Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Burying the Lead: Governor Christie's Plan to Use Diversity Against the Diverse

Today's New York Times gushes:
Gov. Chris Christie made a broad stroke for diversity on New Jersey’s Supreme Court on Monday, nominating one man who would be the first openly gay justice, and another who would be the first Asian and first immigrant to serve.
For the moment, I am going to skip over the fact that I'm pretty sure they meant a "bold strike for diversity." Perhaps the preposterousness of a statement linking Christie with progressivism (which will become clear soon enough) scrambled the language centers in their brains over at the NYT. Instead, I would like to focus on the odd structure of this article--an elaborated version of the story circulating at a variety of newspapers, blogs, and online magazines.

The official story (pre-packaged, it seems, by the identical language of the news outlets) is that Governor Christie is heroically leading the charge to diversify the New Jersey Supreme Court. The fact that he was, in fact, responsible for the whitening of the Court is buried and camouflaged in the currently unchallenged story of triumph. So, too, is the fact that his actions are a clever, subversive response to Democrats in the State Senate who implored (be careful what you ask for) that Christie "appoint a racially diverse court that looks like the state of New Jersey." The fact that this "diversity" will actually have terrible consequences for the diverse is drowned out by the imperative to celebrate.

While it is certainly possible Christie's "firsts" may pull their version of "Clarence Thomas's First Day" as envisioned by In Living Color, I don't intend to hold my breath.

Because the language of diversity and inclusion has taken over the language of justice, equality, and reparation in a weakened Democratic party, "liberals" have no response to Christie's move. It's diverse. It's inclusive. It's just that the gay/immigrant/multiracial symbolism covers a multitude of sins....

Gay as the New Black

Reading the Times lead, one would not know that this gay nominee is also a black one. Of course, If Ebony Magazine were reporting, they would probably have offered that bit first--or, at least, within the first paragraph. The New York Times again:
Bruce A. Harris, was elected mayor of Chatham in November and is a lawyer with Greenberg Traurig, a prominent national firm. Besides being the first openly gay justice on the state’s highest court, Mr. Harris would be its only black one, and just the third in its history. 
Ebony hasn't gotten to this story yet, but tries to put gay and black on equal footing, note the "and" below:

Bruce A. Harris strikes a blow for gay rights, and becomes the third African-American to be seated on the state's Supreme Court.

BET is unafraid to use "strikes a blow," where the Times inexplicably mixed that metaphor with "painting with broad strokes." I suspect  the Times were afraid of the militancy implied in even the metaphorical striking of blows in favor of the oppressed. After all, that's class warfare! And that can only be tolerated when the targets are down the social ladder.†

Ebony would be all aglow over another Black History Moment -- though I doubt they'd picture Harris and his partner (no matter how attractive) to the extent they show the Obamas.  The Times, on the other hand, subordinates black to gay (What are you complaining about? You've already had TWO openly black justices in New Jersey!)

Now this might be seen as a coin-toss: The Times could have prioritized blackness and offended the gays or gayness and miffed the blacks. I sympathize there; there's no perfect solution. It's not as if you could split the difference somehow (The third black averaged with the first gay doesn't make the 2nd blackgay). But the entire structure of the article follows this same pattern of placing the colossal symbolism of the Gay First over and above substantive concerns that go beyond symbolism.

For example, a stray thread in the article informs readers:
Mr. Christie has made no secret of his disagreements with the court and his intention to reshape it. In particular, he has complained about its upholding of a three-decade-old decision, known as the Abbott ruling, that required the state to spend more money on its poorest school districts in an attempt to put them on more equal footing with wealthier districts. In May the court ordered the Christie administration to increase state funding to 31 of the poorest districts by $500 million.
And even deeper into the article, we are informed that "[GayBlack Nominee] Mr. Harris is a Republican"--that is, a member of Christie's party. 

So where is the headline: Governor Forwards Racially Diverse Nominees In Hopes of Overturning School Desegregation Rulings?

