As conservatives and Republicans, many of us called on Majority Leader-elect Trent Lott to step down from his position of leadership last year. This was a stand of principle, a principle that runs deep through our founding and existence. The Republican party was founded on the idea that slavery was a “relic of barbarism.” Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, condemned slavery as a moral evil for taking blacks “out of the catalogue of man.” It was the Republican-appointed John Marshall Harlan who dissented in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case with the ringing words, “Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”
The first time federal troops were sent into the south to integrate schools was when they were sent by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Little Rock. During the tumultuous 1964 legislative battle for a landmark Civil Rights Act, the Republicans gave President Lyndon Johnson his majority when a greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats in the House and Senate voted for the Act; the staunchest of opponents included Democratic stalwarts like Robert Byrd, Al Gore Sr., and Sam Ervin. And this southern Democratic opposition was hardly the principled libertarian opposition such Republicans as Barry Goldwater staked out; theirs was based on something far less noble.
Contrary to the opinion of many on the left and in the Democratic party, it was no departure from conservative principle or Republican policy to clean house and seek Senator Lott’s stepping down from the leadership of both his party and the U.S. Senate. Critics, however, sought to exploit this as a wounded party’s moment of weakness.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Calling on Lott to step down was a principled stand that demonstrated strength and leadership. We should not now be cowed by those who challenge Senator Frist and the GOP majority to embrace a race-based agenda that would turn back the clock on civil rights, an agenda that would judge people by the color of their skin.
Republicans should avoid the politics of racialism. We seek, like Justice Harlan and Reverend King, a society that is colorblind in law and practice. Our agenda should transcend discrimination and racialism, once and for all. In the coming year, Republicans should pursue a strategy of racial reconciliation built around three objectives: ending the double standard of racial preferences in higher-education admissions, expanding on the success of welfare reform, and extending school choice to children trapped in failing schools.
Action Item 1: President Bush and as many members of the House and Senate as possible should file an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of the plaintiffs in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. These two cases challenge the University of Michigan’s use of race as a factor in admitting students to the law school and to the undergraduate school. In the case of the law school, the school has admitted that it seeks a “critical mass” of minority applicants; its admissions policies have resulted in an odd disparity whereby the odds of a black applicant being admitted to the law school are 234 times the odds of a white applicant. The case of the undergraduate system is even more egregious, where minority applicants are actually given points on a comprehensive scale for being of the “right” skin color.
Such policies violate every principle of equality we have worked for from Harlan’s famous dissent to King’s march on Washington. By maintaining separate systems of admission — dependant on skin color — we are turning a moral policy of color-blindness and equality into a perverse system of numerical equality, converting the theme of racial unconsciousness into a policy of racial consciousness. If we as a nation truly want to get beyond the idea that skin color is less important than merit and character we need simply to end race-based policies against everyone; admissions and jobs should not be set aside for whites, nor should they be set aside for blacks — they should be reserved for humans, that is the catalogue we are all in.
Action Item 2: The Congress should take up as its first legislative action the reauthorization of welfare reform. The 1996 welfare reform had a tremendously salutary effect on “the least among us,” as well as those caught in what many had deemed was a cycle of permanent poverty. Since the overhaul of the welfare system — which Republicans pushed over the opposition of many Democrats and two vetoes by President Bill Clinton — 1.2 million black children have been lifted out of poverty.
As a result of the 1996 reform, black child poverty is at its lowest level in American history. Between 1971 and 1995, black child poverty persisted at about 40 percent. After 1996, black child poverty dropped by one quarter. The reauthorization of welfare reform should strive to restore a culture of marriage and family formation, which the President’s reauthorization proposal would do through funding for marriage education. Few things would go farther towards re-enfranchising poverty-stricken black children than their being raised in intact families.
We know that eight out of ten children living in poverty live with a single parent; women who have children out of wedlock are ten times more likely to be on welfare than are married women; and a black child living with a single mother is 4.5 times more likely to live in poverty than a black child with married parents. We must stop the erosion of the family that threatens the future of black children in America.
Action Item 3: Finally, this Congress should immediately enact education reform in the nation’s capital. The civil-rights movement was dedicated to achieving equal treatment under the law for all Americans, and there may be no greater civil right today than that of educational freedom. Today, the promise of equal opportunity to pursue one’s own destiny through education can be better achieved by the freedom of choice rather than the current monopoly of prescription. A good education, after all, is often a poor child’s only shot at the American dream. The bigotry of low expectations, along with the blasé attitude of low achievement, will only ensure more social failure and economic poverty. And we should start, at the federal level, where we can, with the D.C. school system.
In places like Washington, D.C., where blacks are still presented with unequal options — or no options at all — many of us have advocated aggressive solutions. Rather than doing the same old thing, throwing more money into a broken system that ill-serves students, we have advocated parental choice in education so that children can attend safe and effective schools of their families’ choosing. We should begin in the nation’s capital, and then proceed to make such options available to all parents in America.
The state of public schools in our nation’s capital, where black students comprise 85 percent of the public-school population, is especially abysmal. In spite of per-pupil spending at close to $11,000, the dropout rate is about 40 percent, and, according to one recent study, it costs the District of Columbia school system $181,851 to produce a high school graduate — more than any of the 50 states. In 2001, private-school students in D.C. averaged 1200 on their SATs while their public school counterparts averaged a score of 798, more than 200 points below the national average. It is time students in the nation’s capital start to set the trend rather than lag behind it.
In sum, we in the Republican party and in the conservative movement can be proud of our civil-rights record, and not just civil-rights platitudes and palaver. We have an agenda that will improve the lives of all Americans, especially minorities. Some of them are enmeshed in a system that encourages the belief and stigma of questionable competence, some of them are born without the economic stability of a family, some of them are trapped in failing schools that block their path to opportunity.
In all cases, we see a better future and can pave the way to a new day in civil rights; a day that was once only a dream but that can now, truly, become a reality. It may put many in the modern civil-rights community out of business, but their professional scorecards and rhetoric have long since obscured what their origins were all about: equality under law, equality in each others’ eyes, and equality of opportunity. We must recommit to realizing these goals, transcending the politics of racialism that perpetuates color-consciousness, and acting in the interest of truly improving actual lives.
— William J. Bennett served President Ronald Reagan as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and secretary of education, and President George H. W. Bush as drug czar. Secretary Bennett sent this out as a memorandum to Republican leaders on Friday.