The Wise-*ss Latina Woman, and Other “Racists”

Full disclosure: I guess I’m a Latina woman, sort of.  My parents were both born in Cuba. They told their secrets in Spanish, which is a great way to raise a bilingual kid without working at it.  Wise?  Dunno, let the reader decide.

Anyway, I’m fascinated by the latest tactic of the Radical Right:  calling any person of color or member of a minority group “racist” when s/he suggests that colorless people may in a particular instance be behaving in a prejudiced manner, or that race may still be a significant factor in current social conditions.

Sonia Sotomayor mentioned (in 4 or 5 different versions of the “wise Latina” speech) that the experience of being a double minority might enrich her judicial perspective, and the Republicans glommed onto the remark as if it were their last hope of salvation. In fact, it was more like their last chance at having anything at all to say in her confirmation hearings, in light of her 14 years of impeccably straight arrow judicial decisions.  Maybe if her paper trail had looked more like Robert Bork’s, they wouldn’t have bothered with the “wise Latina” stuff.  But her Republican opponents and several other critics have called her a racist for using the phrase.

And then the President called the behavior of the Cambridge cops “stupid” when they arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for having broken into his own house. He started out by admitting he didn’t have all the facts yet.  In fact, he never will, and neither will the rest of us. The facts will undoubtedly never be completely clarified, since so far we have 4 different (and discordant) accounts, and there are a number of participants who have not yet been heard from.  Does that mean nobody is allowed to express an opinion, or just that POTUS should have kept his highly influential and controversial mouth shut?  Anyway, despite his diligent efforts at trying to cool things down with the aid of a Bud Lite, the “stupid” remark got him called a racist by several conservative types.

Apparently the reasoning of the Hard Right is that we are, or at least should be aspiring to become, a color-blind society.  Anyone who reminds us that race is still a significant social reality is obstructing this effort.  Anyone who obstructs our progress toward color-blindness by definition is a racist.

Some of my best friends espouse the ideal of a color-blind society.  They refuse to check the white/black/other boxes on the various forms everybody has to fill out these days. I can see why that’s attractive.  It would be nice to just cast off the shackles of our old errors and move on into a bright future for all of us, without regard to race, creed, color, or gender or………………….

Hey, wait a minute!  Would that mean we shouldn’t notice any difference between men and women?  Ummm, words fail me.  The species could be seriously disadvantaged in its chances for survival if the two sexes couldn’t even recognize each other.

And, assuming that there is some serious metaphysical difference between distinguishing characteristics people are born with and those they choose, does that mean that we should stop noticing race, but it’s okay to discriminate against Unitarians or anybody else who chooses a minority religion?  The gay rights movement has in some quarters gotten bogged down in a dispute over whether sexual orientation is inborn or chosen.  Are we sure we want that to matter?

Okay, I don’t want race to matter, when it comes to distributing social goodies, like the right to vote or move into a neighborhood or go to school or get a decent job.  I also don’t want religion, gender, or sexual orientation to matter for those purposes.  Does that mean I don’t want to KNOW about those things? Or that I don’t want the people distributing the social goodies to know about them?

Sometimes we do set up blinding mechanisms to screen out possible discriminatory effects.  It’s how we do reputable laboratory research—divide our subjects into two groups, without letting anybody know which group any individual subject is in, and experiment on one group while leaving the other along except for placebo tinkering.  It’s how the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra does its auditions—the musician plays from behind a screen, so the judges cannot ascertain his/her race, gender, age, or physical appearance.  They start with the premise that none of those things matter for their purposes.  All they need to know, and therefore all they want to know, is how good the candidate sounds.  Some academic journals do peer review by removing the author’s name and other identifying details from the article before distributing it to reviewers, to keep them from being blinded by gender, past reputation, or academic affiliations.  They don’t need to know any of those things to know whether the article is any good.  It should stand on its own anonymous merits. Same goes for juried art exhibits.

And it’s how the civil service system and the union seniority system are supposed to operate. Individuals get “points” for seniority and test scores, and if your points put you at the top of the list, you get the next job.  But as a practical matter, you don’t get into the seniority system until you get into the union, and until fairly recently, that often required a recommendation from a friend or relative.  As a practical matter, the civil service points awarded to military veterans are essentially an affirmative action program for men, since the military sets limits on both the number and the proportion of women admitted into the service.  Civil service doesn’t screen out as many high-scoring women as it used to, since there are a lot more women veterans than there used to be.  But the system still favors males.

Mr. Wired had a brilliant suggestion some years ago:  why don’t employers get serious about deciding what the real qualifications are for doing a particular job, advertise the job opening and qualifications to the general public, and then just hire the first qualified person who walks through the door?  These days, most employment discrimination doesn’t involve hiring unqualified people in preference to qualified people, but in choosing one qualified person over another for reasons having nothing to do with qualifications.  So let’s eliminate that step from the process.

I don’t know anybody other than Mr. Wired and us who likes that idea.  Most employers think they want to hire the most qualified person available for a particular job.  Of course, a lot of things get in the way of doing that, like figuring out what the qualifications really are for a particular job, and deciding how much they’re willing to pay for stellar qualifications, and dealing with candidates whose wage demands may be as high as their qualifications.

And of course, there are the intangible qualifications. “Character.”  “Fit.”  “Comfort level.”  How the candidate comes across in an interview (which, of course, is never conducted from behind a screen.)  All the things that serve as proxies for whether the candidate reminds the interviewer of his/her best friend.  All the areas into which considerations of race, religion, class, age, gender, and sexual orientation can creep unrecognized, especially if one isn’t even allowed to notice how they affect the total employee mix that results from these decisions.

I would love to live in a society in which none of this stuff mattered to a person’s chance at the Good Life.  Gandhi says “we must live the change we wish to see,” and a lot of the time I think he’s right.  But living as if we had already overcome racism and other forms of discrimination will not actually overcome them.  It will merely blind us, not to color, but to its effect on the world we live in.  No doubt some of the people obsessed with race and discrimination are racists, or maybe just politically savvy race card players.  But most of them, I suspect, are just trying to avoid being blinded to the racist realities that still surround us.

Watch This Space for a further examination of such questions as:

Do we presume that the unspoken basic job qualification for most decent jobs is white middle class culture?  Are we willing to treat people of color, women, GLBT types, and people with disabilities like white middle-classniks only to the extent that they can disguise themselves as white middle-classniks?

If we do admit these outgroups to the white middle class, do they become fully qualified members of the Tribe, or only a cheap knockoff (I was going to say “pale imitation,” but that obviously won’t work) of the real thing?

Are we willing to accept people we recognize as different from ourselves as nonetheless entitled to be treated like ourselves?  That is, is equality possible without sameness?


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