cum laude from Harvard entitles you to either a billion dollars or Pulitzer before 30 (as many Harvard grads do seem to think), you're likely to be very disappointed. At that point, a hypothetical Harvard grad, whose ambitions were Not So Realistic, can either choose to look inside and accept being only Normally Smart, Really, or else look around for something or someone to blame. If you can't bear to abandon your unrealistic expectations of yourself, and can't face the truth that you're not making the cut, you begin to make excuses, which is when you join the ranks of the losers. And of course, there is a more than ample supply of losers and mediocrities who fall short of anyone's definition of success. Too many of those people are too happy to blame other people for their frustrations, and in America black people are always easy to blame.

If you generally believe yourself to be bright and well-qualified, you don't waste your time bitching about this or that petty advantage or disadvantage. Maybe affirmative action policies close this or that particular job to you at a specific moment, the same way someone's unforeseen decision about retirement might open or close a particular job at a particular time. Life is full of little variables like that, and affirmative action isn't an especially big one. If you're good enough, you have faith that it will all come out in the wash. You don't whine that you face tiny disadvantages. And you surely don't complain that your white race doesn't provide you advantage enough.

But racism, and especially the anti-affirmative-action "reverse racism" canard, allows endless excuses for one's own failures. Didn't get into medical school? Blame some black student rather than your MCAT scores. Didn't get into the college of your choice? Blame a black applicant. Never mind that the schools you didn't get into are still positively packed with white people, all of whom got in just fine. The only explanation for your failure can be racial bias! Political correctness has taken away your God-given right to be a marginally-qualified student! But back in the bad old days, marginal white applicants who missed the cut knew that they had missed the cut. Now every white applicant gets to imagine him or herself as someone who would have made it, if it weren't for those pesky non-white people (and to imagine those non-white applicants being incredibly underqualified). Every white kid who's ever gotten a B in something gets to be at least a bubble prospect! It is self-esteem gold.

Conservatives like to sneer at minority claims of "victimhood" and at "politically correct" emphasis on "self-esteem." But American racism, and most of all the form of American racism that poses as fighting against "reverse racism," is nothing but one long whine of victimhood in defense of wounded self-esteem. It is pathetic, like Riley's whining defense that she's only "a journalist" and therefore can't be expected to read "all of the dissertations" that she hasn't read at all. Racism is the enemy of meritocracy in our country. It is the defense of every white person's right to be a special snowflake, judged only by the standards they choose to set for themselves. It is white people's passionate demand not to have those test scores count against them. It is their plea for social promotion.

American racism is the badge of the loser and the crybaby. It is a mockery of every value to which its craven pleas appeal: merit, excellence, self-reliance, justice. It is the song of the whiner and the blame shifter. It is a refusal to take personal responsibility. It is a profound moral failure. But it is also a failure of character.

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