Politics & Policy

Arguments of Color

Why one standard should rule us all.


By now, everyone under the age of, say, 40 knows that “colored” was what racist America called black people. Textbooks in public and private schools, which give short shrift to all sorts of white folks, pay an awful lot of attention to this fact, complete with photos of “colored” and “white” signs over water fountains, bathrooms, etc. “Colored” is among the most charged buzz-phrases of America’s apartheid past. Call a black guy “colored” today, and you’d better run. Say “colored” on TV and your career as a pundit, sportscaster, reporter, businessman, whatever, is over. Unless maybe, just maybe, you can buy a dispensation from Jesse Jackson with a big “donation.”

Excepting the part relating to Jesse Jackson’s shakedown rackets, I’m fine with all that. Oh, I wish the textbooks were better (a lot better). But I think Jim Crow should be stigmatized. Segregation was bad. “Colored” and “Whites Only” belong in the dustbin of history.

Which is why I am so confused by the fact that I’m supposed to call the rich ethnic cocktail of racial activists’ groups “people of color.” Semantically, there’s no difference, though stylistically, “people of color” is a lot more unwieldy. Hot water means, I think, the same thing as water of hotness. Blue skies, skies of blue. Furry dog, dogs of furriness.

Though I guess when you start playing with this construction, there is a bit of a difference. “Angry men” describes men who happen to be angry. The anger can go away, and they will still be men. But “men of anger” puts the emphasis on “anger” as a permanent thing. It suggests that the essential category is anger and there are men who owe their particular existence to anger. This “X of Y” formulation implies some Platonic category or transcendent entity, of which the individual person is merely a manifestation. Christian men versus men of Christ. American, or American man, as opposed to man of America.

I’m too busy to look up the grammatical and philosophical terminology to explain what I’m talking about. But I think you probably get it. And if you don’t, keep playing with it, I think you’ll see what I mean (white paper, paper of whiteness; spicy buffalo wings, buffalo wings of spiciness…).

That’s why it’s so depressing that “people of color” has replaced “colored people.” In a very important sense, the old phrase was better — even if it represented something worse. Grammatically and metaphysically, colored people are still, well, people. But “people of color” implies that color is a permanent, immutable, unbridgeable thing. People of color are defined by their color.

Whether or not you buy that, the fact remains that calling folks “people of color” is at least no better than calling them “colored.” Indeed, the practice is just one small sign of how completely the racialist Left has abandoned the moral juggernaut that was Martin Luther King’s original argument: that everyone should be judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin.

Today, so-called “racial liberals” and leftists argue that race — or ethnicity, gender, sexual preferences, whatever — is an insuperable barrier to mutual understanding, let alone to applying the sorts of universal standards that make judging someone’s character possible. “That’s a white (read: ‘European’) way of looking at things” is a statement found throughout the academic and Left-literary world (see last Friday’s much better “Facts and Firemen”).

Remember the scene in Stripes when John Larroquette trips over the curb of the sidewalk and orders, “Have that removed”? Well, the racialist Left has a similar attitude toward the barriers of external standards. If blacks or women — or any other member of the coalition of the oppressed — trip over objective standards, they say matter-of-factly: “Have that removed.”

A few examples, most of which come from Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism:

‐The famed liberal social scientist Andrew Hacker argues that blacks fail academically because “historically white” colleges “are white… in logic and learning, in their conceptions of scholarly knowledge and demeanor.”

‐Ishmael Reed declares, “It’s because of Eurocentric control of the public school curriculum that the United States produces generation after generation of white bigots.”

‐The Afrocentrist academic Molefi Kete Asante calls for “dismantling the educational kingdom built to accompany the era of white supremacy. No longer can the structure of knowledge which supported white hegemony be defended.”

‐”As a black person,” Alice Walker suggests, “one cannot completely identify with a Jane Eyre or with her creator, no matter how much one admires them.”

Some don’t call for removing the standards so much as for removing the people they’re applied to. As Colorado law professor Richard Delgado once put it, “If you’re black or Mexican, you should flee Enlightenment based democracies like mad, assuming you have any choice.” (Why Delgaldo is still here remains a mystery — as does the fact that hundreds of thousands of Mexicans stream over the border to our Enlightenment-based democracy every year.)

