Home | Away

Monday, May 24, 2010

Civil rights

OK, now back to some old business.

Megan McArdle, you’ll recall, replied to this old post from April 13 later the very same day. Like so:

Michael Berube’s response to my writing about the lack of conservatives in the cultural elite is, perhaps unsurprisingly, just a tad overwrought, and not very responsive.  Frankly, I sort of wondered if he didn’t outsource it to an undergraduate.  He makes some decidedly unhilarious jokes—conservatives!  country clubs! take my wife—please!—and then proceeds to berate me for not mentioning Jim Crow.

Yes, obviously, Jim Crow was an important means of maintaining segregation.  And yet, in the three quarters of the country where it didn’t exist, we still didn’t have a lot of blacks getting hired into positions of responsibility by white institutions.  How could that be?  It’s almost as if there was some other force . . . maybe we could call it “discrimination” . . . that was keeping people out of whole areas of employment.

Get me the New York Times! The world needs to know about this!

Yep, that’s one finely-wrought response there, coming from someone who kicked things off by likening the position of conservatives in academe to that of African-Americans in the 1950s seeking jobs as bank managers.  But I have to admit that the bit about whether I outsourced my post to an undergraduate stings, and stings badly.  I have been called out by one of the finest prose stylists on the Internets. Who else could have written

Obviously there’s been an enormous amount of ink shed about why this is, but my experience of talking to people who might have liked to go to grad school or work in Hollywood, but went and did something else instead, is that it is simply hogwash when liberals earnestly assure me that the disparity exists mostly because conservatives are different, and maybe dumber.

... all by herself without any help or outsourcing?  I guess that’s why Megan McArdle writes for the Atlantic and I don’t.  It’s a meritocracy out there, and like all libertarians, McArdle has only herself to thank for her success.

So what do readers think about her argument?  Here’s Mitchell Freedman, commenting on my blog:

I just responded to McArdle at the Atlantic.  She wants us to think Jim Crow is a solely southern phenomenon and of course that is horribly ignorant.

What I should have also added is that she then talks about structural discrimination as if that is something outside of Jim Crow, when it is part of Jim Crow.  Weird, really.

And then here’s Buzz, commenting at Crooked Timber:

Well, McArdle gets the best of this in her cogent response to this nonsense. The whole Jim Crow angle is obviously wrong because, as McArdle points out, even without the force of Jim Crow laws in most of the country, blacks still weren’t being hired for certain positions.

And so it is with conservatives in academe: even without the force of law, there is very real institutional and departmental bias against hiring people with certain points of view.

I feel sorry for your students, Bérubé, for having such an blinkered fool for a professor.

Hmmm, looks like opinions differ.  Surely both sides have their strengths and weaknesses.  We’ll have to call it a tie!

Which is fine by me, because I have no real interest in arguing with Megan McArdle.  It’s not terribly productive or illuminating.  More important, after reading that slacktivist post on the Procter and Gamble hoax, I don’t think it’s simply a matter of ignorance about Jim Crow or racism.  (I was serious when I said that discussion has changed my sense of how the world works.) It’s not even something specific to McArdle herself; there are just too many conservatives and libertarians out there complaining that they face structural discrimination in the “cultural elite” comparable to that of institutionalized racism in the pre-civil rights era.  You can try to tell them that this is absurd, but I’m getting the feeling that it’s a little like telling the evangelicals that Procter and Gamble doesn’t really donate a portion of its profits to the Church of Satan.

And Moloch knows, it’s not as if I haven’t tried!  Why, only a few years ago I wrote a whole entire book called What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Here’s a relevant passage:

It turns out that there’s something more serious and insidious going on here, and that—once again—race is an issue even though African-American scholars make up only five percent of all college professors nationwide (and half of those scholars teach at historically black institutions).  For much of the conservative complaint about “underrepresentation” is drawn disingenuously from the legal discourse of affirmative action; in the American Enterprise issue that announced the findings of the Horowitz/ Zinsmeister study, attorney Kenneth Lee, a member of the far-right Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, made the case in so many words.  “The simple logic underlying much of contemporary civil-rights law,” said Lee, “applies equally to conservative Republicans, who appear to face clear practices of discrimination in American academia that are statistically even starker than previous blackballings by race.” Even starker than previous blackballings by race: according to Lee, conservative scholars have it worse than did African-Americans under segregation and Jim Crow.  (This would mean, I imagine, that on some campuses there are fewer than zero conservatives.) It is a fantastic and deeply offensive claim in and of itself, but it becomes all the more offensive if you go back and look at the history of conservatives’ opposition to affirmative action programs in American higher education.

