Review: Racial Culture: A Critique, by Richard Thompson Ford

In brief, the book presents the arguments of a black intellectual against ethnic and cultural “difference discourse”: The “diversity rationale” for affirmative action (a direct result, he maintains, of the Bakke vs. Regents of the University of California Supreme Court decision) and the “rights-to-difference” movement in discrimination law. The case that frames the whole book is that of Rene Rodgers, whose employer mandated she get rid of her cornrow hairstyle and whom she promptly took to court, arguing that her bosses violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by discriminating against a traditionally “black” cultural practice. Ford makes a compelling case for why the Court was right to ultimately reject Rodgers’ claim, but he dilutes his point here (and in several other instances) by hurriedly claiming that, personally, he would have let the poor woman wear her cornrows, lest the reader assume he’s anything but the San Francisco liberal he claims in the preface to be. That said, Ford’s overall argument is convincing: Cultural and ethnic differences should be tolerated and understood, but codifying them is dangerous and creates more problems than it corrects. The fact that Ford is black (and a Stanford Law professor) surely gives him the “credibility” to write this book, and his race alone underscores one of his key points: How can rights-to-difference be said to be good for all blacks when some black people disagree with it? Hence the problems with cultural assignations—they treat people as collective units rather than individual, and ignore fundamental rights. 

As I was reading Ford’s book, my thoughts kept drifting back to high school—specifically, my history teacher for tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades. His name was Lem Martinez-Carroll, and we all called him MC. (I went to a tiny—60 people in my graduating class—magnet public school in Chelsea, Manhattan.) He died of a heart attack last year; I found out, as most do about these things almost ten years after you’ve left a classroom presence behind, through a Facebook group. It made me cry. I missed the memorial service, attended by so many of my old classmates, because I didn’t live in New York anymore. I remember feeling lonely and homesick; like the end of an era was upon us. I was sickened, of course, by the shock of it all, that a person can be here one minute and gone the next; that he was just so young; that the last time I’d visited my high school I’d been running late and decided against dropping by MC’s classroom (I’d just see him next time!); that at least he’d lived to see President Obama elected; that despite the rumors of his recently-revealed personal foibles, his passion for his subject rang clear as a bell in my mind; and, perhaps most importantly, for a white girl from Park Slope, Brooklyn, he more than anybody else informed my conception of the “black experience” in America. (Sorry, Ralph Ellison.) MC would most likely have deeply opposed Ford’s arguments, but he would have put them up for debate; I can see him reading the more accusatory passages aloud and giving lots of air time to the students who challenged him—for most of whom (myself included) it took at least a year to realize he wasn’t nearly as intimidating as he appeared. Reading Ford’s opus, I found myself highlighting sections MC would have loved to refute; even though I lean toward Ford’s side of the rights-to-difference debate, I refuted them myself, and I could hear MC’s voice in my head as I did so. (“Come on, baby, you’re smarter than that! Go deeper!”) MC had his flaws, to be certain, but he courted dissent; to him, Ford—or, for that matter, a black conservative, which we have been assured repeatedly that Ford is not—is no less emblematic of “blackness” than Malcolm X. Because I’m white, I wouldn’t even attempt to address it, but Ford does, and MC always did. I appreciate their efforts.

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