Pat Buchanan Meets Al Sharpton

Conservatives used to have similar problems with Enlightenment-based democracies too. The champion of this school of thought was a guy named Comte Joseph-Marie de Maistre (1753-1821). Don’t let the name “Marie” fool you, de Maistre was hardcore. He hated the Enlightenment, and didn’t consider it all that illuminating. He championed the infallibility of the Pope before it became Church doctrine and defended the Monarchy against, literally, all criticisms. More relevant, he thought constitutional democracy was for suckers — in part because it’s based on the idea that humanity is universal.

“Now, there is no such thing as ‘man’ in this world,” de Maistre famously wrote. “I have seen in my life French men, Italian men, Russian men… But as for ‘man,’ I declare that I have never met one in my life; if he exists, it is entirely without my knowledge.”

For de Maistre, you couldn’t be just a “man.” You had to be a man of Italy, a man of France, a man of Persia, etc. The new American republic was so much folly, in de Maistre’s eyes, because its Constitution was blind to this unchanging fact of life. The Declaration’s bold proposition, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” ran completely counter to everything de Maistre believed.

It should go without saying that the Left subscribes precisely to this point of view. Along with nationality, they also emphasize ethnicity, race, and various other identity-politics categories, but the principle is the same. They believe there is an epistemological firewall separating blacks from whites, women from men, Latinas from non-Latinas, etc., etc. De Maistre would have no problem saying “people of color,” because that is largely how he saw the world.

What doesn’t go without saying is that there’s still a sizable segment of the Right that preaches very similar junk: paleoconservatives.

(Note: Never take a liberal’s word for it about who is or isn’t a paleoconservative. Liberals and mainstream journalists tend to confuse or conflate social conservatives and paleoconservatives, even though they aren’t the same thing. The reason for this confusion is that paleocons disassociate themselves from “neocons” — as do social conservatives — and since liberals tend to think neocons are the only species of conservatives who aren’t Nazis, they mess it all up.)

The leading self-described paleocon in America these days is Pat Buchanan (others include Joseph Sobran and Sam Francis). These guys talk a lot about “white America” and our European heritage. Buchanan’s new book (which I haven’t finished yet) spends an awful lot of time talking about how European-Americans, by which he means white Christians (Asian, Hispanic, and African Christians don’t count), are being besieged by a tidal wave of cultural, political, and demographic trends.

This has been a theme of his for quite some time — recall all of his talk about Zulus, for example. More recently, he suggested that white, European Christians should “demand affirmative action” because too many “slots” at Harvard and other Ivy League schools were reserved for “Jews and Asians.” “This social and moral injustice needs airing,” Buchanan whined.

This is, of course, silly. If anything, quotas keep Jews and Asians out of many schools in order to make room for not so much white Christians, but blacks and Hispanics. But that’s not the point. What is the point is that Buchanan and his confreres see the world through the same sort of prism as Afrocentrists do. Sam Francis, Buchanan’s leading intellectual booster, writes about European-American History Month with more bitterness than the typical race-is-everything liberal black writer, but through the same sort of prism. His writings on racial differences are even more strident.

Meanwhile, Buchanan has explicitly abandoned the free market, favoring high tariffs and even higher barriers against immigration in order to protect the white, Christian, European ethnics he considers to be his constituency. “Better the occasional sins of a government acting out of the spirit of charity,” writes Buchanan, “than the constant omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” Charity for you-know-who, that is. As my indispensable colleague Ramesh Ponnuru (a recipient of typically repugnant potshots by the paleos) has written, with no doubt great restraint, “Buchananism is a form of identity politics for white people — and becomes more worrisome as it is married to collectivism.”

The racialist Left’s economics are almost indistinguishable from the Buchananite Right’s. The only difference is which ethnic constituency should get the payoff. Buchanan’s arguments about the culture are more complicated, because he’s right that Western civilization is a “unique culture” and one well worth preserving (which is why bilingual education, for example, is so heinous). But Buchanan’s approach to that task isn’t so different from the racialist Left’s. A racial spoils system is no less a racial spoils system just because you switch around the beneficiaries. Buchanan’s exasperation with the cultural Left is understandable but no less forgivable; it basically declares, “If you can’t beat them, join ‘em.”

On this Martin Luther King Day, with the Left in complete denial over their abandonment of King’s Dream, mainstream conservatives are the only ones left willing to argue resolutely for universal standards. It would be a shame if we got so frustrated with the task at hand that we, like the Left and the Buchananite Right, simply threw up our hands and declared, “Have that removed.”


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