Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 74 (June/July 1997): 10-11.
April was a month crowded with events in America’s continuing muddled encounter with the dilemmas of race.
To begin with, as every sentient citizen of the Republic must by now be aware, April 15 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers to end major league baseball’s ban on black ballplayers. It was a grand celebration of a great occasion—and a great man and athlete—even if the prelude to it risked making the event itself an anticlimax. The usual media instinct for overplay meant that by the time the anniversary arrived we had heard in multiple versions every conceivable story related to Robinson and his career—most of them, appropriately enough, of the noble and uplifting variety.
Perhaps it was that nobility overload that led to my perverse enjoyment of two against-the-grain Robinson tales. The first was the revelation that Robinson, an aggressive bench jockey once he had established himself, led his teammates in ragging New York Yankee pitcher Allie Reynolds with disparaging references to Reynolds’ American Indian heritage. The second concerned Robinson’s complaint to his teammate Pee Wee Reese that opposing pitchers were throwing at him because he was black. "Jackie," Reese replied, "some of them are throwing at you because you’re black, but some of them are throwing at you because they just don’t like you." We do not diminish Robinson’s legendary standing and achievement—we in fact anchor them more firmly in reality—by declining to view him through lenses covered in gauze.
Also on the sports front, I joined record numbers of Americans in spending much of the weekend prior to Robinson’s anniversary watching the TV coverage of Tiger Woods’ unprecedented domination of the Masters golf tournament. It was as overwhelming an example of individual superiority as I have witnessed not just in golf, but in sports, period. One imagined Michael Jordan dropping in on a high school pick-up game. As golfing legend Bobby Jones said of the young Jack Nicklaus, "He plays a game with which I am not familiar."
It was instructive to observe the huge crowds lining the fairways and surrounding the greens in Augusta, Georgia. That overwhelmingly white audience watched in rapt attention and with extraordinary enthusiasm as the young African-Asian phenom made his triumphal round of the course on the final day. One commentator noted that among Woods’ Masters records was an unofficial one for "most standing ovations." Those white Southern middle-Americans obviously felt good about Woods’ success—and felt good about feeling good about it. That’s a complicated story, of course, but except for the irredeemably cynical, it puts the lie to the notion that most white Americans are afflicted with implacable hostility to displays of black achievement. Quite the contrary: they yearn for them, not least so that they can think better of themselves.
The good news on the sports beat had echoes elsewhere. A three-judge panel from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Judge Thelton Henderson’s injunction blocking the implementation of Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI). CCRI, passed by state voters by a comfortable margin last November, forbids race and sex preferences in state programs. Judge Henderson somehow decided that the denial of preferential treatment for women and minorities was constitutionally dubious and put the initiative on hold pending appeal. The Ninth Circuit panel made clear that it was Judge Henderson’s ruling that was of dubious standing: "A system which permits one judge to block with the stroke of a pen what 4,736,180 state residents voted to enact as law tests the integrity of our constitutional democracy." The issue will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court for final decision, but in the meantime it is reassuring to know that at least some judges understand the dangers of what someone has called the judicial usurpation of politics.
There was also good news from Texas. In March 1996 a federal appeals court struck down the affirmative action program of the University of Texas law school whereby each year some 15 percent of the school’s openings were set aside for blacks and Hispanics, even though the vast majority of the admitted minority applicants had grades and scores inferior to whites whose applications were rejected. In March of this year an overzealous official of the U.S. Department of Education nonetheless threatened to cut off federal funds to the university if it did not continue to operate an affirmative action plan. The university thus faced the prospect of losing government funding unless it maintained illegal programs. That threat raised such a political uproar that in mid-April the Education Department had to reverse itself, and the university was left free to operate a race-blind admissions program.
But April also reminded us that the racial good news—recognition of black achievement and denial of discrimination based on race—remains threatened by the policies and plans of the Clinton Administration. The President, as usual, means well on race. But also as usual, he does not mean coherently.
On the positive side, President Clinton participated in the April 15 ceremonies at Shea Stadium in New York honoring Robinson’s memory. (Though he delivered a typically wooden and ill-crafted speech. Why, one wonders, can the Leader of the Free World not find himself a decent speechwriter?) Also, reports from the White House early in the month indicated that Clinton will apologize on behalf of the nation for the infamous Tuskegee experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service that, while withholding both diagnosis and treatment, tracked through decades the health of black men unknowingly suffering from syphilis. It is among the most wretched chapters of our history, and an apology would be entirely appropriate.
It was also reported, however, that the President is leaning toward holding a White House conference on problems of racial prejudice. That is almost certainly a bad idea. The politics of the issue are such that the Administration would have to invite to the conference the usual gang of grievance-mongers and guilt-peddlers who have already done so much to damage race relations in America. As editor Michael Kelly remarked in the April 28 New Republic: "Oh, good. . . . A few acts of symbolic atonement, another spectacle of the flak-catchers mau-mauing themselves, some token employment for the same small group of racialists and race-specialists who always find token employment in these affairs, remarks by Jesse Jackson. That should repair that breach."
As Kelly went on to note, the best thing that Bill Clinton could do for racial justice in America is the one thing he most certainly will not do: end his support for race-based preferences in public life. The Administration has come down on the wrong side of both the California and the Texas controversies. More than that, its supposedly moderate "mend it, don’t end it" approach to affirmative action means, in practice, that it has never met an affirmative action program it didn’t like.
The President has said that he does not favor preference for the unqualified over the qualified (though of course affirmative action programs typically favor not the unqualified but the less qualified—which might not sound so bad until you start thinking about the less-qualified brain surgeon or airline pilot, or about the unfairness to the more qualified in any category); he insists that he is opposed to "numerical quotas" (which of course he utterly differentiates from the "goals and timetables" that quietly produce what the Q-word decrees); and he doesn’t favor preferential programs based "solely" on race or gender "without regard to merit" (as if any affirmative action program has ever advertised itself that way). As with partial-birth abortions, the President’s evasive rhetoric on race bears little relation to the policy it obscures.
What Bill Clinton—in company with virtually all contemporary liberals—will not face is that affirmative action as currently practiced contradicts what America at its best is all about: equality of opportunity and equality before the law. It demands what the American Creed has always refused: allocation of social goods on the basis of accidents of birth.
April was, on balance, a good month for race relations in America—celebration of Jackie Robinson, admiration for Tiger Woods, rejection in California and Texas of racial discrimination in all forms. But shadowing the month were the well-intentioned confusions of a President who wants to go to the right place but has no good idea how to get there.