Goin’ colorblind

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What we don’t need right now in this country is a divisive battle over affirmative action. But that is precisely what we have right now. The Bush administration’s intervention into the University of Michigan case has fanned the flames again.

Don’t get me wrong. The president has taken a principled stance. He may not replace Bill Clinton in the hearts of most African Americans, but he’s the one who placed Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in key positions in his cabinet. By all reports, he did the same for Hispanics as governor of Texas.

I believe that George W. Bush, unlike many of the whites who rail against quotas, is really interested in diversity. I have no doubt that he believes no one should get points at admission to a school merely because of race. Let’s all cheer for the principle of merit.

Now let’s be real: There is no such thing as a meritocracy in the United States.

When you examine the Michigan case more closely, you find not only do students get points for being black, they get points for being the sons and daughters of alumni, if they have athletic ability, and if they come from the upper peninsula of that state. Why is it that nobody gets upset about those preferences? Why is it that it’s OK to give geographic preferences? Why is it OK to give a kid points if his father or mother happened to attend the school?

The upper peninsula, as I understand it, is mostly white. You hear anyone complain about that? Giving preferences to the sons and daughters of alumni is a grand tradition at some prestigious schools; does it have anything to do with merit? Mr. Bush himself was the beneficiary of such a preference when he was admitted to Yale. If you believe this once-mediocre student is doing a good job as president of the United States, maybe affirmative action works!

It is also interesting to consider the reaction of both Powell and Rice to Bush’s intervention in the Michigan case. Powell disagrees with the administration. The Bush folks tried to head off this potential embarrassment by leaking to the media that Rice helped draft their position. And, although Rice has played the good soldier on the Sunday-morning talk shows, she is quick to point out that she is in favor of using race as a factor in the admissions process. Rice admitted that were it not for consideration of her race, she would never have made it to the faculty of Stanford University. This pretty much echoes Powell’s remarks that he would not be where he is today if it were not for affirmative action.

If two highly qualified Americans such as Powell and Rice needed race to open doors for them, then surely we are not living in a meritocracy. When some cry about when racial preferences are going to end, perhaps the answer should be when people such as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice don’t need a racial preference to be considered.

The president and his party practice affirmative action, even while they condemn the practice. At the Republican Convention here in this city that nominated Bush, strategists were careful to position blacks on the podium and on the stage in full range of the cameras. This wasn’t easy, as the GOP Convention is normally almost as white as an albino’s behind in a snowstorm.

As Peter Beinart of The New Republic recently pointed out, Bush appointed an African American as secretary of education who had never held federal or state office. His first and second choices for secretary of labor were both non-white women, and his Hispanic secretary of housing had no experience above the county level. Republicans are also foursquare for the Small Disadvantaged Business Program, which one can argue disadvantages white-owned businesses.

During the recent space shuttle tragedy, much was made in a positive way of the diverse group of astronauts on board. Did it just happen that two of the seven astronauts were women, and one a non-white immigrant? Of course not. No one is complaining about the million examples of diversity in America today that did not just happen. And no one should get too upset about diversity being a goal of the admission procedures, so long as the standards for graduation are not artificially lowered.

Opponents argue that all too many minority kids drop out of college because they aren’t capable of doing the work. But that seems to be looking at this thing from the wrong end of the telescope. Many minorities do graduate because they took advantage of the opportunity.

You want to make this society colorblind, I’m with you, but please don’t blame Michigan for operating in the real world.