Sometimes a trivial embarrassment can become a teachable moment. It was recently revealed that Harvard professor and U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren had self-identified as a Native American for nearly a decade — apparently to enhance her academic career by claiming minority status. Warren, a blond multimillionaire, could not substantiate her claim of 1/32 Cherokee heritage. (And would it have reflected any better on her if she could have?) Instead, she fell back on the stereotyped caricature that a relative of hers had “high cheekbones.”
Not long ago, University of Colorado academic Ward Churchill was likewise exposed as a fraud in his claims of Native American ancestry. This racial con artist was able to fabricate an entire minority identity and parlay it into an activist professorship that otherwise would not have been possible for a white male of his limited talent.
In the Trayvon Martin murder case, the media was intent on promulgating a white-oppressor/black-victim narrative as proof of the endemic white prejudice that still haunts America and requires perpetual recompense.
However, a glitch arose when it was learned that Zimmerman had a Peruvian mother. By university and government diversity standards, he could be characterized as a “minority.” That bothersome fact threatened to undermine the entire hyped narrative of white-on-black crime. So the panicked media coined a new hybrid term for Zimmerman: “white Hispanic.”
Note that the media has so far not in commensurate fashion referred to President Obama as a “white African-American” even though he, too, had a white parent. In Obama’s memoirs, we learn that well into his 20s he self-identified as “Barry.” Only later did Obama begin using his African name, Barack, which at some key juncture offered a more valuable cachet than did the suburban-sounding “Barry.”
Is there anything wrong with such chameleon-like self-identification in an age when universities are full of hyphenated careerists and newscasters awkwardly trill their names to remind us of their particular ethnicity?
In the last 50 years, massive immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, coupled with rapid rates of integration and intermarriage, have created a truly multiracial society. So-called whites, for example, are now a minority of the population in California, and millions of people of mixed ancestry don’t identify with any particular ethnic group.
Does a Joe Lopez, the son of a white mother and a Hispanic father, “count” as Hispanic while a Joe Schmidt, the son of a Hispanic mother and a white father, does not? What about a José Schmidt?
For that answer, ask George Zimmerman. Had he applied for college admission or a certain type of job, a politically correct university or an employer pressed to meet diversity quotas mostly certainly would have dubbed Zimmerman “Hispanic.”
Identities, in psychodramatic fashion, are sometimes put on and taken off, like clothes, as self-interest dictates — given that so often they are no longer ascertainable from appearance. If that sounds crass or unfair, ask Elizabeth Warren, who dropped her Native American claims as soon as she at last received tenure and found her 1/32 con suddenly superfluous — to the apparent unconcern of her similarly cynical but now mum employer, Harvard.
Nor is race sure proof of either poverty or past oppression. Asian Americans, for example, have a median family income more than $10,000 a year higher than that of white Americans. And if pigmentation is proof of ongoing prejudice, why don’t darker Punjabis and Arabs — who do not qualify for special racial preferences — deserve consideration over those lighter-skinned minorities who do?
How long after a Mexican national crossed the border would he become a Chicano eligible for affirmative action? Do Attorney General Eric Holder’s children qualify? Do 1/32 (one great-great-great grandparent) or 1/16 (one great-great grandparent) Cherokees receive preferential treatment? And if so, who administers this odious Jim Crow one-drop DNA test, and how?
In truth, after a half-century in our self-created racial labyrinth, no one quite knows who qualifies as an oppressed victim or why — only that the more one can change a name or emphasize lineage, the better the careerist edge. The real worry is that soon we will have so many recompense-seeking victims that we will run out of concession-granting oppressors.
How odd (or rather, how predictable) that something that started out as a supposedly noble lie — that to atone for past bias we must be judged by the color of our skin rather than the content of our character — has become utterly ignoble and beneath us.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author most recently of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected] © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.