A lot of people have their shorts all bunched up in a knot over a decision by the CBS reality-game show "Survivor" to divide its competing "tribes" by race and ethnicity. No surprise there. We have enough tribal wars to worry about these days without having one put forth as prime-time entertainment, even if it's all in good fun.
Hispanics Across America founder Fernando Mateo called the move an "offensive and cheap trick" to boost ratings, which is undoubtedly true, but hardly the first time networks have done that. Does anybody remember Fox TV's "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire"?
In fact, Carlos Mencia, that mogul of politically incorrect (but often dead-on target) humor on cable TV's Comedy Central, already parodied "Survivor"'s idea this season, playing on every racial stereotype he could dredge up (The brainy Asian guy, the fast black guy, the buoyant white guy, etc. In the end, the Hispanic guy won, leading to suspicions that Carlos had tilted the playing field.) But, interestingly, no big headlines followed Mencia's move. After all, he's only on cable and he's only kidding. "Survivor" is prime-time and it's serious, inasmuch as any goofy game show can be serious.
Adjectives like "insulting," "irresponsible," "reprehensible" and that category-five conversation-stopper, "racist," have been thrown at the idea of separate black, white, Asian and Latino teams scheming and competing against each other. Sponsors fell away like autumn leaves in a category-five media storm.
And, yet, when you think about it, the protests illustrate how double-minded Americans remain about race. Since the 1960s, it's become chic, particularly among liberals, to decry color-consciousness and, at the same time, embrace it.
Americans have "a love affair with race," writes Walter Benn Michaels, a literature professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his new book, "The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality," he describes in eloquent detail how the liberal pursuit of social and economic equality was sidetracked by the pursuit of "diversity."
Ironically, the more we've pursued diversity by repudiating racism and the notion that our racial biology is our destiny, the more we've perpetuated those very concepts, he writes. While conservatives ask, "Why can't we all just be 'American'?," liberals "celebrate diversity." Liberals shy away from being "judgmental" about various groups. Liberals grant people from all manner of subcultures their "agency," which is their right to make their own choices about their moral behavior. Liberals quantify "equal rights" in terms of affirmative action "goals" and "timetables" that critics dub "racial quotas," which are supposed to be illegal but aren't because, so far, the Supreme Court says they aren't.
Others have similarly complained that we talk too much about race these days, but, unlike most of them, Michaels is a liberal and proud of it. He wants to reenergize the left by persuading it to build new coalitions to fight the growing problem of economic inequality.
Out of 37 million poor Americans in the 2004 head count, he points out, almost 17 million (45.6 percent) were white. Poor whites are not touched by the left-right disputes over whether discrimination is a thing of the past or stronger than ever. They are touched by statistics that show upwardly mobility, the American dream, to be increasingly elusive for those at the bottom of the nation's economic ladder.
Yet, while poor whites numerically outnumber poor blacks, poverty has taken on a black face in the public mind, from the ghetto riots of the 1960s to the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. "The truth is, there weren't too many rich black people left behind when everybody who could get out of New Orleans did so," says Michaels. True enough.
Unlike racism, poverty cannot be pinned as easily on a particular set of villains. The poor do share some responsibility to improve their own condition, as entertainer Bill Cosby has famously pointed out. But the most compelling part of Michael's book to me is his descriptions of the vanishing American dream. Increasingly one's chances in life are defined by the parents to whom one is born, regardless of race or religion, and whether one happens to be lucky enough to get into the right schoolsfrom kindergarten on up. That wasn't Martin Luther King's dream for America but that's the direction in which we're moving. That's not just a reality show. It's reality.