Politics & Policy

General Injustice

Wesley Clark's discrimination preference.

Wesley Clark has written an execrable op-ed that appeared last Friday in the Detroit Free Press, titled, “Success of military diversity proves affirmative action works.”

It is no revelation that Clark favors racial and ethnic preferences. It has been part of his stump speech since declaring his candidacy for president, and is a big part of his appeal to key supporter Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.). Even before throwing his hat in the ring, Clark signed onto a well-publicized friend-of-the-court brief filed earlier this year with the Supreme Court, urging it to uphold the University of Michigan’s use of preferences.

General Clark in the op-ed says that the issue of affirmative action is one of the “most important” that led him “to find my political home in the Democratic Party,” since this is an issue “that Democrats both understand well and feel deeply.” Based on his op-ed and the recent record of the Democratic party on affirmative action, no one can deny that Clark has chosen the right home.

Still, you would think that, before advocating something as divisive and unfair as treating people differently because of their skin color or which country their ancestors came from, one would want to have a pretty definite reason for why one favored such discrimination. But that is not how General Clark thinks. He postures as a tough pragmatist, asserting that affirmative action “works”–but works to what end?

In his op-ed, Clark brags about his brief in the Michigan case, but fails to acknowledge that, unlike colleges, the military doesn’t stress a desire for “viewpoint diversity.” It does not claim that there is an African-American way to charge up a hill, or a Latino way to land on an aircraft carrier. Well, then, why does General Clark favor discrimination?

What Clark says explicitly and implicitly throughout his piece is that those who are serious about wanting to fight discrimination must favor preferences. It is true that the original meaning of affirmative action was taking positive, proactive steps–”affirmative action,” just what it sounds like–to get rid of discrimination. But that kind of affirmative action is no longer controversial.

The kind of affirmative action that Clark is defending now is itself discrimination. And it is simply implausible to argue that the only, let alone the best, way to fight racism today is through preferences. Indeed, the Supreme Court has rejected the amorphous rationale that Clark advances, and he should know it.

Generals are notorious for fighting the preceding war, and Clark apparently thinks America is still the Arkansas of his boyhood. The military brief, by the same token, relied heavily on Vietnam-era experiences, when Jim Crow was still being dismantled. It’s not at all clear that there would be significant disparities now without preferences. The Center for Equal Opportunity’s studies of Annapolis and West Point found admission preferences there, but much, much less than at the University of Michigan (for example, no statistically significant evidence of discrimination in favor of Latinos at West Point at all).

Clark says that affirmative action is “crucial” to “reestablishing a sense of justice within our Army.” Really? And treating some people better and others worse because of race is “just”? Choosing and promoting soldiers based on skin color will give us a better military–better guarantees that “our country is safer”–than making decisions simply on who are the best soldiers?

My own discussions with military personnel certainly suggest that Clark is a out of sync. I would be shocked if a majority in the military agreed with Clark’s amicus brief–and that includes the commander-in-chief, who filed a brief opposing Michigan’s policies. As the president’s lawyer, Theodore Olson, told the Supreme Court at oral argument this year, “[W]e do not accept the proposition that black soldiers will only fight for black officers….” It is simply not plausible that the selection of personnel on the basis of race will improve effectiveness and morale. It will jeopardize them.

Clark is also woefully misinformed about the Bush administration, calling into question his own competence and that of his staff. He says the president’s course on affirmative action has been charted by “right-wing advisers” and that his administration has “done everything possible to undermine diversity, not promote it.” I wish any of that were true, but in fact the Bush administration has done precious little to oppose racial and ethnic preferences. The one arguable exception is the fact that its amicus briefs did conclude that the University of Michigan weighed race and ethnicity too heavily, but even those briefs accepted the premise that we ought to be pursuing “diversity” by keeping our eye on the racial and ethnic bottom line.

One wonders as well about Clark’s political acumen. Listen to how he characterizes the overwhelming majority of Americans who are opposed to preferences: “Conservatives say they are opposed to affirmative action ‘on principle.’ [Why the scare quotes, general? Don’t believe in principle?] They invoke ‘quotas’ to scare people into thinking that they will lose their place at the table. [And, of course, that is exactly what happens if you don’t get the promotion because someone else, of the preferred skin color, does.]“

Clark exhorts us to “make room for everybody” so “there will be more room for everybody.” Fine, but why should that require some people to be given more, and others less, because of race? When that happens, we emphatically do not have an America “where each and every American is treated with the same dignity and respect.”

Perhaps General Clark is angling to be Al Sharpton’s running mate?

Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Virginia.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


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