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Race Is Not An Issue We Can Ignore

Do you remember reading the story last year about the elderly black cleaning woman in Mississippi who had worked and saved all her life and then donated $150,000 to scholarships for black students in her state? A New York Times reporter won the Pulitzer Prize just last week for his moving account of her life. “She spent almost nothing, living in her old family home, cutting the toes out of shoes if they didn’t fit right and binding her ragged Bible with Scotch tape to keep Corinthians from falling out.”

Oseola McCarty may have scrubbed floors for decades in vain. Recent U.S. circuit court decisions on affirmative action are prompting the University of Texas to drop race-based policies.

Some universities across the country are moving to get in line with these decisions; the attorney general of Georgia already has called on all state colleges and universities to abandon policies that take any account of race. President Robert Berdahl of the University of Texas told UT students April 11 that recent legal action abolished race-based scholarships, which are now to be thrown into a general scholarship fund and apportioned without any regard to race. The university program that recruits minority faculty members is also in jeopardy.

Isn’t it strange that an uneducated black cleaning woman should have a better understanding of justice, and of how the world really works, than some federal judges?

For 300 years, people in this country legally discriminated against black citizens. For 30 years, we have tried to remedy the legacy of that discrimination - not with reverse discrimination but with a complex set of programs called affirmative action. Sometimes these programs have been ill-conceived or badly administered, but more recently, we have found ways to make them work intelligently and fairly.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the first Civil Rights Act in 1964, he understood two things: 1) Institutions replicate themselves - an all-white, all-male institution will continue to be all-white and all-male to the end of time unless pressure is applied from the outside; and 2) ending segregation would cost the Democratic Party the South for at least a generation. He was right on both counts.

Johnson’s version of affirmative action answered the great cop-out of the day (“But we cannot find qualified Negroes”) with a legal injunction (“Look harder”). Lo and behold, when schools looked hard enough, there were indeed qualified Negroes. Later, under President Richard Nixon, affirmative action was expanded to include quotas and other follies. Some, for political reasons, exploited white resentment and fostered misinformation about affirmative action programs. The famous Jesse Helms ad (the they-gave-the-job-to-a-minority one) is perhaps the classic example.

Many experts will tell you that standard tests are culturally biased - that the SAT, GRE and LSAT are biased against minorities. I wouldn’t know. What I do know is what Texas public schools are like. I know who goes to the schools with fancy computers, advanced education “enrichment,” college preparatory courses, and art and music departments. As Jim Herrington wrote in Texas Lawyer, “Nor is there much doubt about the color and race of students in run-down facilities, poorly staffed schools and inadequately supplied classrooms.” I know who goes to the schools that don’t even have enough toilet paper or chalk. And so do you.

The elementary and secondary schools in our state are grossly unequal - in the words of Jonathan Kozol, “savagely unequal.” Busing has been disallowed as a remedy, but how else to change the fact that Texas schools have been resegregated to an appalling degree?

The free-market fundamentalists claim that “the magic of the marketplace,” as Ronald Reagan used to call it, will resolve employment discrimination. Sure, just like Satchel Paige pitched in the majors. But the theory persists that employment discrimination will disappear when minority groups have better education.

Excuse me - they’re not getting better education at the primary or secondary levels. The catch-up chance, for just a few, comes at the university level. Here’s the deal: A black kid makes straight A’s at an inner-city school but comes in 100 points lower on the Scholastic Aptitude Test than a rich white kid who went to the best prep schools. Is the black kid qualified? How many points on a standard test are grit and determination worth? If you had your choice, which kid would you want as your lawyer? < In any pool of “qualified” applicants, why shouldn’t consideration be given to background, diversity and race? We all want to give bright kids a chance; what’s so holy about the SAT? Why is it worth more than evidence of perseverance and courage?

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