This week the nation witnessed two events that suggest the “national dialogue on race,” in the words of President Clinton, is far from over. On Monday, the Supreme Court decided not to review California’s Proposition 209, which amended the state constitution to prohibit preferential treatment for minorities and women in state hiring, contracting, or college admissions. By refusing to hear the case, the nation’s highest court allowed California to become the first state to outlaw affirmative action, giving hope to similar efforts in at least 26 other states.
But before affirmative action foes declare victory for a color-blind society, they should turn their attention to Houston, where voters on Tuesday rejected Proposition A, which would have outlawed discrimination against or preferences for any individual or group on the basis of race or sex in city hiring or contracting. The city’s current affirmative action program was approved unanimously by the city council in 1995, setting “good-faith goals” averaging 20 percent participation by businesses owned by minorities and women. Given that the margin of victory for Prop. A (54.5%-46.4%) was eerily similar to that for Prop. 209 (approved by 54 percent of voters), the moral schizophrenia of Americans over race and justice could not be more evident.
To complicate matters even further, pre-election polls indicated that Houston voters sided with or against affirmative action along racial lines as well as economic ones. Blacks overwhelmingly support affirmative action, while whites seek its demise in increasing proportions the further they climb up the economic ladder. This suggests that our 30-year experiment with the government’s use of racial preferences has taught many to view it as just another extension of the welfare state-a sort of Freedmen’s Bureau for modern America. Alas, government is no longer seen as the protector of rights equally possessed by all, but rather an administrative purveyor of privileges based on politically irrelevant characteristics like skin color and gender. In short, the concept of “citizenship rights,” to which Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently referred in his “I Have a Dream” speech, is now rarely mentioned in public discussion of civil rights.
Perhaps what is missing from the affirmative action debate is a more thoughtful reflection on another of King’s statements from his famous 1963 speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This quote has been cited so often that it has become a commonplace in public discussion of civil rights. But while most Americans agree that racial discrimination is a vile practice, few commentators pay much attention to the challenge of the latter half of King’s statement. According to affirmative action proponents, the opportunity of some Americans to fulfill their dreams in this country depends not on their character and skills but on special efforts by the government to smooth their way into college or the business world. This is a patronizing view of the capacity of racial minorities (and women) to fend for t
hemselves under the general protection of laws that govern all Americans. When asked, “What shall we do with the Negro?” the escaped slave-turned-abolitionist speaker Frederick Douglass replied, “Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us.” He understood that the problem of racial bigotry in America was exacerbated, not solved, by government intervention along racial lines.
In addition, our growing acceptance of the belief that government should “reach out” to certain groups of Americans-at the expense of others-reinstates the notion that human beings are not created equal, that some folks really can’t exercise their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness under the same protection government gives to others. It presumes that government has the authority to set different levels of protection for different groups of citizens, and thus tosses out the principle of limited government and equality under the law.
Later this month, November 19th to be precise, we mark the 134th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He began his most famous oration by observing that “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” That proposition informed both Prop. 209 and Prop. A, but only one of them passed. Unless we recover our original understanding of human nature and the legitimate purposes of government, our “national dialogue on race” will never produce the “new birth of freedom” we so desperately need.
Lucas Morel is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.