Opinion: Andrew Breitbart: Dead wrong on race, and much else
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Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart was no respecter of the maxim that one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead: After the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 2009, he spewed venom all over the liberal lion’s grave via Twitter, calling him a ‘special pile of human excrement,’ a ‘villain’ and other things we can’t reprint on a family website. So I don’t have any qualms about remembering Breitbart, who died suddenly Thursday at 43, as a closed-minded bully and blowhard who seemed to think he could win debates by shouting louder than his opponent rather than having a better argument, a casual liar who shamelessly destroyed reputations and an unfortunate new species of Internet parasite.
But that’s not really what I wanted to write about. In 2010, Breitbart told The Times that three events in the late 1980s and early ‘90s galvanized his political consciousness, turning him from an apathetic ‘jocular goofball’ into a right-wing activist. All three seem odd candidates for an epiphany, but one in particular has some connection to my own life, and it’s as good an indicator of any of the way Breitbart’s mind worked -- or failed to work.
In 1986, while Breitbart was a student at Tulane University, his best friend, Larry Solov, was attending Stanford. When Solov mentioned that Stanford had an African American-themed dorm, Breitbart was outraged.
‘He just matter of factly said there was a black dorm, and I was like, ‘What the friggin’ hell? Are you kidding me?,’ Breitbart said. ‘And then, when I found out that it was not segregation in the sense of white people doing it, I was like, ‘What are you talking about? Why aren’t we working toward the colorblind ideal?’ ‘
This is Breitbart in a nutshell -- a man flying into a half-cocked fury over an explosive topic he only dimly understood. Later in life, this pattern would repeat itself frequently, with the difference that by then he was an Internet entrepreneur who could instantly post his screeds online whenever a topic arose that piqued his ire. Issues of race seemed to incense him more than anything, prompting him to provide an outlet for conservative activist James O'Keefe III’s video attacks on the inner-city advocacy group ACORN and to assassinate the character of Shirley Sherrod, an African American official with the Department of Agriculture whose comments on race and government aid were heavily edited and taken out of context to make her appear to be a racist, then posted on one of Breitbart’s websites.
I was an undergrad at Stanford in the mid-1980s and well familiar with Ujamaa, the black-themed dorm, as well as Okada, an Asian dorm, and Casa Zapata, a Latino dorm. These dorms were controversial then and remain so now, but they have survived over the years because they offer an important educational and social experience. They are not entirely segregated; no more than 50% of each dorm can house individuals fitting the ‘theme’ ethnicity. To live in one of them, you have to agree to take on a project fitting the ethnic theme -- so Ujamaa residents of any race might have to write an essay about some aspect of the black experience on campus, for example. There are also educational and cultural programs within the dorm.
To the extent that these dorms were controversial on campus during my time, it was mainly because they stimulated a tremendous amount of discussion about race -- and with that discussion came tension. In a school peopled mostly by privileged white students, it was a little shocking to hear about the resentment and isolation sometimes experienced by black students, or the anger simmering under the surface in a Latino community that in the mid-80s was still arguing over whether to call themselves ‘Chicanos’ and whether fighting for their rights was really as critical a goal as integrating with American society. But amid all the tension, something miraculous happened: learning. White students learned to put themselves in the shoes of their multicolored peers, and minority students, I think, learned that communication fosters understanding.
I understand why the idea of themed dorms outrages some people; it seems like an attempt by minority students to isolate themselves, to avoid the intermingling that is supposed to be part of the college experience. And to some white people, it seems unfair: Why do black people get to have their own dorm, when a similar white-themed college dorm would bring down liberal fury? The simple answer to both concerns is that white people aren’t minorities. We don’t have to go out of our way to be around people like us -- they’re everywhere. Minority students on an overwhelmingly white campus are under constant pressure to ‘represent’ their race; it must be a great relief to go home to a dorm where they aren’t the only black person in the room.
Maybe if Tulane had had themed dorms, Breitbart would have learned some of these lessons. But I doubt it. Learning, or trying to understand life from another person’s perspective, were never his strong suits.