President Bush’s decision to intervene in the Michigan affirmative-action case is a stunning victory for the principle of race neutrality. It is also, incidentally, a reminder of why it was so important for the Republican party to remove Trent Lott as Senate Majority Leader. Advocates of racial preferences insist that the Republican principle of race-neutrality is a mere ruse: that it’s white-skin privilege under a new name. And face it: if the GOP had begun the year by defending Trent Lott’s right to praise segregation as a way of avoiding “all these problems” – and had then tried to turn around and denounce the University of Michigan’s racial preferences as an offense against the principle of racial equality – well it wouldn’t have worked, would it?
Especially since Trent Lott would have had to oppose the president’s brave position. Even before Lott pledged on the BET network to support affirmative action “across the board,” the logic of his personal situation would have demanded that he take the university’s side, not the president’s – and loudly so. He was ruthless enough to do it too: just look at his willingness in that same interview to give his old friend, Judge Charles Pickering, the heave-ho.
President Bush, by contrast, has offered the country a racial politics that is simultaneously principled and defensible: he repudiated Lott, he renominated Pickering, and now he has ordered his administration to speak out against preferences. That last call was especially gutsy. He did not have to announce the administration’s intervention in the Michigan case himself. He could have disassociated himself personally, by leaving the announcement to (for example) Attorney General Ashcroft. Instead he not only delivered the news himself, but did so in a powerful speech that explained his racial politics: a politics that acknowledges that racism is a fact, that the damage done by 350 years of slavery and segregation has not been (and could not be) eradicated in the bare 35 years since the Civil Rights Act – but that we cannot achieve the racial fairness almost all Americans want by the unfair means that the University of Michigan used.
We hear it rumored that some in the administration opposed the president’s decision, on the grounds that it would not win him minority votes. They’re right: it won’t. Although polls pretty consistently show that a majority of African-Americans reject racial preferences as wrong in principle, we know that in practice, the vast majority fear that surrendering their preferences will shrink the opportunities open to them. Most of them will probably dislike the president’s stance.
But Bush was never going to win minority votes by virtue of his position on civil-rights laws. His winning strategy for minority voters was to offer them a civil-rights policy they could tolerate even if they disliked it – while seeking to win them on the issues of national security, education, faith-based social services, and reform of Social Security and Medicare. That strategy is now in place, and we have every reason to hope it will work. Lott plus Michigan equals a civil rights philosophy that black Americans can respect even if they do not share it – and a civil rights philosophy that black Americans can respect plus education and other policies that they do share equals a rising proportion of the minority vote.
And even if the position Bush took translates into not a single minority vote, it is still right – and that alone is all the justification that should be needed.
What’s Up With Texas?
Landing at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental airport last night, I noticed a very strange sight: over the baggage carousel, they had hung photographs of the entire local congressional delegation: two senators, half a dozen members of Congress, plus the mayor and a couple of city council members. I guess the pictures are meant as a blunt Texas style reminder to travelers: “Don’t forget who brings home the bacon.” But it’s still an odd thing to see in a state that normally prides itself on its free-market street cred.
I see that the new Harry Potter novel, just released, is going to be fully 33% longer than its already crushingly over-long predecessor. I understand that when you have 192 million books in print, no understrapper of an editor dares to say, “Um, Miss Rowling, do you think you might look for a few cuts?” But I do wish she would remember that some of us have to read this book aloud – and we hope to be able to finish it before our children reach puberty.