Some years ago at a major university out west I was hired to teach minority students courses in expository writing. Most of my students were African-American. They were part of a "bridge program" at the university that allowed "provisional" students (those whose entrance scores were sub par) to demonstrate within a year that they could handle the academic regimen at the school.
I realized that most of the students had been accepted through an affirmative action policy, but I was committed to helping them make the grade. My strategy was simple: hitch their sense of self-respect and self-confidence to their performance in the class. In other words, help them to understand that self-esteem is a product of achievement.
There was one major problem with my strategy. Every one of my colleagues teaching in the same writing program was convinced that race, not achievement, was the basis for a minority student's self-esteem. This ideology pervaded the mentality of the entire staff -- black and white -- from the lowliest tutors to the director of the writing program. Students were persuaded by their progressive instructors to explore only one topic in their writing: white oppression. In fact, of the hundreds of essays and drafts that I read I cannot remember one essay that managed to stray from the central theme: minority = oppressed, white = oppressor.
There was one class period that I will never forget. During a break in my lecture I asked several of the students what they intended to choose as a major. Some of the students said "sociology" while others said "ethnic studies" or "communications." When I asked if anyone wanted to choose "engineering" as a major a student in the back of the room loudly declared that engineering was a "white" profession. When my jaw nearly hit the floor most of the students burst out in laughter. I had never heard anything like this. I quickly recovered however and quietly told myself that for the remainder of the class I was now going to play the student. I wanted to let these black kids teach me something I'd probably never forget.
For the next twenty minutes I stood at the chalkboard writing down the names of common professions. Next to the profession I let the students direct me to writing either "white" or "black" based on their perception of "correct" life choices for people of color. There was raucous laughter and the students were at the edge of their seats proclaiming their judgments in near unison. Mathematician? White. Architect? White. Athlete? Black. Musician? Black. Engineer? White. Chemist? White. Physicist? White. Journalist? (this one caused some confusion) Teacher? Black. Economist? White. Business? White.
After we had covered the board with our list, I asked the students to consider the possibility of crossing over to one of the "white" professions. The response was unanimous: such a compromise would render the student an "Oreo." The students believed that a black engineer, for example, was black on the outside but unfortunately white on the inside.
During the several years I taught in the minority writing program, foreign students would often be allowed to join the writing course in order to improve their English and composition skills. Of these the Nigerian students were by far my favorites. Their respect for scholarship, learning, and academic achievement was unmatched. Their essays ranged in interest from international affairs to advertising -- and the quality of their work was excellent.
What fascinated me was how the classroom dynamic changed with the addition of the students from Nigeria. The African-American students looked at the coal black Nigerians like they had landed from Mars. For their part, the Nigerians rarely showed any interest in the culture of the black students on campus.
After leaving the minority writing program and later graduate school with a doctorate in philosophy, I spent years at several other universities teaching courses that were attended by Hindus, Arabs, Persians, Chinese, Japanese and yes, more of the excellent Nigerians. Their majors ranged from economics to foreign languages. In fact, I cannot remember a sociology or ethnic studies major among any of them. The difference? The word "Oreo," for these non African American minorities, really meant a cookie. Race never threatened the freedom they enjoyed to be individuals.
The philosopher Eric Hoffer once wrote that "the plight of the Negro in America is that he is a Negro first and only secondly an individual." When Attorney General Eric Holder recently called us a "nation of cowards" he was looking through a prism unknown to his Nigerian brothers. Holder, like Mr. Obama, is the product of an education system and a movement for black liberation that is blind to the virtues of individualism. These men and women are coddled products of an inexhaustible grievance industry that has the unfortunate effect of trapping eager and aspiring young black kids into severely limited life choices. Simply put, by saturating their worldview with color, men like Holder and Obama end up closing doors rather than opening them.
Eric Hoffer understood however that there was an advantage to the kind of race hysteria fanned by the grievance industry. Hoffer argued that individualism is a frightening proposition to many. Those who choose freedom and self-reliance must "grope for a purpose in life" and they are often condemned to "eating their hearts out over wasted opportunities." In short, when you're free, there's no one to blame but yourself. Success is built on the more mundane virtues of patience and perseverance. As for the race hustling elites however Hoffer had this to say:
"Grievance and extravagant hope are meat and drink to their souls, and there is a hero's garment to fit any size, and an imperishable alibi to justify individual failure."
Citizens of all colors are about to witness on a national scale what has been quietly fermenting for decades within the Ivory Tower: a crystallization of ethnic identity so rigid that dialogue becomes virtually impossible. This isn't the fault of those who have championed the philosophy of identity through achievement. It's the product of selfish elite race hustlers who rarely if ever had the patience and determination to grind away and "grope for a purpose in life" like many of their lower and middle class black brothers. Of all the evaluations I received from the black students at the writing program there is one I'll never forget: "Ed makes me want to succeed."
Instead of a dialogue on race Mr. Holder, why don't we discuss some of these topics: personal finance, starting a business, sports, history, philosophy, art, fishing, raising children, God, or one of my favorite topics, music.
In fact, one of America's greatest and most precious dialogues between black and white took place in a sound studio in New York City back in 1959. That was when the immortal jazz great Miles Davis defied some serious criticism coming from the black community and chose the white Bill Evans to accompany the famed group on piano. Why, the black community wondered, when there were so many great black jazz pianists, did Davis pick Evans? The answer is quite simple: Bill Evans was the best (sorry Art Tatum fans). The result? The best selling and most beautiful jazz album of all time: Kind of Blue.
Here's some advice for the Attorney General: Do you want Americans to make some great music together? Forget about skin color.