Christie has made no secret of his larger goal, one he can clearly pursue by appointing Harris, a Republican, and Kwon (an Independent); neither of whom has any judicial experience.
 "In his State of the State address last week, Mr. Christie declared, 'It is time to admit that the Supreme Court’s grand experiment with New Jersey children is a failure.'"
This is the language of Limited Government, Neighborhood Schools, and Fiscal Austerity: all of which means pulling up the ladder of social advancement and yanking away the social safety net. In other words, defund public education so that only those who can afford elite education (or those who benefit from charity) can live middle-class lives. Makes me long for the early Massachusetts Bay Colony, when heads of households could be fined and jailed if they did not teach their servants and apprentices to read. Eventually, the Colony insisted on publicly funded education, because they realized that those who could not read or write were destined to be a drain on the state. How far the Tea Party vision of a defunded public sector is from the American roots they claim to return us to! (Or, are they really refighting the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movements?)


Let's look at another stray thread, not woven into the story of The Firsts. It would appear that Governor Christie was against a diverse Supreme Court before he was for it. That is, he was against it until he found a black (and gay!) Republican who might help him re-establish the unequal distribution of state funds to schools in wealthier districts. 
 In ending an impasse over another [prior] court nominee, the Senate president, Stephen M. Sweeney, said last year that he hoped the governor would build 'a racially diverse court that looks like the state of New Jersey,' but vowed to move forward on whatever nominations the governor made for the two positions coming open on the court in March. The impasse, which lasted a year, was over Mr. Christie’s refusal to reappoint Justice John E. Wallace Jr., the court’s only African-American, for the two years until he turned the mandatory retirement age of 70. It was the first time a governor had refused to reappoint a sitting justice.
My guess is that Justice Wallace was an impediment to overturning the Abbot ruling requiring allocation of state funds to strategically underfunded school districts.

But, let's indulge the press's boredom with the yawn-inducing Black Third and take a victory lap for the Gay First. Let's take the current Republican/Tea Party line and say: Brown v. Board, Abbot, affirmative action, public health, and all the rest are failed experiments from the 60s, attempts to engineer collective advancement that blacks could not attain as individuals. Or, let's say along with some "race-fatigued" liberals: efforts at racial remedy have succeeded and run their course. Now we need inclusivity and legal equality for gays, and Harris's appointment is a step in that direction.

What was that, New York Times?
Standing next to Mr. Harris, 61, and his partner of three decades, Mr. Christie said the nomination did not indicate a reversal of his opposition to same-sex marriage. The Democrats, who control the Legislature, have made passage of a bill legalizing it their top priority — hearings begin Tuesday — but the governor on Monday dismissed the proposal as just “a bill like hundreds of bills that are pending in the State Legislature.”
“I’m not someone who changes positions with the grace of a ballerina,” Mr. Christie said. “I wouldn’t be all atwitter in expectation.”....
Steven Goldstein, the chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay rights group.... cautioned against thinking the governor would support same-sex marriage. “He has said in past years and months that he would veto the bill, and we take him at his word,” he said.

Ah, a bold stroke for diversity™, indeed.

Unless and until we abandon the weakened language of diversity and inclusion and--taking a tact from the Occupy Movements--recommence a fight against injustice, deprivation, and inequality, Gay will indeed be the New Black: possessed of some legal victories and a liberal sprinkling of token positions but with substantive needs unaddressed.

I fear the arrival of an event that I'd call the gay Hurricane Katrina, a publicized crisis that shows how little a few political offices and targeted television networks really matter in the day-to-day lives of non-celebrities (and I count politicians among celebrities). But what I fear more than that is that, as with Hurricane Katrina, we won't even know what the event is telling us about the abysmal circumstances that are Normal for the Many because we've been too busy celebrating the Exceptional Firsts.


† On the hand-wringing about OWS as class warfare, I would quote Lewis Gordon's excellent insights about colonial situations:
Since colonialists regarded colonialism as just, how, then, could they be expected to see decolonization as anything but unjust? If the ongoing efforts needed to maintain colonialism were considered just, how, then, could they be considered violent?.... The only way to satisfy the expectations of nonviolence was to be ineffective at practices of social change. We forget that Martin Luther King Jr., one of the apostles of nonviolence, was considered violent in his day. When fellow protesters and he marched against American apartheid, it was not the police officers who set German shepherds on them, not the hoards of whites who stoned them, not the fire fighters who sprayed them with water at a force capable of stripping skin, not the gangs who lynched many of them; it was not those people and agents of state power who were considered violent. What supporters of the status quo 'saw' was violent black people against whom the society was being protected.

