Opinion: Black liberals and white rednecks
It’s easy to forget towns such as Beattyville, Kentucky, the poorest majority-white-town in America. We spend a lot of time these days considering the demands of black students who call for segregated campus amenities as compensation for historical wrongs. Often, these demands sound like the clamoring of the privileged for more privilege.
Black Harvard students organized funds for a segregated “Black Graduation” earlier this year. Meanwhile, in Beattyville, reality is bleak: a deadly opioid crisis rages, there are zero collegiate opportunities, and the public schools are underfunded; one of the town’s only job providers is a for-profit prison, the Lee Adjustment Center.
This forgotten Kentucky community doesn’t fit our knee-jerk idea of “white” America. An “Ashley” from Beattyville is as statistically unlikely to graduate from Harvard as a “Jeremy” from the Bronx.
On October 23, I attended a rally sponsored by ResistFascism.org at Columbia University. Campus protesters organized the demonstration in support of students Columbia officials mildly sanctioned for disrupting a talk by purported white nationalist and co-founder of the English Defense League, Tommy Robinson.
Tommy is an unsung hero in the EDF’s efforts to purge neo-Nazis from its ranks and was invited to speak as part of the Columbia University College Republican (CUCR) chapter’s effort to expand the ideological breadth of the school’s invited speakers. The CUCR chapter’s ruffling of campus sensibilities scored a victory for free speech: Columbia officials banned the Robinson hecklers from future College Republican events.
A real-life example of an “Ashley from Beattyville” spoke at the Refuse Fascism rally—though, there is one qualification: she grew up in Spanish Harlem.
Kayla Gerdes is a former inmate-turned-activist and graduate of Columbia’s Young Adult Justice Scholars Program, an initiative for convicts hoping to learn their way out of the system. Kayla trekked a long road to redemption: she lived the life of a prescription-drug addict and served prison time for fatally striking a senior woman with her car in 2010.
Kayla, who was eighteen at the time, was driving under the influence of Xanax and oxycodone. When officers arrested her, she screamed: “I don’t care, I don’t feel bad; she was old.”
I took for granted that she was Hispanic (or as the kids now say, Latinx) when I first observed her “woke” rhetoric, Air Jordan sneakers, and Boricua accent from straight-out-of-the Bronx. I didn’t think to ask what her ethnicity is until halfway through the conversation. Even then, I asked as a formality.
“I was born to white parents, but raised by a Puerto Rican foster-parent,” she said as she reveled in my surprise.
From there, we walked to a nearby academic building where we talked for over an hour. Kayla was eager to connect her strife to inequalities affecting the black community.
“I’m able to reach out to people in a way [blacks] can’t,” she said.
This scrappy New Yorker is a glitch in the diversiphile sensibility: the idea that race determines individuals’ experiences. Kayla exemplifies how white Americans’ position in our social hierarchy has shifted, if not changed entirely.
Born into the white-underclass, she grew up during a time when, despite what Ta-Nehisi Coates has said, “whiteness” was losing its luster. Kayla and I are only two years apart and probably remember textbooks from the 1990’s featuring pictures of diverse groups of students playing basketball.
“Diversity” was everywhere. And despite one step-father’s efforts to bequeath to Kayla some of the old white-nationalism, there was little in her surroundings that could lend special value to her race. By all accounts, she isn’t “white.”
But as Ta-Nehisi Coates imagines in Between the World and Me, “whiteness” is a 365-day-a-year resort: an entry-ticket into a world of extended-holidays at Kennebunkport, boundless sums of cash, and unparalleled social status.
Other black intellectuals share that view, and leave little room for suggesting that black students attending Brown University on a full-ride diversity scholarship are beneficiaries of a newer, appealing privilege.
Progressives’ elevation of whiteness is outmoded, the vestige of a time when blacks’ second-class-status formed part of the basis on which rural whites and new immigrants asserted their superiority.
One of the few accurate observations coming from alt-right leader Richard B. Spencer is that “white privilege” has a similar appeal for white progressives today.
Black students expressed their aversion to diversiphiles’ subtle superiority complex when they expelled whites from social justice demonstrations at Mizzou two years ago. However, as Brown University Professor Glenn Loury told me this May, black students don’t challenge this system because doing so would require them to forgo the millions of diversity dollars doled out in exchange for their participation.
MIT’s “Chocolate City,” a segregated-residence program, is one way black students respond to these cross currents. When diversiphiles teach minorities that whites are effectively, if not innately superior to blacks, segregation becomes one viable option for preserving one’s dignity.
And though “white privilege" isn’t the sole force behind self-segregation on college campuses, it is an example of how far our universities and our children strayed from the myths that sustained our republic through a civil war and the dark days when whites really did, as Lyndon Johnson said, eat “n****** for breakfast.”
As Kayla’s story reminds us, college officials’ contemporary efforts at addressing social inequality are at odds with the on-the-ground reality of America in 2017. When policy-makers conceptualized affirmative action programs during the heights of the postwar Pax Americana, they couldn’t account for how much the country would change in a few short decades.
The untold story of Millennial-capitalism is that it has sidelined blue-collar white workers as a cultural and national priority just when blacks, (white) women, and other minorities took their seats at the table. Cheaper labor and outsourcing priced blue-collar white workers out of “dirty jobs” even as corporations and universities internalized the diversity logic that puts a high premium on individuals of color.
As Kayla transitioned from one anecdote to the next, it struck me that although we have similar class origins, she has lived a more “authentically-black” life than I ever did.
In the same year a Long Island judge sentenced Kayla for her crimes, I began my freshman year of college. When I prepared for graduation and a job in Washington D.C. four years later, Kayla was leading panel discussions on sobriety and redemption. All of this at a time when progressives responded to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown with platitudes about the omnipresence of white supremacy.
Diversiphilia—the urge to divide Americans into mutually opposed ethnic groups—doesn’t allow for these personal anecdotes, and it’s vital that people like Kayla tell them. Tomorrow’s elite, a generation trained in race-and-ethnic-studies centers across the Ivy League, is incapable of appreciating these stories or fostering bonds of empathy between average blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos.
Identity politics has drawn a wedge between Americans with otherwise similar goals and aspirations. And it conceals the white diversitocracy’s lip service to income inequality even as it ignores black intellectuals such as Commentary’s Jason D. Hill, who highlighted the important ways his West-Indian heritage sheltered him from the worst aspects of urban-subculture.
Symptoms of diversiphilia include gloating about “putting coal miners out of work;” $150 million investments in diversity initiatives that will benefit students comprising one-tenth of the national population, even as schools in Beattyville sink further into dysfunction and disrepair; and it means ignoring Asian discrimination on college admissions committees because diversiphiles will say behind closed doors that Asians are also “white.”
“Do you encourage your black friends to visit abandoned factory towns?” I asked .
“I do,” she said, “it’s important to know that some of this is about class more than race.”
“Would you be willing to say this at your next meeting?”
“I would. I’m not here for anyone’s approval.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre on Twitter: @dionjpierre
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