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A liberal interpretation of 'The Bell Curve'?

POOR FRANCIS Lawrence, president of Rutgers. He has striven throughout his professional life to toe the p.c. line and now, through a slip of the tongue, finds himself on the receiving end of its ferocity.

At the meeting of the Rutgers Board of Governors, convened to consider calls for President Lawrence's ouster, his defenders were hooted and shouted down. "They will never play another home basketball game at Rutgers until he's gone," vowed one student leader, referring to last week's sit-down strike by hundreds of students in center court that disrupted a game between Rutgers and the University of Massachusetts.

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What the students are so outraged about is a remark Mr. Lawrence made concerning the use of standardized tests. He said, "The average SAT's [Scholastic Assessment Test] for African-Americans is 750. Do we set standards in the future so we don't admit anybody? Or do we deal with a disadvantaged population that doesn't have the genetic, hereditary background have a higher average?"

Since the quote became public last month, Mr. Lawrence has repeated over and over again, sometimes tearfully, that he didn't mean it, doesn't think it and would never intend to say such a thing. According to George Will, Mr. Lawrence refused even to read "The Bell Curve" because he found the idea so repugnant. Mr. Lawrence has apparently never met a multicultural curriculum he couldn't endorse or a speech code he couldn't live with. One of his proud accomplishments at Rutgers was the opening of a cultural center for Hispanic Americans.

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So if his words really were a slip of the tongue, then he is suffering poetic justice. He has allied himself with the forces of intolerance and rigidity on these matters, and now they have turned on him. He is like the original Bolsheviks arrested by Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s -- who went to their deaths maintaining their ideological purity.

There is another possibility; that the students are partly right -- and the slip of the tongue was a Freudian slip, revealing the truth. It may be a dirty little secret among some of the most pious liberals that they really don't believe in the logic of affirmative action -- which is to give a temporary leg up to %J historically oppressed people until they can get on their collective feet. Perhaps they really do think that blacks are permanently hobbled and will never be able to make it on their own, in which case quotas will always be necessary.

Any policy that cannot bear the truth cannot long survive. Each time someone publishes the facts about affirmative action, there is an outraged uproar. A few years ago, a student working in the admissions office of the Georgetown Law School wrote an article detailing the discrepancy between grades and test scores of white students and blacks. He was vilified. The message was: Don't say it. It is evil to draw attention to this. Silence!

But if the policy is right and good, why is it evil to talk about it?

The practice by the left of shouting down or morally intimidating those who do raise questions about the policy is coming to a close. In California, there will be an initiative on the 1996 ballot to end government-imposed affirmative action. It will spark an overdue national debate.

Are we willing to permit ourselves to become a country with permanently coddled minorities? Are we willing to say that a person's race is the most relevant aspect of his personhood? Is it right that the child of a black entertainer or physician, having enjoyed the finest private schools and tutors, ought to gain admittance to a university over the child of a white waitress, even if the white youngster has better credentials?

As this debate gets rolling, we will hear more from blacks who detest the stigma that attaches to blacks who achieve success. Was it merit or lower standards? Is he a competent pilot, engineer, nurse, professor -- or merely an "affirmative action hire"? And who really thinks it is true that blacks, permitted to compete equally with whites, can't hack it?

The national debate is coming -- and the loudest cries of the students at Rutgers cannot prevent it.

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Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.


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