By shying away from a violent metaphor ("striking a blow for equality"), the Times shows what I have pointed out elsewhere, it's inability to see government violence as such. The result is a strict policing of oppressed people, so much that even metaphorical violence against oppressive forces must be disallowed and, thereby, the ineffectiveness of socially transformative actions guaranteed. For successful action against an oppressive government will, of necessity, be called violent, pace Weber's definition that the state has a monopoly on legitimate violence.


  1. (Have you ever had difficulty writing the opening sentence for a response? So difficult to strike the right balance of appearing to have something to say and appearing conciliatory and deferential to the guy who just wrote a bunch of great stuff: anyhow...)
    I believe questions of sexuality and race have become much sexier in the media than questions of policy. Chiefly because on the surface they appear easier to follow. Policy represents a sequential series of statements all of which are reactive (or non-reactive) to a much larger amount of data (which is all correspondingly spun by differing interest groups) while sexuality/ethnicity questions involve looking at a series of checked boxes.
    It is not my intention to diminish the importance of sexuality and ethnicity issues by ascribing them media-sexiness, but simply to point out that in the diminishing returns of print journalism, policy questions may seem to be a snoozy lead.

    1. Thank you, my excellent friend and loyal reader!

      Yes, and the Times is trying to sell papers, no doubt. So I'll cop to promoting a snoozy lead. Academia may have turned me boring.

      How about changing the angle instead of the lead, then?

      I guess that would appear too "partisan" by spouting a bunch of (true) theories about how conservatives (Republican or Democrat) use symbolic representation to pursue policies detrimental to the represented populations. But at this point, they seem like Christie shills, honestly.

      Is this where a strategic question comes in handy? Don't come right out and say "Christie is up to no good"... Say, instead, "it's unclear how these appointments will play out considering Christie's longstanding opposition to gay marriage and school desegregation, as well as his clashes with gay rights and civil rights groups." Then you have conflict, the heart of drama! In the article they've given, there's no antagonist. Who, in this story, is against "diversity," at this point?

      Is there a way to ensure there's a sexy lead and no hatchet job on Christie... but also no bending over backwards to make this dude sound like he's Rosa Parks?

    2. I was about to say that you're doing media studies work now! You didn't work in a critique of newspaper neutrality, but you could have.

      What's fascinating is that as limiting as diversity is -- a case made by others, including those looking to deemphasize race, e.g. Benn Michaels -- we're even fighting for that too. It seems inevitable the Supreme Court will turn over the use of race in college admissions ( The Texas AA plan is as close to "race neutral" as you can get without eliminating race altogether -- it's even "merit based" to appease libertarians -- but the truth is Republicans, conservatives and moderate Democrats don't want diversity, not if it challenges the status quo in any way. This really seems like a move to go back to pre-1970s America, with the slightest veneer of change. And it's an effort that's been in the works for decades.

    3. Am I? Am I finally a real boy/real scholar? I have to be careful about critiquing newspaper neutrality. I have people close to me in journalism who take their non-partisanship at work very seriously. And, frankly, I admire their vigilance on the matter.

      As for the rest of your post, I'm shocked not to see a silver lining from one of the most optimistic people I know. You're starting to sound, I don't know, like a 70s baby! I don't disagree with your analysis at all, but what can be done to halt this "effort that's been in the works for decades"?

  2. So, you're saying that when opponents of redistributive forms of public policy close ranks and offer positions of privilege to members of previously excluded classes... based on ideology rather than merit, of course... that symbolic concession doesn't actually amount to anything that improves the lives of the oppressed? It might actually facilitate revanchist measures? You're saying that but actually in a rib-tickling funny way and with evidence?

    Get outta town...!

    1. Shut the Front Door!

      Thank you, dré. Trenchant analyis and the encouragement of a true friend, all in one comment.