Obsession With Identity

Commentary, Culture Wars, Gerry Bowler

On my desk is a commemorative plate honouring the 1966 Grey Cup champions, the Saskatchewan Roughriders. On it are the pictures of football legend Ronnie Lancaster and his teammates. A quick scan of these portraits reveals something odd: just three of the players’ faces are black. If one looks at the rosters of other CFL teams of that era it is obvious that there seemed to be an unofficial racial quota system that permitted each club to field, at most, only four black athletes.

In that same year in the United States, three major university conferences had no black players on any basketball team. Let that sink in for a moment. And even at those schools that did recruit African American students, most coaches adhered to this formula: “Two blacks at home. Three on the road. And four when trailing.”

The same willingness on the part of our institutions to value essential identity above excellence in performance and qualifications was evident in Canadian and American university policies regarding admission to medical and law schools. Jews and women were subject to quotas. In 1959 a memo from the University of Toronto Registrar said, “there is a definite limitation imposed by the Selection Committee on the number of Jewish students whom they are prepared to accept in the pre-medical Years…In most cases, it was quite unrealistic to argue that the rejected candidates were refused on any other grounds than that they were Jewish.”

Other cultures in other times would have regarded this prejudice as quite puzzling. The Chinese Empire endured for two thousand years largely because of its policy of recruiting its bureaucrats purely on merit. Its rigorous civil service entrance exams did not discriminate on the basis of race, class, or region and produced generations of scholar-bureaucrats who competently served the emperor. The Ottoman Turkish sultans ran their vast empire with the help of viziers who were seldom born Muslim or Turkish. A look at the list of the supreme civil servants employed after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 shows that Serbs, Greeks, Albanians, Hungarians, Italians, and Armenians could rise to the top.

In the last half of the twentieth century, North Americans began to see that it was a good idea to treat people equally. That sentiment was enshrined in California’s Proposition 209, passed in a 1996 referendum: The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, and public contracting. The number of women in high office has risen; females now dominate university undergraduate numbers. Faces of all colours are seen on screens and in legislatures. No coach who wants to keep his job will care one whit if his team is overwhelmingly African American, Mongolian, Scottish, or Samoan — that all 64 starting NFL cornerbacks are black and have been so for the last 17 years is seen only as an amusing factoid.

But there was a problem in rewarding people on merit: certain groups did not fare as well in some areas as others. Black and Hispanic student scores on standardized admissions exams were lower than those of white and Asian applicants, an achievement gap that some attributed to cultural norms and others ascribed to racial bias. In order to ensure that university student racial demographics more closely matched the population universities began to penalize the higher scoring groups. Courts continually ruled against this but universities only found more devious ways to keep discriminating. Some rewarded “life experiences”; some abandoned standardized tests; some argued that diversity itself was an educational goal. But the results were clear: large numbers of white and Asian students with higher objective qualifications were being kept out of elite institutions in order to admit African American and Hispanics. 

In early October the American Department of Justice lowered the boom on Yale University, suing them for “imposing undue and unlawful penalties on racially-disfavored applicants, including in particular most Asian, and white applicants.” This comes after Harvard University beat a similar charge in 2019. In that case, the judge admitted that Asian students were being penalized but that was permissible because of their “poorer personal qualities”, which is apparently code for being primarily concerned with academic success.

Universities in Canada need not engage in any such chicanery because discrimination on a wide number of grounds is permissible according to our constitution, section 15 (2). An able-bodied white heterosexual male, for example, will find it harder to get into the University of Manitoba Faculty of Education than gay, female, transsexual, Aboriginal, or disabled would-be teachers. Having a diagnosed mental or learning disability is actually an advantage under this policy.

Identity politics is an evil virus which North American universities are intent on spreading. More and more we see academic papers whose authors announce their racial or gender backgrounds as if these are some sort of merit badge, a sign of authority that allows them to pronounce on subjects that others have no rights to speak about. White male voices (even those of gays) are silenced because they come from a “place of privilege”. Young Ph.D. graduates find it easier to get university jobs if they “self-identify” as members of an oppressed race or sex – thus the very white Elizabeth Warren announces she is a Cherokee and is hailed as Harvard Law’s first female Indigenous professor. The very bourgeois Jewish Jessica Krug poses variously as “Afro-Caribbean from the Bronx”, or “part Algerian”, or Puerto Rican and lands an associate professorship at George Washington University.

This obsession with identity can do nothing good for a society that values equality of treatment of all its people. When we start to divide the citizenry, rewarding and privileging some, punishing and holding back others, we are asking for trouble.

 

Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.