Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May 18, 2011: Grading on a Curve

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, in this space and in talks about my book and in class conversations and in other ways and venues as well, about those often implicit but still very predominant and long-accepted narratives of “America” that equate the nation’s fundamental identity with certain ethnic, racial, and cultural identities (mostly, as I’ve said here before, white/Anglo/Christian ones). But, to pivot off of the titular phrase from yesterday’s post, I don’t know that I’ve engaged nearly enough with the (or at least an) other side of those narratives: how frequently they have depended on concurrent narratives of the not-only-less-American but also, often, less-fully-human identities of other ethnic/racial/cultural groups. Certainly that was most pronounced with our national narratives of slavery and African American identities within it, such as the Constitution’s 3/5s clause and the Dred Scott decision; but similar images of less-human identities can be found in many prominent national narratives about Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans long after the end of slavery (among other examples).
As with many of our most shameful national narratives, it can be easy to feel, when we even admit to and confront them at all, that these are part of our distant past, something to be regretted to be sure but nothing we need worry about today. For example, even if we recognize that a sizeable percentage of public intellectuals and political figures around the turn of the 20th century embraced an ugly mélange of eugenics and Social Darwinism, one in which non-Anglo (or at least non-European/white) Americans were distinctly inferior and posed a threat to Anglo-American purity and survival (see Tom Buchanan’s rant in Chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby for a representation of this position into the 1920s), that perspective can feel deeply antiquated at the turn of the 21st century. Yet the 1994 publication of The Bell Curve, and the many prominent public intellectuals (including someone whose work these days I greatly respect, Andrew Sullivan, in his role at the time as editor of The New Republic) who expressed admiration for it, should provide ample evidence that there is still substantial national appetite for such racial and ethnic narratives, so long as they’re couched (as were eugenics and Social Darwinist narratives) in pseudo-scientific language and argumentation. For those who haven’t read Curve (and the first link below does a great job summing up both its sections/arguments and three of the main critiques it received), it’s worth noting just how overtly it links such pseudo-scientific narratives to national, political, and social ones: the final two chapters constitute a very direct critique of affirmative action programs, making clear the AmericanStudies stakes of such arguments for racial hierarchies.
Just in case 15+ years ago feels as if it’s still part of a shameful national past, it’s worth noting that what got me thinking about all of this today is a very contemporary and, to my mind, very parallel controversy. A blogger for the website Psychology Today posted an article in which he uses a deeply flawed poll from a health-related website in order to argue that African American women seem to be less attractive, on average, than women in other racial/ethnic groups. (His post has been subsequently removed after a firestorm of criticism, but a follow-up critique by another PT blogger is still up and includes a working link to the initial post; see the second link below.) The blogger doesn’t engage at all, at least not in any explicit or developed sense, with what would seem to me to be the only actual potential conclusion to be drawn from this, again, very suspect collection of “evidence”—that the poll can provide some support for those would argue that our national and communal ideals and images of beauty (among other concepts) are still far too often linked to certain ethnic, racial, or cultural standards and constructions. Some of that is, perhaps, human nature, a tendency to idealize aspects of our own identity (since apparently the vast majority of those polled identified themselves as Caucasian). But I would argue that at least as much of it is very much related to these ongoing American narratives, images of our national ideals that are certainly no longer widely taken for granted (note the quick and impressive pushback on this PT post) but that remain very much with us and so still in need of engagement, analysis, and response.
More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Very thorough summary of both Curve and the principal critiques of it:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

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