Fresh Dispatches from the Frontlines of Indignation

March 09, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Question: Why is it, when the Canada geese head northward in their distinctive V-formations, that one leg of each V is usually longer than the other?

Answer: Because there are more geese in it.

In considering the behavior of politicians as well as geese, sometimes the simplest explanations are the most accurate. Take for example the quixotic proposal of Maryland's new governor to plunge the state deeper into the affirmative-action quagmire.

At a time when race-weighted policies are becoming a source of enormous public discontent at all levels of government, why would Parris Glendening want to reserve an even larger share of the state's business for approved minority groups? The answer has nothing to do with either economics or fairness, both of which have been offered as explanations. It has to do solely with numbers, and it's very simple.

A major bloc of Governor Glendening's constituents consists of people who, it is presumed, have a vested interest in affirmative action. He needs to please them so they will vote for him again. Thus he has asked the General Assembly to set aside 18 percent of the state's purchases, instead of the 10 percent the law now stipulates, for those with politically favored chromosomes.

This is mostly an exercise in hocus-pocus. The governor is well aware that the legislature, many of whose members are fresh from the real world of private life and would just as soon do away with such set-asides altogether, will cheerfully kill this bill. He'd probably be stunned if it didn't.

In any case, once he has made his politically expedient gesture on behalf of affirmative action, he can walk away from the issue. Certainly that would be the pragmatic course. Affirmative action, which has done incalculable damage to the interests of the very people it was intended to help, is now on the run.

The sooner it's eliminated, along with the corruption and condescension it generates, the better. Black Americans, in particular, are likely to find it liberating to be treated like everyone else.

That was the goal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of that landmark piece of legislation declares that ''Nothing contained in this title shall be interpreted to require any employer . . . to grant preferential treatment to any individual or any group because of the race, color, sex or national origin of such individual or group on account of an imbalance which may exist with respect to the total number or percentage of persons of any race, color, religion, sex or national origin employed by any employer.''

But that section has been ignored for most of the last 30 years. As early as 1970, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staff member was telling the Harvard Law Review that ''The anti-preferential provisions [of Title VII] are a big zero, a nothing, a nullity. They don't mean anything at all to us.''

Now, decades later, it appears those provisions the affirmative- action bureaucracy so despised may be taken seriously once again.

Twenty years ago, Nathan Glazer saw more clearly than most where quota-based affirmative-action policies were leading, and he didn't care for what he saw. His prescient book ''Affirmative Discrimination,'' published in 1975, was an early warning about the shift taking place in the concept of ''rights.''

Traditionally, in the American and British sense, ''rights'' were protections guaranteed the individual against the power of the state. But in the affirmative-action era, ''rights'' became preferences, enforced on behalf of favored groups by the government. This had set the nation on a new and dangerous course, Glazer saw, and was already producing ''an increasing consciousness of the significance of group membership, an increasing divisiveness on the basis of race, color and national origin, and a spreading resentment among the disfavored groups against the favored groups.''

It says much for the resilience and tolerance of the American public that it put up with these annoyances, described by their perpetrators as signs of social progress, for another 20 years. But the public patience isn't limitless, and in 1995 it appears to have run out. Affirmative action, like slavery and Prohibition, will soon be history.

Does this mean a resurgence of racism, or a last-ditch grab for power by embattled white males? That's what advocates of preference-politics would have us believe. But it seems more likely that what's going on is a new flowering of the old American idea that a strong society is built on individuals and not on groups or factions.

Governor Glendening may not have grasped this yet, or perhaps just doesn't want to be seen as having accepted it. But no matter. When he eventually goes back to teaching government, when he talks about set-asides he'll be using the past tense.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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