Any lingering doubts regarding the unpredictable combustibility of American racial issues have certainly been removed by the uproar that greeted my recent comments in an informal email concerning Rod Paige, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education.
Although my remarks were hardly racially-sensitive or “politically correct”—I strongly suggested that Paige was a rather dim individual, a former football coach who owed his Bush Cabinet appointment largely to affirmative action—I hardly regarded my statements as particularly controversial, since far harsher characterizations of Paige had routinely appeared in America’s elite national media, from which my own impressions had derived.
Consider, for example, the published views of the New Republic’s Peter Beinart, whose position as top editor of America’s most highly-regarded liberal weekly places him near the apex of American political journalism. Just a couple of months ago, Beinart wrote a powerful column condemning the racial hypocrisy of Republicans, in which he casually cited Paige as an obvious example of an “affirmative action” appointee, an “underqualified” minority who predictably has “underperformed” in his job. Beinart seemed sufficiently confident in this characterization that he felt slight need to provide extensive evidence for this claims.
Presumably one reason for Beinart’s confidence was that just the previous year, his own iconoclastic publication had produced one of the longest national media profiles of Paige and his role in the administration, an absolutely devastating portrayal of a Secretary with virtually no influence or knowledge on the policies nominally controlled by his own Department. Among other things, the profile described how other members of the Bush Administration regarded Secretary Paige as being “essentially dead weight,” and claimed that even that such a description was probably an “understatement.”
As far as I can tell these published articles, presumably read by a hundred thousand or more journalists and other opinion leaders, provoked not a single letter or even a murmur of controversy, seeming to confirm that they merely reflected the conventional wisdom of Washington D.C. Since these articles helped to form the basis for my own remarks, I have attached them below for examination.
But while informal emails—unlike major magazine profiles—are seldom taken very seriously by anyone, especially when they do little more than regurgitate conventional wisdom, the racial fixations of American journalism (together with the wonders of the Internet) have led those few paragraphs I spent barely ten minutes writing early on a busy Monday morning, to have now become the subject of over a dozen separate newspaper articles across three states, with four different pieces appearing this Sunday alone, as well as (reportedly) provoking a vast outpouring of individual emails and phone calls. I can’t imagine that any equally insulting references to (for example) our enormously popular President would have generated even a fraction of this response. I am attaching a few of these articles, from the Denver Rocky Mountain News, the Boston Globe, and the Denver Post. All but the last of these, while certainly critical, seem quite fair, descriptive, and even-handed.
More peculiar still, much of the harshest reaction, especially in private, has came from conservatives, who themselves frequently bemoan America’s supposedly free-speech-chilling emphasis on racial sensitivity and “political correctness.” In fact, the angriest notes I received came from two of America’s most prominent conservative critics of affirmative action, individuals who have frequently raked Democrats over the coals for appointments that allegedly sacrificed colorblind merit on the altar of “diversity.” What does this mean?
The sad truth is that in recent years many American conservatives have developed an almost breath- taking degree of intellectual hypocrisy on racial issues, particularly matters involving affirmative action and meritocracy. Often those same exact conservatives who are sharpest in their public condemnations of affirmative action policies in the abstract or when practiced by Democrats, are also the staunchest defenders of what would seem to be similar or even more egregious “diversity” policies when pursued by Republican officials or conservative organizations. One might almost suggest that conservative opposition to affirmative action is today better described as conservative opposition to affirmative action for non- conservatives.
I would strongly suspect that this blatant hypocrisy is readily apparent to much of the general public, and has played a substantial role in diminishing popular enthusiasm for periodic conservative political crusades to roll back the tide of “diversity” politics. Certainly Jimmy Swaggert’s moralistic crusades lost much of their appeal after his own personal behavior came to light. This was the central point of the New Republic articles mentioned above.
But if much of America’s Right exhibits racial hypocrisy, similar charges can certainly be made against the Left as well.
Consider, for example, the degree of personal vituperation that the Left has heaped on Justice Clarence Thomas during the decade or so since he was elevated to the Supreme Court. These liberal attacks have frequently downplayed ideological issues, instead implying that Justice Thomas is intellectually unfit for the High Court and was primarily placed there because of his race. One might suspect that any conservative who publicly used even remotely analogous arguments or language to criticize a prominent liberal black jurist would be universally reviled as an obvious “racist,” yet I am not aware of the national media ever raising such concerns about Justice Thomas’s numerous critics.
Or consider the arguments made by Sue O’Brien, the well-regarded liberal editor of the Denver Post editorial page, whose column concerning my Rod Paige remarks is attached below.
Ms. O’Brien initially raises the capital charge of “racism” regarding my comments, before suggesting a plea bargain for the lesser offence of mere “bigotry” instead. Although I am grateful to Ms. O’Brien for her kind offer, I much respectfully decline, noting that a prime piece of evidence she cites in support of the “bigotry” verdict is that when I described Paige as a “football coach,” my “incredibly narrow world view” coupled with the fact that “Paige is black” led me to avoid mentioning his intellectual distinctions, notably his Ph.D. from Indiana University. Perhaps. But here it is Ms. O’Brien who avoids mentioning that Paige’s Ph.D. was earned in Physical Education, which was also his major in college. An uncharitable observer might suggest that Ms. O’Brien is herself exhibiting what the New Republic article tellingly describes as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Finally, although my original email suggested that affirmative action was the primary factor behind Paige’s appointment, there is actually another word that readily comes to mind based on the limited evidence available. While the Right has for decades railed against preferences, the Left has traditionally been equally strong in its denunciations of “tokenism,” namely placing an ethnic minority (or a woman) in a position of tremendous public visibility while denying that person any corresponding power, authority, or influence. Just as bribery and extortion are closely related crimes, which shade into each other and whose distinctions are highly subjective, so are “affirmative action” and “tokenism” very close cousins.
In fact, I must freely concede that upon review much of the evidence surrounding Paige most clearly supports the “tokenism” charge, which presumably should be provoking an enormous outcry among all prominent racial liberals in the media and throughout the various advocacy groups.
Yet the silence on this score is absolutely deafening, leading to a disturbing conclusion. What we may be seeing is direct evidence that the forces of America’s Right and Left establishments have at long last reached a quiet and informal truce on racial issues, under whose terms the Right will no longer oppose affirmative action while the Left refuses to criticize tokenism. I do not believe that such a dishonest ceasefire is in our nation’s best interests.
In any event, I would suggest that everyone interested in this small but enlightening controversy simply read the New Republic articles attached below, which helped form my own impression of Rod Paige and his national role, and then judge whether or not my informal email comments were so absolutely discordant as to raise serious doubts about my own racial good faith. One might hope that insulting references directed toward one former football coach in the Bush Administration are not automatically assumed to represent a broadband slur against all of America’s 40 million or so blacks.
To rephrase the motto of a prominent cable news channel: I report, you decide.
- Public Schooling by Noam Scheiber
New Republic, Monday, July 2, 2001
- Color War
New Republic, Monday, April 29, 2002
- Bilingual-ed foe chides Unz’s remarks
Denver Rocky Mountain News, Thursday, July 18, 2002
- So Shut Up, Coach, Editorial
Denver Rocky Mountain News, Thursday, July 18, 2002
- Bilingual foe blasts a US secretary
Boston Globe, Wednesday, July 17, 2002
- Bilingual Opponent Condemned by Critics
Boston Globe, Sunday, July 21, 2002
- A bigot by any other name… by Sue O’Brien
Denver Post, Sunday, July 21, 2002