The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, September 23, 2005


I believe several things about affirmative action: some of them are summarized here, here and here. However, it is easy for a proponent of affirmative action to ascribe my position to disguised racism, and to point to the absence of prominently successful black people as evidence of a racist society. My statements are consistent with this insidious theory, so I cannot falsify it. Other social conservatives and believers in individual responsibility are of course in the same predicament.

The malign influence of affirmative action makes us doubt the achievements we do see. Was Thurgood Marshall a leading legal mind; or a token black man? How about Clarence Thomas? Indeed, one of the strangest consequences of affirmative action has been the repulsive spectacle of affirmative-action aficionados using exactly this argument to call Mr. Thomas's achievements into question -- apparently unable to see what it means for the rest of their argument.

Thus we are eager to see a black person succeed. And, with Colin Powell and then Condoleeza Rice, we have seen this pleasant spectacle in two spectacular instances in the Bush administration. [Yes, I know about Rod Paige et al. But they are far less visible.] Mrs. Rice's success, combined with her clarity of speech and apparently hard-nosed approach to statecraft, seems like a vindication of our belief in individual responsibility. It is not necessary to say that "If she can do this, anyone can," -- and this is hard to defend, since Miss Rice appears extraordinarily able -- but rather, "That she can do this shows that lack of opportunity is not best addressed with specifically race-based policies." Our admiration for her is real, and its realness in turn adds this extra frisson of vindication.

Thus Miss Rice stands extremely high in straw polls of GOP voters. They haven't seen much, but they like what they see. And this is where the problem enters.

What are Miss Rice's policies on energy initiatives? On the environment? On faith in the public square? On abortion? Space? Stem cells? The deficit? Her supporters don't know -- they haven't asked. They only know that she makes them feel good. This is, in a word, tokenism.

Note that Miss Rice's current status as a token does not imply that her followers are racists. They are people who want the best, who believe that it is best obtained with a program of equality of opportunity, not one that rewards wealthy blacks at the expense of poor people of all races. They believe in their program, but they enjoy affirmation that their ideas may be right, and Miss Rice is the token that provides that.

If Miss Rice is a serious presidential candidate, she should be treated to the same scrutiny as the McCains and Giulianis and Allens. We should know her positions on all these things, not just that she is a tough and energetic Secretary of State. Then we can make an informed decision as to her fitness for the most demanding of all jobs.

We need equality, not a token on a pedestal. We need to know her ideas, and to evaluate them without bias against her -- but also without the will to vindicate ourselves through her.