Dividing the Country Along Racial Lines

March 02, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Governments, and the political parties that compete to capture them, trade in certitudes and hence rarely have uneasy consciences. But when they do they are apt to utter strangely labored locutions, such as, ''We pledge vigorous federal programs and policies of compensatory opportunity.''

The phrase ''compensatory opportunity'' is from the Democratic platform of 1976. That was before ''affirmative action,'' which phrase also appears in that document, was fully established as the preferred euphemism for reverse discrimination. Such discrimination is now known also as a ''race-conscious remedy.''

It is said to be necessary to remedy the presumed victimization of certain groups in the past, or to end demonstrable ongoing discrimination against identifiable individuals, or to achieve the ''diversity'' appropriate to a ''multicultural society'' by rectifying ''underrepresentation'' of particular groups in particular occupations or institutions.

In politics, a plurality of reasons for a particular activity often indicates the lack of a compelling reason, or reluctance to state the real reason, such as: The activity is a spoils system with a constituency. Given that for a long time now there have been so many laws against discrimination and so many agencies actively seeking to root out discrimination, affirmative action must almost entirely, if not entirely, benefit persons not known to have suffered discrimination.

In 1996, California voters almost certainly will use the initiative process to put into the state constitution a ban on the state using ''race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation of the state's system of public employment, public education or public contracting.''

Advocates of affirmative action, who understandably prefer to denounce its detractors than to defend its premises or consequences, call the California Civil Rights Initiative a

provocation. The initiative is prompting emulative legislation in Congress and is exerting a gravitational pull on the competition for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination.

Lamar Alexander says ''I hope to play an active role in supporting'' California's initiative. Phil Gramm says his first executive order as president would abolish racial and sexual ''quotas, preferences and set-asides.'' Bob Dole says that one reason 62 percent of white males voted Republican last year was resentment of the fact that ''sometimes the best qualified person does not get the job because he or she may [be the wrong] color. And I'm beginning to believe that may not be the way it should be in America.''

Senator Dole's mild remark drew from the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Donald Payne, a New Jersey Democrat, this response: ''I think it's really a shame that the Republican Party is going about dividing this country along racial lines.'' Proponents of ''race-conscious'' pol

icies should blush when accusing others of ''dividing this country along racial lines.''

Furthermore, who has been provoking whom in American politics? Liberals unsuccessful at democratic persuasion and comfortable achieving social change by judicial fiats, persuade courts to overturn policies reflecting community preferences regarding abortion, school busing, school prayer, sex education, pornography, capital punishment and other matters. And when this results, predictably, in political resistance, the resisters are accused of behaving provocatively.

People who consider the language of the California initiative provocative should remember the way Democrats talked just 20 years ago. Their 1976 platform said: ''To achieve a just and healthy society and enhance respect and trust in our institutions, we must ensure that all citizens are treated equally before the law.'' But the next paragraph pledged ''vigorous'' policies of ''compensatory opportunity.''

For two decades liberalism, which by now has little ideological clarity beyond its belief in racial, ethnic and sexual preferences, has tried to speak the language of the nation's convictions while serving the diametrically opposed desires of a few factions. This project is about to collapse under the accumulating weight of its contradictions.

Having waged a frontal assault on a fundamental national premise -- rights inhere in individuals, not groups -- liberals profess themselves scandalized and surprised that a backlash is brewing. What is truly surprising, and actually scandalous, is that it has taken so long to brew.

The accusation of racism has been flung about so promiscuously by liberals that it has lost its power to substitute for argument or to silence dissent. So liberals defending group preferences are relying on a mindless modernism -- the assertion that the policy standards taught by America's founding philosophy of individual rights are out of date. To which the proper response (from an Alan Bennett play) is: ''Standards are always out of date; that is what makes them standards.''

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.