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January 6, 2003, Monday
By BRENT STAPLES ( Editorial ) 931 words
They may have been looking at California, where the decision to outlaw the use of race in public college admissions in 1996 was initially seen as the death knell for affirmative action. But the disappearance of black and Latino faces from the state's elite public universities, and the threat of a ''white out'' on campuses nationwide, worried conservatives as well as liberals. Other states began to back away from proposals that would have killed off affirmative action without leaving a comparable mechanism in its place.
When race-sensitive admissions became an issue in Texas, under Gov. George W. Bush, and in Florida, under his brother Jeb, both states defused an explosive situation with plans that guaranteed admission to fixed percentages of students. As governor, George W. Bush kept diversity -- and the civic peace -- by guaranteeing admission to the top 10 percent of students in each high school. But it is far from clear what the White House will do when the Supreme Court hears the University of Michigan affirmative action case this year. Mr. Bush has struggled to erase the image of the Republican Party as a haven for bigots. But will he tackle right-wing ideologues who want to kill a program that does for Michigan what he did for Texas?
The core principle behind affirmative action is that excluding black people undermines civic harmony and runs counter to American ideals. This was evident in the case of the United States Army. After years of racial strife and rigorous segregation, it transformed itself into the most fully integrated organization yet seen in this country.
The military during both World Wars consigned most black people to support jobs. The top brass commonly defended discrimination in racist terms, arguing that black men lacked the courage to fight or the intelligence to lead. These bigoted policies shadowed the military long after formal segregation was ended and nearly tore the Army apart during the 1960's and 70's. One of the pivotal figures in the transformation was Clifford Alexander, President Jimmy Carter's secretary of the Army. Early in his tenure, Mr. Alexander put a hold on a list of officers proposed for promotion to general. He was troubled, as he explained in a 1997 Op-Ed article, ''because no black colonels had been promoted, even though many had achieved that rank and served with distinction.''
The board that handled promotions was ordered to look at the records of eligible black colonels and to determine if they had been given lesser assignments or evaluated negatively by officers who were racially prejudiced. Once race-related blemishes were expunged, black colonels with otherwise sterling records emerged as strong candidates for promotion.
This decision was affirmative action in its purest, most elemental form. But 25 years of distortion and political warfare over this issue have made it difficult for most people to speak clearly on the subject or even to recognize affirmative action when they see it. Loaded terms such as ''quotas'' and ''reverse discrimination'' have made it all but impossible to see affirmative action as a constructive and vitally important policy for the United States.
This charged atmosphere has obscured the story of the Army's spectacular transformation. Mr. Alexander, for example, took offense when President Bill Clinton argued that Colin Powell, promoted to brigadier general during Mr. Alexander's tenure, was the product of an affirmative action program. Mr. Alexander viewed the measures he had taken as common-sense fairness but rejected the label ''affirmative action.'' The term, he believed, implied that the black candidates for general had been less qualified than the white candidates or that they had been given some ''extra'' benefit. The truth, of course, is that the black officers would have been trapped in oblivion but for a strategy that allowed them to escape what were known as ''nicks'' on their records made by unfair superiors.
The Army also took steps to ensure that race would no longer be an obstacle to promotion. It ensured that all junior officers had a reasonable chance of getting assignments that, if performed well, made them eligible to move up. As the military historians Charles C. Moskos and John Sibley Butler wrote in ''All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way,'' the Army is ''the only place in American life where whites are routinely bossed around by blacks.'' Twelve percent of the Army's officers are black.
The typical Army base is far more racially integrated than the average
town or college campus. The rest of the country lags behind. Most black
and Latino students are still confined to mediocre schools that place even
excellent, hard-working students at a disadvantage in terms of
standardized test scores. Until this inequity is redressed, affirmative
action programs like the University of Michigan's will be needed to ensure
that talented minority students can enter the elite universities that
generate much of the national leadership. President Bush needs to remember
that as he weighs whether to take sides when the Michigan program comes
before the Supreme Court.