CLEGG: Colorblind myopia

Congress advocates racial equality but legislates racial preferences

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The news over the past week or two has been filled with charges and countercharges of racism in the NAACP and the Tea Party movement, criticism of the way the Obama administration has handled its voter-intimidation investigation of the New Black Panther Party, the firing and rehiring of Shirley Sherrod, and a Wall Street Journal opinion column by Sen. James Webb, Virginia Democrat, criticizing affirmative action.

Many commentators see all this as proof that America is just as roiled by race as it ever was but that overlooks the big story, namely that everyone involved in these controversies - the Obama administration, the Tea Party movement, the NAACP, Ms. Sherrod, Mr. Webb - now proceeds from the same basic premise: No one should be discriminated against on account of race, and justice should be colorblind.

That’s good news - great news, in fact, and all Americans can take pride in it.

There is, of course, strong disagreement about the extent to which various groups and individuals are fully committed to this principle. Those disagreements are worth sorting out, but it is happy news that no one in charge is saying, “Sure, we reject the notion of equal treatment - what of it?”

And the fact that there is this basic consensus - not only among those in the news but, more importantly, among the overwhelming majority of Americans - means race relations are better than ever, are good, and will continue to be so. That’s good news, too, for everyone outside the racial-grievance industry, and an important blessing always worth counting.

In a country that is increasingly multiracial and multiethnic - indeed, where individual Americans (starting with our president) are increasingly multiracial and multiethnic - it is simply untenable to have a legal regime that sorts people according to skin color and what country their ancestors came from and treats some better and others worse depending on which silly little box they check.

President Obama is no fool, and he knows racial preferences are unpopular and that supporting them would be dangerous - for his administration, in particular. Accordingly, his own statements on the issue certainly could have been worse, to borrow his recent phrase.

He has acknowledged, for example, that his own daughters probably should not get preferential treatment when it comes time for them to apply to college, given their privileged background, and that underprivileged students who even happen to be white would be more deserving. He has rebuked any policy of recession relief that is race-conscious.

But many of his appointees have nonetheless been aggressive in pushing a decidedly un-colorblind agenda. For example, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last year sent a letter to all 50 governors, pressuring them to ensure that federal contracting money be distributed with an eye on race, ethnicity and sex. This year, the Justice Department filed an amicus brief that aggressively defended the University of Texas’ use of racial and ethnic preferences in its undergraduate admissions. (That case is being argued this week.) More recently, evidence has surfaced that the administration weighed race in deciding which car dealerships to close.

The administration also has declared that it will be aggressive in filing “disparate impact” complaints. Under this theory, actions that are nondiscriminatory by their terms, in their intent and in their execution are nonetheless challenged if they lead to politically incorrect numbers. Thus, for example, the administration has challenged a physical test for prison guards because, in its view, it was too difficult for women to pass; it likewise has warned schools that their discipline policies will be scrutinized for racial imbalances. Such an approach guarantees the implementation of surreptitious quotas.

Racial preferences also are often expressed in the administration’s Federal Register notices (which the Center for Equal Opportunity monitors daily) and, of course, the president has picked federal judges who favor race-conscious policies, like the nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, Goodwin Liu, not to mention “wise Latina” Sonia Sotomayor.

Then, of course, there is the evidence being sifted through by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights regarding the New Black Panther Party’s voter intimidation, suggesting that the Justice Department, despite its (welcome) denial, has applied a racial double standard in its law enforcement, avoiding prosecutions if there would be black defendants.

But Congress is much worse. Racially preferential provisions are included routinely in all kinds of legislation, usually with little fanfare. For example, the two highest-profile bills passed in the past year - reforming health care and the regulation of financial institutions - both included extensive racial-preference provisions.

It is good that Mr. Webb has criticized such preferential treatment in the abstract, but he and like-minded senators and representatives need to do a better job of identifying, objecting to and removing discriminatory provisions from bills. The lesson here is that those who object to racial preferences need to be vigilant and vocal so such provisions aren’t smuggled into the law by the Obama administration or Congress - or, for that matter, by state and local officials, universities or corporate diversity departments.

The good news is that there is a national consensus for E pluribus unum - and we can make that principle a reality if we demand it from the powers that be.

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