Restoring Equality
So much for the long march of civil rights.


William J. Bennett

In a recent debate with Lee Bollinger, current president of Columbia University and the named defendant in the University of Michigan race cases just decided by the Supreme Court, Matt Lauer asked Mr. Bollinger: “Can you have diversity at our universities and schools without taking race into account?” Mr. Bollinger responded: “You really can’t.”

So much for the long march of civil rights that began by declaring all men were created equal; Abraham Lincoln’s belief that we could treat all humans equally because they are all part of “the whole great family of man;” Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson saying “The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color….;” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that his children would one day “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Color of skin, for Mr. Bollinger and those who supported the Michigan’s race-based admissions policies, is to be taken into account — now and, presumably, for the foreseeable future. This position demarks civil wrongs, not civil rights — and this week’s Supreme Court rulings give us little hope that the next generation of Americans struggling through our commitments to equality and liberty will be able to see people as people and not people as categories defined by their race.

The lead plaintiff in the University of Michigan cases, Jennifer Gratz, was denied admission to the university despite a very admirable case for admission: She graduated near the top of her class, maintained a 3.8 G.P.A., and volunteered in her community. But there was one critical fact damning her case for admission: She had the wrong color of skin. That last sentence would have raised hackles if it were written about a minority student in the 1950s or 1960s — today it is met with a shrug of the shoulders because Ms. Gratz is white. What happened to the notion so many of us fought for for so long — that race should be simply irrelevant in law, that we should strive toward a society that does not convey rights or benefits based on the color of one’s skin? It fell toward the wayside.

To see Ms. Gratz’s case — and so many others like hers — as simply coincidental is to ignore the race-based policies used at the University of Michigan. Michigan’s policy actually rewarded admissions points to applicants who were black and Hispanic. On a scale of 150, race counted for 20 points — more than personal achievement and SAT scores combined. In fact, a black student was 174 times more likely to be admitted to the Ann Arbor campus than a white student: That is disparate impact. But far worse, it is taking race into account to convey a right or privilege as well as to deny a right or privilege, and the word for that is, plainly and simply: racism. The Supreme Court struck down the mechanized use of a point system this week, but went on to say that a more “narrowly tailored” plan (read: less obvious use of race), for purposes of a diverse student body, would pass constitutional muster.

Let us keep in mind two things: 1) No historical discrimination against blacks or Hispanics had ever been alleged at the University of Michigan; and 2) “Diversity” is itself a laudable goal if we are talking about intellectual diversity — the diversity of minds, opinions, and intellectual approaches to contemporary and historical problems. Those are goals universities should be committed to. But today’s campuses are some of the most uniformed redoubts of intellectual thinking in America, and it is no accident that not only are our student bodies and professoriate of overwhelmingly singular mind on matters of policy and intellectual approach, but that so many attempts toward integration by claims of “diversity” have led to racial self segregation in the forms of racial study centers, racial dormitories, and racial graduation ceremonies.

Racial diversity for the sake of racial diversity reifies the concept that the crudest characteristic of a human being (his race) will determine the subtlest characteristic of a human being (his thinking and intellectual ability). The notion that race determines thinking was a notion that should have been buried in a Berlin bunker 58 years ago. It should not find renewed succor in today’s Supreme Court or America’s institutions of higher learning. The tough job of admissions counselors should be, in fact, tough: they should work hard to examine and scrutinize applicants and applications, and not simply assume a racial stereotype which will, indeed, lead to more racial consciousness, not less.

On Martin Luther King Jr. day this year, President Bush announced his decision to file a brief on behalf of Jennifer Gratz saying, “Our Constitution makes it clear that people of all races must be treated equally under the law.” While this statement is commonsensical on its face, President Bush’s decision flew in the face of the organized elite — and their many legal briefs — who kowtow to the idea that race must be used to get beyond racism. That is the easy, short-term, and unconstitutional way to address problems of race in this country. Thus, it took courage on the president’s behalf to oppose convention — to oppose political correctness with moral right.

While the decisions announced this week will renew the debate about race and racism in this country, we should remember one thing, and it was taught to us by Thurgood Marshall in his historic brief in Brown v. Board of Education: “Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and invidious that a state, bound to defend the equal protection of the laws must not invoke them in any public sphere.” Marshall was right in 1954, and so was President Bush on Martin Luther King Day. Race should play no factor in educational opportunity or any other right or privilege in 21st-century America. If the Supreme Court will not acknowledge this, who will?

William J. Bennett is a former U.S. Secretary of Education, a co-Director of Empower America, and the co-author of Counting By Race, among other books. The following is an updated version of a piece that originally ran in the Ann Arbor News.