If Harvard alumni want something to cry about, they would do well to consider that if they build that grand new engineering school, it would be the second best in Cambridge. That Harvard isn’t free, or discriminates against Asians, is a red herring. They give extremely liberal financial aid to students, which Harvard can well afford, and if they didn’t discriminate against Asians, they would make up 90% [based on my personal, highly scientific, empirical study] of the students.
Diversity, you see, isn’t always as it seems. The unspoken ugly belly is that Asian students work hard, very hard, much harder than a lot of other groups, to succeed. Tiger Mom is part of it. A culture of hard work, sacrifice, effort, can’t be overcome by protests and rosy platitudes. But when we speak of diversity, it’s based on a Utopian disconnect with reality.
Asians are just as much a marginalized group as blacks or LatinX, as the latest craze calls them, since the gendered Spanish language fails to meet the bar of gender neutrality. But the concerns are different, and they don’t get the concern shown by the deeply passionate social justice feelers. Why do they hate Asians so much?
But then, there’s no place in the NBA for a 5’9″, middle-aged, Jewish white power forward. If disparate impact answered all questions, this would be a problem. It’s not. Those players are there because they are the best at the game. And they are, notably, black. Nobody wants to watch a basketball game on TV played by short, mediocre players, none of whom could dunk without an extension ladder.
Nobody was more disappointed than I was when we learned that “Straight Outta Compton” had not been nominated for best picture, The “Hateful Eight”’s Samuel L. Jackson, “Creed”‘s Michael B. Jordan and “Concussion”’s Will Smith had not been nominated for best actor and “Beasts of No Nation”‘s Idris Elba had not been nominated for best supporting actor.
Many reacted by accusing the Academy of being racist since this is the second year in a row in which not one of the 20 acting nominees were people of color, hence the popular Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
I saw “Straight Outta Compton” and loved it. Whether it deserved a nomination for Best Picture, I dunno. I’m hardly qualified to make such an assessment, which could explain why I’m not a member of the Academy. But the complaint is that a lot of old white guys are members of the Academy, which means that a lot of young blacks and women aren’t.
There are also complaints that movie studio execs are all white, males, and they give all the good acting roles to whites and good directing positions to males. And that’s why white males dominate the movie industry.
How many nonwhite and/or female studio execs are deciding which projects deserve to be greenlit? How many talented up and coming writers and directors of color are being sought after and mentored by more established directors, writers and producers? Where are the adventurous casting agents who don’t automatically assume that a character written of nonspecified background has to be white?
The movies fall somewhere between Harvard and the NBA. Not everyone can be a great actor. Even with effort, some people are never going to be able to direct a great movie. There is a talent requirement in there, and some just won’t have it. Nature can be cruel that way. Lots of people are passionate about the movies. Few can act very well. But then, there are great black actors, from Sidney Poitier to Denzel Washington. They aren’t just great black actors, but great actors.
There’s at least one significant reason as to why, in the last couple of years, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of actors of color — Aziz Ansari, Viola Davis, Gina Rodriguez and so on — being nominated for, and sometimes winning, major TV awards: They’re finally getting a chance to do solid, quality work. In a still relatively small, but crucial way, some TV writers and executives have finally figured out that they exist and are bankable, and can star in their own stories, rather than always play second-fiddle to white protagonists.
Buried in that paragraph is a very important word, “bankable.” If movies don’t make money, studios go bankrupt and, poof, no more movies. Even if we were to force movies to be made with black actors and female directors, we can’t force people to shell out the $12 to watch them. Just as there would be a lot of empty seats in Madison Square Garden if the Knicks signed me up.
Why hasn’t a group of wealthy black entrepreneurs built a movie studio dedicated to producing movies with black casts and female directors? Beats me. They could do so if they wanted to, but apparently aren’t interested in putting their money toward this cause. I would assume it’s a business decision, as the quickest way to make a million in the movie biz is to start with two million. Bankable is a harsh mistress.
As for Harvard, an anecdote. I was sitting with the mother of an Asian fencer, as we both waited while our sons practiced for the nationals the summer before their senior year in high school. We talked about college dreams, and I pondered whether my son would be accepted in the school of his choice.
Me: What are the chances a white, Jewish kid from the burbs will get admitted to study physics?
Her: Oh, you think you have problems? What about an Asian kid from the burbs to study physics?*
Her son wanted to go to Yale, and competition among Asians in STEM is fierce. Her son was quite a brilliant student, an exceptional fencer, and a really good kid. As were many others, all of whom worked their Asian butts off to make it to a top school. He ended up going to Columbia (pre-Mattress girl days, so don’t go there), as Yale didn’t accept him. There were no protests at this blatant discrimination, but then, he didn’t get hurt in the fall from grace either.
While the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag may be trending, there is also a dearth of Asian actors nominated. Sony Pictures Entertainment is a major movie producer, having acquired Columbia Pictures from Coca-Cola. And, of course, Asian owned. Why isn’t anyone protesting? Why isn’t Sony making Asian movies? Maybe it has something to do with Asians wanting their children to go to the other Columbia, if not Harvard?
In a perfect world, there would be a proportionate division of Oscar nominees of all descriptions. Even Aleuts (doesn’t anyone care about Aleuts anymore?). The platitude is that the cream always rises to the top. That isn’t necessarily true, but the gigs will go to the actors and directors who the money believes are bankable and the guys who can dunk.
It’s not fair, but all the hand-wringing in the world won’t correct the injustice. If you don’t like it, work your ass off and go to Harvard, even if you take the seat that should have gone to an Asian kid. It will never be fair to everyone, because we’re not all bankable no matter how much we feel we deserve to be.
*Another fencing story: There were exceptional black fencers as well, some trained at the Peter Westbrook Foundation at Fencers Club in Manhattan. All these kids, boys and girls, black, whites, Asians, and everybody else who could handle their weapon well enough, became family, spending countless hours training together, competing with each other, traveling around the country to fence in North American Cup competitions and national championships.
In one of his last competitions before college, my son competed with another fencer, who was black, in the finals of the High School Invitational held at Fencers Club. The other fencer was the better fencer (having won a national championship), but this was my son’s day, winning the championship 15-13.
The expectation was that the other fencer would win, and FC had a big silver trophy for the winner, and one to be kept at the club bearing the winner’s name. The plan was that their fencer (my son trained at another club) would have his name engraved on that big ol’ trophy, since typically medals were given out rather than trophies. To get a trophy was a big thing; these kids all had dozens of medals already.
After the final touch of the championship bout, the two competitors hugged each other. Then I hugged my son. Then I hugged the fencer he beat, who knew he was the better fencer but also knew that on any given day, any fencer could win. He was gracious enough not to begrudge my son his victory. My son, immediately after the final touch, said to him, “the best fencer didn’t win today.”
We were family, all of us. The fencer went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania.