Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2002 / 1 Teves, 5763

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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After affirmative action, what next? | The strongest argument against affirmative action I've ever heard was only one sentence long.

The setting was a room full of black journalists in Seattle in the summer of 1999, the year after Washingtonians voted their state out of the affirmative-action business. The speaker was Shelby Steele, the conservative black author. And the argument - a question, actually - went something like this:

Why should black people hinge their hopes on something white people can vote out of existence in an afternoon?

I was jolted by the pragmatism of it. In a debate that often seems abstract and theoretical, Steele had managed to get at the nut of an important truth.

Steele's argument is brought back to mind by this week's news that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to revisit affirmative action. This, at the behest of white students who claim the University of Michigan rejected them in favor of blacks with similar or lesser grades and test scores.

It's not that simple, though. Part of a university's mission is to expose its students to different kinds of people. It seeks to create - pardon the buzzword - diversity. So the University of Michigan's admissions protocols are based on more than academic prowess. They also take into account other factors, including socioeconomic status, athletic ability, life experience and, yes, race. The university says it was a factor - not THE factor, but a factor - in determining which applications to accept.

The question the court must answer is twofold. It must determine whether there is a "compelling state interest" in fostering diversity and whether the means the university has chosen is the least disruptive one available.

Now, I'm no legal scholar, but the view from this section of the peanut gallery is that the answer to both questions is yes.

It's hard to buy the argument that white students are materially harmed by what is, in essence, a fairly innocuous attempt to shake up the mix of a campus population. Would we even be having this conversation if the students who got in ahead of the plaintiffs had done so on the basis of, say, life experience or athletic ability?

Of course not. Race is its own planet. For my money, the University of Michigan plaintiffs are using sour grapes to squeeze white whine. I hope a majority of Supreme Court justices feels the same way.

For all that, though, Shelby Steele's question continues to resonate for me. I have this sense of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, this sense that if the forthcoming court decision doesn't deal affirmative action a death blow, another probably will. The conservatism of the times makes that a near certainty.

So maybe it's time to ponder what that will and should mean to black people. Maybe, as Steele suggests, it's time for blacks to stop placing themselves in a position where their sense of wholeness is dependent upon white folks' will. Any wholeness won under those conditions is tenuous by definition. Worse, it defines black people as perpetual petitioners, always asking.

It has been argued that race-conscious policies are like handicapped parking places at the mall. Most of us don't mind that a few premium spots closest to the entrance are set aside for those who need them more than we do.

The analogy is apt, but it also raises a question: Are any of us benefited by a policy that encourages black people - particularly young ones - to regard themselves as handicapped?

Whether one considers affirmative action worthwhile or worthless, the challenge facing African Americans is the same: to begin figuring out what to do when it is gone. To marshal our talents, resources and ingenuity to shape the next phase of struggle and determine our own fate.

Because Steele posed a good question: Why should we hinge our happiness upon white people's will?

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