We may need a new law in political philosophy—call it The Law of Diminishing Marginalized Absurdity. It would go something like this: “All reductio ad absurdi, given enough cultural change, will inevitably become someone’s conventional wisdom.”
Witness the recent spectacle of Spokane NAACP President Rachel Dolezal being outed as a woman who was born white, despite portraying herself as black.
Let’s not mince words. In my view, while one can defend other such identity-shifting exercises on the grounds of psychology or gender essentialism, Dolezal’s behavior is so absurd it may render satire of the far Left simply impossible. I also suspect, depressingly enough, it will become a strategy of many college counselors at posh private schools to tell their charges to claim transraciality to get the benefits of affirmative action without actually fitting its requirements.
Oh, perverse incentives, what would we do without you?
Setting these depressing and amusing prospects aside, however, one rather substantial question looms in the Dolezal case: How can the far Left get out of this one? I ask this because Dolezal’s case seems to open an ideological Pandora’s Box for leftists, insofar as they must adopt one of two equally unattractive alternatives in deciding whether her deception is deception. Neither of those alternatives leads them anywhere pleasant. In fact, Dolezal is a perfect case study for the glaring inconsistencies lying at the core of left-wing racial dogma.
The First Option Reinforces Racial Profiling
To illustrate this, consider each of the two potential leftist responses one could give to Dolezal’s case. This may require some imagination, but never fear: I will try to illustrate the logic as vividly as possible.
First, imagine that the hypothetical leftist looks at Dolezal’s case and, seeing a case of the Jenners, concludes that no, transraciality is real, and that Dolezal was really a black woman trapped in a white woman’s body. See, for example, this discussion with MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry:
Several inconvenient questions immediately present themselves. Firstly, if a white person can be black on the inside, it follows that a black person can be white on the inside, or that an Asian person can be Hispanic on the inside, or that a lilywhite Oklahoma woman can be a Native American on the inside, or any number of other racially dualistic nightmares.
At bare minimum, this would seem to make affirmative action impossible to administer in any objective fashion. How are we to know, for instance, that the black students admitted to Harvard or Yale universities aren’t secretly psychologically white? What does being psychologically white mean, for that matter? Are we going to ask students to pass some sort of psychological “blackness” test to claim the affiliation? How much of being psychologically black involves simply conforming to stereotypes? Are these stereotypes actually accurate? If so, why accuse any and all stereotyping—even the positive sort—of being racist, if it’s actually a useful yardstick? If not, then again, what do we use as a yardstick, if not actual biological racial background?
This Also Destroys Privilege Theory
Secondly, even if a cosmetically white person were black on the inside, to hear leftists tell it, they would never in their right mind want to admit to this, let alone act it out, simply because that would remove all the privileges that (leftists assume) accrue to a white identity. In societies that oppress racial minorities, racial minorities tend to go out of their way to pretend to be the majority, not the other way round. Witness the dubious claims that black people bleach their skin to appear white. If a white person is willing to live as a black person, then evidence suggests at minimum that being black is safe. A more cynical observer might even question whether the advantages of black identity—say, a claim to victim identity—could motivate such a choice.
Furthermore, this raises the question of why educated black people wouldn’t just claim to be white on the inside, especially if they buy into the left’s narrative that blacks are targeted by police, and other authority figures, more frequently. Imagine a version of the McKinney pool party incident where Cpl. David Eric Casebolt was informed by his targets that no, no, they were transracial and actually white. If the left-wing narrative is true, this should’ve sent him scurrying in a world where race is purely a psychological or social construct. If it didn’t, what are we to make of this? That Casebolt was, in this case, actually not racist? That he was transracist? What?
Furthermore, if race is purely a psychological or social construct, that seems to raise an even more inconvenient point: in such a world, race becomes not an immutable characteristic, but a choice. To say this would undermine the rationale for civil-rights laws is putting it mildly. It would eviscerate that rationale, because choices are typically seen as much more reasonable to discourage than simply being born the wrong way. What if studies showed that choosing to be a certain race made people worse off, on average? Could the government ban that choice? Would we call that genocide, or simply heavy-handed paternalism?
In other words, to accept Dolezal’s identity at face value, you have to be willing to sacrifice affirmative action and pretty much any appearance-based standard by which to judge racial identity, and transform race into something purely cultural, at which point it loses its most persuasive claim to being a protected class: namely, its immutability.
Or We Can Destroy Race as a Cultural Construct
But the alternative is no better. Let’s say you, as a leftist, have thought it through and realize all of the above, and decide instead to condemn Dolezal as a fraud. Fair enough. In that case, we have to conclude that skin color is the minimum necessary condition to belong to a certain race. In practice, this means any and all cultural elements of racial expression are utterly irrelevant to one’s racial identity. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is always going to blacker than Eminem, even if he doesn’t behave in a stereotypically black way, just because he was born with the right skin color.
This thoroughly demolishes the sociological idea that race is a social construct, at minimum. It may even shift our ideas of racial justice to a much older paradigm of colorblindness, rather than the current left-wing attitude that white guilt should be the norm. After all, if race solely refers to the melanin content of one’s skin while cultural factors are dismissed as irrelevant, then we would seem to have no grounds to conclude that race should be relevant to how we view each other. It’s simply a cosmetic trait, like a birthmark or hair color, and thus we should treat it the same way. In Stephen Colbert’s parlance, we should “not see race.”
Of course, sociologists would recoil from this argument, since it would put much of their field out of business. However, with culture taken off the table as a racial determinant, they need to start finding actual biological bases for the racial disparities they like to talk about. Unfortunately for them, if that happens, you will be able to hear Charles Murray cackling at a thousand paces.
Why? Because at that point, suddenly the questions raised by Murray’s book “The Bell Curve” become live ones again. Even if Murray’s particular hypothesis were proven wrong, in a world where race is treated as a biological fact rather than a cultural one suddenly racial biological determinism of the kind that motivated early eugenicists would become a legitimate field of study again.
Perhaps such a field of study would find nothing other than melanin content as a relevant biological consideration, in which case, we return to colorblindness. Or perhaps it would unearth politically inconvenient data that would justify any number of racist policies (and not just against blacks) on the grounds of data-driven empiricism. Which, needless to say, would not make Al Sharpton happy.
In other words, to admit that race is biological and immutable, rather than culturally or socially imposed, is to raise the questions of just what the biological characteristics of different races are, and whether those differences have any relevance to public policy—questions an entire cottage industry of leftists has tried for years to suppress.
In short, when you look at the Dolezal case, there is no way for the Left to get out of it that doesn’t involve dismantling at least some element of their race-related policy regime. Behind door No. 1, you find a refutation of privilege theory and the collapse of affirmative action. Behind door No. 2, you find colorblindness at best, and scientific racism at worst. Conservatives who are tired of the Left’s incoherent race baiting owe Rachel Dolezal a debt of gratitude. She has become a living reductio ad absurdum, who shows the agonies of the modern race-obsessed Left in cold black and white.