“Atoms,” reads the sign on a smokestack rising out of the fifties glass-and-brick main building of Annandale High School in Fairfax County, Virginia. It commemorates the mighty football squad that has taken six state titles since the mid-sixties. But aside from its gridiron glories, Annandale High is a run-of-the-mill place. Boys shuffle about in those ten-sizes-too-large jail dungarees. Some girls take advantage of this same fashion, but most sport the navel-and-nose-ring look that has, alas, swept the nation. Not washing one’s hair seems to be in this year. Still, politicians and journalists recently traveled across the country to see these kids, and they did not come to see them play football. What has made Annandale noteworthy of late is a student body that boasts—and boasts is the word—students from seventy-three countries, speaking forty-three languages, and an enrollment that is down to 44 percent white.
That’s why the President’s Advisory Board on Race came to visit for round-tables last December and brought the national media in its wake. The New York Times was there, along with the Washington Post and CNN. And C-SPAN was filming the whole thing, beneath migraine-inducing floodlights trained on a crowd of three hundred that half filled the school auditorium. Mindful of the pressure, and of complaints that the board had been less than provocative in its previous outings, local TV anchor Kathleen Matthews opened by saying, “Forget that the cameras are here. We want it to be candid. What we’re trying to do today is not just skim the surface. . . . We’re trying to peel back the skin of the onion.”
That onion never got peeled. The panel of school representatives had been vetted as vigorously as Cuban agronomists sent for a chat with the Venceremos Brigades. Middle-school teacher Chris Yi’s preoccupation was Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences,” a dubious construct that gets invoked whenever educators want to explain away disappointing SAT scores. Sharifa Alkhateeb, an “intercultural trainer” and host of a Middle Eastern parenting show on local-access television, expressed disappointment that Fairfax County was not unanimous in its embrace of multiculturalism and blamed white parents in a burst of euphemism. (“The comfort level of parents who are not in minority groupings is different from the comfort level of people who are in minority groupings.”) There were two students: an Afghani senior girl and a white sophomore boy.
The canned school spirit was deadening, the only comic relief the sign-language translator as she fluttered her way through such phrases as “teaching conflict mediation resources.” The morning session was just winding down, with a TV reporter chirping about how the race commission put a “mechanism in place for discussing things, and I think that’s the biggest plus,” when a fiftyish white man with a shock of snowy hair appeared at the front of an aisle and asked, “Are there going to be any comments?”
“Not at this point,” said the chairman, historian John Hope Franklin. “We’ve got to keep on schedule.”
“So this is a monologue, not a dialogue,” bellowed the interloper, who introduced himself as Robert Hoy. “All those people up there who are white—they might be biologically white, but they’re not politically white. This is a discussion on race. There should be sparks flying.” A collective uh-oh spread through the audience, although no one yet knew quite what to make of this.
“We don’t want to be a minority in our own homeland,” Hoy continued. “Why is it that you people assume that millions of white people want to be a minority in our own country?”
Now the audience knew where Hoy was coming from. Several people began to boo.
“Yeah, ‘Boo! Boo!’” Hoy scoffed. “Monologue! Monologue!”
As Hoy was hauled off, everyone laughed with relief. But reporters were already bolting to the swinging doors in the back of the auditorium, and cameramen with their camera dollies labored up the aisles behind them. You’d almost think they weren’t afraid of missing anything inside.
Hoy was standing next to the policeman who’d dragged him out, chatting with two reporters. Between them and the front door stood a sturdy little forty-fiveish woman shouting at the top of her lungs. “I am a white parent at Annandale High School,” she wailed. “Please do not make this the focus of these reports tonight! I beg you to keep the focus on the debate. This is not representative of the whites.” Then she took on the rhythmic urgency of evacuation instructions conveyed by public-address system: “Do not—make this—the focus—of the reports tonight. . . . You as reporters have to recognize what your role is now. Are you going to cover a person who commandeered the audience? None of us were kept out of this debate. This was not a minority debate. You know, there were two students chosen. One of them was white. This was not a white/minority issue.”
The woman identified herself as Eileen Kugler, former president of the PTA and—what do you know?—the mother of the lucky white sophomore who had been chosen for the roundtable. In that light, it sounded as if Mrs. Kugler wasn’t defending the work of the race board so much as the selection process by which her boy got to appear on national television. Here it was, his moment in the sun, and all the cameras and journalists were out in the parking lot listening to some obstreperous kook.
A few black observers, by contrast, seemed positively delighted with the interruption. Ray Winbush, director of the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University, was one of them. It was hard to say whether his excitement stemmed from confirmation of suspicions about white attitudes or from the opening the incident gave to equally radical black-separatist notions. “The whole problem with the dialogue is that you have not had that kind of voice,” Winbush said. “The dialogue is just too safe right now, much too safe. How can you have a racial dialogue in America without including someone like Louis Farrakhan? You can’t.”
“Everybody’s ready to break out in a chorus of Kum-ba-yah,” Winbush added. “I’m not saying we can’t eventually get to Kum-ba-yah. But right now people aren’t interested. I’d support this guy going back in and talking.”
