When I was researching the column I wrote four weeks ago (Combating discrimination effectively, 10/27/2005), I searched through the online archives of the Daily to find any old news stories covering racism and discrimination on campus. I found a fair number. A few examples: racial slurs scrawled on the Diag in early 2002 (Racist message left in chalk on Diag, 03/19/2002), a Jewish student allegedly assaulted at a bowling alley because of his faith in mid-2003 (Student: attack motivated by anti-Semitism, 05/27/2003) and plenty of Crime Notes about discriminatory messages on chalk boards.

Sarah Royce

The chain of events surrounding the 2002 incident mimicked those following the alleged misconduct toward a pair of Asian students on South Forest this past September. A discriminatory incident sparked broad campus media coverage, a fair number of people expressed surprise that “these kinds of incidents” can happen on a campus that values diversity and groups rallied to make strong statements about preventing or ending racism and discrimination.

Take the following comment from an open letter by faculty of the Asian/Pacific Islander American: “We call on the university leadership – to marshal the necessary resources to ensure that the wider university community can collaborate collectively to end such race-based bias and intimidation.” A similar letter from the Latina/o Studies and Native American Studies contained a nearly identical phrase.

It bothers me that a well-educated group of individuals would make such an unrealistic request. I am certainly not the first to say this, but racism and ethnic discrimination surely fall into the category of human problems that cannot ever be solved, alongside other familiar opponents like terrorism. I suppose that this position could be called defeatist, but I think realistic is a better label.

A large part of what makes racism intractable is related to something called niche exploitation, a term that will be familiar to ecologists and business/economics students. Within any given landscape (whether it be a forest or the Internet), there are a million possible ways that an agent in that environment can survive. One of the best ways is to carve out a specific niche for yourself, a specialized little area of that landscape that you enter because of its low competition and/or abundant resources. In both business and ecological landscapes, the number of available niches is enormous, and as a result there are millions of different companies and organisms, each appealing to their own particular facet of the landscape.

Ideologies (from racism to pacifism and everything in between) occupy a similar landscape, and compete for resources in much the same way. Some have broad appeal and occupy a lot of the landscape, while others are very small and localized. Ideologies shift in both their size and location over time, but due to the sheer magnitude of the landscape, the total eradication of any ideology is virtually impossible. There will always been a niche, however small, in which even heinous and widely discredited ideas can gain currency and support.

In the end, statements like those made by the APIA do not trouble me simply because I believe they are factually inaccurate. Although, that is no small part of it. In fact, on the face of it is probably one of the least abrasive factual inaccuracies I could dream up, right up there with telling kids that Santa Claus really exists. The rub, of course, is finding out that neither of these statements is true.

So what happens two or three years later, when, as inevitably as death and taxes, another race/ethnicity/religion/gender-motivated incident occurs? If individuals and organizations continue to make bold and unrealistic statements about ending discrimination, the same energy that was wasted in September wondering how such events could transpire will be squandered yet again.

The redeeming factor in this entire discussion is that whether impassioned statements are made calling for the end of discrimination or, more realistically, the reduction of discrimination, the actions that result are largely similar. Awareness about intolerance is generally raised (if only for a little while), and in the short-term, additional discriminatory actions are probably prevented. Both of these causes would be bolstered, however, by redirecting the effort spent foolishly buttressing the false notion that racial and ethnic intolerance can ever be eradicated.


Jackson can be reached at edjacks@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *