In my first semester as an undergraduate, I noticed that something has gone awry in this country’s race relations. A friend was trying to point me towards a person in the cafeteria. The person was sitting next to someone else who had a similar outfit on. The student he indicated was black, and the student’s neighbor was white.
My friend, in trying to distinguish between the two, hesitated for a moment and then proceeded to single out a minor differentiating factor: “the one with the Adidas sneaker.” His fear of committing an ethnic faux pas was so great that he did not dare mention the word “black.”
It was surely only a matter of time until the sentiments agitating American society as a whole filtered through its upper echelons and influenced the country’s policy making. The suspension of classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the undeniable sign that for the Yale community such a day has arrived. What a pity.
This holiday seems unjustified on all logical grounds. If the university is to suspend classes on this day, then why not on all other federally recognized holidays? One might say that no other date has the universal appeal of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which honors a man who not only fought for black Americans but continued the long tradition of struggle for fundamental human values.
Yet such reasoning opens the door to the commemoration of a number of other national and ethnic leaders whose battles strike the same universal chord. Would the American establishment and academy respond sympathetically to demands by Latin Americans seeking to lionize Che Guevara, by Indians memorializing Gandhi, by Palestinians defending Arafat, or even by South Africans honoring Nelson Mandela?
Because the only ethnicity against which this nation turned its claws with all the might of institutionalized discrimination was its black population, and those years of repression have created a similar reservoir of a very pernicious sentiment: guilt.
Guilt might be appropriate in the context of religious ceremonies or psychoanalytical inquiries, but it is not a proper catalyst for public discourse. The visceral reactions that the sentiment provokes are woefully inappropriate for the shaping of public policy.
Fortunately, guilt has resulted in the retreat of white supremacists and the subsequent advance of the black cause. Yet unfortunately and tragically, this black movement’s new leadership has not sought the integration of the black minority into the hitherto WASP-ruled order. Instead, it has attempted to carve its own niche and create a separate identity.
This can be seen even in the way black activists have chosen to name the population they represent: “African-Americans.”
In my opinion, few descriptions are more ludicrous than this one. For what do black Americans have in common with Africans? They don’t share the same culture, the same education, the same political institutions, or the same language, let alone the same income level.
As an outside spectator, it is obvious to me that black Americans have much more to do with white Americans than with black Africans, despite the color of their skin.
This is a good sign, a sign of an integration which is long overdue. Yet it still bewilders me that white obstructionism has been replaced by a racialization perpetrated by black leaders themselves. This racialization is made possible by non-blacks’ deep-seated fear that any opposition to the proposals offered by the other side amounts to racism.
It is thus ironic that Martin Luther King Jr., the man whose dream depicted black and white children playing together on the same field, is now used to symbolize a system in which color continues to determine social interactions. The only difference is that it now operates in the opposite direction.
In the end, I am disheartened to see the that the cardinal principle against which civil libertarians rose up — that of an institutional framework purportedly “separate but equal” — is now precisely what their self-proclaimed heirs seem to advocate.
Gustavo Ioschpe GRD ’02 is a student in the master’s program in international and development economics.