Wednesday, October 10, 2007

When Can He Stop Being the "Black Professor"?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has the somewhat pained story of Jerald Walker, an assistant professor of English at Bridgewater State College. He is one of a relatively small number of black professors at his university, and constantly feels pressure to show up at black-themed events, to reinforce the multicultural industry on his campus, etc.

He frets in particular about the risk of being identified as a “black conservative” professor. And yet Googling him does not even reveal any particular inclination for conservative politics other than the Chronicle article itself, which merely asserts that he wishes to be known for something other than being a black man on campus - for his professional accomplishments, for example.

But therein lies the rub. If we have to be thought of as tribal members first and distinct individuals (a distant) second because of "social justice" or whatever, how do we know when to stop? When may a member of a particular tribal group be freed from pledging allegiance to the totems of group loyalty, no matter how absurd he may find them (and Professor Walker finds some of them, e.g. Kwanzaa celebrations, profoundly silly)? The more some people’s careers and compensation depend on reinforcing group identity, the farther away we get from what is presumably everyone’s ideal endpoint, a society of individuals left free to be judged on what they do rather than what they look like or how they worship. The individualist is thus always disadvantaged in political warfare against the multicultural tribalist, because by definition the individualist has no sense of solidarity with a larger group.

Professor Walker is a member in a department, English, that in most universities leans strongly left. People have failed to be tenured for less. I wish him the best.



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