The Bad Old Habits of Bigotry


Old habits die hard, especially bad ones. Racialdiscrimination in America is older then the Republic, so it is not surprising that it lingers long after the Civil War, Reconstruction and the grisly decades of Jim Crow oppression.

What is surprising is that so many opponents of progress expect anyone to believe the whole fight can be terminated by mere expressions of good will. One example, and there are many, is a letter from Samuel Podberesky, written in response to last week's column on his son's attempt to derail the Banneker scholarships at College Park.

Mr. Podberesky, senior counsel to the U.S. Transportation Department, says he believes blacks can compete with whites in fair competition, but that affirmative-action programs such as the Banneker scholarships prevent their doing so. Proclaiming that he shares "at least some" of my "agenda" and decrying "invective" from my "ilk," he agrees that the sons of disadvantaged blacks must be "nurtured in our society to allow them to pull themselves up and succeed."

How they are supposed to do that, in the face of determined hostility demonstrated by the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police and repeated across the land in police-brutality cases, Howard Beach-style mob attacks and the quiet bias a recent black-white test-applicant program showed up, that's another story. Just do away with affirmative action, thank you, and things will take care of themselves.

Mr. Podberesky, who came here from Europe during the era of segregation, asks why the sons and daughters of those who fought to overthrow it should have something denied to his son. Strange question, from one who was automatically granted rights and opportunities denied the fathers and mothers of today's Banneker winners, but perhaps that is another story, too.

Nationally, self-proclaimed friends of disenfranchised blacks say

that affirmative action is a millstone around the necks of blacks in college and on the job. George F. Will took up this cry two days ago. Quoting a black Berkeley student's complaint that "I feel like I have AFFIRMATIVE ACTION stamped on my forehead," Mr. Will implies that such treatment by fellow students, faculty and institutional staff exists only because of the campus affirmative-action program.

Wrong. No really unprejudiced person would judge the capabilities of someone he or she did not know by assuming his very presence to be evidence of lowered abilities and special privileges. Only people who refuse to give up the bad old habits of discrimination and resent the limitations affirmative action places on acting out their prejudices behave that way. Scrapping affirmative action won't correct their attitudes, it will just eliminate some of the competition they really fear.

In the Congress, Democratic leaders and a few brave Republicans are working on a new version of last year's civil-rights bill, passed by both houses but vetoed by President Bush as a "quota" bill. Thirty amendments to specifically bar quota hiring notwithstanding, Mr. Bush and his Republican cohorts have made the issue of quotas a buzz-word as the Congress heads into another election year.

A companion to the quota issue is the attack on statistical proof of discrimination in job-bias cases, waged by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and right-wing Supreme Court colleagues.

Lawyers in other kinds of cases know the best test of a defendant's state of mind is his actual behavior, measured objectively. That often means statistical proof, irrefutable measures of the results of policies and actions. But irrefutable proof of discrimination makes too many people uncomfortable in an American mainstream which presents itself as "color-blind." It can cost jobs and promotional opportunities and it can provide ++ avenues of advancement for people who have long been held down. That translates into "less opportunities for me and mine," with responses like Mr. Podberesky's predictable.

The real story, proved in numbing detail repeatedly over the last half of the 20th century, is that discrimination always continues until broken by the force of law. If George Bush didn't believe that, he'd never have forced the Business Roundtable to abandon its talks with civil-rights leaders.

Those talks were headed toward a settlement that would have put the good intentions of all the supposed friends of America's long-suffering minorities to the ultimate test: meeting qualified minority candidates, hire them or accept them in institutions of learning without the limits heretofore placed on them, or explain why in court. No ducking and no doubletalk.

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