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Thursday, May 15, 2003  

Volokh misses the point:
White + male does not = admirable

Victor of Balasubramania's Mania brought my attention to Eugene Volokh's opinion about women, minorities and role models. The issue arose in regard to discussion of replacing the University of Massachusetts' Minuteman mascot.

AMHERST, Mass. -- The Minuteman has won his battle against the gray wolf. After upsetting students, alumni, sports fans and even state lawmakers, the University of Massachusetts has backed off its proposal to retire its 31-year-old mascot, a Revolutionary War soldier, in favor of the wild canine.

"As it was in 1775, the Minuteman triumphs," Athletic Director Ian McCaw said Wednesday to the applause of UMass athletes and coaches.

Previously, the university's spokesman said it had trouble selling merchandise bearing the Minuteman logo and thought the gray wolf, which is native to the area, might attract more interest and less controversy.

McCaw wouldn't give any details of the new design, but he had expressed concern in the past about the white soldier's "gender, firearms and ethnicity issues."

I gather he meant that the male mascot could be perceived as not representing women, who now make up the majority of college students. In a country in which firearms are often associated with senseless violence, an armed mascot is a message a person might want to rethink, too. And, as was nearly always the case of any kind of respectful societal image in American society until recently, the Minuteman is white.

Volokh sees nothing controversial in regard to gender and race about the mascot because he believes women and nonwhites should emulate white men of achievement.

More broadly, for women to succeed in many walks of life, they should draw their role models from men. To become great soldiers, women have to emulate other great soldiers -- who were men. To become great scientists, women need to draw inspiration from Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and others -- overwhelmingly men. (The same is in large measure true for many racial and ethnic minorities in many fields.)

Victor finds that reasoning questionable.

To say that women need to look to men for inspiration (etc.) really fails to grasp the emotional and visceral connection of a role model. A role model functions to remind you that if someone else like you could do it, so could you -- to the extent that one fails to identify with a role model, as maybe women scientists with male scientists, the role model becomes ineffectual. I would also take exception to Professor Volokh's contention that there aren't enough role models of a certain gender or race, such that minorities and underrepresented folks "need to draw inspiration" from outside their groups.

I, too find Volokh's advice to draw role models from men, by which I suspect he means white men, troubling. I would be much more comfortable with the advice: It is a good idea to emulate talented people.

Volokh responded.

Fortunately, while I'm not an expert on the psychological research surrounding this subject, my sense is that it's not inherently that hard for people to find role models who differ from them in race or sex. People are capable of being inspired by people who lived centuries before them, who spoke a completely different language, had a completely different ethnicity, and lived a completely different sort of life. Ask an American classical musician, for instance, which figures in history he has admired -- is he likelier to mention American or English composers, or German or Russian ones? People are capable of abstracting those factors (which in any event shouldn't be the basis for admiration), and focusing on more important matters, such as the person's great achievements or great character (which should be the basis for admiration). I suspect that people are likewise able to abstract race and sex as well.

I don't have a problem with that part of Volokh's remarks. However, my eyebrow lifts when I read this:

But while I think people are inherently able to choose role models from either gender and any race, ethnicity, religion, and era, social attitudes can change that. The more we talk about how girls need female role models, blacks need black role models, and so on, the more we send the message that children should seek only role models of their own race and sex. And, as I've argued above, that message is actually harmful to those children who belong to a race or sex that -- often through no fault of its own -- simply does not contain role models (in the particular fields in which the children are interested) who are as great as those that have been produced by another race or sex. An excessive and highly publicized focus on race- and sex-specific role modeling is thus, I suspect, harmful to the very groups (women and nonwhites) that it's trying to help. [Emphasis his.]

I am hard put to come up with a field in which women or nonwhites haven't produced achievers. Sometimes those notables will be found in the Western tradition, which I suspect is all Volokh considered. Other times, they will be found in the histories of other continents. For example, the women warriors of Dahomey were great soldiers. Healing has long been a field women excelled in in some Native American cultures. Obviously, the names of outstanding performers will have been lost to the lack of a written tradition of recording information and indifference caused by slavery, colonialism and imperialism. Still, the legends often persist. That forms the basic foundation for letting everyone, not just minorities or women, know of accomplishments by all kinds of people in various fields.

Slowly, that information is being recovered. For example, works of American women writers of from 50 to 200 years ago have been rediscovered during the last decades. The productions of these talented women had been shunted aside, sometimes by their male peers, who Volokh would have us genuflect to while ignoring the women themselves. Among the women told not to write by mediocre male authors was Emily Dickinson.

Nor has brilliant and brave soldiering been limited to white men, as Volokh probably believes. The indigeneous people of this and other countries fought among themselves and against the European invaders, often valiantly. Again, too many names have been lost to history, but they are being recovered.

While we are discussing war, let's consider a related matter. It seems to be that the Minuteman could represent a black revolutionary war hero, such as Massachusetts native Crispus Attucks, as easily as he could a white one. I think it would be wonderful if the emblem was redesigned to resemble Attucks, assuming there is an image available.

Another way Volokh steps on my virtual toes, and probably Victor's, is with the assumption built into his conception of the issue -- only white men are talented enough to produce works that have an historical impact. The female and the dusky should hold them in awe and emulate them. That is something I expect from the benighted souls who populate the blogs of bigotry. If it is not the message Volokh meant to convey, some clarification would be appreciated.

Last, but far from least, I believe he makes the mistake of less sophisticated people, some of whom join racist groups because of their error. He confuses being a person of achievement with being white. Most white people live and die without doing anything of note, as do most people of any other color. People who excel in some way that impacts history are so few that for any ethnicity to claim them as representative is ridiculous. Volokh has what I assume is a Russian name. However, that does not mean he should be credited with the works of Tolstoy. In fact, African-American female writer Toni Morrison probably has more in common with the Russian writer. As far as I am concerned, that is the most significant lesson that can be learned from discussing this topic. Talent does not respect boundaries of race or gender. Children and young adults should emulate persons of achievement in fields that interest them, regardless of race or gender. They should not be encouraged to single out only white men of achievement for admiration.

1:34 AM