Last week the Washington Times tipped us; White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, responded with a “we’re-still-thinkin’-about-it” non-denial; Ward Connerly wrote a say-it-ain’t so letter to Karl Rove; the Associated Press reported that President Bush was leaning the other way; and the clocked ticked relentlessly toward the Thursday deadline. The deadline is for the Bush administration to file an amicus brief in the two University of Michigan “diversity” cases that the Supreme Court will consider this term.
As it happens, the northeast is in the midst of a cold spell. The sparrows and wrens are puffed up against the chill; the leaves of the rhododendrons are curled into the shape of green cigars. It’s skating weather on the ponds. The chill must have found its way into the Oval Office, where George Bush, too, is thinking about skating over the most-important ethical issue of his presidency. If the Washington Times is right, President Bush is ready to slide away from his responsibility to take a principled stand in favor of equal rights for all Americans.
Instead of submitting the brief prepared by his own Justice Department in support of the appeals filed by Jennifer Gratz and Barbara Grutter, who were denied admission to the University of Michigan because other students received racial preferences, President Bush appears prepared to skate around the pond of identity politics. That we are, at this late date, uncertain about the president’s intentions, speaks volumes. Why does he hesitate?
He and his advisers seem to think that supporting Gratz and Grutter could hurt the president and the Republican party in its efforts to appeal to “minority voters.” That probably doesn’t mean African Americans, some 90 percent of whom vote Democratic no matter what; nor is it a pitch for swing Lakota voters on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It is purely and simply a calculation of how Hispanics might respond if President Bush acts in favor of a colorblind Constitution.
In truth, no one knows how “Hispanics” would respond. The category of Hispanic is itself a nonsensical creation of the diversity industry. It is a label that lumps together people of widely disparate national origins, from Caribbean island to Andean states; languages, ethnicities; educations; prosperity; and political orientations. One has to assume that President Bush and his advisers of thinking of some crucial segment of that amorphous category — a segment whose party commitment is up for grabs and whose choice will be influenced by the party’s willingness to support a system of ethnic spoils in the distribution of public goods.
We have, in other words, a case in which electoral strategy appears to threaten — and perhaps is ready to triumph over — bedrock principle. The principle needs no further exposition. No politically sentient creature in Washington or around the country mistakes it. The Michigan cases are an opportunity to close a 25-year-old loophole in the law whereby the guarantee of legal equality, regardless of race, has been ignored by thousands of colleges and universities. Either Americans are in favor of racial equality or they are not. Those who support the Grutter and Gratz appeals favor equality. Those who support the University of Michigan’s pursuit of “diversity as a plus factor” favor inequality. Those who stand in the middle favor what? Expediency, I suppose.
But how expedient is the Bush administration’s supposed calculation in favor of skating away from the issue? Machiavelli, I think, would regard it as amateurish. A political party that woos an ethnic block with the implied promise that it will be exempted from the ordinary rules of competition makes a bad bargain. It sacrifices its ability to appeal to all people in terms of the genuine ideals of American society to win a loyalty of a few people based on exceptions to those ideals. Those whose loyalty is won this way exist as a group only because of their supposed neediness, which therefore becomes inexhaustible. The party that wins votes this way in one election is hostage to those votes in the next.
President Bush has a mixed record on these matters. As governor of Texas, he often stood up for the principle of supporting equal rights, but he also has been lured on occasion by the snake-oil nostrums such as “diversity” politics. His disappointing stand in August 2001 in favor of ethnic set-asides in government contracting in the Adarand case is one instance.
President Bush’s temptation in the Grutter and Gratz cases is a fateful one. He is on the brink of a decision that ultimately, even more than the war on terror, will define his presidency. If he flinches, he will go down in history as the equivalent of President James Buchanan, who dithered while the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision, or President Rutherford Hayes, who in 1877 purchased electoral favor in the south by ending Reconstruction and permitting the rise of Jim Crow. We are at the moment, at long last, when the nation is ready to put the machinery of racial classification away for once and all. Woe to us if the president of the United States fails to seize this moment. And woe to us, if he temporizes.
— Peter W. Wood is an associate professor of anthropology at Boston University and author of the upcoming Diversity: The Invention of a Concept.