President Bush is under fire from conservatives for not swinging at the first affirmative action fastball to come hurtling across the plate -- but he made the right decision to wait for a pitch he can hit out of the park.
The debate last week concerned whether Bush should have gone to bat for Adarand Constructors Inc., a Colorado company that had submitted the lowest bid for guardrail work in a national forest but had lost out to a Hispanic-owned company because of the program. He decided not to, reasoning correctly that the Supreme Court will come to grips with affirmative action only when it has an emotionally gripping case.
The right test case will star a person whose whole life, not just his pocketbook, has been affected by affirmative action's reverse discrimination. Ideally, the star will be a poor white man who worked hard to be the first in his family in college or law school, but was turned away because of his skin color.
Bush's patience shows that he has learned from the finest American speech of the 20th century -- one whose anniversary comes up next week. The speaker on Aug. 28, 1963, was Martin Luther King Jr., who hit a grand slam because he appealed to American hearts as well as minds by asking when we would assess individuals "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
That's a question I have a personal reason to ask. King looked yearningly to the time when "on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood." But at my home in the hill country of Texas, a descendant of slaves and the descendants of slaveowners literally sit down at a table of brotherhood. My three oldest sons are white, and my youngest, Ben, is black, adopted almost 11 years ago when he was 3 weeks old.
They get along fine, with the usual brotherly teasing. But how will my grandchildren and great-grandchildren get along? That depends, in part, on the decisions we make now concerning racial quotas, even when they go by some other name that smells much better. Sure, it would be nice to have more people whose skin looks like Ben's in responsible positions of all kinds. But Ben needs to work absolutely as hard as he can, and anything that makes him think there is an easier road will harm him.
Besides, my children have Jewish, English, Scottish and African ancestors. Do the English genes owe something to the Jewish genes because some of their great- grandparents faced discrimination when they arrived in 1910? Or should we figure out the benefits that newly immigrated sweatshop workers that year derived from oppressing blacks? The first word of many children is "da-da," but the first sentence is, "It's not fair." I do not want my family divided against itself by government-mandated racial preferences regarding jobs and scholarships. Nor do I want my country to be a house divided.
The good news, as Ben develops intellectually and morally, is the existence of a better way for racial advancement than official preferences. T.S. Eliot once said: "Do we want a wool sweater? We need to plant the grass to feed the sheep to get the wool to make a sweater." Liberals these days emphasize government-imposed turf so that lives can be changed million by million from the top down. But the slower, yet surer, way is to plant the right sort of grass now for children like Ben -- good schools, two-parent families, helpful churches, and synagogues and mosques.
Ben this week, entering the fifth grade, is having his first football practices in 100-degree Texas weather (with lots of water to drink). That's equal opportunity sweating, and that's what we should hold out for: red and yellow, black and white, all tired in the coach's sight, but persevering. And that's what President Bush believes in.