Affirmative action, so long distorted by its critics, makes an easy political target. Thus it was not unexpected, but it was still disappointing, that our allegedly "compassionate conservative" president would pile on.
In so doing, George W. Bush has embraced the code language that denigrates as "reverse racism" any sincere program to bring more black and brown people into the halls of higher education. As if purposely insulting the civil rights movement, the White House chose the day Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 74 to announce that the president would intervene in an affirmative action case now before the Supreme Court.
However, beyond this sad irony, the extraordinary move was emblematic of the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude our nation has continually and conveniently shown in all matters regarding race.
Bush complains that the University of Michigan's mild attempts at affirmative action are "divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution." An interesting claim. Would that be the same Constitution that originally condoned legal slavery and voting rights only for landed men? The same Constitution that was interpreted by the "impartial courts" for almost a century after the Civil War as countenancing segregation?
The U.S. Constitution is perhaps the most enlightened basis for a nation's construction the world has seen. Yet it is a living document, and one that can be torqued around according to the biases of its interpreters. This flexibility has most recently been highlighted by the willingness of the courts, post-9/11, to allow a sudden, sharp reduction in our collective civil liberties.
And, of course, the president is well aware that a conservative majority currently dominates what is arguably the most politicized Supreme Court in a century. This allows him to hide behind the Constitution, rather than articulate the supposed demerits of affirmative action, because he knows where Justice Antonin Scalia and friends stand on attempts to ameliorate or rectify a legacy of state-supported racism. For the Supremes to rule affirmative action unconstitutional would be as politically motivated a ruling as were the court's decisions that allowed Jim Crow to dehumanize African-Americans before an epic social movement forced its hand.
Really, folks, crying "reverse racism" at the drop of a hat is ludicrous. And who better than Bush to understand that white people, especially wealthy white people, have huge social, financial and educational advantages. This is the man who was allowed to consistently underutilize the best educational institutions the nation has to offer because of his race, money and connections to power.
Even with all the tutoring he received, for example, Bush's mediocre grades at Andover and his SAT scores would not have qualified him for Yale were it not for the historical affirmative action policy for whites known as "legacy admissions," whereby the scions of alumni are let into the most prestigious Ivy League colleges through the back door.
To their credit, most private colleges have come to recognize the educational, societal and marketing value of hosting a diverse and representative student body, and they have used affirmative action as a modest tool in striving to achieve that goal. Meanwhile, the efforts of public universities to open up to all segments of society have been severely hobbled by legal challenges supported by radical conservatives.
This is particularly offensive when we remember that the government's establishment and support of higher-learning institutions were explicitly intended to grant real opportunities to the "great unwashed," whether they were from isolated farming hamlets or sprawling urban ghettos.
The quest for diversity was not only morally satisfying but practical, encouraging a meritocracy designed to link all communities with an emerging middle class to create a more stable society and productive economy.
Our tax dollars support universities not to provide a subsidized education for the well-heeled, as is now often the case, but to offer a leg up and a chance to contribute to those with limited means who have worked hard. And with good blue-collar jobs now almost as scarce as black Republicans, a college education is no longer simply one route to success; it's a prerequisite.
Undergraduate education, in particular, has become a mass finishing school, giving young people the networking, social and linguistic skills necessary for access to jobs that pay a living wage. Affirmative action merely attempts, in a limited way, to assure that this process includes minorities.
Which is why both Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell are on the record as supporting affirmative action.
When the number of African-American men in prison rivals the number attending college, how dare the president make it more difficult to confront this national tragedy three centuries in the making?