By Jonathan Tilove
Newhouse News Service
April 15, 2002
c. 2002 Newhouse News Service
COLLEGE PARK, Maryland – Robert Obstgarten, a white freshman at the University of Maryland, and Miesha Lowery, a black senior, agree that American life is rife with racial double standards. But they hold precisely opposite views of who is getting away with what.
Obstgarten, 18, wonders why it is OK for Shaquille O’Neal to write in his book, “Shaq Talks Back,” about the humiliation of being “dunked on by a white boy.” If a white player disparaged O’Neal as a “black boy,” Obstgarten suggests, “there would be bloodshed.”
Lowery, 22, says she and black friends marveled at the relatively benign reaction to the riots on and around campus when their school won the NCAA basketball championship. Were Maryland a predominately black school, she said, “I’m sure somebody would have compared it to the Los Angeles riots.”
Increasingly, it seems, discussions of race swirl around the complaint that the other race gets away with things that would be considered outrageous, wrong and unfair were the roles reversed.
The black experience with double standards is, of course, rooted in a history of slavery and subjugation. Jim Crow amounted to racial double standards enshrined in law.
But in the years since the civil rights revolution and the advent of affirmative action, many whites beginning on the far right, then moving toward the mainstream have come to see themselves on the short end of the double standard.
The point of view has flourished as younger whites, nurtured by a curious mix of colorblind and multicultural philosophies and less chastened by history, more openly demand a racial parallelism, in which blacks and other minorities do not think, act or talk about race in any manner that would not be legitimate were whites to do the same.
“Colorblind ideology tells whites that the playing field is level and that anyone who brings up race is a racist,” said Georgia State University sociologist Charles Gallagher, who studies white racial identity by interviewing whites individually and in focus groups across the country.
Younger whites especially, he said, “see Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, and white kids wearing FUBU shirts and do-rags and black kids dying their hair blond, and they have this very superficial instinct that the color line doesn’t matter anymore in shaping people’s life chances.”
“And they wonder, why do we need a Miss Black America when a black can win Miss America?”
The result: Issues that people once intuitively understood have grown blurred and suspect the legitimacy of a Congressional Black Caucus, a black student union or a Miss Black America pageant, why white power and white consciousness are not morally equivalent to black power and black consciousness, why it is there is no White Entertainment Television. (In fact, some white teen-agers outside Cincinnati last year created a gently wry Web site by that name and quickly attracted 5,000 hits a month, indicating a lot of people are plugging those words into search engines.)
Questions once regarded as the provocations of the racist right now come out of the mouths of babes, informed and emboldened, according to Angela Dillard, professor of history and politics at New York University, by a colorblind vocabulary that “gave people a language to say, ‘I’m not racist.’”
“There is no sense of history. It is really stunning to me,” said Dillard, author of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Now? Multicultural Conservatism in America.”
Dillard has had white students at NYU who, in all earnestness, “can no longer tell why it’s still OK for there to be a Morehouse (College) or Howard (University). I had a class in which a (white) student argued with conviction that there shouldn’t be an African-American church.”
As disturbing as she finds these views, Dillard said they betray “a kind of charming idealism … about race I find hard to imagine. They get angry that race still matters.”
“Most whites now don’t believe that American racism is what keeps blacks from achieving,” said Edward Blum, founder of the Campaign for a Color-Blind America, which has challenged the use of race in everything from college admissions to drawing electoral districts.
To Blum, based in Washington, the impatience of younger Americans with race-consciousness and the rules of racial discourse is the surest sign that he and his allies are triumphing. “I really think when young people are asking ‘how come’ and ‘why should,’ it’s an indication of how far we’ve come,” Blum said.
In December, the Pepper Bough, the newspaper at Colton High School (near Riverside, Calif.), where a majority of students are Hispanic and a few percent black, ran point/counterpoint columns by two white students on the question of reverse racism.
“Why is it offensive when a white person has pride about their race, but OK to be black and wear a ‘Black Pride’ shirt?” asked Megan Holden, a 16-year-old junior, who until eighth grade attended a nearly all-white Catholic school and hopes to attend a mostly white Catholic college.
“I find it appalling that African-Americans, Mexicans and so on can joke about their own race, calling themselves ‘niggers’ and ‘wetbacks,’ but become extremely offended when a white person says it,” she wrote.
In her riposte, April Lewis, a 17-year-old senior, argued that Holden, a good friend, was blind to the obvious.
