Tempest in a teacup

Paul Greenberg

December 19, 1990|By Paul Greenberg

SOMETHING SEEMS to happen to people -- or at least bureaucrats -- when the subject is race and the context is education. Craziness seeps in and starts to overflow, and the government can't do the simplest thing without setting off an uproar. A single assistant secretary for (or maybe against) civil rights makes a gratuitous comment from somewhere in the gaseous bowels of the Bush administration's dithering Department of Education -- and the result is the biggest mountain ever made out of the tiniest molehill.

The comment -- from somebody named Williams in Washington -- was that giving out scholarships that were "race-exclusive" (that's how they talk in Washington) might cost colleges their federal aid. Immediately, distinguished people all over the country mounted their hobbyhorses and ran off in all directions. Somebody said that scholarships intended to assure the presence of racial minorities on campus might be in trouble. Everybody who was anybody in education got quoted, often using words like Horrible, Outrageous and Shocking. Descriptions like "incorrect and misguided" seemed relatively mild.

None dared call the reaction overblown -- or the bureaucrat who started it a pettifogging meddler. Few noted that the scholarships he was referring to -- named after Martin Luther King Jr. and being offered to schools by the Fiesta Bowl -- do not specify the race of the recipients; they would be granted in accordance with any and all federal regulations. It was more fun to jump up and down in horror and speak of another dread Racist Republican Conspiracy.

A single word from the White House might have avoided this whole, burgeoning uproar. None came. The lights may be on at 1600 Pennsylvania, but nobody seems home. According to a late flash from that distinguished quarter, the assistant secretary's comment is being reviewed -- as if such a review and reversal should require more than about 30 seconds.

As for the Education Department, where this teapot-sized tempest started, it's between secretaries. (Not that the empty chair in the boss's office is any great change from its forgettable occupant the past couple of years.) Result: The sort of vacuum of judgment and control that produces a grand media-mess.

Somebody ought to state clearly and simply that scholarships intended to attract a racial or ethnic minority to a campus are not racially exclusive. Of course such programs should be administered with some common sense. But where do you find that most uncommon of qualities today? It seems to have been replaced by a surfeit of lawyers. Of course everybody is confused, out of sorts, provocative and provoked. That's why nobody sits down and quietly notes certain guiding principles that would avoid all this silliness, namely:

* Scholarships for students who are in the racial minority on a college campus should not keep any qualified students who are in the majority out of medical school, or from enrolling in the next freshman class.

* Such scholarships should attract students who might not ordinarily attend a particular school; they should not penalize those who ordinarily would.

* Academic and other standards must be maintained; being part of a racial minority at a school might legitimately qualify a student for financial aid -- but it must not substitute for academic or other qualifications, such as good behavior.

All of this should go without saying. Naturally it doesn't, not in these thoroughly pettifogged times.

Let's step back for a moment to a more civilized moment in American history -- a scene at the San Francisco immigration office earlier in this century. It seems a Chinese woman, with her documents all in order, had arrived with an infant born on the long voyage. An earnest immigration officer wired the authorities in Washington asking whether the child, "having no permit to land, must be sent back to China." The reply from Washington was prompt and appropriate: "Don't be a damned fool."

Alas, there no longer seems anyone in authority in Washington who, when confronted with some vague piece of bureaucratese can say: Don't be a damned fool. That simple and clear instruction ought to be given to every officious assistant secretary for or against anything in that muddled capital. It might avoid nationwide uproars.

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