Hoy was explaining—or not explaining—himself to reporters, handing out press releases that described him as the “moderator and chairman” of “Southern Republicans.” (“What’s that?” I asked. “An organization,” he replied.) If his name rings a bell, it’s because Hoy was a prominent supporter of David Duke in his 1990 Louisiana Senate race; he also received a bit of national press attention in 1992 when the Buchanan presidential campaign was attacked for failing to disavow his support.
The Clinton forums on race are proving sanctimonious, propagandistic, and barren—and confusing to ordinary, tolerant Americans.
He was swarmed by chattering students of all races, who had streamed out of the upper deck of the school auditorium to rise to his clumsily proffered bait. After a morning of bragging about the “dignity,” “self-respect,” and “confidence” inculcated at Annandale High, the multiethnic students were prostrating themselves with rage before the first racist clown they’d ever met.
“I have feelings!” a Middle Eastern boy was shouting.
“Do you just want the white race to control everything?” said a Vietnamese girl, near tears.
“I have feelings!”
“What do you want?” asked a friendly Palestinian girl. “Do you think one race should always be dominant?”
As we walked back into the school, the Palestinian student said to her teacher, “Ma’am, you’re Jewish, right? I don’t know if you heard what he was saying . . .” Just then, I was talking to an Asian boy, who was saying, “I mean, you’re white—you don’t agree with him, do you?”
This was a typical Annandale High conversation: “I’m [ethnicity], so I . . .” No wonder Eileen Kugler had talked about whether racism is typical of “the whites,” much as we talk about “the underclass” or “the IRA.” No wonder the students had run out into the parking lot with such schadenfreude. They disagreed with the guy ranting about a white “homeland,” but he was speaking the only language of race they understand.
The afternoon session was supposed to be the first showcase of a variety of viewpoints in the six months the Race Initiative has been up and running. The Clinton administration, taking to heart accusations that it was not listening to opponents of affirmative action, had invited two conservatives just days before: former education secretary William Bennett and Arizona public schools head Lisa Graham Keegan. “A litany of speeches does not a dialogue make,” Bennett began, and he tried to correct certain misimpressions. He parried the allegation that minority schools are starved of funds by noting the higher the minority enrollment in American school systems, the higher the per-pupil expenditure. But few people were listening. This was an outing for race hobbyists, and the same ones kept reemerging all afternoon. Eileen Kugler popped up at lunch in the school library, making an impassioned plea that you can’t tell anything from average SAT scores. “We have an unfortunate number of parents who buy homes based on how high the average SAT score is,” said Kugler. “But we don’t care. Don’t look at it like that.”
She won applause in the afternoon session, too, when she said, “If we can get a message out to parents throughout the country, it is: Don’t fear schools like this. Don’t go to the place where your kid looks like all the other kids.” Then along came Sharifa, the intercultural counselor, again, this time warning that the Clinton administration’s new standards of learning are anti-Muslim and maybe even “deliberately devised to make a lot of the children drop out of the school system.” No one chased her out into the parking lot to tell her she was out of her mind. Then a white man in a close-cropped beard stood up to say, “I’d like to see some kind of race-relations course be mandated in all schools.” That is the kind of line that got resounding applause—along with slow nods and closed-mouth smiles—all afternoon.
The tone was set by the race board brass, particularly its executive director, Judith Winston, who has a gift for being robustly, unambiguously antiwhite. She complained, “Isn’t part of the reason our schools are in the shape they’re in because white people are moving away from the schools?” Such sentiments are meat on reactionary plates. Late in the afternoon, a Hoy sympathizer stood up to ask, “Several of the members have said that blacks in particular feel distrustful of the education establishment. More and more we are hearing from whites and Asians that they too are distrustful of the same establishment because of political correctness, affirmative action, and multiculturalism. Are there any plans to address their concerns?”
Winston looked at him with incredulity for a few seconds, rephrased his question, then asked with a smile, “In the context of white fear?” Then another panelist said, “I hope we can disabuse him of the impression that being white is a disadvantage in America.” The audience burst into laughter.
“What harm can come of just talking about race?” one TV commentator asked the night of the Annandale conference.
A good deal, it would seem. For one, virtually all the people who spoke at the Annandale gathering are embodiments of the pseudo Tocquevilleanism—as Bill Clinton and Dick Morris have redefined it—that purports to use community organizations to create a healthy, “triangulated” balance between government and individuals. What winds up happening is that these “voluntary organizations,” whether Eileen Kugler’s PTA or Sharifa Alkhateeb’s intercultural counseling service, become local satrapies that merely ratify the goals of the nanny state and make it more powerful and intrusive.
Because it works best by herding people into racial groupings, this type of initiative is at war with an older, more American vision: the universalist idea that we’re equal under the law or equal in the sight of God. The Annandale meeting is a worrisome indication that supplanting that vision may be the Clinton race board’s goal. When interracial talks about race prove as sanctimonious, propagandistic, and barren as the Clinton forums have, it’s immensely confusing to the tolerant mainstream that wants to leave race aside. When presidential advisers sneer at people who question affirmative action, dismiss the concerns of whites, and cheer on those who would mandate racial reeducation, it does more than give aid and comfort to those, black and white, who think the races shouldn’t live together. It indoctrinates newcomers of all races in a divisive radicalism that ought to be hauled out of our national discussions and left to freeze in the school parking lot where it belongs.