Sunday, May 09, 2010

How Clinton-era “diversity” hobbled black progress

30 years ago I had an essay in the Philadelphia Inquirer making the point that racial segregation in the South had become a project primarily to satisfy the white liberal temperament of northern people, but while the South had effectively integrated in the 1960s, the north and Philadelphia, where I lived, had not.
The South, white and black, shared a cultural core in religion, primarily Baptist, of a form which might be considered indigenous to America and to that region, while both religious Southern whites and blacks were inherently alien to the commence-based materialistic culture of the north. (“Horse-worshipin’ Yankees,” wrote one detractor.)

Not long after I worked in a very good college in the South which made sincere effort to integrate along those deep and resonant lines of culture, region and religion. It was a great opportunity for the South. Economy was booming. Poor blacks and blacks from the country where heart was trusted over head could find a natural and organic cohesion with whites in the Baptist chapel. But what destroyed those honest attempts can be understood in two words: diversity and globalization.

Diversity became the buzzword in the Clinton era. It took the college administrator, whose job it was to raise funds, off the hook. The problems related to race in the South no longer need be seen as specific economic issues caused by specific historic conditions; problems fully amenable and with corrections well underway. They became instead aesthetic issues. Race and ethnicity became an abstraction: Prejudice is so fifties. And not just prejudice against blacks, but against everybody. You could substitute Chinese instead. Rich ones. Or East Indians. Rich ones. Or gay people, or Iranians, or Valley Girls or Zoroastrians. The possibilities were endless.

The few rural and religious blacks brought in after that were like Kafka’s hunger artist: Short term exotic novelties lost and forgotten in the hay. They huddled by themselves – country bumpkins virtually outcast in the new upscale cultural environment – with the few religious Southern whites in the Pat Robertson corner.
Travelling recently with one of my sons to those same Southern colleges these past weeks, the morph seemed complete. There were tons of Indians, Chinese and other Asians on campuses. Money talks. I inquired a while back and was told that rich foreign students, very many who pay full boat and are generous alumni, pay the way for poor blacks and poor white kids.

The school tour guide in one school in particular that had a long and laudable Baptist tradition going back to the 1840s, was obviously embarrassed by the Southern religious heritage. She was from New Jersey. Yes, there were Baptists here long ago but now this is the center of the school, she said, proudly pointing to her sorority house. She guided the tour away from the historic chapel and avoided the topics of race, religion and culture like the plague.

No question, the school was fully globalized. But there seemed to be only enough American black students - great looking ones, like models for J. Crew or Abercrombie & Fitch - in view to supply the school’s front office in years ahead and the college brochures and to give a little talk on MLK day.

In the beginning, the issue was slavery and the attitudes of a culture abandoned economically for 100 years after the Civil War. In the South these are existential issues; the South is and always will be a biracial culture with white and black sharing a religion, a culture, a home. These were and are problems the South will solve and are solving itself. Here in the north, race is avocation; a worthy project and a chance to do the right thing. But we in the north lose interest and move on to something else – as we did after the Civil War - as it is not really our home.