I have many good excuses for not writing much since last Fall, but here’s the one to move things forward again: I’ve been terribly bored and disappointed by the current state of public conversation on race, identity and culture that’s been the core of my writing for over 20 years.
The disappointment has lingered for quite some time. But I didn’t know how bored I was until the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, and the inevitable framing, vilification, posturing and plain stupidity—from many sides—that ensued. Predictable? Yes. But, in the age of Obama, I had expected this kind of appointment drama to take new direction, from a new script that reveals something meaningful about the turn we’ve taken as a nation.
Yet instead of cleaning up the conversation, the gush actually got more stupid and dirtier to boot. At times it’s seemed like a violent torrent, trying to swell itself to join the pro-gun, Obama-as-Socialist, anti-abortion terrorism, Holocaust Museum assault tide.
Who wrote this into the millennium?
Then this NYT piece in the stream—like a Proustian madeline (yes, I’ve actually been tackling Proust instead of writing to you!)—opened some sense inside me that I need to start getting out. The piece left a taste on my mind’s tounge: the promise I savored as I walked into a store on Fordham Road in the Bronx in the Spring of 1970 to buy a Yale tee-shirt, because I had been accepted and would be attending in the Fall.
I didn’t know anything about affirmative action. What I felt was affirmation, and the sense of it extending to entire generation. I felt secure about the “better days” my mother always said were coming.
And now there is Obama. But his triumph stands in stark contrast to the utter failure of multiculturalism and the claims of the diversity industry to making America a better place. At least the right-wing reaction—the naked terror, paranoia and race for arms against the face of change—is openly (appallingly?) transparent, if not honorable. The multi-culty left, with all it’s courtiers pressing Obama to establish their power in government, is still in denial as to what they have and have not won.
The diversity people still don’t know what time of day it is. It’s not a quarter after the ritual filling of the mosaic-tiled salad bowl of American identity. It’s a quarter to (and holding) the full reality of America as the first truly non-racial, non-ethnically defined nation.
We are slipping past debating salad vs. stew metaphors because Obama isn’t a metaphor anymore: he’s the President. I’m no better than most of you—it’s taken me months just begin to get my mind around it. But the Proustian revelation began for me with the repeated recitation of Sotomayor’s background. In a nutshell, she’s me, and the ever widening wedge of outstanding black/Hispanic/Asian Americans who began to take their places in our leadership institutions in the 1970s.
She’s from the Bronxdale projects. She went to Cardinal Spellman High School in my old neighborhood, was a classmate at Princeton with my first wife, and was at Yale Law with other classmates of mine. Given the slightest jiggle of coincidences, the right party in 1977 or so, and I might have dated her. But the point is this: I always knew she was coming, as I knew Obama was coming, because I was coming too.
I wasn’t coming in the name of “diversity”. I was coming in the name of my right to be Leon Wynter.
Sotomayor was able to become the outstandingly qualified professional she became because the moral claim that we are all created equal regardless of race (condition, class, ethnicity) finally began to be “affirmatively” manifested in the 1970’s. But here she is, near the end of the 00’s, still fully vulnerable to attack on the grounds of identity politics.
Sadly, she seems compelled to vindicate herself on the same, shaky grounds.
Princeton didn’t recruit her for the hope she’d become the “wise Latina.” They wanted her because she had the talent, the drive, and because the best of the leadership classes at the time knew it was the morally right thing to do for society as a whole. But, 30+ years later, the discussion is still confined to the tired frame that her value is in her diversity, the cultural and experiential “different-ness” she would bring to the Supreme Court.
I don’t care about comforting the right-wing now feeling so afflicted by the slow rolling Obama revolution. But I do understand how waving the diversity flag in their faces on this nomination would serve to provoke them to new heights of racist paranoia. Celebrating the contribution of minority differentness as a positive number implicitly values their “non-diversity” as a zero at best.
Obama didn’t get his Red State victory margins from people who liked his diversity. He got them from people who saw the promise—however vague in specifics—in a leader representing the fruition of the moral commitment America made to the Sotomayors, Wynters and Obamas of the world 30 years ago.
Even if they didn’t agree with the idea at the time. And even though they still don’t know what they fear more: the chimera of a race-mixed America or the anathema of the Bush-Cheney legacy: justifying economic and environmental catastrophe, morally and strategically bankrupt foreign policy and contempt for the Constitution by their paranoid defense of white male hegemony.
Cheney and Limbaugh, now unhinged (literally, it seems) from restraints of intellectual honesty or political accountability, are still out there making the case for the old idea of America, gaping holes and all. But who is actively making the case for the new? Obama, other than being himself, has enough on his plate, as does the rest of his administration. The multiculturalists have been inept if not plain “no-shows,” in my opinion.
I guess that leaves “us,” whoever we are. I’ve got to get back in the conversation again.