A FRIEND recently landed a job for what supporters and detractors of the 1991 civil rights bill would agree is the wrong reason: the color of his skin. He was hired to help fill the most insidious, yet least discussed, quota of all: the quota for white men.
Public debate about civil rights legislation, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1991, invariably revolves around the issue of whether the legislation will lead to de facto quotas for minorities.
The debate over quotas is one of many examples of how the civil rights discussion is clouded by misunderstanding and misperception.
The societal preference for white males (quota, lowering of standards, call it what you like) is rarely, if ever, discussed. The thread of white male privilege is so well woven into our social fabric that it's implicitly taken as the norm, a given. In the civil rights debate, black men are seen as a special interest; white men are not.
Because the societal preference for white males is invisible, it's safe for Republicans and others to criticize the civil rights legislation as a "quota bill" designed to replace qualified white men with unqualified minorities.
Quotas contradict what America claims to represent and tarnish the image of our nation as a meritocracy. That's why it's so important that the quota for white males remain invisible, beyond public debate. As long as that long-standing quota system remains safely hidden, Republicans can continue to claim the moral high ground by attacking the idea of quotas and championing the success-through-merit ethic.
Supporters of the civil rights bill don't seem to realize this. In defending legislation that even appears to result in quotas, racial preferences or a lowering of standards, they wage a suicide mission.
Most Americans find explicit hiring quotas or any perceived lowering of standards reprehensible, even if they increase positions for groups that have been historically discriminated against.
Blind to this reality, civil rights proponents have pushed for policies that appear absurd when viewed from beyond the bizarre tangle of racial politics.
One example is race norming, a process in which scores for employment tests are adjusted using a formula based on how members of a particular racial/ethnic group generally score. A black person's raw score of 85 could be reported as higher than a white's raw score of 90, because blacks as a group score so much lower than whites on such tests. The policy is ridiculous. If the tests are biased, they should be discarded or improved. Changing scores is no solution.
In the realm of higher education, many defenders of affirmative action and other civil rights policies continue to deny what most of us already know. Black students are accepted to graduate schools with test scores and grade point averages lower than those of their white counterparts.
The recent furor at Georgetown Law School revolved around one student's attempt to expose this secret and everyone else's attempt to deny it. The admissions office at the school refused to confront the allegations that the undergraduate grades and test scores of its black students were significantly lower than those of its white students. Instead, the school sidestepped the issue with a vague assertion that said in effect: "Well, we take many factors into account; test scores and grades cannot be considered alone."
I am not arguing that the admissions process is either good or bad. But we must admit to ourselves what we are doing and why. If Georgetown has a rationale for how it admits students, it should be made public. If the rationale can't stand up to public scrutiny, perhaps the school should devise an improved method of admission.
What critics of the civil rights bill miss is that the battle for equality, or equal opportunity, is far from won. What black parents have always told their children remains true: You have to be twice as good to get half as far.
When I see a Colin Powell, Faye Wattleton or Spike Lee, I know they are eminently qualified and have traveled a longer and harder road than white men in comparable positions.
The pressing question is not whether a civil rights bill will lead to minority quotas. The question is: "When will we recognize and end white male quotas?"
R. Richard Banks writes from Stanford, Calif.