Whites need not apply

Review & Outlook

By the editors

The Wall Street Journal, March 6, 1997

In his State of the Union, President Clinton proclaimed, “Building one America is our most important mission.” Try telling that to “Michelle Doe.” Michelle is a 16-year-old girl who attends a predominantly minority high school in Corpus Christi, Texas. When she went looking for some productive way to spend her summer, she soon discovered that the government divides people according to skin color.

Michelle, a straight-A student from a humble background, first applied to Camp Planet Earth, a summer environmental science program run by Texas A&M University with funding from the National Science Foundation. She was a finalist in 1994, but during an interview it emerged that she wasn’t eligible to participate. The program is for “minorities” only, and Michelle is white.

“There is really nothing wrong with the kinds of requirements that were in place for Camp Planet Earth,” Kenneth Ashworth, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, assured the disappointed girl. After all, he reasoned, “there were other similar camps this summer that you were eligible for and could have attended. I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities that arise when you can.”

Imagine if Michelle had been black, and a government official had told her you can’t participate in this program because of your race, but don’t worry, there are other opportunities open to you. Shades of “separate but equal.” This kind of segregation is no less pernicious when it’s designed to “benefit” minorities.

In 1995, Michelle inquired about another summer program advertised at her school, an apprenticeship at Texas A&M funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Agriculture Department. The director of this program informed Michelle that she shouldn’t even bother applying because she wasn’t a black, Hispanic, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Pacific Islander or Asian. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that NIH supports 114 such discriminatory programs around the country, at an annual cost of $3.6 million.

All of this is a clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbid states and entities receiving federal aid from making decisions based on race. Indeed, in Adarand v. Pena (1995), the Supreme Court held that discrimination by the government is illegal unless it’s “narrowly tailored” to correct past racism. Applying Adarand, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last year in Hopwood v. Texas that the University of Texas Law School had no right to apply racial preferences in admissions.

Trying to enforce the law, Michelle sued the government with the help of the Center for Individual Rights, a public interest law firm that won the Hopwood decision. The National Science Foundation quickly caved in. It agreed to stop discriminating in its summer science camps, and paid Michelle and her lawyers $20,000. The case against the NIH and USDA has just been filed, so there’s been no resolution yet, but it’s probable these departments too eventually will agree to clean up their summer programs.

That doesn’t resolve the larger problem, however. The federal government continues to fund untold numbers of race-based initiatives. The Center for Individual Rights is trying hard to weed out these programs and is having some success. In January, it won a settlement reforming a Delaware Bar Association summer program, funded by the Justice Department, that excluded whites.

But the solution isn’t more litigation. President Clinton should simply start enforcing the law, which calls for the government to be as color-blind as possible. Whatever happened to “mend it, don’t end it”? If Michelle’s experience is any indication, the only mending that’s going on occurs when Uncle Sam has the courts breathing down his neck.