Repairing the breach

April 11, 1997|By Michael Kelly

WASHINGTON -- The president, it seems, has been taking himself seriously in his frequent references to himself as ''the repairer of the breach.'' Casting about for a legacy larger than family leave, a news subject grander than grand juries, he has lighted upon the subject of race.

In February, he asked Erskine Bowles to take time off from his compassionate efforts for poor ol' Webb and figure out what to do about the difficulties between white people and black people in this country. And now the president is going to take some actions. He is going to apologize to the black men who were withheld treatment for syphilis in the U.S. Public Health Service's barbaric and criminal Tuskegee experiment. He is going to play a role in ceremonies at Shea Stadium to honor Jackie Robinson. He might convene a White House conference on bigotry. He will probably appoint a commission.

Oh, good. Two photo-ops, a conference and a commission. A few acts of symbolic atonement, another spectacle of the flak-catchers mau-mauing themselves, some token employment for the same small group of racialists and race-specialists who always find token employment in these affairs, remarks by Jesse Jackson. That should repair that breach.

As it happened, the details of the president's new p.r. campaign made the papers on the same day in which there was real news on race. In California, a three-judge federal appellate panel overturned an injunction issued last November to stop the implementation of Proposition 209, a public referendum to ban race and sex preferences in public programs.

Prop 209 had been approved by 54 percent of California voters -- including 30 percent of the state's black voters -- but Judge Thelton Henderson had blocked it anyway, on the grounds that it might unconstitutionally disadvantage minorities and women to be singled out for the denial of preferential treatment, when, after all, some other groups (such as Army veterans) were accorded special treatment.

In rejecting this bit of surreality, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that what threatens the Constitution was Judge Henderson's ruling. ''A system which permits one judge to block with the stroke of a pen what 4,736,180 state residents voted to enact as law tests the integrity of our constitutional democracy,'' wrote Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain.

What the president can do

If the president really wants to do something historic about the race problem in America, the Ninth Circuit's ruling offers a fine place to begin. The ruling is sure to be appealed, eventually to the Supreme Court. The president has it within his easy power (easier even than calling up a commission) to reverse his previous order, and tell his Justice Department to enter the case on the side of the voters of California, and on the side of equal treatment under the law.

It has been nearly two years since Mr. Clinton committed himself to a program to mend, not end, affirmative action, by preserving positive efforts to help minorities and women make gains and reforming the gross and blatantly discriminatory excesses of the group-spoils system that had grown up under the name of affirmative action.

''Let me be clear about what affirmative action must not mean and what I won't allow it to be,'' he said. ''It does not mean -- and I don't favor -- the unjustified preference of the unqualified over the qualified of any race or gender. It doesn't mean -- and I don't favor -- numerical quotas. It doesn't mean -- and I don't favor -- rejection or selection of any employee or student solely on the basis of race or gender without regard to merit.''

Strong stuff, but there was a reason why proponents of affirmative action hailed the speech, and the reason is familiar to anyone who has studied Clintonspeak. In those three short sentences, the president incorporated no fewer than five weasel terms -- ''unjustified,'' ''unqualified,'' ''numerical quotas,'' ''solely'' and ''without regard to merit'' -- which, taken together, rendered the meaning of the president's statement the opposite of what it appeared to say.

What Mr. Clinton was really saying was that his administration would only oppose programs that discriminated in favor of preferred-group members and against whites and males when it could be proved that the discrimination could not be justified in any way whatsoever: where the minority member was not merely less qualified than a competing white person but utterly ''unqualified;'' where the discriminatory program openly identifies its target levels as ''numerical quotas,'' instead of ''goals and timetables,'' the euphemism under which quotas hide; where the discrimination to favor a preferred-group member over a white or male was not based decisively on race or sex, but ''solely;'' where the decision gives merit no weight at all.

Thus, while defining those affirmative action programs which were unfair and unallowable, Clinton defined unfair and unallowable out of existence.

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