Lionel Tiger: Yes We Are

Roundup: Media's Take

[Lionel Tiger, a weekly columnist at Forbes.com, is the Charles Darwin professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of The Decline of Males (St. Martins, 2000), Men in Groups (Marion Boyars, 1999) and The Pursuit of Pleasure (Transaction, 2000).]

From the tape recordings of Lyndon Johnson's White House, we learned a few years back that the president hired a secretary with dark skin. But he did not announce the pioneering appointment directly and personally. Instead he had her appear on the TV quiz show What's My Line, where her new job was revealed.

Though this is being written before the polls close on Nov. 4, it's possible, if not likely, that the next U.S. president will himself have dark skin, and the skies will not deliver thunder and rage. One possible result of the way Sen. Barack Obama ran his campaign is that it may be the beginning of the end of the turmoiled national yammer about diversity.

In the murky light of American racial history, the senator had no choice but to limit sharply his reference to his skin color. But he did more than that. He demonstrated on the largest and most exposed stage that it was possible, even essential, to ignore the scientifically fraudulent concept of race and focus instead on the unifying reality that there are no legitimate cellular differences between American people of any political interest.

But we have grown accustomed to our racial face. We take for granted that grown-up institutions like universities and the government are free to ask us about racial categories that are intellectually disgraceful, hopelessly fuzzy and misleading. They completely belie our national assumption that activity and accomplishment, not inheritance, confer rewards and opportunity.

When I have to fill in diversity forms, I check the race box with "Native American." To specify tribe, I provide Canadian--I was born in Montreal. I have no idea how the concernocrats reading these forms respond. The fact is, they are operating a mostly well-meaning but corrosive system, and it seems clear that with a kind of intuitive civic genius, Sen. Obama knew he had to steer as far away from it as he could.

And he did. He has said he accepts the need for affirmative action, and in some circumstances, of course, it is needed. However, his entire political career has depended on his force of ambitious public will and focused personal competence. This is the critical lesson of his remarkable success. It will be a disappointment if his post-racial personal accomplishment is sullied by his administration's primitive, statistical, legal, concernocratic manipulation....
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