Civil Rights Pandemonium

Posted: Jan 02, 2003 12:00 AM
It is a historical opportunity lost that Trent Lott didn't pause while going down in flames. He might have made a point worth thinking about, in his progressive apology on the matter of Strom Thurmond's campaign of 1948. What he might have said was that he acknowledged his faults, but thought it correct that his critics should examine their own thinking, specifically that every bill or petition or declaration that has the words "civil rights" in it is to be venerated as a reiteration of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Because that is where we are headed, and Lott didn't give reasonable analysts the chance to raise their hands, however falteringly, and say: To vote against a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. was not necessarily a vote against civil rights.

The fires are stoked, and dissenters are marked for public execution. Consider:

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which represents 180 traditional civil rights organizations, is urging President Bush to toss away a slate of judges he has endorsed for positions on the federal bench simply on the grounds that their records have shown "deep hostility to core civil rights principles." What exactly the Leadership Council has in mind is not at hand, but we know that the conference wants an amendment to the transportation bill that would forbid racial profiling in any state. The federal government is not supposed to dictate to individual states procedures by which they seek to discourage crime. The implied reasoning here is that because more minorities are targeted by racial profiling, therefore the objective of racial profiling is to diminish the civil rights of minorities.

As a philosophical exercise, that sequence is defective. If it were applicable by such reasoning, then of course states could not decide for themselves whether to decree capital punishment. If the manifest objective of racial profiling is to move by concentric advances toward the target, and if the incidence of drug-toters is, by observation, greater among Latinos than whites in Florida, then to detain Latinos is not racially invidious provided that the motive for their detention was free of bias.

But travel along that paralogism is at high speed. Ms. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democratic delegate who represents the District of Columbia, advises us that it should be a federal crime to attack someone because of his or her sexual orientation. It isn't clear what the racial point here is, since there isn't any evidence, for instance, that blacks are more heavily homosexual, or more heavily induced to batter homosexuals. But the words "civil rights" have a transfigurative effect -- and such legislation is enjoined on us.

Ms. Norton informs us that an extension of unemployment insurance is a matter of civil rights. How so? Because more minorities, per capita, are unemployed than others. So that the question becomes not is an extension of unemployment benefits a good idea; it becomes: Is it a good idea if more Latinos are relieved than Caucasians?

What Sen. Bill Frist needs to do is to declare publicly that a line must be drawn, that the Republican Party fervently endorses an application of civil rights laws and the defense of minorities, but that to sanctify any proposed measure purely by naming it as a civil rights measure is to abandon one's capacity to make distinctions. What is absolutely required is such a declaration from political men of manifest integrity, one that denounces any effort to proscribe speech on the grounds that it questions a program espoused by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Coming up quickly, of course, is the final showdown on affirmative action. The Supreme Court will rule in the matter of the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative-action program. The objective is to decide whether equal rights extend equally to applicants to law school who aren't members of racial minorities. One senses that the Republican leadership is holding back in arguing the case for genuine equal rights because of the avalanche triggered by Mr. Lott's indiscretion.

We will need to watch carefully how the Bush administration comports itself on the University of Michigan question. Will the Justice Department file an amicus brief defending the right course? Or has the Leadership Conference assumed veto power on the question?

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