Affirmative Action Special Report
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From California, Here It Comes

By George F. Will
Wednesday, June 18 1997; Page A17

President Clinton's latest speech on race, delivered in San Diego, called for yet more "conversation" on the subject. It was valuable, if only as an illustration of the liberal mind at century's end.

There was something surreal in the setting, a university campus. Most campuses are awash with talk about things racial (and sexual, and other categories indispensable for the practice of identity politics, more about which anon). So Clinton's speech was, in a sense, an exercise in carrying coal to Newcastle.

As Clinton said, the armed forces have an exemplary record of racial integration. He did not have the indelicacy to note that America's institutions with the worst racial climates are colleges and universities. There racial conversations grind grimly on, driven by the idea that "consciousness-raising" in the name of racial "awareness" is "progressive."

Clinton offered the obligatory genuflection to diversity by which speakers on such occasions advertise their transcendence of Eurocentrism. He said his life has been "immeasurably enriched by . . . the beauty of the Koran." His speech also featured the mandatory flagellation section, in which he ranged morosely over America's historic injustices, extending from slavery, abuse of Native Americans, discrimination against immigrants, internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, church burnings and even "demeaning talk in corporate suites."

He reportedly is considering a national apology for slavery, but his litany of America's sins should give him pause. In American history as liberals read and write it, the sinned-against are so numerous that, once the apologizing begins, it will consume most evenings and weekends.

By defining "the problem of race" in 1950s terms, as one of "discrimination and prejudice," Clinton avoided language jarring to American sensibilities but accurate. The problem actually is one of race. That is what Glenn Loury, an African American scholar at Boston University, illuminates when he says that were the skin color of every African American in America's ghettos magically changed, that would not markedly change their life chances. Those chances are stunted primarily by deficits of intangible social capital, including skills, habits and mores.

In an interview after the speech, Clinton said that curtailing affirmative action will have a "devastating" effect on minority enrollment in graduate schools. But if that is so, what does that reveal about how affirmative action depends on debasing academic standards? In reaffirming in San Diego his support for affirmative action, he further vindicated opponents of it who argue that it inevitably stigmatizes the achievements of minorities. He said: "It has given us a whole generation of professionals in fields that used to be exclusive clubs." That blanket ascription of minority progress to minority preferences is condescending and false.

However, affirmative action is crucial to the new rationale for expansive government. That rationale has two strands.

One is identity politics: You are whatever your racial, ethnic or sexual identity is. Hence the doctrine of categorical representation: Real sympathy with, and proper representation of, members of a group are only possible by members of that group.

The second strand is the theory that social forces (such as "discrimination and prejudice") determine the destinies of helpless individuals. Therefore, because government frames society, government is responsible for all social outcomes, and must fine-tune them.

Better for America than more speeches like Clinton's, and more commissions and conversations about race, is J. Harvie Wilkinson III's new book "One Nation Indivisible: How Ethnic Separatism Threatens America." Wilkinson, chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, argues that affirmative action would be problematic in an America that was merely biracial, but it is toxic in a multiethnic society such as ours:

"The more one fine-tunes a multicultural affirmative action program, the more resentments one creates. It will always be possible to construct a plausible case for the inclusion of this or that particular ethnic group. But what of the whole of America? The theories of inclusion will always seem underinclusive to those left out. And the theories will always be based on slippery, treacherous generalizations about someone's ethnicity or race."

This week Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced a bill that would do for the nation what California voters did for their state government last year with the California Civil Rights Initiative. The bill would ban racial and sexual preferences by the federal government.

In January Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, asked whether he would support such legislation, said: "California seems to set the agenda and then everything moves east, so we'll see. Once it crosses the Mississippi River, I'll get real interested." It is on the Potomac.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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