Politics & Policy

Got Mlk?

No holiday from race-card journalism.

Observations on various news stories connected with this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day:

1. In many stories and columns, supporters of racial preferences took to task their opponents for quoting the famous line in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, about how he hoped one day his children would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King would have supported racial preferences, say the proponents of affirmative action.

I’ve never seen persuasive evidence of this, but even if that’s true, so what? It’s as if bigots were to claim that black people were barred from quoting the Declaration of Independence, because when Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” he had slaves. The answer in both cases is that the principle so eloquently stated has a transcendent truth greater than any narrow historical context.

2. The Washington Post ran a story on MLK Day about local criticism of a statue of King erected in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The basic problem seems to be that the statue is thought by many to be an imperfect likeness of King–as if this is not a problem with many statues and portraits.

But, of course, race has to rear its ugly head, and the critics claim that if the sculptor, who was white, had been black then the results would have been better. “This thing looks like a black slave,” said one unhappy member of a committee reviewing the statue, which shows King “in a suit and tie, with his arms folded across his chest,” which I guess is a typical slave pose. Of course, the people of nearby Charlotte don’t like their King statue either, but it was inconveniently sculpted by a black woman.

3. Back to affirmative action, the New York Times had an article over the holiday weekend entitled “Blacks and Latinos Try to Find Balance in Touchy New Math.” Early on, it quotes one visitor to a Black Entertainment Television webpage as complaining, with admirable candor, that “Blacks are beginning to experience another wave of racial bias and favoritism not in our favor.” But of course such friction is inevitable in a system where winners and losers are picked on the basis of–dare I say it?–the color of their skin rather than, etc.

A few weeks ago, by the way, the Washington Post ran a half-page ad for its 2004 Urban Journalism Workshop with a big headline: “Attention Minority High School Students.” The text of the ad stated, “The program is not limited to minority students, but special emphasis is placed on participation by African-American students.” So, I asked the contact people, does this mean that applicants are ranked with blacks at the top, followed by other “minorities” (Latinos, Asians, American Indians, perhaps Arabs), and then whites? Couldn’t get a straight answer.

4. Bush’s recess appointment of Charles Pickering to the U.S. Court of Appeals to the Fifth Circuit was criticized over the weekend by the usual suspects, of course, but Wesley Clark creatively tied it in with the MLK Day, according to the Post, “assailing [President Bush] for visiting King’s grave last week, then having the ‘audacity’” to appoint Pickering, whom he called “anti-civil rights, anti-voting rights, anti-justice.” What Pickering is anti, of course, are specious lawsuits, racial gerrymandering, and unjust sentencing (on the latter, see Byron York’s NRO piece). But for his critics, that’s not only close enough, it’s the same thing.

5. Last and least, the always unreliable Civil Rights Project at Harvard University has come out with its latest study. These white-lab-coat-scholars produced their latest tract, “Brown at 50: King’s Dream or Plessy’s Nightmare?,” just in time for MLK Day and the media’s desire for stories with that news hook. The gist of this report is, according to project director Gary Orfield, that U.S. public schools are becoming increasingly segregated, so that “we are back to [where we were] when King was assassinated.”

Come on. Under segregation, minority students were told that because of their race they had to go to minority-only schools and could not go to the schools attended by whites. Name me one school–just one school, anywhere in the country–that fits that description, Professor Orfield. He can’t, because there aren’t any, and that is an enormous triumph, but one that Civil Rights Project will never acknowledge because then its reason for being, and its funding, would end.

What Professor Orfield is complaining about is not segregation, but imperfect racial balancing, and of course the only way to bring schools into the kind of politically correct balance that he wants is not by ignoring students’ skin color, but by using it to sort, assign, and bus them.

There are a few other problems with the report, too:

‐Orfield, as usual, uses his patented “Index of Exposure” to find racial imbalance, but this is a flawed measure, as explained by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in their recently published No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning; they conclude that “minority students are not becoming more racially isolated; white students typically attend schools that are much more racially and ethnically diverse than 30 years ago, and the modest decline in the exposure of black and Hispanic children to whites is solely due to the declining share of white children in the school age population”;

‐A key Orfield premise is that more racial-balance means better education, but, to quote two other leading experts in this area, David Armor and Christine Rossell, “there is not a single example in the published literature of a comprehensive racial balance plan that has improved black achievement or that has reduced the black-white achievement gap significantly”;

‐Orfield blames poor education on a lack of money, but the Thernstroms demonstrate conclusively that this is wrong, too;

‐He blames the Supreme Court for releasing schools from busing orders once they had ended segregation, as if there could possibly be any legal justification for judges’ permanently running school districts;

‐The report laments that “non-English speaking Latinos tend to be segregated in schools with each other”; does this mean that Professor Orfield has joined ranks with those who criticize bilingual education, and insist on rapid immersion, for such students?;

‐”The increase in Latino segregation is particularly notable in the West”; but all this means is that, especially when there are high levels of immigration, those immigrants will tend to live near one another and, thus, go to the same schools–hardly a sinister phenomenon; and

‐Orfield implies that the reason Asian students are the “most successful” is because they go to school with so many whites, which I–with a spirit of reconciliation befitting MLK Day–will charitably call silly, rather than racist.

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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