By: Hugh B. Price
National Urban League
As the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday came and went, I thought of the flashing controversies involving race relations that have captured front-page attention during the last six weeks—police racial profiling, Trent Lott, affirmative action at the University of Michigan, and more—and I said to myself:
How appropriate. Martin King would have been pleased.
Pleased not because the effects of past discrimination, and present-day denial of opportunity, still exist.
But pleased because some Americans refuse to accept it and be quiet about it and collaborate in pushing it off the nation's agenda.
Pleased because Martin Luther King was a disturber of the peace.
Martin Luther King, and many others in the United States in the middle decades of this century were all intent on disturbing the false peace that for so long enabled injustice to thrive.
Too often since then, King and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole have been smothered in a gooey, we-were-all-in-this-together mush that must make those who don't know the history wonder just who the opposition was and why it took so long for the cause of equal rights under law to prevail.
Well, we can thank Senator Lott's public nostalgia for the days of Jim Crow for clearing some of the mist obscuring how controversial the pursuit of racial equality and how bitter the criticism of King was in those years.
And we can thank both Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security advisor, and Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, for underscoring that, despite considerable progress, America remains a long way from the racial Promised Land.
Both Powell and Rice, respectively, holders of two of the highest federal appointive offices ever held by African Americans, felt compelled last weekend to air their differences with President Bush's criticism of the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies in a way that clarified what affirmative action is and why it is vitally necessary.
President Bush spoke forthrightly of his support for diversity, but said the affirmative action program Michigan had constructed for its undergraduate admissions and its law school admissions processes was not the right way to pursue that.
Rice issued a written statement at week's end, declaring, "I agree with the president's position, which emphasizes the need for diversity and recognizes the continued legacy of racial prejudice and the need to fight it."
But she added "I believe that while race-neutral means are preferable, it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body."
In further interviews during the weekend, Rice said that she herself had benefited from affirmative action during her academic career at Stanford University. "I think they saw a person that they thought had potential, and yes, I think they were looking to diversify the faculty. I think there's nothing wrong with that in the United States. It does not mean one has to go to people of a lower quality. Race is a factor in our society."
Powell, who has long been steadfast in his support of affirmative action in general, reiterated the support he's expressed in the past for the University of Michigan's policies, saying he remained "a strong proponent of affirmative action."
As is evident from the facts of the case, the University of Michigan does not use racial quotas, nor does it admit applicants who aren't qualified and can't handle the academic work there.
It's a carefully crafted program that takes into account not only the law of the 1978 Bakke decision, which declared that race could be considered in college and university admissions decisions as one of several factors about applicants. It also seeks to fulfill the university's larger mission of expanding opportunity to all segments of American society—for our society's future well being.
There is no question that the Bakke decision's central element—the continued use of affirmative action—has served America well in expanding opportunity.
It must be allowed to continue to do so in the years ahead, for we know that in the real world of American society, race still matters to great effect in ways that are both sensational and seemingly picayune.
Its critics say that affirmative action is "divisive." But those of us who support it know that America's "racial divide" springs from the toleration of injustice, not the effort to reduce discrimination's impact.
And we know that what Martin Luther King said in the great "Dream Speech" at the March on Washington in 1963 is still true:
"This is no time," he intoned, "to engage in the luxury of cooling off or take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism … Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children."
Opening the doors of opportunity across the color line has never been an easy task.
To do so, you have to disturb the peace.
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