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Anti-Anti Racist

A case study in racial politics

If anyone involved in the City University of New York's recent search for a new City College president read the essays of Yolanda Moses before I dug them out of the library on the eve of her appointment, they aren't telling. In them, Moses, academic vice president of the obscure California State University, Dominguez Hills, campus, outlined the principles and strategies that she thinks universities should follow to promote diversity. She served up a hash of half-baked, sometimes insidious nostrums from the nether regions of academic administrative discourse, but that wasn't nearly as unsavory as the response of much of New York City's liberal establishment to criticisms of Moses. The affair was a case study in how high-profile controversies are spun in the new affirmative-action mainstream.

American institutions must diversify as a practical and moral imperative, but some of Moses's proposals threatened to turn diversity into a push for proportional minority representation that compromises standards and morale. Too few minority faculty are hired and promoted, she wrote, because "service on committees, student advising and university community activities (especially those that promote cultural diversity)" are not "ranked as highly as research.... That will have to change if cultural pluralism is to flourish." Changing the reward structure in this way is appropriate, in her view, because American universities "are products of Western society in which masculine values like an orientation toward achievement and objectivity are valued over cooperation, connectedness and subjectivity."

Moses has a Ph.D. in anthropology, but the half-dozen essays--which constitute almost the whole of her published work since the late '80s--reflected her full-time work as a preacher of diversity at Dominguez Hills and as a consultant to other colleges, foundations and academic associations. Although she'd long ago given up formal anthropological research for administration, "where my laboratory has become the academy," Moses was about to become president-elect of the American Anthropological Association, which presents itself as "documenting the richness of the diversity of the human condition."

But could such dreamy notions of diversity heal the polarization caused at City College by Leonard Jeffries, who is nothing if not an apostle of "connectedness and subjectivity"? When I asked her on the phone whether she believed in any objective standards under which Jeffries's scholarship might be found wanting, she said, "That's what tenure review is for. Standards, of course, are in flux." Moses's ideas seemed equally wrong for the City College whose engineering and science programs draw top minority students--people who, like ccny graduates Felix Frankfurter and Colin Powell before them, want their religion and race to count for less, not more, in their academic and public lives.

Yet Chancellor Ann Reynolds was about to ask cuny's trustees to name Moses instead of the other finalist, a Harlem-based physicist out of Bell Laboratories who runs a foundation to help minorities enter careers in the sciences and engineering. The physicist had no experience in academic administration, however, and the other candidates had been even weaker. "The pool was poor," a search panel member told me. "A lot of terrific blacks turned us down."

But when I broke the story of Moses's appointment and examined her ideas in my column in the New York Daily News, liberal outrage was directed not at cuny or at her, but at critics of the university such as Herman Badillo, a politician who, as a Puerto Rican orphan, had worked his way through City College and graduated cum laude in 1951. Badillo, a cuny trustee, urged his colleagues to put Moses's appointment on hold until they had examined her more closely.

Reynolds went into overdrive; she persuaded the trustees to outvote Badillo by promising that Moses would pursue diversity without compromising standards. Jay Hershenson, cuny's vice chancellor for university relations, told Moses to stop returning calls, brought her to New York for a quick tutorial and then sent her out on selected interviews.

One columnist who got through to Moses early was Sheryl McCarthy, a black woman whose identification with the new president was instant and intense. "Both Badillo and the Daily News have tried to equate the hiring of Moses to the college's retention of Jeffries," McCarthy wrote. (In fact, we had argued that a Jeffries can't exist without enablers, however well-intentioned.) Reynolds then sent Moses to The New York Times editorial board. Instead of raising questions about Moses's writings, like those it had posed about the work of Lani Guinier, the paper moved to Moses's defense, citing none of her controversial views but pronouncing her credentials "respectable." Of course, Moses's resume, like Guinier's, is less important than her ideas, which bear even more directly than Guinier's on what she can do in office. Yet criticisms of Moses, a Times editorial declared, were "wildly overstated, an irresponsible invitation to bigotry."

That sort of argument has become a standard trope in diversity debates, effective in squelching the kinds of doubts about beliefs like Moses's that the Times editorial declined to pursue. (The paper's two profiles of Moses were more balanced.) Such doubts have to be aired because while diversity is an imperative, everything is in the details: it's not easy to disentangle what's stodgy and parochial in a tradition from the shared understandings and loyalties that nurture character, morale and, yes, excellence. As the Moses controversy is only the latest to suggest, such subtleties are lost on the cutting edge of the diversity movement.

The syndrome that ensues is all too familiar: College X, hell-bent on diversity, accepts disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics who don't meet its usual standards. As those students do poorly, even well-qualified students of color experience white stereotyping and resentment. Into that chasm of mistrust fly the occasional anti-black (and, in response, anti-Semitic or anti-white) epithets, proving the existence of a virulent racism, which only more diversity, discipline and consciousness-raising can cure.

The root cause of the failure, of course, isn't diversity itself, but the bad public schools, poverty and family breakdown that hold back minority youths. A university that thinks it can solve such social problems through its admissions and hiring offices, rather than its research, doesn't understand its mission. The same is true of a great orchestra, newspaper or any other corporate entity whose first priority must be the excellence of whatever it produces. Yet the iron logic of diversity suppresses any such analysis. Dissenting views—and, indeed, standards themselves—are denounced as racist.

But why? The answer has something to do with the morphology of the liberal mind. Like the parlor left's fellow traveling in the '30s, the white, liberal end of the diversity movement is nourished in a fictive yet passionate embrace of the oppressed—the "proletariat" then, "people of color" now—that has more to do with the satisfaction of its champions than of its intended beneficiaries, who are summarily boxed and labeled by skin color or surname, often to their own chagrin.

It is precisely because this sort of missionary zeal is so deeply rooted in unexamined needs that it resists examination. Just as fellow travelers used to cast critics of communism as tools of fascism, promoters of diversity cast critics of even their worst excesses as the handmaidens of bigots. Yet the implication that Yolanda Moses was attacked because of her race and sex, not her ideas, reflected denial of a far deeper truth: her champions have selected and defended her for precisely that reason.

As in the '30s, a leveling impulse increasingly drives the affirmative-action movement. In a famous Times essay a few years ago, Roger Wilkins argued with tart irony that whites should love affirmative action because of all the lazy and incompetent whites it had sheltered for centuries. This, too, has been picked up and repeated.

If the charge of bigotry is unfair to diversity's responsible critics, the argument for leveling is just plain sad. Throughout American history, insurgent groups have broken down doors by proving that they're better, not that everyone else is as bad. They've deluged the gatekeepers with talent; if rebuffed, they've started their own colleges, law firms and banks, making brilliant end runs around a stodgy establishment.

This, of course, is what countless blacks have done. And it is against that heroic legacy that one reads, with overwhelming sadness, McCarthy's defense of Moses: "Mediocrity is a common characteristic of white male academics.... Let's hire women and people of color who are as ordinary as the white males who already dominate academia, and there will be no trouble in keeping up current standards. No trouble at all."