Colin Powell says it almost right

Posted: Aug 07, 2000 12:00 AM
Gen. Colin Powell is a formidable asset of the GOP and indeed the nation. That he is himself black is providential. If he were a Scandinavian, one likes to think that he'd have risen as fast as he has. But a dirty little doubt in the matter would probably nestle in the closet of suspicion. His gifts are manifest, indeed radiant, so much so that anyone inclined to cultivate suspicion that his ascendancy depended on white patronization is quickly reassured by mere exposure to his strengths.

Now these aren't always quite sufficient to keep him out of rhetorical difficulty. The New York Times wasted only three introductory paragraphs before showcasing Gen. Powell's reference to affirmative action. "We must understand the cynicism that exists in the black community. The kind of cynicism that is created when, for example, some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education. But hardly a whimper is heard from them over affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax codes with preferences for special interests."

That is a paralogism of the first order. (1) The case against affirmative action is the same as the case for equal treatment under the law. (2) The purpose of lobbies is to engage legislative or regulatory attention in behalf of an entity. That might be a corporation, or it might be a class, or it might be a minority. Lobbies are sometimes pleading for equal treatment, sometimes for special treatment. If yours is a sugar lobby pleading for higher tariffs, you are engaged in the traditional exercise of special pleading, and the pain is borne by the consumers, who pay more for sugar.

(3) Affirmative action, of the kind opposed by public officials from Sen. Hubert Humphrey to Ward Connerly, targets individual victims, the non-black, non-Hispanic, non-Asian turned down for reasons other than competitive disqualification. There should be as many voices raised up against sugar tariffs as against racial discrimination, but the two contests are at entirely different moral levels. In the 1850s, the Yankees argued in favor of high tariffs and against human slavery. They'd have been disappointed to hear themselves indicted for cynicism.

Gen. Powell, so clear in his vision on so many matters, gets swallowed up every now and again when the matter touches on race and discrimination. Thus he mourns that there are 2 million convicts and that "most of them are men and the majority of those men are minorities." That is a conceptual tongue-twister, the business of majorities being minorities. And Gen. Powell was less than satisfying in his failure to plumb the question: Why should this be so? Why are there more blacks and Hispanics in jail?

On the other hand he was telling the Republican Convention and the American people at large that a successful approach to the problem has been made in Texas, under Gov. George Bush. Bush "expanded the charter school movement. Seventeen thousand Texas kids are now in charter schools. Seventy-eight percent of those kids are minorities. Their parents had a choice, and they decided what was best for their kids. The results in Texas have been dramatic. The number of students passing all parts of the standardized tests since 1994 has increased by 51 percent. Even more exciting, the number of minority students passing the tests has increased by 89 percent."

Along that narrow road, avoiding the abyss of affirmative action on the one side, neglect on the other, Gov. Bush came out with a formula that Gen. Powell has embraced. "Governor Bush has guaranteed acceptance at public universities for the top 10 percent of every high school graduating class in the state." If the cynicism Gen. Powell so much deplores is to be avoided, the world needs to know that some schools in Texas don't become de facto conduits for noncompetitive minorities.

Powell was vigorous and forthright in endorsing the idea of vouchers for parents who find their children failing in local public schools. And the GOP platform calls out for assisting "states in closing the achievement gap and empower(ing) needy families to escape persistently failing schools by allowing federal dollars to follow their children to the school of their choice."

This theme, education -- hit head-on by General Powell and by Laura Bush -- is surely the key to public support at a time in American history when, to use Gen. Powell's language, "cynicism is created" by so many politicians loudly condemning the failure of our schools while enabling the teachers' unions to clog up the natural energies of intellectual curiosity to widen young horizons.