by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
January 24, 2003
On Native Ground: WHY ARE WE STILL ARGUING ABOUT AFFIRMATIVE ACTION?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I was surprised to see that President Bush would take time out from the "war on terror" to denounce affirmative action. I was even more surprised that President Bush and his handlers picked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday to launch his attack.
This was either yet another example of unbridled arrogance by the Bush team or a stunning show of cluelessness. But given the Republican Party's long-standing hostility to anything that might cut into white privilege, it's safe to assume the Bush administration consciously chose Jan. 15 to offer its support to a lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the University of Michigan's affirmative action program.
Even more than arrogance or cluelessness, President Bush's pronouncement dripped with hypocrisy. Here's a man who was a mediocre student who got into Yale because he was the son of a wealthy and politically connected alumnus attacking a public institution's program that attempts to give a similar boost to minority applicants.
So, what's the fuss about?
The University of Michigan awards bonus points in the admission process to black, Native American and certain Latino students. Out of the 150 points required to gain admission, a student's grades are worth up to 80 points. The quality of the applicant's high school and the academic rigor of its courses are worth up to 18 points. And being a minority applicant is worth 20 points.
Those 20 points haven't made much of a difference in the number of minority students at the University of Michigan. The state's population is 14 percent black, but the undergraduate population at the university is only 8.4 percent black. The university's law school, the target of the lawsuit, fares even worse; only 6.7 percent of its students are black, and the law school has said that percentage would drop to 4 percent without affirmative action.
That so few students are being helped is not surprising. Even with programs like Michigan's, white students still comprise about 80 percent of the total student population at private and public four-year colleges and universities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
President Bush trotted out the old Republican code word for affirmative action - "quotas" - in his attack on Michigan's program. But students aren't being selected or rejected solely on their ethnicity in Michigan or at any other college or university. To say otherwise is a lie.
Affirmative action has never been about quotas. It's not about offering opportunities to unqualified people. It's not reverse discrimination against whites. It's merely giving underrepresented groups of people greater access to academic institutions and the workplace.
Why is affirmative action needed? Because of the way the odds are stacked against blacks in general, and black men in particular, from the cradle to the grave.
Blacks have a higher infant mortality rate and are twice more likely to die from childhood diseases than whites. They're more likely to be born into poverty; the black poverty rate is triple that of whites.
If they make it to school, they are more likely to be tracked into remedial and special education courses based on skin color rather than performance and are more likely to drop out of school. While 88 percent of whites over age 25 have graduated from high school, only 79 percent of all blacks have high school diplomas.
Statistically, black males have a better chance of going to jail than to college. One in three black males in America between the ages of 20 and 29 are now either in jail, on parole or on probation.
And even if a black person gets accepted to college and graduates with a degree, he or she is still more likely to not get a job. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's statistics, the unemployment rate for people of color has been consistently double that of whites. In 2001, it was 10.3 for blacks and 5.1 percent for whites.
If a black person gets a job, he or she will likely earn less than what a white person is earning in a comparable position. According to the Census Bureau, a black family of four earned only 62 percent of what a white family earned in 2001.
A black person will likely find it more difficult to get a bank loan or rent an apartment or buy a home. He or she will likely encounter discrimination in almost every setting. Even if a black person manages to successfully deal with all these obstacles, he or she will die nearly six years sooner than the average white person.
All these things clearly show that racism and discrimination in America is still a problem that has not been easily solved. But these realities haven't quite registered with white America.
A recent study by the Kaiser Foundation found that between 40 percent and 60 percent of all whites believe that the average black was doing about as well or perhaps better than the average white in employment, education and income. The aforementioned facts totally contradict the Kaiser poll, but it seems to be more a case of ignorance than racism. The press rarely talks honestly about the plight of black America and most people simply don't realize how bad it still is for people of color in this country.
The Republicans have used this disconnect to its political advantage. But Democrats have been just as guilty of saying one thing and doing another when it comes to race. The best that President Clinton could do about racism was to set up a "national dialogue" on the subject, have a few public forums and hope the problem would go away.
The furor over former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's racist comments at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party seems to have faded completely. The reality that many of Lott's colleagues in the Senate think as he does hasn't registered in the national consciousness. And President Bush can get away with attacking affirmative action on the birthday of one of the Twentieth Century's greatest human rights crusaders.
Goethe was right when he wrote: "Nothing is worse than active ignorance."
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).