The doctrine of “separate but equal” is back—this time at America’s most elite institution of higher learning, Harvard University. On May 23rd, black students will receive their diplomas in a separate commencement ceremony just for them.
Michael Huggins, president of Harvard’s Black Graduate Student Alliance (BGSA), helped organize the ceremony. He says that Harvard’s first black graduation is not about segregation because students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds may “attend.” It’s not clear if he means that students of all races are invited as spectators or as participants but it doesn’t really matter. Harvard wouldn’t allow such an event for white students even if the same ground rules applied.
The BGSA’s next president, law student Jillian Simons, is also proud of the event. “There’s an element of celebration and a very somber tone to it because of the things we’ve had to overcome,” said Simons. Her quizzical comment makes me wonder exactly what she thinks she’s “overcome.” Relentless pandering? Yeah, that would be difficult.
I hope she doesn’t mean that blacks at Harvard had to “overcome” racial prejudice. Blacks at Harvard are actually the benefactors of discriminatory admissions policies that lower the bar just for them. In order to gain admittance to this prestigious institution a black applicant can score 450 points lower on the SATs than an Asian applicant. This policy spurred a coalition of Asian-Americans to sue the university. The case is ongoing though I hope Harvard wins because I oppose all private sector nondiscrimination laws. Even so, we should stop pretending that black students have it harder. They’re given special favors and everyone knows it.
Not that I’m really upset about this hypocritical separate (but equal!) graduation. Let them have it—but then let’s all admit what a steaming pile of hypocrisy our entire conversation on race has become. I don’t want to hear any more talk about “inclusion.” It’s a stupid word that more often means its opposite. And while we’re at it, let’s count Brown v. Board of Education as a tragic mistake; after all, separate can be equal as long as it’s blacks who are excluding whites and not the other way around. Also, let’s stop musing about how hard it is for blacks to find their stride in mainstream society. Who ever said they wanted to?
Like all vexing social problems, this one has historical roots that deserve examination. I’ll begin by saying that black Americans did not create the parallel society that they currently cling to. White folks did that. Europeans came to this continent and created what was almost a perfect racial black/white dichotomy. The larger white group was the mainstream, while the smaller black group formed the alternative. Out of necessity, blacks set about creating their own parallel institutions—black universities, black professional organizations, black churches, black businesses, black publications, black sports leagues, black fraternities and black sororities.
These two societies were kept separate by law and custom until about the end of World War II. But then something unprecedented happened—with a little prodding by the so-called civil rights movement, the mainstream white majority relented and agreed to break down its own barriers. In historical terms, this happened remarkably fast and with remarkably little bloodshed. A system that had keep people apart for more than three hundred years unraveled in less than twenty.
And that should have been the end of it.
But it wasn’t—not by a long shot. It turns out that black people had developed a fondness for their parallel institutions. That’s understandable of course, though whites were fond of theirs as well and they still had to give them up. White institutions became integrated bi-racial spaces while black institutions were allowed to persist unchanged.
So the revolutionary transformation brought about by the so-called civil rights movement didn’t change quite everything. Two societies continued to exist even after the 1960s and still do today. One is black and the other was biracial before becoming multiracial over time. There was no grand merger between the two, as many white people imagined there would be.
To a lot of white people (and others), stubborn black separatism is a daily reminder of an agreement that one side has not honored. Once white institutions ceased to exist, black institutions were supposed to cease existing as well. Fair’s fair, right? When this didn’t happen, many whites were left wondering if the goal had always been to deny to whites the very things that blacks jealously guard for themselves. That which once belonged to white people must now be shared but that which belonged to blacks is theirs to keep in perpetuity.
Harvard’s black graduation ceremony is an excellent example of this. All of the graduates who participate in the black commencement on May 23rd will also graduate with the rest of their class two days later. One ceremony is the multi-hued, pluralistic, let’s-look-like-America graduation; and the other is the monochromatic Jim Crow version. Blacks get two graduations, one of which is set aside for their race. Whites get one ceremony and they have to share it.
How on earth can black America justify this? For starters, they usually try to pretend that their parallel society is still needed because the mainstream society is nearly as white as ever. For a good example of this phenomenon, consider Black Entertainment Television (BET). How many times have you heard it asked why there’s no White Entertainment Television? You know the pat answer to that. Saranya Khurana, who writes at the Odyssey Online, gave the same answer I’ve heard roughly a thousand times: “Most television today is the White Entertainment Television…BET was important for television because it was the first time black Americans had a show to call their own.”
So any channel that isn’t explicitly black is white by default? No, that isn’t even remotely true. It may have been closer to the truth when BET was founded in 1983 but even then network television had already featured two black sitcoms (The Jeffersons, Sandford and Son), a black cartoon (Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids), a black music-dance show (Soul Train) and a show about a white family that adopted two black children (Diff’rent Strokes.) So when Khurana says that BET was “the first time black Americans had a show to call their own” she’s wrong.
Black visibility on television only increased in the 1980s. I should know—like most kids of that era I looked forward to watching The Cosby Show every night before bedtime. If I had been a little older I would have watched Eddie Murphy carry Saturday Night Live through some of its toughest seasons before he moved on to a more lucrative career on the big screen. Or I might have watched Arsenio Hall debut as late night’s first black talk show host. During this same period, Oprah Winfrey’s success in daytime television made her a household name.
In the 1990s I graduated to Family Matters, In Living Color, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. All of these programs were hits because Americans of all races tuned in. MTV featured a plethora of black artists including En Vogue, Coolio, and Janet Jackson. Margaret Cho starred in America’s first Asian sitcom, All American Girl. The show flopped but mostly because Margaret Cho isn’t funny. In later years there would be more Asian shows, more black shows, a few Hispanic shows, shows about mixed-race families, shows about step families, shows about same-sex couples, and every other thing you can think of.
So, is BET filling a gap in the entertainment market for black viewers that the white-oriented television industry simply isn’t meeting? Hardly. Television is very multiracial and has been for quite some time. If BET was ever “needed” it certainly isn’t anymore. Yet the channel persists because there’s a demand for it, which is very different from a need. Its viewership consists mostly of blacks who only want to see other blacks when they flick on the television.
White people don’t have that luxury anymore. When they turn on the television they see fewer and fewer people who look like themselves. They certainly don’t have an entire channel of nothing but white people doing stuff white people do. That’s because whites agreed to merge their society, first with blacks, then with everyone else. But the agreement didn’t work both ways.
To a large degree, black America still segregates itself with no end in sight. And isn’t that really the rub of the whole separate but equal Harvard graduation? Sixty years after the so-called civil rights movement it appears that black self-segregation may actually be increasing, which is just insane. Blacks have retreated further into their own spaces, their own dorms, churches, and clubs where they moan about how hard it is being black in America. But it’s just noise, pay it no mind.