Blow for civil rights

December 13, 1990

The Department of Education's announcement that it will withhold federal funds from colleges that offer scholarships designated for minority students understandably has sent shock waves through the higher education community. The new policy could bring to a standstill the progress blacks and other minorities have made over the last two decades in increasing their numbers on the nation's college and university campuses.

The rationale for the new policy announced by Assistant Secretary of Education Michael L. Williams is questionable at best. Williams maintains that the change was needed in order to bring the department into line with the Bush administration's stated goal of fostering a "colorblind" society. The only exceptions to the rule would be for colleges at which past racial or ethnic discrimination had been established. But such a requirement would, in effect, force a school to admit it had illegally discriminated in the past in order to offer any scholarship at all to minority students -- even if no discrimination had ever occurred.

For that very reason the motivation behind the policy is suspect. Coming after President Bush's veto of the civil rights bill, it's hard to see this assault on a purely voluntary affirmative action tool that has been widely accepted as a way of increasing the presence of blacks and other minorities on the nation's campuses as anything other than a cynical appeal for white votes. George Bush's "kinder, gentler" administration apparently has no qualms about stooping to actions that smack of blatant racial demagoguery.

It was probably no coincidence that Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos, the first Hispanic to hold the post, handed in his resignation, without giving a reason, on the day the new policy was announced. Granted, Cavazos merits a poor review for his lackluster performance as the nation's senior education policy maker, but it is hard to believe that he didn't see the dangerously shortsighted character of the new regulation. If he didn't quit out of disgust at seeing his party resort to such ugly race-baiting, he certainly should have.

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