Recently President Bush weighed in on affirmative action. The opportunity came with a lawsuit challenging the use of race as one of several factors in the admissions procedure used by the University of Michigan School of Law. It has been the law in the United States since 1978 that race alone cannot be used as a means of qualification for college admissions, but past administrations, including Republican administrations, have supported race-and gender-conscious remedies to end entrenched discrimination. The President has urged that there are other ways to do this, and he and his Republican allies have hinted at solutions which are "color blind," a condition which has never existed in practice in American politics and society. Even National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice declined to completely support Mr. Bush on this move.
By now it should be obvious to supporters and detractors alike that President Bush is a very savvy politician and that he does not take steps, such as the removal of Trent Lott or opposition to long-established mild versions of affirmative action such as that practiced in Michigan, without weighing the political costs. He is, if nothing, a student of his father's political fortunes, including senior Bush's failure to sufficiently energize the conservative elements of his party. The younger George Bush is not going to make the same mistake. At the same time, however, he has to walk a narrow path here, because demographers point out that minority votes are only going to grow in importance in the future, beginning with the repair and replacement of those voting machines in Florida. The problem he faces is how can he keep the benefits of the "Southern Strategy," represented by the Lott constituency, and still attract Hispanic, black, and Native American voters to the Republican Party.
It has been said - in jest, I'm sure - that a minority person voting Republican is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders. President Bush has provided us with "compassionate conservatism" and marketed it as though it was something different from the conservative pabulum of the past. His approach is different from that of the southern conservatives of the 1950s. They dubbed the civil rights movement a communist conspiracy and did everything they could to criminalize people who demanded an end to job discrimination, housing discrimination, and education and other venues of disparity. At a moment when the United States was in a struggle with world communism, institutionalized racism in America was a stain on America's claims to democracy and fairness. The civil rights movement was at least partly successful because the whole thing was a gigantic national disgrace and the world could see it as such.
President Bush is substituting rhetoric for resistance. He embraces the goals of the civil rights era but finds any pragmatic avenue to achieving those goals to be unacceptable. The old South found the goals and the strategies to achieve those goals reprehensible. Bush objects to the mechanics of any plan that would move some, in this case a very few, minorities into the professions.
Back when the civil rights movement was near the front of America's agenda, the Alabama State Police became a case in point. In the entire history of the ASP, it had never hired a black trooper, secretary, janitor or any other kind of support staff. People who had passed their qualifying exams sued and the state retorted that they couldn't find any qualified black people. Applicants usually failed the eyeball test, which is to say that when they were observed to be black they were discovered to be unqualified. In 1970 a federal court ordered detailed non-numerical provisions for hiring in a non-discriminatory way, but 18 months later, not a single black had been hired for any position. Exasperated, the court ordered that one qualified black be hired for every white until 25 percent of the force was black. (NAACP v. Allen, 1974) The Supreme Court upheld the decision. The last time I looked, the Alabama State Police were the most integrated state police force in the United States and the black tax-paying citizens of that place were no longer frozen out of the jobs their taxes supported.
If Republicans want to attract more minorities to their party, they might consider that strong conservative values run through most of these populations. Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics are often strongly family oriented, tend to be religious, and are strong proponents of law and order. On the topic of minority rights, conservatives argue that people should work hard to acquire skills that enable them to achieve success in society. Liberals urge that minorities are handicapped by an historical process which has included laws denying them economic rights, discrimination in getting loans and under-budgeted school systems which leave them ill prepared to compete for slots in colleges.
The most ideologically poisoned extremists among conservatives tout that all of the ills of history have been corrected in the past four decades, that everyone is on an even playing field, and that the country can go forward in a "color blind" state in which minorities require no assistance of any kind, ever. They even use Martin Luther King's words to make their argument. The most ideologically driven liberals support the idea of "reparations" for slavery which would be a kind of lottery, a check cut to the descendants of slaves to repair past insults and injuries based on race.
The argument on race is the discourse of the American dilemma and it will go on indefinitely because well-meaning and decent people on both sides have a point. President Bush, however, isn't aligning himself in the middle with people who can concede at least some reasonableness on both sides. He is taking a position closer to those ideologues who think the Supreme Court is now sufficiently conservative and ideological that they may overturn the Bakke decision in which the court found that race could be a factor in college admissions.
The alternatives he seems to be offering are not clearly spelled out but will result in diminished enrollments of blacks and other minorities in the nation's elite professional schools. The President has been a master at floating trial balloons and then retreating or changing direction according to the winds, but this one could emerge as a signature of his party. If so, minorities who join the Republican Party will not have an elephant as their mascot, but a white haired, mustachioed and goateed white linen-clad old gentleman, a symbol of the ante-bellum South, holding out a box of chicken.
John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.