A generation ago two principles, equality under the law and colorblindness, grounded the discussion about race in America and helped propel the Civil Rights Movement to victory. How odd, then, that those lofty ideals are little more than curse words on today's college campuses, where opposition to things like affirmative action and diversity quotas is considered heresy.
The way identity issues are discussed on college campuses today baffles most Americans largely because the prevailing ideologies don't rest on any principled foundations. The rhetoric includes words like "diversity," "multiculturalism," and "hegemony," but the words aren't grounded in any consistent bedrock ideas. As a result, mainstream campus opinion on race and identity is rife with contradictions: it shuns Christianity as a bigoted superstition while celebrating Islam as a multicultural treat. It advocates special treatment for minority professors and students, but decries the special "privilege" from which all white people supposedly benefit.
In ethnic studies departments, scholarship confines itself to a narrow liberal ideology communicated in terminology foreign even to college graduates from a generation ago. Meanwhile economics and history departments are disparaged by some as narrow and Eurocentric, though they explore human behavior and experience over many centuries and from myriad perspectives.
Consider two contradictory racial theories currently en vogue on many American campuses.
The Model Minority Myth contends that Asian Americans are stereotyped as unusually successful citizenslikely to possess native intelligence, work hard, and attain financial success, and unlikely to cause trouble by questioning authority or committing crimes. In other words, they are a "model minority," an example to other minorities who haven't been as successful.
As racial stereotypes go, this may not sound so bad. Indeed, some who decry the Model Minority Myth only object that it's condescending to other minorities, mainly blacks and Latinos, who are implicitly cast as the inferior minorities. But a larger body of scholarship casts the Model Minority Myth (the existence of which is usually assumed) as a travesty for Asian Americans themselves.
In some variations, the case seems plausible. Scholars argue, for example, that the relative success of Japanese, Chinese, and Indian immigrants has hurt poorer, less educated Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants because the latter are lumped into a category with all Asians rather than treated as distinct groups meriting assistance. In a sense, then, the Model Minority Myth is raising a well-founded objection. People ought to be treated as individuals rather than lumped in as members of a group that says little about their identity or their needs.
Oddly, though, the same Asian Studies departments and student activists who advance that argument themselves favor academic majors that lump all Asian cultures together, campus resource centers and mentoring programs that do the same, and in general favor group rights and remedies for Asian Americans as a whole. Meanwhile they often cast opposition to their agenda as evidence of the Model Minority Myth and its deleterious consequences for all Asian Americans.
For example, at the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of elite liberal arts colleges in Southern California, student activists have long been agitating for the creation of an Asian American Resources Center to span the consortium's five primary colleges. The college presidents turned down their request in a joint statement, noting statistics showing that unlike black and Latino students at the colleges (both groups have resource centers) Asian students at the colleges tend to come from wealthy families, perform above average academically, and graduate at impressive rates.
The presidents reasoned that resource centers are designed to help disadvantaged or struggling groups, but the activists countered that the Model Minority Myth denied them the student center they deserve. The fact that the college presidents cited Asian success in their rejection letter proves it.
On the other hand, existing side by side with the Model Minority Myth, is White Male Privilege. This term, popular now on campuses across America, refers to the notion that all white peoplebut especially white heterosexual malesbenefit from an inherent position of privilege in life, in society, and even in higher education, where "institutional racism" oppresses everyone else to varying degrees.
Today's college students are taught that white people must "own" their privilege. They must acknowledge the roll it plays in all their achievements, the way that it oppresses women and "people of color," and the righteousness of its remedies ( i.e. affirmative action, ethnic studies majors, etc.).
It's a testament to academia's insularity that no one seems to realize White Privilege and the Model Minority Mythboth pervasively accepted theories on campuses throughout the nationare the same thing! After all, both concepts involve racial groups who are stereotyped as successful because of their skin color rather than judged according to their individual merits. But academic theorists and student activists act as though this "success stereotyping" hurts Asians even as they argue that it helps the privileged status of whites. Yet one could just as accurately talk about Asian American Privilege and Model Majority Myth without changing anything else about the theories save the skin color of those affected.
Many American colleges either don't see the odd congruence between two of their favorite orthodoxies or else conveniently ignore it. Meanwhile they continue to perpetuate the notion that white peoplewho on average have high incomes, more education, and higher salaries relative to other racial groupsshould therefore treat their skin color as an inherent indicator of privilege, while simultaneously arguing that Asianswho on average have high incomes, more education, and higher salaries relative to other racial groupsshouldn't be stereotyped as privileged individuals simply because of their skin color.
These colleges forget what ought to be a well-learned lesson: assessing individuals based upon which racial group they belong to is fraught with peril. Unfair outcomes are inevitable. The solution is obvious: judge people as individuals rather than as members of a larger group whose average attributes inevitably aren't shared by every member. Unfortunately America's colleges are doing just the opposite by perpetuating flawed theories grounded in the erroneous assumption that it's okay to treat individuals and groups differently depending upon their skin color.