Magazine | June 11, 2012, Issue

Diverse Like Me

Our Mexican writer reflects on the Cherokee Senate candidate

Once, not too long ago, when I was hiring writers for a television show, a network executive called me up.

“We’re really hoping you’ll keep diversity in mind when you make your choices,” he said. “It’s sort of company policy to hire as many diverse writers as possible.”

How a writer — or anyone — can be described as “diverse” is a mystery to me. But when someone says something I don’t understand, my general policy is to simply agree with it and move on. Asking for clarification, in my experience, always leads to one of two undesirable outcomes — either I end up even more baffled, or, worse, I end up knowing exactly what was meant. Not a great result either way.

So I agreed to the general goal — “Sure, sure, very important, very important” — and then ended up hiring the writers I wanted to hire. The conversation about diversity, as with almost every other aspect of contemporary liberalism, was an exercise in kabuki theater: The guy has to call me and say the word “diversity” a few times, I have to pretend to listen, everybody’s happy.

That was, as I said, a few years ago. Things have changed a bit since then. Everyone is a little hipper to the game.

Two months ago, when I was again hiring a staff of writers, I tried the old agree-and-move-on trick and was brought up short.

“We’re really committed to diversity hires, Rob,” the executive said. “In fact, we run a whole program for young diverse writers.”

“Sure, sure, very important, very important.”

“No, I mean, seriously. We’re sending over a list of writers who qualify as ‘diverse.’ We’d really like you to hire one of them.”

In the end, I ran out of money in the budget for writers. And if there’s one thing networks care about more than diversity, it’s money. But before I was allowed to shut down the exercise, I was also warned that many writers — sometimes through their agents — will claim to be “diverse,” but that when you get them in a room face to face, there’s less diversity there than you were expecting.

“We get a lot of people claiming to be half-Asians,” I was told. “And pretty much everybody is claiming to be part Hispanic.” But then, apparently, when they arrive at your office with roundish blue eyes sparkling and blond hair waving, it’s awfully hard to square with the “Caribbean-Asian” checkbox.

In other words, people lie about stuff in order to get a job.

Lying about your qualifications is a time-honored job-hunting tradition — which is why in the old days, in order to get a job as a secretary, you had to pass a typing test. And why, even now, Google administers a series of brain-teasers to folks who want to work there. The trouble is, since the single most important qualification a job-seeker can boast of, when going for a position in such frivolous and irrelevant institutions as movie studios, government bureaucracies, and major universities, is ethnic and racial background — diversity, in other words — applicants have to find an ethnicity they can claim without eliciting laughter.

#page#Now, speaking as someone who, if family lore is to be believed, has more than a hint of Tabasco in his background, I get the problem. Personally, I’m way too ruddy and freckly to pull off “Hispanic mix” in a racial-background questionnaire — I usually decline to fill these out, by the way — despite being able to back it up, should it come to that. But I am who I am, and there’s some Mexican in the family tree, and though good taste — and pink skin — have kept me from using it to my advantage, I’m rethinking that.

Elizabeth Warren, who is, if possible, even whiter than I am, is running against Scott Brown for the Massachusetts Senate seat. She’s also, according to her, about 1/32 Cherokee Indian, which is something she’s been dining out on for years. Listed in faculty directories as a minority, fulfilling diversity quotas, getting invited to lunches — her Native American heritage has been a pretty good career move. Even at 1/32 Cherokee — which by my shaky math means that one of her great-great-great-grandparents was a feather-wearer — she hits the right diversity notes. She wouldn’t pass muster with a television network’s HR-defined meaning of the word — they operate, you’ll recall, on the basis of a visual inspection — but then, universities are a lot looser about that stuff. A gal shows up with blond hair and blue eyes claiming to be Cherokee, and Harvard Law School says, “Me smoke-up peace pipe.”

(I can make jokes like that. I’m Hispanic.)

In fact, claiming Cherokee heritage is a pretty perfect way to go for an enterprising academic. In the first place, there is no spot more like an Indian reservation than a college campus, with its subsidized lifestyle, taxpayer support, separate-seeming nationhood, and heavy alcohol use. And more important, at a ratio of one part Cherokee to 31 parts Scot (or whatever), you’re getting a terrific diversity bang for a low-risk Anglo-Saxon buck. And as long as no one ever matches the name of Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee, with a photo of Elizabeth Warren, she’s all set.

But someone did. And now she’s in trouble. Because Massachusetts voters — who, remember, tend to vote pretty liberal — didn’t like the idea of an Obama-administration bureaucrat, a white-skinned Harvard Law professor, a person who by all measures and metrics is a powerful member of the ruling American establishment, claiming some kind of special protected status.

They don’t like the multiple — and feckless — explanations coming out of the Warren campaign. That she just wanted to make friends and get invited to “lunches.” That she’s from Oklahoma, where everybody is part Injun. That it didn’t count anyway. And when it was pointed out that it did count, at least to Harvard, that she’s a proud Cherokee with cookbook entries to prove it. None of that seemed plausible. All of it seemed laughable.

Put it this way: If Elizabeth Warren is Native American, then I’m Cantinflas.

(And I can make jokes like that.)

When liberalism collapses — and it will, won’t it? — it may not be because we conservatives out-argued it. It may not be because of the sum-total columns of our rational, reasoned dissent. We may not persuade a single lefty that we’re right.

What may happen — and what’s happening, I think, in Massachusetts — is that it will descend into farce. Liberalism may slip on its own banana peel. Let’s all stay out of the way when it does.

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