In a recent interview, Erroll McDonald ’75 — the maverick publisher whose writers include the likes of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison — lamented the corporate approach to racial inclusion. “HR departments can talk until we’re all blue in the face about inclusiveness, but more often than not these initiatives … are unwittingly informed by hypocrisy, condescension and, even, contempt.” While he considers these efforts well-intentioned, he thinks they seldom lead to real progress.
Last week, I had the opportunity to see McDonald in person, as he hosted a panel on “Art in the Age of Trump” with four of the Windham-Campbell Prize winners. At first, I was disappointed — McDonald opened with a stereotypical takedown of President Donald Trump and a series of long-winded questions, and I thought the ensuing discussion would adopt a similar tone.
I was wrong.
Instead, Maya Jasanoff, nonfiction writer and Harvard professor, argued that McDonald’s opening statements implicitly revealed the tendency of left-leaning institutions to adhere to a single, polarizing agenda. To her, the work of artists shouldn’t have to be polarizing, nor tied to identity politics. Instead, she urged, we should “engage in difference.”
Canadian novelist André Alexis and playwright Ike Holter — both Black — agreed with Jasanoff; as racial minorities, they feel their work always faces unwanted politicization. Jasanoff — an Asian-Jewish woman whose work focuses on the writings of Joseph Conrad, an anti-Semite who exoticized Asians — noted there is now a sense that authority derives solely from personal experience. Holter smartly used that notion to his advantage; in his recent play, “Hit the Wall,” he controversially decided to humanize a cop and focus on his law-abiding nature in a story about the illegal Stonewall Riots of the gay liberation movement in 1969.
In stark contrast, poet Carolyn Forché — the only white person on the panel — broke with the other panelists to give a long monologue about the need to fight racism, describing her work as at the “intersection” of social justice and art.
While Forché seemed sincere in her convictions, the gap between her common views on race and equality and the more nuanced views of the other minority writers revealed a troubling phenomenon — one that is unfortunately very common on our campus. Identity politics — and our universal support for its ideal of “progress” — are usually antithetical to real advancement toward racial or social equality.
A recent study by Yale researchers found that rich white Americans were more likely to overestimate racial economic equality compared to poor white Americans and all African Americans. While visibility, outreach and opportunities have certainly expanded for disadvantaged groups, the reality is that most of our racially and socioeconomically sensitive attempts at social engineering have fallen far short of any widespread and concrete successes. Racial economic equality across the country is actually just as bad as it was 50 years ago, yet many upper class Americans assume with unfounded optimism that things have to have gotten better, thanks to a plethora of social programs and a new eye toward “diversity.”
McDonald, an African American who attended a prestigious university, spoke out against one of the worst manifestations of this phenomenon — affirmative action — in a 1990 New York Times interview. He, like other prominent African Americans — including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas LAW ’74 and eminent economist Glenn Loury — feared that affirmative action would only “fashion an ideology of victimization,” and instead suggests that socially equalizing efforts must be redirected at education before college.
A recent study supports this view, demonstrating that even with affirmative action, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at top colleges than 35 years ago. This is especially shocking to those in favor of the program (on this campus, almost everybody), when opposition to a current lawsuit against Harvard’s potential admissions discrimination against Asian Americans hinges on the idea that affirmative action does, in fact, benefit minorities.
Yet, even with a Supreme Court ruling looming over its future, affirmative action, along with other similar efforts, will likely persist. At places like Yale, disagreement only invites severe social ostracism.
McDonald, Thomas and Loury clearly do not seek to harm racial minorities by expressing views that go against the grain. Instead, they are considering the complex question of racial and social inequality with the properly nuanced attention it is in dire need of.
Too often, our society has failed to deeply question inequalities at their root without relying on endless appeals to identity politics — most of which seem to only help white people feel better about themselves.
I am struck by the way Jasanoff, Alexis, Holter and Mcdonald beautifully demonstrate true genius as artists in “The Age of Trump.” They choose not to uncritically agree with the majority, but instead, like W.E.B. Dubois once wrote, “sit with Shakespeare” and contribute, like they should, as free intellectual equals.
Yalies should take a cue from this. Before blindly agreeing and snapping in solidarity at every vocalization of “racism, no!” we should think deeply about how we can truly make lasting progress.
Leland Stange is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .