President Off Mark in Talks about Race

Lucas Morel

December 8, 1997

This week President Clinton ramped up an effort he began last June to begin a “national conversation about race” by hosting a town meeting at the University of Akron. Entitled “One America in the 21st Century,” the president’s race initiative seeks to improve race relations by fostering honest dialogue among Americans and devising programs to create greater opportunity for disadvantaged youth.

The problem is Clinton preaches “one America” while promoting policies that separate Americans according to race. A pointed exchange during the town meeting provided a telling example of the president’s convoluted thinking on race, opportunity, and the role of government in a free society. He asked Abigail Thernstrom, co-author of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible and a fervent critic of affirmative action, “Do you favor the United States Army abolishing the affirmative action program that produced Colin Powell? Yes or no?” The premise behind the president’s question was the notion that citizens of color can only excel as human beings if government makes special allowances for them.

Dr. Thernstrom answered the president, “I do not think that it is racial preferences that made Colin Powell.” In doing so, she suggested a more sensible and less condescending explanation for Gen. Powell’s achievements–Colin Powell himself. Yes, his rise in the ranks of our nation’s military was accelerated by affirmative action policies. But the key to his success lay more with his abilities and talents, which were recognized by his superiors. Had the military not given him a chance, he would have put his skills to use wherever he was free to do so. That is the true message of his book, My American Journey. In the game of life, if segregated America let him play on only one part of the court, he was determined to do as best as he could there.

Simply put, Colin Powell did not need affirmative action. What he needed and deserved was the same freedom afforded white citizens to govern themselves and order their lives without interference from anyone else. The presumption that blacks are a permanent underclass in America, unable to take care of themselves without special efforts by government, muddles our understanding of the role of government in protecting the equal rights of citizens. The abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, once said, “I am for no fancied or artificial elevation, but only ask fair play.” And when asked, “What shall we do with the Negro?” he replied, “Let him alone! If you will only untie his hands, and give him a chance, I think he will live. He will work as readily for himself as the white man.”

In segregated America, government placed obstacles before black citizens in schools, public accommodations, the job site, and the voting booth. This amounted to racial preferences for whites, thereby subverting the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Constitution to all Americans. But are racial preferences for blacks (today’s affirmative action) the logical remedy for racial preferences for whites (yesterday’s segregated America)? Is not the more obvious solution simply for government to stop imposing any obstacle on any citizen, black or white, and get back to the business of protecting everyone’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The president missed Dr. Thernstrom’s point that most Americans want government to treat them as individuals. One wonders if he understood it when stated by Erika Sanders, a local high school student: “I’m not a representative for the entire African-American race.” For Miss Sanders, who she was as an individual–her character, her opinions, her life experiences–could not be reduced to the color of her skin. Thus, race should not serve as a proxy for what black Americans think. President Clinton’s befuddlement was seen most clearly when he asked, “Before we run out of time, is there an Asian-American who wants to be heard?” The presumption, again, was that a person’s race dictated what they thought or experienced–as if growing up in the United States, growing up as an American, had no impact on their thinking and character.

This refusal to see each other as individuals as well as fellow citizens can only serve to perpetuate the stereotypes that foster bigotry. Affirmative action, government’s requirement that schools and businesses take into account a person’s race, actually causes us to pursue a diversity that can only be superficial at best. The very people thought to be served by these programs get lost in the shuffle of racial nose-counters. In the words of Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination-indeed, everything and anything except me.” Perhaps if government would take notice of the individual, as part of remembering their common citizenship as Americans, citizens would be truly free to get to know one another without the obstacle of race getting in the way.

Lucas Morel is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.