Lewis, who has always attended integrated schools, explained that if two black people choose to call each other names, “they don’t take offense because they are both black.”
“It’s not the word, it’s how it is used,” Lewis wrote. “YOU ARE NOT BLACK SO YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS CALLING ANY BLACK PERSON A ‘NIGGER.’”
“I knew where she was coming from,” Lewis said of her friend. “She’s white. Basically, white people get everything handed to them because we’re the dominant race.” Look around, she said, “white people are on top.”
But Holden gets piqued when she hears other students snipe that she does well in school “just because you’re white.”
“No,” she said, “it’s because I’m studying.”
Holden concluded her piece in the Pepper Bough with a colorblind flourish: “Minorities are now accepted as EQUALS, and that’s all that should matter. If you can’t get over it, then YOU my friend are the one that is racist, not me.”
In their new book, “The Miner’s Canary,” Harvard law professor Lani Guinier and University of Texas law professor Gerald Torres argue that the “national mantra” of colorblindness masks racial injustice and debilitates efforts of blacks, Hispanics and others to struggle against it.
Pamela Perry, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who spent 21/2 years immersed in two northern California high schools to produce her book, “Shades of White: White Kids and Racial Identities in High School,” agrees. Much of the colorblind rhetoric emanating from young whites, she said, is “really about, how can we gain back our privileges?”
But she also believes that the soft multiculturalism common to American schools, which she said “defines race as a matter of cultural differences and not power,” both obscures the real meaning of race and stokes white reaction.
With all the talk about celebrating diversity, white students want to know when it will be their turn.
“Everybody says, be proud of who you are, except if you’re white you have to make up for things that happened in the past,” said Maryland’s Obstgarten, who grew up on Long Island.
His reply: “I wasn’t there. I didn’t do it.”
The claims and counterclaims about double standards are not always cast in black and white.
In February, in San Jose, Calif., Anne Maureen O’Hearn launched a new group she calls “Honky Gringo Pride,” in reaction to what she considers slurs against whites in public documents and library titles like “Spanish for Gringos,” which, she said, would be politically incorrect were the insulted anything but white.
Also in February, an intramural basketball team at the University of Northern Colorado proclaimed itself the “Fighting Whites,” taking as their mascot a square-jawed cartoon white man, and as their motto “Every thang’s gonna be all white.” They wanted to give those who use Indian names and images for their teams a taste of their own medicine.
When the team was inundated with requests from white folks for T-shirts, some observers said the joke was on the Indian activists. But the lesson could just as easily be that mocking an amorphous majority is not the same as insulting a long-victimized minority.
Obstgarten said he does take offense when people joke that he can’t jump or dance because he is white. The aspiring elementary school teacher has a column in The Diamondback, the independent student daily at the university. He considers himself a liberal Democrat. In one column he argued that John Walker Lindh, the American captured with the Taliban, should not face the death penalty. (On that, The Final Call, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam, wrote that Lindh would have been far more harshly treated were he not white.)
In March and April, Obstgarten wrote two columns assailing double standards on race.
“Today’s attitudes are completely betraying Martin Luther King’s dream of a colorblind community,” he wrote in the first.
The column got to Lowery, a journalism major who also works for The Diamondback.
“The government has been screwing over my people since it brought us over here on the boats, and I don’t see that ending any time soon,” Lowery wrote in a letter of reply. “Why is it when a white person talks about racism there is such an uproar and concern for the topic, but when a black person brings up the subject they are dismissed as just another angry black person?”
Lowery grew up in Hanover, Md., where she was student government president in a very diverse school. At the university, she is president of Zeta Phi Beta, a black sorority. She spends a lot of time at the Nyumburu Cultural Center, “nyumburu” being the Swahili word for freedom house. In addition to writing for The Diamondback, she writes for Eclipse and The Black Explosion, two black papers on campus.
She also recently helped organize a gathering of black and white Greek groups on campus, prompted by a notorious Halloween party at Alabama’s Auburn University where white fraternity brothers wore blackface and simulated a lynching.
Lowery said the discussion was held at a sorority house (the black sororities have no houses) that she called so picture-perfect it reminded her of her parent’s time-share in Williamsburg, Va.
As they talked, a white fraternity brother asked, with genuine bewilderment, why it would be OK for there to be a black pride parade but not a white pride parade.
“I tried to explain,” Lowery recalled. “I said, ‘The world is your white pride parade. I’m submerged in your culture. You’re not submerged in mine.’”