Jan. 16 is a day that will make or break the Bush administration -- and the date has nothing to do with troop movements, weapons inspections or Iraq at all, for that matter. Instead, it marks the deadline by which the Justice Department must decide whether to file a brief in a landmark affirmative action case about admissions at the University of Michigan that will come before the Supreme Court in the spring. What the administration chooses to do -- either taking a stand opposing race-based admissions, or taking no stand -- will reveal more than just the outcome of a power struggle within White House circles. Facing a choice of near-epic design, George W. Bush must decide between setting off an electrifying jolt of principle by opposing affirmative action, or yielding to heavy political pressure by saying nothing combustible -- particularly now, presidential aides say, in the aftermath of the Trent Lott firestorm. Mr. Bush's decision will be nothing less than a monument to his presidency.
It can't not be. The dedication to fostering a color-blind society by eliminating race-based criteria from American law has become a core tenet of the Republican Party -- one that wholly distinguishes Republicans from Democrats, whose efforts to preserve and expand racial preferences mark them as obsessively color-conscious. It's not just that racial preferences are unfair because they "prefer" one race over another. The impact of race-based rules goes way beyond shuffling people according to skin color.
When the law turns race, not to mention color and creed, into key factors affecting one's place in life, the law is also dividing people by race, color and creed. Such divisions pit Americans against one another in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, all of which undermine, rather than promote, interracial relations.
It's inevitable: Legalized inequities eat away at human beings, breeding the resentments of favoritism and the self-doubts of patronization. Relegating a woman to the back of the bus because she is black is a dehumanizing act, an overtly humiliating affront once codified in the laws of the segregated South. Turning down a woman for admission to law school because she is white (the matter at the crux of the upcoming Supreme Court case) doesn't lead to the systematic public degradations sanctioned by Jim Crow, but it is a sanction based on a hauntingly similar legal rationale: racial inequality. Is this the best legal foundation from which to reach for the ideal of a mutually respectful, multi-racial America?
Conservatives think not. I hope the president agrees and finds the political courage to allow his administration to say so, loud and clear. And that goes double in the fiery jet-trails of Trent Lott's crashed-and-burned Senate leadership. Why? In Mr. Lott's attempt to neutralize the impact of last month's apparent homage to Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential bid, the former Senate Majority Leader decided to punt principle and play for politics. That is, instead of falling back on the tenets of color-blindness (which ended segregation long ago) to answer questions raised by his apparent gaffe, Mr. Lott decided, chameleon-like, to assume the intense color-consciousness of modern-day liberalism. Suddenly, Mr. Lott was declaring himself a supporter of affirmative action "across the board, " and apologizing for having voted against Martin Luther King Day -- as though there was no rationale besides racism for opposing either issue. It wasn't long before he was promising to shepherd a race-based agenda through the Senate.
Having not only failed to make the case for a color-blind society but having also abandoned the quest, Mr. Lott left behind a state of near-chaos in regard to the politics of race. The new Republican leader in the Senate, Bill Frist, is promising to "heal the wounds of division that have reopened" as a result. But healing (whatever that means) shouldn't require abandoning party principle and adopting a NAACP-approved agenda -- which is precisely what liberal activists, including Rev. Al Sharpton, a career race-baiter, plan to ask Republicans to do. Mr. Sharpton, who has never even apologized for promoting the hoax in which a band of white policemen was baselessly accused of raping a black girl named Tawana Brawley, put it this way: "In no way should anyone interpret the stepping aside of Senator Lott as the end of this matter."
He's right that far: It's not the end of this matter. And his demand that Republicans "clarify themselves" on civil rights issues is actually a good one. What better way to do so than to allow Attorney General John Ashcroft and Solicitor General Ted Olson
to unveil an eloquent brief arguing the fairness of a color-blind society?
Administration silence in such an important case is not golden; indeed, it would tarnish a sublime political ideal -- and sorely diminish the conservative agenda.