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Friday, March 07, 2014

E pluribus unum

"The word “diversity” threatens to become a mantra in the mouths of a good many Americans, and whether it is something Americans should want, or a condition that they are not capable of appreciating, is difficult to say. Either view is likely to seem a bit close to the argument of whether it is a premillennial or postmillennial fate that awaits us. In any case, diversity is talked about everywhere as a bromide, as salvation, as justice, as social uplift, as, well, American, but, on the other hand, it is considered social engineering, the destruction of standards and values, Balkanization, and the like. Discussion of American diversity these days is tied to affirmative action, a specific social and political policy, and to the idea of a historically inevitable and culturally determined pluralism, a deeply rooted set of attitudes about what Americans think the United States is and what being an American means.

The fervor over diversity, a remarkably insistent expression of our faith and our hypocrisy, our success and failure as a nation, is in part a threefold phenomenon: it is a rendering of old—time American pluralism; it is a reinvented populism; and it is a new version of bourgeois social reform. This idealism about the wonderful variety in America (or the mere assertion of the idea that the variety is wonderful) is rooted in all three ideas and comes close to being, to use an old-fashioned term from the “consensus” historians, a defining aspect of our national character...

One observation about diversity awareness, taken from H. L. Mencken’s view about things American generally, is that it is “a bit amateurish and childish.” Indeed, at times there is something almost mawkish about the diversity awareness movement, although this is a quality more associated with its aspect as a social reform movement, which I shall discuss momentarily.

This quality of childishness, amateurishness, or mawkishness makes diversity awareness seem “sincere,” and sincerity is the most important anti-elitist quality an American can possess. Diversity awareness attacks the idea of an elite, as do all populist moods and tendencies in America. In this instance, the elite being attacked is built on being white, male, and heterosexual. This is, on the one hand, an entirely different construction from, say, C. Wright Mills’s triad of “power elites” of nearly forty years ago: the military, the state, and the corporation. But on the other hand, one might say that Mills's constructions were all mere modalities of being white, male, and heterosexual...

This leads naturally to the third observation that the diversity awareness movement is a bourgeois social reform movement resembling abolitionism in the eyes of its adherents and leftist Comstockism in the eyes of its opponents. Every self-proclaimed liberation movement in America almost invariably takes on the characteristics of exorcising devils, of prudery (despite, in this instance of the diversity awareness movement, the championing of the sexual adventurism or sexual dissent of the homosexual), of stump-thumping secular Methodism, of a philistine and unimaginative self-righteousness. For what, in the end, the advocates of the diversity awareness movement want to preach is not the goodness of diversity but the goodness in the value of diversity, the goodness of believing in diversity as an end in itself. This winds up being expressed in a number of banalities, from likening the varieties of human skin colors and types and cultures to a garden of flowers, to rainbow coalitions, to rainbows themselves, to the insipid reductionism of the profundity and complexity of what human difference truly means, to a self-righteous unending cry against white racism-as if all problems of human difference will be solved once whites undergo a mental sea change that in truth many of them could use but that, even if achieved to the most optimum effect, leaves us grappling mightily with the idea of what difference the human difference makes. As an end—of-history idea, the eradication of racism is as much an evasion as all other end-of- history solutions...

The problem with the diversity awareness movement is that it is not interested, at least not entirely interested or completely interested, in creating a public in the sense that Mills or Dewey meant——informed and engaged. The politics of the movement largely gets subsumed under a language of cure—not of psychoanalysis even but what is worse: the popularized quackery of psychoanalysis, of confessions of insult, injury, and rage, of, in truth, popularized notions of sin and redemption without the profundity of any sort of theology to buttress them. The diversity awareness movement is another substitute for religion in an age when no one can believe in a God anymore. A belief in God would temper the idea now rampant in our society that one is entitled to something simply because one has suffered. In short, the movement cannot help adopting the sentimentality of social protest, an expression of the relentless anxiety of living in “the sunlit prison of the American dream” as James Baldwin so poetically put it, and adopting as well the sentimentality of youth——the pathological fear of old age and death, which is what the American preoccupation with illness is all about. One might attribute this to American optimism, but the diversity awareness movement is built on the essential contradiction of that optimism. The diversity awareness movement wants Americans to understand the tragic nature of their history and the unrelenting destructiveness of white hatred. For the adherents of this movement, the founding of America was the despairing but cataclysmic moment when, on the North American continent, the African, the European, and the Indian met. Yet the movement itself does not want to accept conquest, tragedy, or hatred as inevitable or as human flaws, and like virtually every other American social reform movement its belief in progress is remarkably insistent. The movement sees American history not as profound tragedy but simply in the pedestrian reformer's light as a history that can be transformed by changing its present direction. Perhaps a foreign friend of mine was right when he said that while Americans are constantly trying to understand what being an American is, they have little idea of what their experience as a people actually means. The diversity awareness movement is connected with the moral regeneration of psycho—cure because it is the result of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s...

