Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Context, Anyone?

It has been a while now since New York Times columnist Bob Herbert reported that Ward Connerly said on television that "Supporting segregation need not be racist .... One can believe in segregation and believe in equality of the races." Since then I have not seen a transcript of Mr. Connerly's interview, although I have no reason particular to doubt Mr. Herbert. So I will assume he is right.

In any event, I have only Mr. Herbert's excerpt and no close context for it. But with that caveat, I think it is worth pointing out that it is not that hard to give a perfectly reasonable and non-racist construction to Mr. Connerly's comment. Many groups - ethnic, religious, national and linguistic groups come to mind, but there are probably others - choose to live in high concentrations because this allows for services, experiences and contacts which would not be feasible otherwise. For example, if one speaks only Chinese and is new to the United States, one would probably be wise to reside in a Chinese-American community in which Chinese food, language, medicine, conversation, culture and ideas can be obtained easily and cheaply. There is no question that, even without a desire of the residents of such a community to exclude others, de facto segregation will often occur in such communities. It is not hard, for example, to find communities in and around Los Angeles with almost completely Asian populations, where this is the result of neither discrimination for or against Asians.

[It was not always so. Many deeds for older homes in Los Angeles (now unenforceable) provide that the property may be sold only to Caucasians - where the intent of the restriction was to prevent sales to Chinese, not African-Americans as is often incorrectly supposed.]

These Asian communities are segregated. Most Americans would say that these Asian newcomers have a perfect right - moral and legal - to do what they have done. Would Mr. Herbert consider that widespread acceptance of impulses that result in this segregation a sign of "deep seated racism," or is it a vindication and public accomodation of the individual's right to choose one's culture and religion? Most people would not consider segregation in this case and with this intent to be a problem. And these Los Angeles Asian communities are obviously but one example of a great many in a great many cities.

Would Mr. Herbert say that supporting this segregation is racist?

Or can one can believe in this example of segregation and still believe in equality of the races?

Again, I do not have the benefit of any context to Mr. Connerly's comments, and if such context were provided perhaps the above discussion would be revealed as inapposite.

But I also have to say that I find it more than passing strange that Mr. Herbert did not provide more context in his column. It suggests he is playing an inappropriate game where volleys can do real damage where none is warranted.

MORE: Pandagon, Hauser and MinuteMan

STILL MORE: David Frum gives a lot more context - and takes Mr. Herbert, game, set and match, although he comes at it from an angle rather different from the one presented above:

Could that be any clearer? Either Herbert failed to read the whole interview (which I can hardly believe) or else he willfully misconstrued it (which would be even worse). Connerly was a product of and victim of the segregated South. But with characteristic generosity, he is unwilling to condemn all the people implicated in segregation as racists and bigots. What Herbert is attacking Connerly for is Connerly's capacity for forgiveness. Pretty nasty.

And also pretty dumb. Because segregation has not vanished from the United States. As Connerly himself points out, every campus of the University of California now offers special blacks-only and Hispanics-only graduation ceremonies, some of them paid for with university (that is public) funds. Many universities have blacks-only and Hispanics-only dormitories or floors within dormitories.

Does Herbert regard these segregationist practices as racist? It would make him a more interesting columnist if he did - and would say so - but if he doesn't and won't, he is not well positioned to condemn Connerly for his Christmas-season words of charity.

Link from MinuteMan Update.

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