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Affirmative Action: We Know Better

By William Raspberry
Friday, November 7, 1997; Page A25

opinion
I hear the arguments over affirmative action – highlighted this week by the Supreme Court's refusal to review California's Proposition 209 and by the Senate Judiciary Committee's dogfight over Bill Lann Lee's nomination for the top civil rights job in the Justice Department – and I think: They know better.

No. We know better. But listen to us. One side pretends to believe that racial discrimination, no matter how rampant and flagrant it used to be, is now ended. Oh, maybe there's a bigot or two in the woodpile, but discrimination as a matter for governmental concern is a thing of the past.

The other side pretends to believe that only racists who oppose minority progress could be against affirmative action. Discrimination a thing of the past indeed! A black man in America still hasn't got a chance.

Each side knows (but feels no urge to acknowledge) that there is at least some justice to the other's position. The blatant segregation and discrimination are largely over. Law now forbids such racism, and – I really do believe – public opinion won't countenance it.

But racial fairness (in some instances, in some arenas) still eludes us. Corporate management and directorships, legal and accountancy partnerships, and even concern for the plight of our children clearly are not distributed on the sole basis of deservedness. Race matters.

The truth is complicated and inconsistent and hard to figure out. Instead of undertaking the effort to figure it out, we draw the lines as starkly as we can and force the public to choose one incomplete reality (ours, we hope) and reject the other side's partial truth.

It happens not just in our race relations but throughout our politics. It even happens in our courts, as when the clever Barry Scheck deliberately cut out any middle-gray consideration in the trial of Louise Woodward, the British au pair. Force the jury to choose between the cold-blooded murder of an innocent child and innocence (or at least reasonable doubt), he thought, and surely there won't be a conviction.

His now-famous miscalculation (he was in court this week trying to reinstate the grays) might serve as a lesson to us all.

And it might show us the wisdom of changing the terms of the debate. Much of what I'm saying, I admit, is based on my belief that most Americans want to be fair and want our important institutions to reflect that fairness.

I don't believe there are significant, politically influential segments of the society that are happy over the fact that African American admissions at Boalt Hall, the University of California-Berkeley's law school, are down 80 percent as a direct result of Proposition 209's ban on racial preference, or that the first-year class has but a single black member. I don't believe there are large pockets of secret jubilation that a similar trend is in evidence at the University of Texas.

On the other hand, though, I doubt that many affirmative action supporters – including the beleaguered Bill Lee – want to parcel out society's goodies on the basis of racial entitlement. Many of us may defend, but few of us are thrilled by, voting districts drawn purely on the basis of race.

We want (is this hopelessly naive?) the same thing: a society in which gifts and grit and character matter more than pigmentation.

So what are we fighting about? Mainly, I think, about how to produce such a society. Some of us believe that the best way to achieve a colorblind future is to practice colorblindness now. And some of us believe that colorblindness after centuries of racism will merely lock in white advantage – that we need to level the playing field before insisting on a single set of rules.

I remember when black quarterbacks were a rarity in the National Football League – when the most talented collegiate passers were, if they were black, switched to defensive back or running back or some such. Then a couple of coaches broke the mold – affirmative action? – and then a couple more.

Do the six starting quarterbacks (out of 30 NFL teams) constitute parity? Wrong question. What is true is that there is, at last, reason for young black athletes to believe they can go as far, at any position, as their talent takes them. As Gene Washington, a black front office executive with the league, told a reporter:

"What's most interesting to me is that I don't notice it. That's a good sign."

That's a very good sign.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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