The problem with affirmative action is the fact that its reality is built on the rigidity of archetypal categorization that presupposes or presumes that the difference measured by the category is the difference that matters; it is quite as likely to induce and perpetuate the role-playing politics of the various social groups that use it as it is the result of those politics. In short, affirmative action becomes, in some measure, a replication of the competitive muddle of middle-level power politics in America, a kind of wretched and overly self-conscious theater of checks and balances, where the end result of affirmative action is simply to demand more of it, because the actors hardly know what else their presence in the mainstream is supposed to signify. The affirmative action is particularly problematic for blacks, the people for whom it was mainly designed by 1960s liberals, for two huge reasons: first, blacks never come to be acknowledged as individual people but simply as representatives—even more precisely, as representations—of a social group. So the differences that matter are the differences between social groups, not the differences in them that may in fact challenge the very notions on which their unity, real and fictive, is built. In other words, the diversity awareness movement never challenges the assumptions of categorization in the United States. It simply wishes to create a self- conscious respect for them as a social necessity and to build a set of implicit political rights around an idea of patronage as a guarantee of their maintenance as viable groups.

In some sense, what affirmative action wants to achieve—-the full economic and social redemption of the oppressed in the very categorization that was the source of oppression——is not to be taken lightly, although ultimately the gains made by the oppressed have been modest, just as the claims made against it in books like The Bell Curve, whose denouement is an astonishingly bitter and protracted denunciation of affirmative action, are overwrought. But by insisting on the reality of the sociological category as any individual’s ultimate social and economic leverage, affirmative action is as likely to oppress as much as it liberates. But even more important is that blacks will never become fully a social group or a totally self—actualized category. What affirmative action has assured, in some sense, is that African Americans will continue to function as objects of fascination and annoyance, something between a fetish and a pet, a botched experiment and a curious expression of nobility. They will continue to be imprisoned by a charisma and a dread that fascinates but never fully explains. But it is this charisma and this dread that induces, evokes, provokes so much intellectual explanation. For, in the end, blacks live under the tyranny of both psychology and sociology, so-called “scientific” revelations of both their virtues and their vices, of their illness and their health. On one level, all affirmative action has done is not to bring the black community to a new level of consciousness about itself, but simply to create another process by which blackness in the United States remains something foreign, in need of help and cure, that exists as a genuflection to white power and dominance.

Afrocentrism, a nationalist enterprise that has sprung up during this era of diversity awareness—specifically, in this age of wholesale challenge to the idea of white male supremacy, greatly aided in intellectual circles by the anti-Westernism of postmodernism—does not solve the problem of the split identity that is the sine qua non of being American, although its adherents believe it does. Afrocentrism simply masks black dualism under an aggressively asserted program of racial mental health based largely on the quest for an authentic idea free from the taint of whiteness and on accusations, with varying degrees of historical proof, of European thefts from darker peoples. For the Afrocentrist the division remains almost unchanged since Du Bois, rendered now in two slightly different forms of self-consciousness: a self-consciousness built on the rejection of a defiled American self centered on slavery and subordination, and a self-consciousness built on a regenerated African self built on independence and self-determination, each of which is necessary and contingent to make the other possible. This is merely an attempt to deepen the category of blackness without offering any possibility of transcending it-—indeed, it considers the desire for transcendence a form of mental illness worthy only of scorn. Yet what true freedom can there be for any “person of color” unless he or she can transcend the necessity of categorization based on color?...

Black Americans are unable fully to understand what they should conserve from their experience as Americans. They grapple for a usable past, as they have failed to understand fully, even to this day, the meaning of their group experience or of their group reality. They have been condemned to a state of constant quandary about what they need to change and what they need to conserve in order for them to cohere and function as a group. The diversity awareness movement, in the eyes of both its proponents and its opponents, actually is a new take on an old dilemma: How do black people function as a community in the United States, and what is the significance of how their community functions or fails to function?

Richard Wright wrote in his 1945 autobiography Black Boy:

After I had outlived the shocks of childhood, after the habit of reflection had been born in me, I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions, how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our despair. After I had learned other ways of life I used to brood upon the unconscious irony of those who felt that Negroes led so passional an existence! I saw that what had been taken for our emotional strength was our negative confusions, our flights, our fears, our frenzy under pressure.

Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of ‘Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it. And when I brooded upon the cultural barrenness of black life, I wondered if clean, positive tenderness, love, honor, loyalty, and the capacity to remember were native with man. I asked myself if these human qualities were not fostered, won, struggled and suffered fur, preserved in ritual from one generation to another.

... There are many views of black community in African American literature, but Wright's is startling because—in its attack against sentimentality, against blackness as a fetish or a categorization—it asks a great deal of black people while conceding very little to them. But to be black is a way of life like any other, and after all, no matter how bereft, it did indeed produce a writer as talented as Wright. But the questions posed by Wright are: What makes black community? What do black people share, and what can they realistically be expected to share? What sort of class or group of people are black folk in America, and how has the fact that they have diversified this nation beyond all hope of homogeneity affected them? Oddly, the very questions that the diversity awareness movement should be trying to answer and, in some measure, claims it does answer, are not explored much at all. Until this exploration takes place with honesty and intelligence, Americans will never understand the nature of their experience or what it has ever meant or will ever mean to be an American."

--- A Meditation on the Meaning of "Diversity" in the United States / Gerald Early in Civil Rights and Social Wrongs: Black-White Relations Since World War II
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