Classification Struggle

Racial divisions at the White House


"I graduated from a segregated high school seven years after President Eisenhower integrated Little Rock Central High School," President Clinton said in a July 1995 speech. "My experiences with discrimination are rooted in the South and in the legacy slavery left."

As the White House orchestrates its National Initiative on Race, those sentences explain much about Bill Clinton's vision of the role of government in fostering race relations in America. Clinton's view was born at the end of the Jim Crow South, at a time in which Southern liberals, black and white, offered an integrationist vision that saw us all living in a single, interracial community, with the federal government fostering that goal by actively breaking down state and local segregationist policies. The optimism of Clinton's integrationist vision still holds much appeal.

Clinton's vision, while inspiring, is unfortunately frozen in place and time, in the Arkansas of the 1950s, when federal troops had to be mobilized to force local government officials to uphold citizens' constitutional rights. At that time, the barriers black Americans faced in the South were overt–segregated schools, workplaces, restaurants, and parks. The brightest, most talented, and most energetic African Americans were shut out of mainstream society by a dehumanizing legal system that had to be forcibly overhauled and continually monitored.

Much has improved since then, especially for the burgeoning black middle and upper classes. Even so, many contemporary African Americans must overcome more subtle obstacles, from wretched public schools to welfare dependency to a tax and regulatory system (and a failed drug war) that makes it oh-too-tempting for young persons to live on the fringes of everyday life. Scholars such as Richard Epstein, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams have convincingly argued that many of the remaining barriers black Americans face were erected by the same government that was perceived as a liberating force not so long ago. A primary focus of the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., is suing governments that won't remove these impediments. The president's uncompromisingly benign view of government as savior for black America does not match today's reality.

Even so, the president's outlook is optimistic, and it offers opportunities for honest discussions with his critics, as the December White House "outreach" meeting with opponents of racial preferences suggests. (For a transcript of that meeting, see www.whitehouse.gov/WH/New/html/19971223-7462.html.) Another, far less optimistic vision of race relations is on display in the White House, however. It comes from Vice President Gore.

"If you lived in a community that was 50 percent white, 50 percent black," Gore asked at the meeting, "and for a variety of historic reasons the level of income, educational attainment, and so forth was lower among the blacks in that community, and the police force was 100 percent white…do you think that the community would be justified in making affirmative action efforts to open up a lot more positions on the police force?"

The vice president invokes an extreme case of racial exclusion in a local police department, one that may have been common a few decades ago but is certainly (because of both changing attitudes and affirmative action programs) nonexistent now. Most people would consider the type of situation Gore suggests intolerable, or at least a curious way to promote confidence in a law enforcement agency. But notice how Gore engages in his own brand of racial classification, suggesting that individuals (in this case, police officers) are merely cogs in a wheel who exist to fill slots in some grand social scheme. Gore's view of enforcing "diversity" dominates the civil rights establishment these days, to the detriment of those who wish to improve race relations. Diversity proponents contend that as long as individuals voluntarily associate in ways that don't result in perfect racial and ethnic mixing, government has to step in. When diversity trumps all other values, there's no room for pluralism, individualism, or personal choice.

As Gore said in December, "people are prone to be with people like themselves, to hire people who look like themselves, to live near people who look like themselves. And yet in our society when we have this increasing diversity, we have a…national interest in helping to overcome this inherent vulnerability to prejudice."

On separate occasions during the meeting, quota opponents Ward Connerly, Linda Chavez, and Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.) decried the consequences that result when government sets different standards for persons because of their racial and ethnic origins. Each time, Gore broke into the discussion to say he disagrees with the critics of racial preferences–that, by implication, he sees nothing wrong with classifying persons entirely by their skin color or accepting lower performance from people simply because they have unusual last names or heavy accents.

Gore's vision of race relations, like Clinton's, is rooted in the civil rights past. But–as Gore stated repeatedly in December–he views racism as an intractable aspect of human nature that will always lead to the subjugation of the minority group. Yet he believes an elite class of planners is immune from this taint and should therefore be trusted with the power to enforce racial categories and allocate privileges accordingly. In the minds of diversity advocates, since racism can never be eradicated, its consequences must be managed through a mind-boggling array of preferences, set-asides, and quotas.

Until recently, the vice president hasn't said much about race relations, other than calling for businesses in enterprise zones to be wired to the Internet. His now-stated belief in endless head counting and ever-more-complicated plans to move people into the "correct" racial combinations ignores the dynamic processes by which racial and ethnic groups have historically been assimilated into the American community. Unlike the hopeful (if anachronistic) liberal-integrationist view held by Bill Clinton, Al Gore's "diversity" vision leads to perpetual meddling by social planners, ceaseless resentment by those who feel cheated by the system, and a never-ending divisiveness between individuals from different racial backgrounds.

Clinton's particular vision is very much a bottom-up view, generated from his lower-middle-class childhood in Arkansas and the grassroots vitality of the original civil rights movement. Such factors as rising interracial-marriage rates and the increasing equality of income levels among individuals of all races who have similar education levels strongly suggest we've advanced a great deal along that integrationist path since Bill Clinton was a boy.

The diversity vision, by contrast, is top-down, much more consistent with Al Gore's upbringing within the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. This top-down vision is exemplified in the policies proposed by the persons the administration selected to enforce the nation's civil rights laws: from former Assistant Attorney General Deval Patrick's refusal to eliminate race-based set-asides in federal contracts to current Acting Assistant Attorney General Bill Lann Lee's position that–in defiance of federal court decisions–he would not enforce the California Civil Rights Initiative. The diversity enforcers are less concerned about expanding access so that individuals can pursue their own dreams than they are in directing persons from above to fill boxes in some societal organization chart.

It was another white Southerner–Lyndon Johnson–who first invoked the metaphor of life as a track meet when talking about race. If some Americans entered the race with an unfair advantage, Johnson said, government should be able to give the disadvantaged a head start. This metaphor has become the motivating force behind the diversity vision of race relations, a view which requires a group of elites to constantly reconfigure the structure of the event and reposition the participants if the results don't match the elites' whims.

A more hopeful view of race relations acknowledges the evils of the past, appreciates how far we've come, and pushes us to look at people as human beings rather than members of arbitrary groups. It also recognizes that when government sorts individuals by skin color, it merely maintains and supports the type of prejudice the diversity crowd ostensibly abhors.