"Anyscoundrel can get excited when making a baby," Jesse Jackson observed the other day. "The difficulty is to take care of the baby you make."
This wasn't Jackson's sermon on parental responsibility, which he often delivers to good effect; it was an attempt to connect -- of all things -- the war in the Gulf and the vetoed Civil Rights Act of 1990.
"It's easy to have hysteria and fervor, to have someone die for you in a noble cause," he told me, picking up his analogy. "But then to suggest that you will veto the civil rights bill again, as Bush has done, is like loving the troops while they are troops and forgetting them afterwards."
The Rev. Jackson shouldn't be surprised if his little sermon elicits "amens" only from the choir. The heathen -- in this context, those who oppose the soon-to-be-reintroduced civil rights proposal -- won't even understand the analogy.
Let me see if I can help. Black Americans make up about a quarter of those who are doing the fighting in the Gulf -- roughly twice the proportion of blacks in the general population. If the early days of Vietnam are any guide, blacks may constitute an even larger share of those who will be doing the dying in the expected ground-war phase of the action.
The people who take such risks on behalf of the nation deserve to be compensated. The troops are disproportionately black. The civil rights bill is the preeminent legislative objective of the black leadership. Therefore, enactment of the civil rights bill would be fitting compensation for the survivors of the war.
It's hard to know whether what we have here is an inability to make decent analogies or, more troubling, another attempt to play the bait-and-switch game: the huckster's tactic of showing 'em one thing in order to sell 'em another.
I'd better explain that, too. I'm talking about the people who point to the plight of the black underclass as the basis for affirmative-action programs that largely benefit well-off blacks. For instance, I'd be hard-pressed to make the case that my children -- certifiably black -- are deserving of "special admissions" consideration when they apply to college. Their enculturation, their access to resources -- all the things we reckon as advantages -- would make them unconvincing as objects of special help.
But if instead of talking about their resources, I can get you to focus on their skin, a different syllogism suggests itself. Black children are disadvantaged relative to whites; and because their disadvantage grows out of America's racist history, they are deserving of special catch-up treatment. My children are black. Therefore, they are deserving of special help.
The practical effect of this bait-and-switch scheme is that my children no longer need to compete with their white peers but only with disadvantaged children who look like them.
If service in the Gulf is what makes black GIs deserving of special breaks on their return, then white veterans of the Gulf are equally deserving of special breaks. Legislation calculated to give blacks special breaks over whites would give black GIs special breaks over equally deserving white GIs. Where's the fairness in that?
As it happens, I favor both the civil rights bill and the idea that our troops in the Gulf deserve a break. It's the connection between them that eludes me.
As for the former, I'll say only that it's not a "quota bill" and that President Bush knows it's not. As for the latter, you can take your choice of sensible proposals: guarantees that reservists and members of the National Guard, whose call to duty has forced them to give up their civilian salaries, won't lose their homes and cars; increases in "imminent danger" pay for those serving in the Gulf; low-interest loans, better life insurance and increased educational benefits.
But eligibility for those benefits would require only proof that you served in the Gulf. If blacks are serving disproportionately there, they will get a disproportionate share of the benefits, and no one will complain. Their blackness, no matter the efforts of Jackson and others to establish linkage, is irrelevant.
And it ought to be irrelevant in other special-assistance programs as well. Base the benefits on color alone, and fairness goes out the window. Base them on objective circumstances -- poverty, geographic isolation, family resources -- and you disarm the opposition, even if blacks remain the disproportionate beneficiaries.