When the quest for `diversity' trumps equality

September 15, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- A lot of people have their shorts bunched in a knot over a decision by the CBS reality game show Survivor: Cook Islands to divide its competing "tribes" by race and ethnicity.

No surprise there. We have enough wars to worry about these days without having one put forth as prime-time entertainment, even if it's all in good fun.

Hispanics Across America founder Fernando Mateo called the Survivor move an "offensive and cheap trick" to boost ratings, which is undoubtedly true, but hardly the first time networks have done that. Does anybody remember Fox's Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?

In fact, Carlos Mencia, that mogul of politically incorrect (but often on-target) humor on cable's Comedy Central, already parodied the Survivor race idea this season, playing on every racial stereotype he could dredge up. (The brainy Asian guy, the fast black guy, the buoyant white guy, etc. In the end, the Hispanic guy won, leading to suspicions that Mr. Mencia had tilted the playing field.)

Interestingly, no big headlines of controversy followed Mr. Mencia's move. After all, he's only on cable and he's only kidding. Survivor is prime time and it's serious, inasmuch as any goofy reality show can be serious.

Adjectives such as "insulting," "irresponsible," "reprehensible" and that conversation-stopper, "racist," have been thrown at the idea of separate black, white, Asian and Latino teams scheming and competing against one another. Sponsors fell away like autumn leaves in a Category 5 storm.

Yet, when you think about it, the protests illustrate how double-minded Americans are about race. Since the 1960s, it has become chic, particularly among liberals, to decry color-consciousness and, at the same time, embrace it.

Americans have "a love affair with race," writes Walter Benn Michaels, a literature professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago. In his new book, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, he describes in eloquent detail how the liberal pursuit of social and economic equality was sidetracked by the pursuit of "diversity."

Ironically, the more we have pursued diversity by repudiating racism and the notion that our racial biology is our destiny, the more we have perpetuated those very concepts, he writes. Liberals "celebrate diversity," while conservatives ask, "Why can't we all just be American?" Liberals quantify "equal rights" in terms of affirmative-action "goals and timetables," which critics call "racial quotas" - which are supposed to be illegal but aren't because, so far, the U.S. Supreme Court says they aren't.

Mr. Michaels is a liberal and proud of it. He wants to re-energize the left by persuading it to build new coalitions against the growing problem of economic inequality.

Of the 37 million poor Americans in the 2004 Census head count, he points out, almost 17 million (45.6 percent) were white. Poor whites are not touched by left-right disputes over whether discrimination is a thing of the past or stronger than ever. They are touched by statistics that show the American dream to be increasingly elusive for those on the bottom of the nation's economic ladder.

Unlike racism, poverty cannot be pinned as easily on a particular set of villains. The poor do share some responsibility in improving their condition. But the most compelling parts of Mr. Michaels' book are his descriptions of the vanishing American dream. Increasingly, one's chances in life are defined by the parents to whom one is born, regardless of race or religion, and whether one is lucky enough to get into the right schools - from kindergarten on up. That wasn't the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream for America, but that's the direction in which we are moving.

That's not just a reality show. It's reality.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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