On Affirmative Action, Colin Powell Shows The Way

by Bill Press
Tribune Media Services

On race, as on many other issues, President Bush says one thing, but does the opposite.

Remember? It was only six weeks ago that he condemned Trent Lott’s insensitive comments about Strom Thurmond and promised that, as leader of the Republican party, he would reach out to minorities. He didn’t mean a word of it.

No sooner had he helped depose Trent Lott than he renominated Charles Pickering, opposed by all civil rights groups, to the federal bench - and then petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn affirmative action at the University of Michigan’s law school. For Bush, outreach to minorities is, at best, one step forward and two steps back.

It wasn’t just President Bush’s opposition to affirmative action that offended civil rights leaders. It was the way he did it. He deliberately misrepresented the University of Michigan’s program. And he dared wrap himself in the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr.

Bush and other conservatives assert that, were he still alive, King would oppose affirmative action. As proof, they cite the famous line from his “I have a dream” speech about children being judged by the content of their character. Every time they do, King must roll over in his grave.

King’s actual statement, that Aug. 28, 1963, was: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Key phrase: “one day.”

King knew we weren’t there yet. In fact, he started his speech by accusing America of defaulting on its promise of equal treatment to blacks. And in a l965 interview with Playboy and other occasions, he specifically endorsed affirmative action - which he called “preferential treatment” - as a “moral imperative” to repay blacks for centuries of unequal treatment.

Suggesting that Martin Luther King would be against affirmative action is a lie. And so is calling the University of Michigan’s plan a “quota system” - which Bush did no less than five times in his seven-minute announcement to the nation.

At Michigan, there are no quotas: no set number of seats set aside every year for blacks. All students apply for all positions. Instead of assigning quotas, what the law school does is weigh all applicants against a perfect score of 150 points. True, minority students receive an automatic 20 points. But they’re not alone. Students from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are given 15 points. Sons and daughters of alumni, students with good grades and men in the nursing program are also rewarded with extra points. Race, in other words, is only one of many factors considered in order to achieve the best and most diverse student body.

The irony is that President Bush is himself the beneficiary of affirmative action. He was accepted at Yale under its legacy program, which gives special preference to the children of alumni. Given his dismal high school performance and average SAT scores, he would never have made it otherwise.

That form of affirmative action goes on. The Wall Street Journal reported that Harvard, Bush’s other alma mater, accepts 40 percent of applicants who are children of alumni, but only 11 percent of applicants overall. Of course, the president never complains about affirmative action for family members, rich kids or athletes. He’s only against affirmative action when it helps minorities.

Too bad, before he took his knee-jerk conservative stand against affirmative action, President Bush didn’t consult with Secretary of State Colin Powell - the man he appointed as the most powerful African-American in our history. It’s highly unusual in any administration, especially this one, for any Cabinet member to disagree publicly with any president. But disagree with his president Powell did, on affirmative action in general, and on the University of Michigan in particular.

What Powell said was: You can never achieve diversity with considering race as one factor, among many. And the University of Michigan’s program is fully consistent with a 1978 Supreme Court decision that outlawed quotas, but encouraged universities to strive for diversity.

George Bush and Colin Powell. What a contrast. One is right, the other is wrong.
Given their backgrounds, there is no doubt which one knows more about affirmative action. There is also no doubt which one should really be president.

Press is co-host of MSNBC’s “Buchanan and Press.” His book, “Spin This!”, is now available in paperback. His e-mail address is: BillPress@aol.com.