Race to the bottom

By David Tell

The Weekly Standard, May 17, 1999

“La inclusion es el simbolo de nuestra fuerza,” says Republican National Committee co-chairman Patricia S. Harrison. “Inclusion”-decoded from the original Spinnish-is the hallmark buzzword of a GOP eager to evade its share of responsibility for the fact that American law continues to stink with racial and ethnic classifications. These days, if you ask the average Republican what he thinks about affirmative action, he will hem and haw a moment, mumble that he opposes “quotas,” and change the subject as fast as he can. These days, the average Republican much prefers to talk about something called “outreach,” the comically awkward process by which he trolls for votes in the various “communities” that benefit from affirmative action. The modern GOP, it wants you to understand, is totally hip to the ‘hood.

And to el barrio, too, for that matter.

First Street, S.E., two blocks from the Capitol during Washington’s evening rush hour last Wednesday. Three hired guitarristas sporting giant sombreros are serenading mystified commuters in front of the Republican party’s complex of headquarters buildings. Inside, upstairs, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah is addressing a reception of maybe 200 industry lobbyists and twentysomething Hill staffers. “What great family people you are,” he marvels at this overwhelmingly gringo audience. “How great you are with your children.” They raise their margaritas in assent. Next, RNC chairman Jim Nicholson announces, “I served in the United States Army with a lot of Mexican Americans.” The handful of actual Chicanos present shout “Arriba!”

It is a Cinco de Mayo celebration, you see. Here and elsewhere across the country, Republicans are using the occasion as an opportunity to “resonate” their party’s “principles” with voters of the great-family-people persuasion. And what exactly does this “festive holiday” commemorate? Ooo, ooo, I know, I know, says the Partido Republicano. They know the answer because House Republican Conference chairman J.C. Watts Jr. has mailed them a little cheat-sheet “primer.”

Cinco de Mayo, according to the handout, “simply means ‘Fifth of May,'” the “anniversary of the Battle of Puebla [Pwe-bla] fought against FRANCE in 1862.” This holiday has “relevance to the United States” because Napoleon III of France “hated the U.S.” and because the “general in charge, Ignacio Zaragosa, was born in Texas,” which had been part of Mexico until . . . oh, never mind. Also worth noting: Following the battle, American troops “gave assistance to Mexican army, many of whom”-wonders never cease-“fought in Mexican army.” This assistance was apparently so important that 79 years later, “Many Mexicans joined the U.S. armed forces after Pearl Harbor in gratitude.”

When you arrive at a Cinco de Mayo party, Watts advises his GOP colleagues, do not be surprised to find lots of colorful indigenous whatnot: “parades, folkloric dancing, music [mariachis], community festivals, etc.” If introduced to the crowd, do not overtax their attention; “If you do speak, keep it simple and brief.” And remember, these voters are Mexicans: “Other Hispanic groups do NOT celebrate Cinco de Mayo.” So leave your Fidel Castro talking points at home.

Amigos. Yo quiero Taco Bell!

Mind you, all this “inclusion” is dorky and patronizing, but it is not much worse than that. For worse-for a genuinely disgusting approach to the politics of race and ethnicity-we must turn our attention to the Democratic party. There we find sanctimonious demagoguery in two competing varieties, nicely encapsulated in the emerging presidential campaigns of Bill Bradley and Al Gore, respectively.

It is the central conceit of Senator Bradley’s recent speeches-endless, schoolmarmy, weightlessly ethereal speeches-that he is the one, lone white politician in America who truly understands and cares for people of color. He has given much agonized thought to the subject; we know he has because he tells us so directly. And from this study has come what appears to be the basic Bradley message: that the rest of us should emerge from our haze of prejudice and suspicion and . . . be more like him. We should definitely not be like his late “Aunt Bub.” Blood is thicker than water, but a presidential campaign is thicker still; the senator is pleased to expose his aunt as a creepy bigot.

Should we remain concerned over the persistence of rigid and explicit racial categories in our national law, Senator Bradley? No, let’s don’t do that, either. Let’s “don’t conceive of race as just affirmative action.” Only “narrow-minded politicians,” “ambitious journalists,” and ol’ Aunt Bub would stoop so low.

Perhaps Dollar Bill’s is too mild a take on the quota-culture question for you. Vice President Gore may be your man, in that case. Gore is cartoonishly spicy on this topic, with a series of memorized one-liners he reserves for, and endlessly repeats to, African-American audiences. When Gore was a kid, it seems, his heroic father-the first Senator Gore (who voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but we won’t mention that)-took him to see a set of rusty manacles in the basement of an old Tennessee home. They were “slave rings.” Portentous.

Fast-forward to the present, where “critics of affirmative action” care nothing to “bring people together,” “teach people who are hungry for knowledge,” or “heal families who need medical care.” According to Gore, these critics, instead, are what Jesus himself called “hypocrites.” Opponents of race-consciousness are to color-blind principle and black folks-this is the vice president’s favorite analogy-as duck hunters are to duck blinds and ducks. Gore has consistently “fought back” against these deadly enemies of employment and admissions preferences, he brags. And “if they try again, we’ll fight them again. And if they try again, we’ll fight them again. And if they try again, we’ll fight them again and again and again.”

As they used to say in Alabama: Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever! Come to think of it, they still say something like that in Alabama.

Alabama’s system of public higher education has operated under a court-supervised, affirmative-action-saturated “desegregation” mandate since 1972. In 1995, U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy approved a plan whereby Alabama State University, in particular, would expand opportunity for statistically underrepresented students. Under ASU’s subsequent “Diversity Scholarship Program,” funded in part by an annual $1 million set-aside from the state legislature, applicants with just the right amount of melanin get up to 14 semesters of free tuition, room, board, and textbooks-plus life and health insurance and $900 a year in walking-around money.

The university’s administration sees a smashing success in the early results of this scheme: Enrollment of the underrepresented students has grown to 10 percent from less than 3 percent. So the school is aggressively expanding the new financial aid package, which already absorbs 40 percent of ASU’s academic grant budget. To qualify for a Diversity Scholarship, you now needn’t even come from a high school in Alabama, the jurisdiction whose discriminatory “vestiges” the program pretends to be redressing.

In fact, you needn’t have graduated from high school at all; a General Education Development certificate-and C-minus grades once you arrive-will do just fine. Which is what’s made ASU’s diversity scholars the object of some resentment among other students. “It’s not that they’re minority students,” the editor of the school newspaper told the Wall Street Journal in December 1997. “It’s that they’re not competitive.” Not competitive, that is, with the likes of 39-year-old Ph.D. candidate Jessie Tompkins, a married father of four who works part time but still manages to maintain a 3.5 grade point average. This gentleman lost his own modest ASU scholarship in 1995 because the school needed that money for people with another skin color.

Jessie Tompkins, incidentally, is black. Diversity Scholarships at ASU, a traditionally black institution, are restricted to “white students” only. White students only. Which makes those scholarships patently unconstitutional and otherwise illegal in what must be half a dozen different respects. Mr. Tompkins has sued. Eventually, years from now, probably too late to do him any practical good, he will almost certainly win.

In the meantime, though, will Bill Bradley or Al Gore or any other prominent Democrat risk the wrath of his party’s “civil rights” mafia by raising a voice against even this, the most extreme, absurd, and ugly of affirmative action programs? He will not.

And will the Republican party ever use the power of its congressional majority finally to make clear that our basic laws do not require-but actually prohibit-the sin of race- and ethnicity-conscious government policy? Senator Hatch? Chairman Nicholson? Representative Watts? Hello?

Manana, perhaps. Always manana. Happy Cinco de Mayo, everybody.