This article was originally published by Salon on June 23, 1997.
President Clinton’s much-awaited statement on race has come and gone, and — as usual with this president — no one on either side of the argument is convinced that anything was said at all. Perhaps this says something about the general consciousness of the nation, and our inability to speak clearly, unambiguously and directly about the issue of race. The president’s words perfectly crystallize the problem.
The president chose a University of California campus in San Diego as the site for his pronouncement to focus attention on California’s ban on racial preferences and on the drop in enrollment rates as a result of that ban. According to university officials, African-American admissions to UC’s Boalt Hall law school — one of the most prestigious in the nation — dropped by 85 percent as a result of the new policy.
What the president chose not to discuss was the way in which the Boalt results completely undermine the arguments of defenders of the affirmative action policies that are now illegal. In the arguments over the California Civil Rights Initiative, its opponents had argued that race was only one of many factors — and an insignificant one at best — in awarding affirmative action slots at the university. Now it is clear that affirmative action is a system of racial preference and racial discrimination and nothing more.
The president calls for a conversation about race, but what he really wants is a conversation about racism, and about white racism in particular. His response to California’s rejection of racial preferences: We mustnot resegregate higher education. As though it weren’t already in process; as though black separatists and their liberal allies were not the leaders of the resegregation movement. For example: separate black dorms and black graduations, African-American studies programs, special orientations for incoming black freshmen and expensive invitations to black racists like Khalid Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan, Kwami Ture, Professor Griff, Sister Souljah, Leonard Jeffries, Tony Martin, Frances Welsing, etc., etc., to speak before black student unions and Pan African student associations.
Lacking any interest in addressing the real problems of racial division in America, what the president did was to offer a challenge to those of us who remain faithful to the vision of the civil rights movement, while rejecting government discrimination. To those who oppose affirmative action, the president said, “I’ll ask you to come up with an alternative. I would embrace it if I could find a better way.”
There is such an alternative, Mr. President. It’s called study. Study hard. If you want to get into an elite law school, that’s what you have to do. (Is there anybody who seriously believes that admissions officials at America’s liberal universities are determined to keep black applicants out? Rather, they’re desperate to get black applicants in.)
The alternative to rigging the standards, Mr. President, is to teach your children the value of an education in the first place. It is to stick around after conception to help your children’s entry into a difficult and demanding world. It is to give up the blame game and look at your own responsibility for where you are. It is to tell your children that getting educated is not “thinking white.” It’s thinking.
How is it helpful to African-Americans to tell them they are failing to meet academic standards because white racists want to keep them out? This is a lie and everybody knows it. African-Americans are failing because they are not prepared by their families and their culture to succeed. If race or poverty were the issue, the University of California would not be excluding Vietnamese and Cambodian children (who do meet the standards) in order to make room for African-American and Hispanic children (who do not).
It’s time for a president of the United States to stand up and be proud of the fact that in America minorities are no longer barred because of race from America’s best universities, or indeed from any American university. Racial hand-wringing by liberal whites does not help the disadvantaged. On the contrary, it is an obstacle to their progress. It contributes to what is now a massive denial of the problems that minority communities have created for themselves. And by contributing to the delusion that Others, who have been successful, control their individual destinies, it takes away from them the real power to change their fate.