WASHINGTON -- Jesse Jackson's Niagara of ill-chosen words in defense of racial preferences in California and against the truncation of self-government in the District of Columbia echo episodes in American history.
In November 1996 California's electorate passed Proposition 209, banning racial preferences by governmental agencies. Then for 10 months opponents of 209 tried to get courts to block this result of direct democracy. They argued that a ban on unequal treatment of the races under a system of preferences violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws.
The courts found this unpersuasive, and two weeks ago the ban went into effect.
In response, Mr. Jackson led a march of 209's opponents across the Golden Gate Bridge, compared California Gov. Pete Wilson to George Wallace, and in a newspaper interview equated Proposition 209 to ''ethnic cleansing'':
''After Proposition 209, it's illegal to consider race or gender. You eradicate it, eliminate it, you cleanse it. Zero blacks in graduate schools, 400 applications rejected. That's cleansing. ''
Leaving aside Mr. Jackson's hyperbole, there has indeed been a decline in African-American admissions to the Berkeley law school, which already has begun race-blind admissions, and to the University of Texas law school, which is covered by a court ruling that race cannot be a factor in admissions.
However, such data refute one of Mr. Jackson's primary defenses of racial preferences, which is that preferences have not resulted in admissions being granted to unqualified persons or even to persons less well-qualified than those who otherwise would have been admitted.
Depressing data about how African-Americans fare under race-blind undergraduate or graduate-school admissions reveal, among other things, the failure of primary and secondary education adequately to serve the disadvantaged, as in the District of Columbia. We shall come momentarily to Mr. Jackson's thoughts about that.
The effects of implementing 209 will not soon be known, because some state and municipal officials who think as Mr. Jackson does are planning to act as George Wallace did, by defying the law. These officials, part of the burgeoning ''diversity'' industry that administers the racial spoils system, are more or less candid about their plans to continue implementing racial preferences. They say 209 is vague in its requirements or still legally unclear as it applies to their particular programs.
Sabotage of democracy
Mr. Jackson speaks no words against this defiance of the law, this sabotage of California democracy. He is busy being in high dudgeon about the attenuation of democracy in the District of Columbia.
The District is a creature of Congress, which recently limited the District's home rule. Congress transferred substantial powers from the elected mayor and city council to an appointed Control Board in response to fiscal chaos and the deterioration of essential social services.
Implying that the District is being treated with unprecedented disrespect because its population is predominantly African-American, Mr. Jackson says no other city has suffered a similar derogation of democracy because of its incompetence. (He forgets that two decades ago New York City's financial crisis caused New York state to divest the mayor and city council of substantial powers, transferring them to a financial-control board.)
Says Mr. Jackson, ''There must be no trade-off of democracy for delivery of services.'' Consider one service, education.
For the third time in four years, the District's schools have not opened on time. The problem is that more than one third of the schools are not in compliance with building codes. When functioning normally, the District's school system is distinguished by exceptionally high teachers' salaries, exceptionally high per-pupil spending -- and exceptionally high rates of functional illiteracy among high-school seniors.
A thought experiment
However, the blighting of young lives by the scandal of the District's education system is less important to Mr. Jackson than preserving popular sovereignty -- the very value he wanted courts to trample in order to block 209. So, consider a thought experiment.
Suppose the District's administrative malpractices were producing a clear and present danger of a public-health calamity -- say, an outbreak of cholera. Would Mr. Jackson argue that, nevertheless, popular sovereignty is a value superior to all others, even if the government it produces has lethal consequences?
If so, Mr. Jackson, who lives in Chicago, is an echo of an Illinois politician who 140 years ago argued that popular sovereignty was sacred, come what may.
Democratic Sen. Stephen Douglas was responding to the crisis posed by attempts to extend slavery into the territories. Douglas' solution was to treat popular sovereignty as the value that trumps all others. Let the territories vote slavery up or down. If the result expands the sphere of slavery, so be it.
Today in California Mr. Jackson and his partners in ''progressivism'' increasingly resemble Southern Democrats in the 1960s. In the District, they resemble Democrats in the 1850s.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 9/08/97