EDITOR’S NOTE — Gene Lyons is on vacation, returning May 22. The following column is an updated version of a column that originally ran Feb. 2, 2011.
Lamentably, the Boston Marathon bombing re-opened some of the most poisonous arguments in American life. Specifically, are the Tsarnaev brothers “white”? It’s a meaningless question.
Some hotheads couldn’t wait to declare all Muslims suspect. Certain thinkers on the left (David Sirota, Salon) argued against collective guilt, while oddly lamenting that “white male privilege means white men are not collectively denigrated” for the crimes of Caucasian psycho killers.
Should they be?
I’d previously treated the theme of ethnicity as destiny in a column about which racial ID boxes President Obama should have checked on his 2010 census form. Here is a reprisal of that column, as relevant now as it was then:
Everybody knows Obama’s mother was a white woman from Kansas, his father an exchange student from Kenya. But there’s no box labeled “African-American.” So the president checked “black.” He could also have checked “white,” but chose not to.
This decision disappointed a unique student group at the University of Maryland, although most understood it. Recently profiled in the New York Times, the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association could with equal accuracy be called “Students Whose Mothers Were Asked Insulting Questions by Busybodies at the Supermarket.”
Questions like the one my sainted mother put to my wife’s mother at our wedding: “What nationality are you people, anyway?”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Maryland group strikes me as entirely benign. Asked which boxes she checks, vice president Michelle Lopez-Mullins, age 20, says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”
Lopez-Mullins, the Times reports, is a one-woman U.N., “Chinese and Peruvian on one side, and white and American Indian on the other.” As a child, she says even friends asked hurtful questions, such as “What are you?” and “Where are you from?”
To lessen the sting, she and her friends play a “who’s what?” guessing game among themselves.
“Now when people ask what I am, I say, ‘How much time do you have?’” Lopez-Mullins said. “Race will not automatically tell you my story.”
My view is that race alone never tells you anybody’s story. But then I once got summoned into the registrar’s office for identifying my race as “1,500 meter freestyle” on an official form.
They explained that Civil Rights laws made an accurate response necessary. In other contexts I might have joked, “I only look white. Actually, I’m Irish.” Reading 18th and 19th century accounts taught me that every racist slur against about black slaves in America was also made by the English about Irish-Catholic peasants.
The native Irish, their overseers thought, were physically powerful, gifted at singing and dancing, but also dumb, lazy, insolent, sexually promiscuous and smelly. These shortcomings, as Swift made clear in his immortal satire “A Modest Proposal,” recommending fattening Irish children like piglets for slaughter, made their virtual enslavement inevitable.
But that was long ago and far away.
Anyway, back to President Obama, who’s written books about his mixed inheritance. It appears to me that along with his great intelligence, Obama’s mixed background helped make him an intellectual counterpuncher — watchful, laconic and leery of zealotry; a born mediator.
Like a man behind a mask, Obama watches people watch him. Checking the “black” box on the census form, however, was the politically canny choice. Americans aren’t far from the days when absurd categories like “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and “octoroon” could determine people’s fate. Sadly, had he checked the “white” box too, many voters would have resented it.
My own choices were simpler. Raised to think of myself as Irish before American -- all eight of my great grandparents emigrated during the late 19th century, hunkering down in ethnic enclaves within walking distance of salt water — I was taught that there was a proper “Irish” opinion on every imaginable topic.
To dissent was to be labeled inauthentic, a traitor to one’s heritage. Over time, however, I decided that if there’s one single, overriding “Irish” trait, it’s yelling at the dinner table. My kinfolk disagreed passionately about damn near everything. Meanwhile, back in the Old Country, people kept killing each other over 17th-century religious issues.
I once asked a (Catholic) friend in Belfast how the antagonists told each other apart, as they all resembled my cousins. It’s the shoes, she said, and the accents.
But here’s the thing: people don’t know these things unless I tell them. With regard to President Obama, black’s an ethnicity people make it harder to resign from. Even so, all demands for racial and ethnic groupthink are inherently crippling. All racial arguments are reactionary -- signs not of strength, but weakness.
It’s not merely possible to honor one’s heritage without denigrating anybody else’s; to me, it’s the essence of Americanism. Those Maryland kids with their Heinz-57 genes aren’t in any way victims.
Their thinking is way ahead of most of us.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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