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November 23, 2003

What do you call a black doctor?

Remember the old Malcolm X quote: Do you know what white racists call black PhDs? (answer: the n-word). In that vein of thought, this Fred Reed column is pretty brutal in its honesty:

What effect does the unmentionable pervasive scorn have on society? One result is the widespread assumption among whites that blacks are incompetent. For example, I wonít let my children (or me) within shouting distance of a black doctor. I donít care about his color. I know how great the affirmative action is, how great the pressure not to fail blacks. Sorry. Iím not going to take the chance. Nor are a great many people. Black doctors know it.

Though I have principled problems with affirmative action, another point is that from a utilitarian perspective it has a warping affect on the discourse and interaction of individuals in this society. A realist must admit that ingroup-outgroup behavior is a human universal. Liberal societies tend not to give this tendency official sanction, but more thorough attempts to legislate it away simply have not had their intended effects either.

I friend of mine who recently graduated from medical school would talk about the people who were "characters" in class. Out of 100 students in his year he graduated 3rd in the class, so he wasn't too shabby, and could look down with a bit of contempt and patronizing noblesse oblige at the guy who applied 6 times to the same school before he was accepted, or the woman with 2 kids and a bitchy ex-husband, or a really asymmetrically built doctor who was at the left end of the bell curve looks-wise. Nevertheless, what struck me was the nickname he and his classmates (his circle were 5 of the people ranked 1-10 in the medical school) gave the one black medical student: Token.

Of course, the word token doesn't have the same sting because of history as what Malcolm X referred to, but it's pretty illustrative of a certain mind-set. I asked my friend if the guy got in on quotas, and my friend and his buds weren't really sure, but they assumed he had. Token, whose name I never found out, was considered a OK doc, not a incompetent nut-case like the 1/8 Native American woman who trumpeted her heritage constantly as if it was a talisman against rebuke, or the chubby-faced loser at the bottom-of-the-class who seemed to display a lassitude toward life. Token was no star, there were those who were dimmer lights, but nonetheless, he was the object of mirth and condescending ridicule.

In defense of my friends, the acceptance rate at their med school was less than 5% that year, and most of them also felt punished for being young as there was a recent trend for looking to those who had been "out in the world." Anyone who was perceived as having recieved a break, or contrived to get in on lower standards, was given less than full consideration in the constellation of achievers. It didn't matter that no one knew the test scores or GPA of the one black medical student as an undergrad, they assumed that they were low, and so imputed his standing as one who could talk to them as a peer.

This sort of attitude is the reason why I can get a bit hysterical when I talk about affirmative action. As I've noted before, the negative impact of affirmative action exceeds the opportunies opened for exceptionally qualified individuals of groups who tend to under-perform in any given field. On the other hand, a group as a whole might be more well-off because of the leg up given by preferences. To compenstate for the perception of different standards, hypercompetent members of "disadvantaged" groups will make explicit their achievements and qualifications (to the point where it would seem strange in those outside this group). In contrast, the less-than-stellar who benefit from affirmative action won't disclose test scores, GPA or rebutt implied criticisms with explicit measures of performance, but will posture and assault rhetorically.

When I was an undergraduate, my university put whether to have new majors offered to a student body vote, and whenever a "studies" came up I would vote against it. My reasoning was that "studies" are havens for the less than intelligent and tend to give people who should drop out of college a safety valve. My Korean American friends joked that those too stupid for science and business majors switched to Asian Studies. A Jewish friend made the same joke about Jewish Studies. I will leave quips about Black Studies, Women's Studies and Peace Studies out of this post, but I'm sure you've heard of them.

Within any group there are people who just can't hack it. This is true among both genders and all races. But for white males there isn't a White Male Studies-where being a White Male offers them a bachelors degree, as they "bring their own particular life experience that transcends the conventional discourse and paradigm and pushes beyond the boundaries-of-the-normal...." Among South Asians for instance, there are plenty of stupid people. Right now there isn't a Brown Studies department, though they fit somewhat unnaturally into Asian Studies and Ethnic Studies, and other nouveau areas. There is no perception among the general population that brown docs and engineers are getting special treatment, so we don't have to deal with the typical liberal cant on racial issues. As Imbler Volokh has observed, a dark skinned South Asian, darker that many American blacks, can still be termed "Lily White" in a culturally-slip-up. And hallelujah to that! Being an Honorary White (in some contexts) means you have to live up to the same standards! It means that when you achieve something of note, people will give you fair praise, honest praise, and people won't dismiss you explicitly or (more often) implicitly. It means when you say something stupid, people will tell you you're being stupid, and if the maxim that you learn from mistakes has any truth, this is crucial to intellectual growth!

Banishment from the realm of the Normal to the Oppressed can have consequences even for those who would excel. Look at Cornel West, a man who knows Greek and Aramaic, but can make millions as a celebrity professor making banal observations, but recieving enormous accolades. In an alternate universe where West could not use his race as a path to riches and prominence he would probably have been a pretty good scholar. Yes, he would have a less lavish lifestyle, but he would be less of a joke privately. As it is, I wonder if Cornel West took such a path, focusing on academic achievements, would be able to escape his destiny.

And destiny is a crucial point. To succeed on your own terms, to fail on your own terms, I think this is important for the modern humans. The current thinking on issues of race and identity are turning away from that, reverting back to an organic and tribalistic conception of worth derived from corporate standards (ie; a good black man, a good white male, etc.). To some extent black Americans will always be judged by their race. At first this was due to racism, and that still plays a part, but now, a whole world-view that places their racial identity in a causal position has emerged which shoe-horns everyone to that pathway. Conservative black thinkers are still black thinkers, reviled for their race-traitorship, praised for their conservative thought, black nonetheless in more ways that just physical appearance and culture.

The day that I start hearing a lot of talk about being a credit to my race, I'm going to try and look into that wack skin de-pigmenting process that Michael Jackson went through, better to be a deformed wack than a token. This might sound strange, after all, brown Americans (South Asians) are well educated and affluent. The current perception about us is "positive." But the race hustlers are ever present, and there are those who didn't make it into medical school, law school, aren't engineers or don't own their own business, who have low self-esteem and so forth, and they exist as a resentful minority ready to spring into action when they can get the leverage they need. Right now they man the Minimarts and drive the cabs, their race does not give them any special opportunities. Those few with brains who end up in the humanities are already shiny prizes for their departments, a little-bit-of-color-in-the-vanilla, deconstructing forces and paradigm shifting atoms. These people are a minority, but they are active, and they exist in all "model minorities." While the passive majority is busy about their lives, they are aiming to create a corporate structure of ethnic identity, and of course, they are ready to take on roles of leadership as the CEOs of such diffuse bodies. Once the corporation of race goes public, everyone falls under its shadows, even those who don't buy stock. Perception starts to influence reality. Walls are put up, inter-corporate interaction becomes distorted, and the process begins to feed upon itself as the dividends of good behavior in the corporation begin to outweight dissent from corporate policy. Soon enough, even dissenters are co-opted in their own way, as they are viewed as exiles, but nonetheless, stamped by the corporation and so good moles and messengers by corporate "enemies."

Corporations are the hallmarks of agricultural life, broadly speaking. The tribe, the ethnic group, the religious body, and so forth. The liberal individualist vision rebelled against it. But now we are seeing a slide back, the re-emergence of organismic thought, though by another name. Isn't it interesting how people can put shackles on you, all the while telling you they are freeing you from the "mental hegemony" of our "oppressors"?

Posted by razib at 04:30 PM