Who needs affirmative action?

Posted: Jan 22, 2003 12:00 AM
The pivot point in President Bush's statement last week opposing affirmative action in college admissions has gone, so far as I can tell, unremarked: not least because the president himself gave it little prominence. Another cause of our oblivion is the mainstream media's reaction to any assertion that racial quotas aren't all they are cracked up to be. Oh, yes, they are, too! industrious pundits and political personalities like to shoot back, by way of keeping their own civil rights credentials brightly burnished. In which task the civil rights industry affords them regular encouragement and exhortation. The president's point, though well-concealed, merits discussion: "(B)ecause we're committed to racial justice, we must make sure that American public schools offer a quality education to every child from every background, which is the central purpose of the education reforms I signed last year." Let's see: What the University of Michigan wants is to get more minorities into college. Fine. Wonderful. It wants to get them in, though, for purely racial considerations. Terrible. Awful. In ethics, the point is not that a good thing should get done but that it should get done in the right way. Racial discrimination, to which the Bush Justice Department properly objects in the two Michigan cases now before the court, is ethically the wrong way. The right way, then, would be ... ? Bush's brief statement points the direction. It is the direction of a general upgrading in American education -- consistent with the mission of the U.S. Supreme Court when, in Brown vs. Board of Education, it ruled "separate but equal" schools "inherently unequal." Affirmative action, wherever it comes to roost, sets up racial competition: them against us, group claim weighed against group claim. The University of Michigan cases deal with such a policy. In weighing applications for admission, the university claims the right to put its thumb on the scale in order to draw in more minorities, never mind the general presumption that the Constitution forbids racial preferences. (If it doesn't, what was the Brown decision all about?) One way or another, regardless of what the present Supreme Court does, we need to move racial discrimination off the educational playing field, where its principal achievement is the constant agitation of racial sentiments and anxieties. Over the dishwasher-like drone, no one can talk effectively. Racial discrimination -- in the Michigan sense -- might slide toward the background if the broad and general improvement of American education made it less necessary to place a heavy and greasy thumb on the admissions scales. In such a case, individuals could compete against individuals, rather than races against races. Whipping the schools into proper shape is obviously the major challenge. Nobody suggests, ironically enough, that schools are even as good as they were in 1954, when the Brown decision came down. As Martin Gross wrote several years ago in "The Conspiracy of Ignorance," "American public schools, from kindergarten through the senior year of high school, are miserably failing their students and the society ... (S)chool failure ... crosses all racial, religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines, affecting every area, from public housing in Chicago to elegant homes in our best suburbs." Every shred of evidence confirms this bleak viewpoint. And the Bush formula for resuscitation? Um, well ... we might go slowly on that one, given the presidential reliance on standardized tests and federal control of a system meant to respond to local needs. The really doleful loss during the past 50 years is in the high, or high-ish, educational standards on which parents and school officials alike used to insist. It should take no large grants of money to replace those intangibles -- just trans-racial will and commitment, and faith that individuals, properly trained, can stand on their own without undue support. And what's the supply outlook on that? You could say it depends in part on the future of those trans-racial agitations bred by affirmative action -- the policy now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Soon enough, we'll see.
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