Better still, you might look at the history of conservatives’ opposition to desegregation across the board.  That would be instructive.

In November 2005, not long after I finished writing the book, National Association of Scholars president Stephen Balch appeared in Pittsburgh to testify in Pennsylvania’s very own Horowitz-inspired investigation of liberal bias in our public colleges and universities. The state legislature, Balch argued, “should expect to see the problem of intellectual pluralism addressed with the same vigor that the state’s universities are already addressing what they take to be the problem of a lack of ethnic and gender diversity.” So there should be an affirmative action program for conservatives—who, by the way, oppose affirmative action programs.  As Balch himself said in his very next sentence, “I’m opposed to according any preference to ethnicity or gender in academic hiring or admissions.” Yes, we got that part, thanks.

And that reminds me, in turn, of my old pal Dinesh D’Souza.

Fifteen years ago, I was asked by the journal Transition to review Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism.  You might remember that book for such pull quotes as “The American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well” and “Activists recommend federal jobs programs and recruitment into the private sector. Yet it seems unrealistic, bordering on the surreal, to imagine underclass blacks with their gold chains, limping walk, obscene language, and arsenal of weapons doing nine-to-five jobs at Procter and Gamble or the State Department.” (And now I wonder: why did he single out Procter and Gamble? Could it be ... Satan?) But you might not remember that the book’s concluding chapter called for the repeal of the Civil Rights Act.  Here was my take at the time:

D’Souza’s rationale for repeal is clear:  “America will never liberate itself from the shackles of the past until the government gets out of the race business.” Now that racist discrimination against African Americans is largely a thing of the past—as D’Souza points out, “all the evidence shows that young people today are strongly committed to the principle of equality of rights”—government action can only produce a justifiable white backlash.  Drawing his inspiration from legal scholar Richard Epstein, D’Souza does not worry about freeing the private sector from antidiscrimination laws; for in a truly free market, racial discrimination would not exist at all, since “discrimination is only catastrophic when virtually everyone colludes to enforce it.” D’Souza’s case in point is major league baseball, about which he poses a truly novel thought experiment:  “Consider what would happen,” he writes, “if every baseball team in America refused to hire blacks.” Lest we are unable to imagine (or remember) such a state of affairs, D’Souza guides us step by step:

Blacks would suffer most, because they would be denied the opportunity to play professional baseball.  And fans would suffer, because the quality of games would be diminished.  But what if only a few teams—say the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers—refused to hire blacks?  African Americans as a group would suffer hardly at all, because the best black players would offer their services to other teams.  The Yankees and the Dodgers would suffer a great deal, because they would be deprived of the chance to hire talented black players.  Eventually competitive pressure would force the Yankees and Dodgers either to hire blacks, or to suffer losses in games and revenue.

There’s something disingenuous about D’Souza’s plans for integration, since D’Souza had argued earlier, citing Joel Williamson, that Jim Crow laws were “designed to preserve and encourage” black self-esteem.  But let’s assume, for the nonce, that D’Souza is serious here, and let’s assume also that franchises like the Celtics or the Red Sox of the 1980s could not win games without a sizable contingent of black ballplayers.  How precisely is this argument supposed to work in American society at large?  Are we supposed to believe that bankers and realtors don’t discriminate against black clients for fear that their rivals down the street will snap up all those hard-hitting, base-stealing young Negroes?  Or is it that when black motorists are tired of being pulled over in California they will simply take their business to the more hospitable clime of Arizona?

Ah, 1995.  A few outlying conservatives and libertarians were saying the Civil Rights Act was unnecessary because racism simply doesn’t make economic sense, and there was much wingnuttery in Arizona.  It was a different time, you understand.

So, you see, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing this kind of thing from a certain wing of the intellectual right.  Having tried their best to keep the Negroes out of universities (and sometimes the women too, as in the case of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton), and having opposed federal antidiscrimination laws, some of these good people are now terribly, terribly concerned about the possibility that they are being barred from the ranks of the cultural elite.  Well, they say the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice, so I’m sure they will overcome someday. 

Posted by Michael on 05/24 at 09:00 AM
(88) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink
Page 1 of 1 pages