Race matters


WASHINGTON -- You get a clear picture of the sad state of race relations in America when you look at the campaign to block confirmation of Bill Lann Lee to become assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Mr. Lee, the thoroughly responsible and competent western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was nominated by President Bill Clinton in July to head the Justice Department's staff of some 250 lawyers who are sworn to protect the civil rights of all Americans. Since then, conservative forces have tried to portray Lee as a dangerous extremist.

Some describe him as a menace because he supports affirmative action -- this even though he opposes quotas.

Others want to block Mr. Lee because he sided with female police officers in Los Angeles who had sued the LAPD charging harassment and discrimination. Such critics want Lee rejected because he believes that police forces ought to reasonably reflect the populations being policed.

Newspapers and others opposing him say he favors "race- and sex-based hiring."

Even some Republican senators suggest that Mr. Lee might be dangerous because he has described as "unconstitutional" California's Proposition 209, which outlaws considerations of race and gender in admissions to California universities and in state hiring.

I find it extremely worrisome that the U.S. Senate now takes seriously such charges against a man whom the Republican mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan, credits with "practical leadership and expertise [who] has practiced mainstream civil rights law." Part of the problem has been generated by right-wing newspaper columnists who have attacked Mr. Lee because he is not their toady. But even so-called "moderate" and "mainstream" newspapers have brainwashed much of the public by using the loaded word "preferences" in virtually all headlines and articles referring to affirmative action. The immediate implication is that some minority person or female is getting some job or admission to college that he or she does not deserve.

As for college admissions, the pretense is that fair university officials only consider high school grades and scores on standardized tests. But 62 chancellors and presidents of our greatest universities recently pointed out that they also consider the recommendations of trusted alumni, the student applicant's character, his or her extracurricular activities and overall potential to become a leader.

And let's not kid ourselves. A child of a distinguished alumnus or of a major donor to a college generally gets a major "preference" over other applicants.

Is there a public clamor for a law or a "proposition" to ban these preferences? No. It is only where someone seeks to remedy age-old injustices perpetrated against minorities and women that "preferences" become odious.

Bill Lee is the kind of lawyer who sees through the hypocrisy about preferences and quotas, and that helps to make him admirably qualified to lead the Civil Rights Division.

Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/28/97

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