Affirmative action is a tribute to the strength of our collective national will

November 11, 1997|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- I find Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah dandy, a tough one to figure out. Is he some kind of selective and sanctimonious right-wing zealot? Or is he a mole, planted in the Republican leadership in Congress by Democrats smarter than they look?

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Hatch, a Republican, has declared that Bill Lann Lee, the son of Chinese immigrants, who made it to Yale Law School and went on to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is not fit to serve the United States as a second-level official of the Justice Department. The reason, says Mr. Hatch, is that Mr. Lee believed in what he was doing and in the laws of the United States, particularly the laws that created affirmative action.

Well, if there is justice in the American heart and heartland, Mr. Hatch is going to do a good deal of damage to the Republican Party. He has already pumped up his fellow congressional Republicans to make absolute fools of themselves by grumbling and mumbling that Mr. Lee is a threat to our ''color-blind Constitution.''

Our color-blind Constitution? Are these serious people? They are the new know-nothings.

They should read before they talk. I am assuming that Thomas Jefferson was not blind, and that he and other ''color-blind'' Founding Fathers did not think the slaves were white. Therefore I assume they meant what they said in Article I, Section 2, of the greatest (if flawed) political document in history. In the third paragraph, a few lines down from ''We the People,'' the founders required that members of Congress had to have been citizens of the United States for at least seven years -- which means they had to be a certain color.

In the next paragraph comes the phrase ''three-fifths of all other persons,'' which meant people of another color, slaves.

The high-riding Republican conservatives are not doing much to conserve the real history of the United States. They much prefer the abridged version behind their fevered and furrowed brows. The saving grace in this case may be that they are also politically dense.

Playing by the rules

Asian-Americans and their children, who are Americans who just happen to look a bit different, are fairly conservative folk themselves, tending to vote Republican in important states. The not-so-hidden message of the Lee case is that if you play by the rules, which affirmative action made a little more generous for all, and you win distinction by your own talent and efforts, you still will not be allowed to make it if your ideas are different than the mind-pictures of political conservatives.

If other Asians or their children and grandchildren come to

believe that, the Republicans may pay a high price for Mr. Hatch's hang-ups in future elections. So maybe he is a mole, sneaked into the Republican Party by crafty Democrats.

Affirmative action is one of the greatest things that has ever happened in the United States. On the most fundamental levels it has made America better, and a better place to live. The big idea in the 1960s, when it occasionally seemed possible that the American experiment might blow up, was to find a way to lever black people into the national mainstream as 100-percent Americans, not three-fifths people. It worked and is working -- and not just for black people.

Women, if you look at some statistics, may have benefited more than black Americans from the national out-reach to diversity. But the greatest benefit was to the nation itself, to all of us. There has been and still is a certain amount of individual unfairness to people (mostly our famous ''white males'') pushed out of the way to move up a white woman or a black male. We all have our stories.

But the big story is thrilling, a tribute to the national will. Americans wanted justice for all, and they wanted to feel that they were the people they always thought they were, in a country better than we know ourselves to be. Now an American in an office, or a university, or a good neighborhood only has to look around or turn on a television set to see that life in America has changed enormously since the creation of affirmative action in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Look at the way our children interact racially compared to the way it was for generations past.

There are deep and enduring problems involving race and poverty and deep fault lines of fear in the America of 1997, but it is a better, fairer and more prosperous place than it was 30 and 40 years ago. We the people have done a great and often selfless job bringing along Americans like Bill Lann Lee.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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