- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

I don't remember which journalistic conference or convention it was. But I do remember the conversation, and the stricken look on the face of my old friend. Well, old colleague. For we went back a ways. We first met as editorial writers for Southern newspapers on the same side of the civil-rights issue and barricades, and the fellow feeling was immediate.
We traded stories about late-night phone calls and the general absurdity of Jim Crow Inc. Back then, when people spoke of The Movement, you didn't have to wonder which one. Civil rights was still a struggle, not just another special interest.
As the years intervened, my friend had gone on to become the distinguished dean of a journalism school. Lacking his upward mobility, I just kept on writing edtorials. Whenever we met, we would catch up on what the other was doing. This time a serious look crossed his face. He had something of an ethical quandary, he explained. It seems his J school had a limited number of scholarships for students who needed financial help, and he couldn't decide between a black applicant and a white one.
So? Which one was better qualified? Well, although the white student had better grades and test scores, and would ordinarily merit the scholarship, the other choice was, well, black. And if we were ever to integrate the Profession his word, not mine then we needed to get more black students into journalism.
My old friend looked at me expectantly, as if I would understand his choice, back him up, or at least agonize with him.
I couldn't. I didn't see any problem. Just give it to the better qualified student, no questions or colors asked. Isn't that what we had campaigned for years ago a world in which race didn't matter?
But surely, my buddy said, I would understand his position. It was clear he had already made up his mind. He was going to pick the black kid to make up for all that racial discrimination in the past.
By practicing racial discrimination in the future? "Don't you see?" I asked my friend. "Every time you discriminate in favor of somebody, you're discriminating against somebody else. For no reason other than color. I thought that was what we used to write editorials against."
I thought of my old friend when this latest case of racial discrimination finally made it to the Supreme Court of the United States. Because when the University of Michigan decides to add a decisive 20 points to some applications, it isn't just promoting black or Hispanic or American Indian students; it's demoting all the others. Arbitrarily and unfairly.
Give my old friend credit. He recognized the problem, which is why he was troubled, although not troubled enough to do simple justice.
Instead, he defended his decision on other, more complicated grounds sociological, historical, political, professional…. The rationale for any quota system has to be convoluted. Because there's no simple way around the majestic sweep of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees every American "the equal protection of the laws."
It's not easy to prove that some students should be more equal than others 20 points more equal, to be exact.
The whole question never seemed very complicated to me. It was a matter of doing right and trusting that right would result.
If all of society made the same choice my friend was about to make, racial discrimination would always be with us just in favor of different groups of Americans as time and ethnic fashion went by. And against others. We would never break the chain. What would matter again was your color, not your merit.
Soon enough, those favored by racial preferences would earn the suspicion and enmity of those who were not so favored. "Aren't you here just because of Affirmative Action?" It's a great way to institutionalize not only racial discrimination but ill will. And in the end, all of us would lose out because raising the quality of the school or profession or team would matter less than meeting some color-coded quota.
My old friend looked at me as if I had betrayed him. As if I, of all people, should have understood. Then he shrugged and changed the subject, recognizing I was a hopeless case, somebody who couldn't see how complicated all this was. He was right. I couldn't. To me, it was a matter of simple justice.
But I understood the look on my friend's face. I had seen it before when I had taken some stand that didn't meet the test of ideological orthodoxy. Once, when I demurred on some right-winger's favorite issue, the same look appeared, accompanied by words that were supposed to wound: "But I thought you were one of us."
Instead of thinking in terms of Us or Them, conservative or liberal, black or white or other, why not just think as a person? It might be easier that way to see simple justice. And to see how doing it would benefit us all.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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