TCS Daily

A Courageous Move

By James Pinkerton - January 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Just because Bush is getting slapped around by the liberal civil rights establishment, that doesn't mean that he's getting much accomplished for the cause of color-blind equality. At least not yet. If it seems as if he is getting nowhere fast, that's because it's a long road ahead. But if 43 keeps at it, and if his natural allies stick with him, he might yet return American racial politics to a healthier and more robust condition. Which is to say, America itself would be better off.

The last Republican that Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the NAACP liked was Abraham Lincoln. So it was no surprise that even after Bush helped demolish Trent Lott's position as Republican leader of the Senate, the Reverends & Co., as well as their allies in the Democratic Party and the press, chose keep up the attack.

In the wake of Bush's decision to resubmit Charles Pickering's name for a place on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Washington Post led its editorial page with a snarler entitled, "Mr. Bush the Wedge Driver." And when the administration filed a legal brief to overturn the University of Michigan's system of racial categorizations for admissions, calling it an "impermissible quota system" that was "unconstitutional," the New York Times snapped that Bush had "sacrificed truth for political gain."

If it seems there's something formulaic about these attacks, that's because they are, in fact, formulaic. As Teddy Kennedy said on January 17, "Civil rights has always been the great unfinished business of America." Who doubts that Kennedy has been saying something like that in each of his 40 years in the Senate? And who doubts he'd say it for the next 40 years, if he could?

But if ever a program deserves to be kiboshed, it's the Michigan program. As Bush himself noted, prospective students who get perfect SAT scores accrue 12 points toward admission, while students who are perfectly black, or Hispanic, get 20 points. By contrast, students who are perfectly Asian or Arab, get nothing for their non-white skin collar. Nor, of course, do whites themselves. Just for raising the salience of this program, forcing it into plain sight, Bush deserves considerable credit. Jackson and Kennedy may be impervious to either reason or the wrath of the voters, but others might think twice about such an obviously racialist mechanism.

A fresher and more interesting challenge to Bush's policy has come from the right. Steve Sailer, columnist for UPI, wrote recently that Bush was trying to mollify his conservative base-"get the headline: 'Bush Attacks Quotas'"-while at the same time seeking to "appease the powerful Diversity Industry on the substance." Certainly that's been the pattern over the past few decades; Republican presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 41 all denounced quotas and quotificatory policies-from school busing to race norming to affirmative action-even as they looked the other way when those exact same policies sedimented into place. As Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, said in a rare moment of candor, "Watch what we do, not what we say."

To be sure, what Bush sought to take away, legally, he sought to give back, rhetorically. Even as he denounced "unconstitutional quotas," he defended the statistical measure of "diversity." Here's the President on January 15: "America is a diverse country, racially, economically, and ethnically. And our institutions should reflect our diversity." And so, he continued, "We should not be satisfied with current numbers of minorities on America's college campuses." Which means, he seemed to be saying, come up with another method for achieving the "right" ratios of skin color on campuses. But whatever you do, don't call it a quota.

In fact, Bush touted one such method: the program, used in Texas, Florida-governed by his brother Jeb-and California, in which a certain small percentage of the top graduates from each high school in the state are guaranteed admission at top state schools. The justification for such programs, Bush said, was that they generated the same sort of numbers as quota programs: "In these states, race-neutral admissions policies have resulted in levels of minority attendance for incoming students that are close to, and in some instances slightly surpass, those under the old race-based approach." In other words, Bush is saying, achieve the ends of a quota without the means of a quota.

Typically, schools, if they are deprived of the ease of using simple number-crunching, nonetheless rely on "other factors" to guide admissions. Those factors, of course, can be just about anything, including, to put it bluntly, a plan for restoring the status quo ante. Often, in the words of libertarian-leaning Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman, "The new approach bears a striking resemblance to the old one."

So is Bush just playing a name-change game-a shell game?

One might be tempted to say "yes," to agree with Sailer and Chapman, were it not for the strong reaction from within Bush's official family. On Friday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice issued a brief statement in which she said she agreed with Bush, even as she disagreed with him: "I agree with the president's position, which emphasizes the need for diversity." Yet, she continued, "It is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body." Such a statement on a domestic policy issue is almost unheard of for a foreign policy adviser, but it would be nice if Rice would stay in the domestic arena long enough to explain her definition of "diversity." Would she make race as big a factor as Michigan does? For that matter, does she define "diversity" the same way as Jackson and Kennedy?

On Sunday, Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin urged Secretary of State Colin Powell, a past defender of affirmative action, to resign over Bush's new policy tack. To do so would be "assisting his own soul," the columnist counseled. Probably by coincidence, later that same day, Powell weighed in alongside Rice. Calling himself a "strong proponent" of affirmative action, he told CNN, "I wish it was possible for everything to be race-neutral in this country, but I'm afraid that we're not yet at that point where things are race-neutral." As with Rice, one wishes to ask Powell a question or two: Which races will be covered? Blacks but not Asians? And just how long do we have to stay race-conscious before we become "race-neutral"?

Bush's filing with the Supreme Court is not going to end the diversity mentality; he obviously hasn't ended it in his own administration. And no doubt now he will be avalanched by a thousand hostile "diversithink" law-review articles. Critics will note, for example, that the sort of high-school-by-high-school high-achiever approach for college admissions has not, in most cases, kept "diversity" at the earlier levels achieved by quotas. At the University of Texas, Hispanics accounted for 16.1 percent of admissions in 1993; a decade later, that percentage stood at 14.3 percent. Moreover, the high school plan that Bush likes so much does nothing for admissions to graduate schools.

Right now, the Diversitarians are adamant: a good society is a color-conscious society, and a great society is a society in which every color-at least every politically correct color-is properly represented in every school, workplace, or neighborhood. No single president can possibly undo two generations' worth of mandated multiculturalism; such thinking is so bound into the worldview of academicians, law professors and bureaucrats that it might take until those folks pass from this world for it to go away.

But the basic diversity idea will have to pass away, too; if it doesn't, America will pass away. That's the argument made by Steve Sailer. The current system is a "doomsday machine," he writes, because permanent racial categories and privileges, combined with continued high levels of immigration, will boost the percentage of people who fall into "protected categories" above 100 percent. At that point, the whole system collapses-although, Sailer notes, history suggests that the country collapses, too.

Bush didn't get into all of that, of course. All 43 said was that the single most obvious, and odious, approach to ethnic spoilsmanship-grossly unfair racial quotas-ought to be eliminated. In doing so, in forcing fair-minded Americans to wake up and sniff the smelly orthodoxies of the quotacrats, Bush has performed a service. If he sticks to his position, seeking to eliminate measurement by skin color, he will have helped to delegitimize capital "d" diversity, replacing it with a different kind of diversity-the kind that comes from freedom.

If Bush, bolstered by allies, can stay on this anti-quota path, he will confront the thorns and thickets of a well-funded opposition-well-funded, much of it, by Uncle Sam himself. He can expect only to make small steps, especially now. But he will have made a step in the right direction.

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