Race politics in America aren’t that hard to understand, if you understand the class politics that go along with them.
Yesterday on NPR, a young woman lamenting the verdict in the Freddie Gray case — another Baltimore police officer was acquitted in the death of a man who, we are asked to believe, somehow managed to break his own neck in police custody — complained: “There’s no justice. After a while, what are we” — “we” here meaning African-Americans — “supposed to do? We follow the rules, we get in trouble. We don’t follow the rules, we get in trouble.”
One understands the frustration: A fellow managing to break his own neck in police custody looks shady as hell, and the Baltimore Police Department, along with the rest of the municipal institutions of Baltimore, is plagued by corruption and ineffectiveness.
But Freddie Gray was not a young man out following the rules. He wasn’t much of a rule-follower at all, having been involved in about 20 criminal cases, five of them active at the time of his death, which came only a few days before a scheduled appearance on drug charges. Like Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, Gray was pretty far from being a guy who just happened to “get in trouble” while following the rules. None of which is to say that there wasn’t police misconduct or police overreaction in any of these cases, though it seems more likely in the Garner and Gray cases than in the Brown shooting.
The next story on NPR was about the Supreme Court decision in the matter of Fisher v. University of Texas, in which my alma mater successfully defended its policy of discriminating against some white applicants in the pursuit of “diversity.” The stories came back-to-back, but the connection between them did not seem to occur to anybody in public broadcasting. You can manage not to notice all sorts of things if you have a strong enough incentive to not notice.
EDITORIAL: In Fisher, Another Blow to Equal Opportunity
Admission to the University of Texas involves a slightly strange process: About three-fourths of undergraduates are admitted under what’s known as the Top 10 Percent Rule (actually more like 7 percent these days), under which a certain share of Texas students graduating near the top of their high-school classes are automatically admitted. The other 25 percent or so, including all out-of-state applicants, are admitted under “holistic” standards, which is a euphemism for decisions that incorporate racial discrimination in the pursuit of progressive political goals. It’s the usual case of visible diversity among students camouflaging intellectual homogeneity among faculty. “Oh, yeah, they’re very diverse,” as a Daily Texan colleague once explained. “They’ve got Marxists, deconstructionists, five varieties of feminists . . . ”
“We follow the rules, we get in trouble.” That isn’t quite true, but you have to understand what the rules are and who makes them. Socially and politically, our rules are made by a relatively narrow class of socially similar people who are almost exclusively college graduates, and the first rule is: Go to college.
#share#The reality of life in these United States is that among people with power, there is no meaningful social category of “black Americans.” There’s Michael Brown, and there’s students bound for the University of Texas or another elite or semi-elite institution. It’s not quite W. E. B. Du Bois and the “talented tenth,” but it’s something like that.
Consider the controversy at the University of Texas. If you are a student who is close to UT’s automatic-admission standard but not quite there, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? Your next-best options include (if the folks at U.S. News and World Report can be relied upon) George Washington University, Purdue, U. Conn., Clemson, and Syracuse, or, if remaining in Texas is important to you, Southern Methodist University. If you are a black applicant to UT who is right on the edge of admission, then white people with power — with real power — will go all the way to the Supreme Court (more than once, in fact) in order to defend their power to discriminate against other white people from their own social class in order to spare you the indignity of having to go to Texas A&M or Baylor.
The success of young college-bound African Americans is in fact very near the top of the priority list of white people who have real power. The ironic fact is that elite institutions historically run by white people will go to extraordinary lengths to support and encourage African Americans in their orbit, while the institutions that have more dramatically failed black Americans include a great many run by black Americans: the municipal institutions and schools of Detroit and Baltimore leap to mind, as well as their police departments.
#related#And what about those who are not bound for bachelor’s degrees and MBAs, for office jobs and tidy homes in the suburbs? Black or white, we do not do much for them, in part because the policy-making classes have a hard time seeing beyond the end of their own collective nose, which is why we’ve just had a Supreme Court battle over the question of whether some smart non-white kids from Beaumont will end up at the 52nd-most-prestigious American university or the 53rd or the 57th, while the fact that in many of our cities half of young black men fail to finish high school is accepted as an inevitable and adamantine fact of life, as is the dysfunction that marks life in the white underclass. The demagogues will offer these foundering Americans a little condescension around election time, assuring them that their problems are the result of nefarious scheming Chinese and invading Mexicans (if they’re white) or (if they’re black) of an incurably racist society that simultaneously wants to oppress young African-Americans and send as many as possible to Harvard.
No, you won’t get in trouble if you “follow the rules.” But you have to know what the rules are, and that there’s a rule against being the sort of person who doesn’t go to college. We should probably rethink that rule.