The Importance of Being Barack
May 24, 2011, 11:26 PM
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A minor trend I've noticed is people fiddling around with their names in order to make themselves seem more eligible for diversity brownie points. For example, local talk radio host Raoul Lowery noticed that his Irish surname wasn't getting him anywhere, so he added, in the Mexican style, his Mexican mother's last name to make himself Raoul Lowery-Contreras, and, bingo, he was suddenly Spanish-surnamed and could market himself to radio stations as the Voice of the Emerging Latino Tidal Wave.

Similarly, performance artist Sandra Loh felt contempt for the whole system of diversity brownie points, but a starving performance artist has to eat. So, she realized it would a be a lot easier to get grants in the diversity-crazed SoCal arts scene if she emphasized being Asian. She already had a Chinese last name via her Cal Tech professor dad, but Loh sounds like it could be, say, German. Maybe it's short for Lohmann? And since her mother was German, that was a problem. So she added her middle name Tsing and became Sandra Tsing Loh, which immediately boosted her career.

Similarly, a friend in the Bay Area tells me about an Asian high school girl who got into UCLA despite grades and test scores well below UCLA's usual standards. Why? Well, Proposition 209 in 1996 meant that the UC schools aren't allowed to ask about racial identity on the application. So, the diversicrats struck back by making the admissions process "holistic," including two essays, on which you are encouraged to wax eloquent about your diversityness.

The consultant who wrote the Chinese girl's UC essay played on her ambiguous sounding last name (could be Chinese, could be WASP, could be black) and the fact that she happened to have been born into the small Chinese community in Ecuador (but grew up in suburban California) to make her sound like she might be black and/or Latino instead of just another pretty smart, pretty hard working Chinese girl from a Bay Area suburb. UCLA automatically enrolled her in the summer-before-freshman-year remedial program that they run to help NAM admittees catch-up with whites and Asians.

In America, unlike in apartheid South Africa, there is very little in the way of background checking into claims to belong to a particular racial/ethnic group.

The main exceptions are Indian tribes. If you wake up tomorrow and remember that your grandmother told you she was a Pechanga Indian, and therefore you deserve an annual check of your share of the profits from the giant Pechanga casino on the road to Palm Springs, well, you've got your work cut out for you. The Pechanga tribe is allowed only one casino, so distributing profits is a zero sum game: adding a long lost Pechangan to the roles dilutes the size of all the current Pechangans' checks. They they set a "blood quantum" of minimum Pechanganess (typically, 1/4th, so you'd better hope Grannie wasn't merely, say, 3/4th Pechangan).

So, Indian tribes maintain systems much like the Boer state did in apartheid South Africa to decide who is in and who is out of the favorable line of descent. Much genealogical detail is required to validate claims of Pechanganess.

On the other hand, diversity bennies for everybody else, such as blacks and Hispanics, are close to infinite sum games. The more people who claim to be diverse, the more the non-diverse must pony up, and more the beneficiaries of affirmative action there are to fight politically for their continuance. Every so often, a few black intellectuals, most notably Henry Louis Gates and Lani Guinier, complain about how Harvard gives away too many affirmative action slots to blacks who don't have a plausible claim to have been victimized by American slavery. For example, they have a white parent or their black parents are foreign. But, Gates and Guinier kind of shut up about this with the rise of Barack Obama, who is the double epitome of exactly the kind of freeloader they are kind of talking about.

Obama, himself, had the problem than "Barry Obama from Honolulu" doesn't sound black at all — it sounds like an assimilated part-Japanese guy. (Obama is a town in Japan, and thus he almost didn't get hired for his famous community organizer job organizing blacks because the guy he sent the resume to thought he was Japanese.)

Moreover, by the 1970s, "Barry" was sounding like the kind of tin-eared name that immigrants foist on their kids to make them sound more assimilated and classier. The classic example is Irving, an old, respectable Anglo-American surname — most notably, Washington Irving, America's first famous fiction writer. In the early 20th Century, Russian Jewish immigrant parents seized upon "Irving" as a  WASPy first name for their sons (e.g., Irving Kristol). Soon, the name was so inextricably linked to socially maladroit hard-chargers from the Outer Boroughs that it became a standard joke name for Mad Magazine.

"Barry" peaked in popularity as a first name the year after Obama was born, but it was already starting to sound a little Irvingish, a little trying-too-hard-to-be-assimilated by the late 1970s: e.g., Barry Manilow. So, no more Barry. If Obama had been really confident in his blackness, he would have shortened Barack to Rock Obama, like baseball player Tim "Rock" Raines. Instead, at Occidental, he switched to Barack. Compared to Barry, Barack sounds more Balack.

Are there any strategies where parents could manipulate this kind of thing? Could you name your kid D'Shqwan Jacob Smith, and he grows up being Jake Smith, but when he applies to the University of California, he's suddenly D'Shqwan Smith?