VMI victory isn't last word America's long history of privilege, prejudice needs to be overcome

July 07, 1996|By Karen Czapanskiy

AH, SAID MANY people with a sense of relief, isn't it wonderful that the Supreme Court came to the right decision in the VMI case? After all its conservative decisions in recent years, the court might have failed to rule that Virginia Military Institute's form of single-sex education is unconstitutional sex discrimination.

In the end, however, seven members of the court recognized VMl's claims to be what they were: simply wrong. As my 8-year-old son told me, "Mom, that's simple. The boys just don't want to have girls around. I don't want to have girls around either," he continued with admirable candor, "but it's still sex discrimination."

Of course, what my son understands is exactly the problem. It's true that there are boys who don't want to have girls around. Another harsh truth is that there are still whites who don't want to have African-Americans around, and there are still heterosexual folks who don't want to have gays and lesbians around, and there are still able-bodied folks who don't want to have disabled folks around.

So, while it's nice to know that seven members of the highest court in the land can understand that the "boys" at VMI should not have their way, we cannot let the court's decision lead us into complacency. Given the history of privilege and discrimination in this country, the VMI decision standing alone will not translate into opportunities for the "girls" or for other groups of people who traditionally have been excluded from lives of privilege.

Much impedes the transition from legal precedent to social transformation. One impediment is that people who have privileges don't want to give them up. Take, for an example, the people at VMI. Certainly, these are people who are smart enough to understand that boys don't want to have girls around. What they are missing is the second part of my son's analysis -- they don't see their preferences as sex discrimination. They see their preferences as the natural order of things. Nothing natural can be a privilege and nothing natural needs to change.

Thus, supporters of single-sex education at VMI applaud the fact that graduates of VMI enjoy opportunities in business and government that other people lack. It takes a Justice Ginsburg to point out that only the sons of Virginia enjoy these privileges. The daughters of Virginia, by being excluded from VMI, lack privileged access to employment opportunities and political influence. Their exclusion disadvantages each of them individually and, more importantly, it disadvantages women as a group. Lacking the same contacts and resources as male VMI graduates, women must work much harder to translate their voting strength into social changes beneficial to women.

In the week following the VMI decision, the Supreme Court declined to review the decision of the 5th Circuit in University of Texas vs. Hopwood.

Cheryl Hopwood, who is white, maintained that the law school rejected her four year ago because its admission policy unfairly favored minorities. Although the case has been viewed as being about special privileges for applicants of color, what the anti-affirmative action rhetoric conceals is the desire of whites to regain privileged access to legal education. Most revealing is the admissions practice called legacy, which allows children of alumni to get favorable treatment in admission to the law school. Given the history of the University of Texas as a whites-only institution until relatively recently, favorable treatment of children alumni can have only one result: More white students will be admitted. To the 5th Circuit, this is natural and non-discriminatory. But the fact is that legacy admissions are race-based. Not calling legacy a race-based form of discrimination does not make it a race-neutral reality.

The 5th Circuit, then, is willing to find that illegitimate discrimination exists when it hurts white people, but nothing illegitimate happens when discrimination helps white people. In this, the 5th Circuit is not unique. And the difficulty of getting people with privileges to disclaim their privileges cannot be underestimated.

To return to VMI, for example, what will it take to make VMI a coeducational institution? Just admitting women will not be enough. Why? Because, as the trustees of VMI are already reported to be saying, most women will flunk out anyway, so they won't be able to inflict harm on the institution. As the trustees no doubt understand, the present educational system at VMI is not designed to produce good graduates defined in a gender-neutral way. The definition of what is a "good graduate" is a male. Since the system won't be changed to give women an equal chance to be a "good graduate," the rare woman who succeeds will have to be much better than the men at being male. And we won't identify that as discrimination; indeed the claim will be that to do anything different would be discriminatory "special treatment" for the women.

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