Snipers alley

November 18, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- At least no one called him a ''Quota King.'' At this point, Bill Lann Lee must be grateful for any small restraints.

On Thursday, Mr. Lee was slated to became the latest casualty of the partisans who have turned the Senate chamber into

Snipers Alley. This lawyer and son of a Chinese immigrant who ran a laundry in Harlem was officially dubbed unfit for the job as the nation's chief civil rights enforcer because he believes in affirmative action.

Moments before the Judiciary Committee was ready to vote him down the vote was blocked. The candidate was sent into a limbo that's likely to be permanent.

'Natural conciliator'

I knew he was a goner when Deval Patrick, the last chief, described Mr. Lee to me as a ''natural conciliator.'' No conciliators need apply in the land of polarized politics.

If anything, this flap over filling a civil rights post is proof of just how polarized the debate over affirmative action is. Both sides are now officially imprisoned in concrete boxes.

Opponents stake their claim to the higher moral ground by repeating the long-term vision of a race-blind society.

Proponents defend the program as an essential tool to right past and present wrongs. But they have been weak in articulating a long-term vision.

Today the people who are trying to get us to think outside of the boxes are outside of politics. Among them is Lani Guinier, who held the seat that Mr. Lee now occupies, the Distinguished Chair Trashed Candidates for the Civil Rights Post. She believes that we are arguing over affirmative action in education or employment, for example, when we should be focusing on the ''testocracy.''

This ''testocracy'' is, no, not based on testosterone but on tests. The tests by which we admit people to higher education, to professional schools, to jobs. A law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Guinier says, ''We have looked at affirmative action as an add-on or an add-back to the conventional criteria to choosing people to be successful.'' But what we should be looking at are the criteria.

The meritocracy that opponents of affirmative action keep insisting we must protect against the ''unqualified'' is really a testocracy of SATs and LSATs and civil service exams. These identify what Ms. Guinier calls with bemused skepticism ''a capacity for quick strategic guessing with less than perfect information.'' In reality they are poor predictors of academic and career success.

The law school aptitude tests are only slightly better than random at predicting grades of first-year law students. Indeed a study of three classes of Harvard alumni over three decades found that the most successful in life had entered the college with relatively low SAT scores and with blue-collar backgrounds. What they had was ''initiative'' or ''hunger.''

If the SATs do not test for hunger neither do they test for imagination, people skills, a whole range of talents shared by every race. ''Lowering the entry bar'' for people of color, ''giving preferences'' to women, is not departing from a fair and sound system. If anything, it is fiddling with a system that is essentially unfair and unsound.

''I think of the experience of women and people of color like the miner's canary,'' Ms. Guinier adds. They are the early warning signs of a dangerous environment. ''Affirmative action is looked at from the point of view of the canary. Make the canary stronger. Give it a gas mask. But the problem is that the canary is signaling the miner.''

To get out of this unhealthy tunnel we need to redefine merit in a way that broadens the definitions of intelligence and the boundaries of opportunity.

The story that we tell each other now in the context of affirmative action is of a country with scarce resources. If we don't open up the lens, it will always be this polarized.

In 1993, Ms. Guinier was the candidate slandered with the ''Quota Queen'' title. In this current reprise, starring Bill Lee, it's clear that many conservatives find the debate more politically useful than any resolution. It may be up to progressives to figure a way out of this stalemated and losing argument.

The canary is coughing. We just can't hear it behind all the political crowing.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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