Twice in my life (so far) I have been fired from jobs. On several occasions I have not been hired, or was denied promotion, for reasons I believed had to do with my gender and race. It wasn't until last year, 34 years into the journalism profession, that I reached my goal -- my own network TV show.
In 1960, the university admissions office told me I couldn't get in unless I improved my C-minus high school average to a B. I did. Later, when I flunked out of college, my father said if I went back I had to pay my own way. I did, my grades improved, and I graduated.
I have now succeeded in every category to which I aspired, not because someone took pity on me for earlier failings, but because I never gave up.
Some would say that because I am a white male, I had a reservoir of self-esteem. But affirmative action programs in hiring, college admission and promotion do not increase esteem. If anything, they lower esteem because such mandated programs say to the person on the receiving end, "You can't do it on your own, so the government will have to do it for you. In any case, you will never be required to be good enough to meet any standard."
As California Gov. Pete Wilson told me last week, "Affirmative action is a system of race and gender-based preferences, which means that jobs, public contracts and college admissions to a public university are granted not by virtue of individual merit, but instead on the basis of membership defined by race or gender. That's wrong and unconstitutional." Instead, Wilson believes in vigorously enforcing anti-discrimination laws already on the books and giving minorities the tools they need to meet standards of excellence.
The goal should not be equality of outcome, because not everyone has the same skills, drive or desire. The goal should be equality of opportunity to allow people to go as high as their talents and zeal allow them.
That's the only affirmative action program Murray Riese needed. Who was Murray Riese? He was a restaurateur, who died last week at age 73. Riese was born in Harlem. He dropped out of high school and, along with his brother, went to work in 1936, in the middle of the Depression, as a dishwasher. After four years, the brothers had saved $500 -- enough to put a down payment on a luncheonette. They parlayed this modest start into an empire that once consisted of more than 300 restaurants. Riese was affirmed by his actions. He believed that in America anything was possible if you put your mind to it.
Affirmative action forces companies to lower standards and creates resentment among those others who must live up to higher standards. Affirmative action promotes racism and sexism because those who don't benefit from government protection to get jobs, promotions and entrance into universities will always believe that those who do are inferior and will respond accordingly. How much better to give the disadvantaged the tools to become excellent. Unfortunately, the declining quality of our government schools increasingly produce people with poor intellectual and work skills.
On my desk is a saying by a man out of favor with most historians. President Calvin Coolidge proposed the kind of affirming action that should be impressed upon every American: "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and Determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."
Holding to a standard of excellence and equipping people to try to meet it will produce a better nation. Lowering the standard, or having different rules for different people based on race or gender, is not fair to anyone, least of all the supposed "beneficiaries." The Constitution is about individual rights, not group rights. That principle is undermined by affirmative action.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.