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Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2001 / 3 Adar, 5761

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Consumer Reports

End it, don't mend it

Bush should take the hard road and oppose quotas --
GEORGE W. BUSH has a carefully planned set of proposals, designed to be widely popular and capable of amassing bipartisan legislative majorities. But there is another issue likely to come forward that will spark bitter partisan debate–racial quotas and preferences. Here Bush must decide whether to take a position that is popular with most voters and consistent with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but which will result in a firestorm of attacks from elite media, black politicians, and leaders of old-line civil rights groups.

That's surely something Bush wants to avoid. On the campaign trail he would say that he opposed racial quotas and preferences–but only when asked. He would surely not raise the issue on this, nor does Congress have any stomach for it. But court cases are pushing it forward. On appeal to the Supreme Court is the Adarand case, challenging racial preferences in federal transportation contracts. Twice the Supreme Court has overturned lower court rulings and held that racial preferences must be subject to strict scrutiny. If the court rules the preferences unconstitutional, will the Bush administration end the other quotas and preferences that are honeycombed in the federal government?

The legal arguments are overwhelming. The 14th Amendment bans racial discrimination; and racial quotas, preferences, and set-asides are racial discrimination. Quotas were first imposed by the Nixon administration and were approved in an incoherent Supreme Court decision in 1978. They have become part of the fabric of American life. Quota enthusiasts have visible and well-represented beneficiaries, while those who are harmed are usually unidentified and not hurt much. The survival of quotas is a classic case of strong constituencies prevailing despite weak arguments.

California case. And despite the opposition of most Americans. When California voters had a chance to outlaw racial quotas and preferences by state government in 1996, they voted to do so by a 55-to-45 percent margin–in one of our most liberal states, and over the opposition of just about all articulate elite opinion. It's worth noting that the language of that proposition was taken from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Most Americans supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in 1964, and most Americans do today.

But not America's government, corporate, media, and university elites. They have embraced racial quotas and preferences wholeheartedly. Quotas provide an easy way to manage large organizations: Meet the quota and you enter what lawyers call a "safe harbor" against litigation. And managers will get civic awards besides. The old-line civil rights organizations are even more strongly attached to racial quotas and preferences. When Sen. Joseph Lieberman spoke to the Black Caucus at the Democratic National Convention last summer, he was greeted with strong applause when he recounted how he went to Mississippi in the summer of 1963 to work for civil rights. But the applause was even stronger when he said that he voted against abolishing racial set-asides in federal transportation contracts (the preferences under attack in Adarand). For black leaders today the brave struggle against segregation in the South is a dimming memory. But the racial set-asides that have brought wealth to many politically well-connected blacks are a burning and defining issue.

We can judge the likely reaction to any Bush opposition to quotas and set-asides from the response when voters in California and a federal judge in Texas banned the use of quotas in state universities and colleges. Dire predictions were made that the schools would become lily white. Jim Crow was back. In fact, there were fewer blacks and Latinos at more selective campuses but larger numbers in the overall system; part of the reason was Bush's program in Texas guaranteeing a place in some state college for the top 10 percent of every high school class.

And quotas have downsides. They cast a pall of illegitimacy over the achievements of the intended beneficiaries. They promote a cult of victimology and strengthen the absurd idea that America is as racist as ever. As John McWhorter writes in his brilliant book Losing the Race, "One could think of few better ways to depress a race's propensity for pushing itself to do its best in school than a policy ensuring that less-than-best efforts will have a disproportionately high yield." Quotas teach the malign lesson that what you get depends on what you are, not on what you do. Quotas were originally sold as a temporary expedient, but their backers–despite Bill Clinton's call to "mend it, don't end it"–seem determined to keep them in place forever, unchanged. Initially justifed as "an emergency measure, doing great harm for the sake of a greater good," McWhorter writes, today quotas' "harms remain and are extremely unhealthy."

But we will have to walk through a firestorm of protest to get to a quota-free America. George W. Bush would surely like to dodge this issue. The elites and the civil rights groups want discrimination to go on. Will Bush say that it is time to end it?

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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08/25/99: The first two contests
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07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©2000, Michael Barone