December 27, 2002

Lott Turmoil Opens Door for GOP To Do the Right Thing

By Donal Brown

Since Mississippi Senator Trent Lott blundered into outing himself from the racist closet, race relations have once again commanded national attention — to the extent that the Bush administration is considering taking a position on the University of Michigan affirmative action case, which will go before the Supreme Court next year.

The Court will hear arguments on the university’s use of race as a factor in undergraduate and law school admissions.

Lott, of course, has miraculously seen the truth and now says he favors affirmative action. Rather than protecting their political marbles, the administration should do better than Lott and support affirmative action as a way to serve justice and equality. Bush could point to several recent studies that show that racial discrimination still thrives, and that affirmative action can help secure some measure of racial justice.

Many conservatives don’t want to accept that blacks suffer discrimination 30 years after the civil rights movement. But a recent study by two university researchers found what blacks in American know — they face significant discrimination in applying for jobs.

The researchers, Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Sendhil Mullainathan of M.I.T., randomly selected 1,300 help-wanted ads from newspapers in two cities and submitted resumes from phantom job seekers. They randomly assigned the first names on the resumes, for one group choosing names common among blacks, and from another, names common to whites. They found that job applicants with common black names on their resumes were less likely to be called for an interview than applicants with white names and the same qualifications.

Other studies have showed that even in the strong economy of the 1990s, blacks had a more difficult time landing a job. In Detroit, on average, it took unskilled, unemployed whites 91 hours to get a job offer. It took blacks with similar qualifications 167 hours. In the early 1990s, one television showed that discrimination even affected highly educated, middle-class black men.

The experiment asked two men, one white and one black, with similar houses, jobs, and university educations, to apply for a job and rent an apartment. The white man enjoyed immediate success; the black man suffered rejection.

Racism is alive and flourishing in America and for as long as that is the case, affirmative action is needed.

Those opposing affirmative action argue that considering race as one of many “diversity” factors compromises high standards and enables less-qualified candidates to gain admission. Some successful people of color denounce affirmative action as a policy that places “special favor” asterisks on their achievements. Others claim that affirmative action students are not as well qualified and are taking places from students who would achieve more.

But consider the data uncovered by two former university presidents who studied the effects of affirmative action in select universities. In their book “The Shape of the River,” William Bowen and Derek Bok show that blacks admitted to select universities under affirmative action excelled academically and upon graduation earned high salaries. The researchers found that black grads of select schools were more likely than their white classmates to become civic leaders.

Others say that affirmative action makes things good for a privileged few, blunting the drive for effective programs to reduce poverty. It is true that affirmative action is but one small token for the disenfranchised, but it is a necessary one to make sure that middle class blacks have opportunities to succeed. That should not hurt efforts to address more pressing issues of racial and economic parity.

Those opposed to affirmative action for non-racist reasons may truly seek a color-blind society. But race matters. Affirmative action, which benefits middle-class blacks and Hispanics, should be a non-partisan issue. And both parties, not just Democrats, should develop additional programs for people of color trapped in impoverished neighborhoods.

Brown ( taught in the California public school system for 35 years and in Africa for two.

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