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It is the silly season, the time for politicians to do and say all manner of foolish things in order to get elected. In the most relaxed of circumstances, it’s hard for a politician to talk straight whenever race is at issue. Between now and November, it will be almost impossible. Consider, for example, the speeches given by our aspiring leaders at the NAACP annual convention last month in Baltimore, and at the Republican National Convention two weeks ago in Philadelphia. Vice President Al Gore spoke to the NAACP on July 12, pandering shamelessly. He bragged that “I have made more trips to Africa than I’ve made to Asia.” He touted the number of black people he and President Bill Clinton have appointed to various jobs, and pointed out that a Democrat-controlled House will have black faces in key chairman positions. He voiced his opposition to the Confederate flag, and said Republicans oppose an accurate census for those “they don’t think they can count on.” He also condemned racial profiling, and promoted gun control as the solution to crime. Gore made clear that he will fight for affirmative action, “and I want to tell you why”: because the family of the average minority entrepreneur just starting out has less money than the family of the average white one, that’s why. Of course, if that’s the rationale, then affirmative action should be needs-based, not race-based. But the climax of Gore’s speech to the NAACP came with his call for Congress to pass hate-crimes legislation: “And when James Byrd is dragged to his death behind a pickup truck, then the governor of his home state [Texan George W. Bush] ought to at least heed the family’s plea for action.” Gore then recounted how Byrd’s nephew asked Bush personally “if he would use his influence to pass the bill, and he told [the nephew] no.” It may be that, in Gore’s world, if a politician is asked face-to-face to support a bill by an aggrieved family member, then that’s that. But others might be more principled. Even someone who supports the hate-crimes bill ought to give grudging respect to an opponent’s refusal to flinch in an emotion-filled confrontation. HIGH RHETORIC The vice president’s over-the-top rhetoric is not surprising, given what his boss said the next day. The highlight of President Clinton’s own speech to the NAACP on July 13 was his castigation of the Republican-controlled Senate for failing to confirm enough of his minority nominees to the bench. In doing so, Clinton played the race card in a big way, essentially accusing the Republicans — including, at one point, Gov. Bush — of racism. “The quality of justice suffers when highly qualified women and minority candidates … are denied the opportunity to serve for partisan political reasons,” said the president. Republicans have “stopped my efforts to integrate the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals… . This is outrageous — the circuit court with the highest percentage of African-Americans in the country, not one single judge on the Court of Appeals.” He concluded: “I don’t want people denied their chance to serve because of their race or their politics.” The NAACP speech is not an isolated instance. Clinton has made this demagogic charge before, and he is continuing to make it. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, has criticized “[t]he president’s reckless and unfounded accusation of bias,” pointing out that the percentage of minority and female nominees confirmed by the Senate (59 percent and 65 percent, respectively) is “nearly identical” to the overall confirmation rate of 64 percent. Hatch called on Clinton “to put an end to this game of race-baiting politics.” Don’t bet on it. Not that recent Republican speeches on race have been particularly edifying. In Bush’s own address to the NAACP, he rightly decried “the soft bigotry of low expectations in education.” But then he said, “There is a tremendous gap of achievement between rich and poor, white and minority. This, too, leaves a divided society. And whatever the cause, the effect is discrimination.” What is all that supposed to mean? Lumping wealth differences in with racial differences is silly. And it is equally silly to classify Americans into two groups, white and everyone else. Achievement scores vary a lot among Asians, Hispanics, blacks, and American Indians. They also vary within ethnic groups — for example, between Japanese and Native Hawaiians, or between Cubans and Puerto Ricans. What Bush ignores is that the key variable is individuals, not groups. There will always be some individuals who achieve more than others. This need not leave “a divided society,” as Bush said. And most fundamentally, if the alleged “cause” of differences is in achievement then there is no intelligible sense in which “the effect is discrimination.” LINCOLN’S MANTLE Governor Bush got a lot of press for his nostra culpa to the NAACP: “For my party, there’s no escaping the reality that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln.” The Washington Post and The Economist understood Bush to refer to a failure by the Republican Party to support the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The Post referred to the party’s “failure to support much of the 1960s-era civil rights agenda”; The Economist referred to how Republicans at that time “successfully drew southern whites into the party by opposing civil rights.” Maybe even Bush himself thought this to be true. The problem is that Republicans overwhelmingly supported the two landmark pieces of legislation passed during that era — the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. House Republicans voted for the former law by a margin of 136-35 (80 percent, a higher rate than the 63 percent of House Democrats who voted for it). And Senate Republicans supported it by a margin of 27-6 (82 percent, again a higher rate than their Democratic counterparts, which was 69 percent). As for the Voting Rights Act, House Republicans voted in its favor by a margin of 111-20 (85 percent vs. 80 percent for Democrats), and Senate Republicans by a margin of 30-1 (97 percent vs. 74 percent for Democrats). The fundamental differences since then between the NAACP and GOP on civil rights have been over minority preferences and busing. But one hopes Bush is not apologizing for that, given the failures of busing, the illegality of racial preferences, and the unfairness of both. If he meant only that the GOP needs to express more compassion, fine, but is that what most people would understand to be “the mantle of Lincoln”? Well, perhaps a Republican speaker who isn’t white and isn’t a career politician could do better. Sadly, no. In his speech before the Republican National Convention, Gen. Colin Powell said: “We must understand the cynicism that exists in the black community. The kind of cynicism that is created when, for example, some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but hardly a whimper is heard from them over affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax codes with preferences for special interests.” DIFFERENT PREFERENCES Of course, the only kind of “affirmative action” that anyone “roundly and loudly condemns” is preferences on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex. And there is no reason for “cynicism” in the “black community” just because some Americans are unwilling to accept the institutionalization of racial classifications, even if they are resigned to silly tax breaks. To the contrary, black Americans ought to see more clearly than others that there is something uniquely wrong when the government discriminates on the basis of skin color. Powell is repeating a common defense of such discrimination, most commonly made in the context of college admissions. Don’t criticize preferences based on race and ethnicity, goes the line, so long as preferences remain in place to help athletes, say, or children of alumni. But accepting someone otherwise ineligible for admission to college because he can throw a football is not the same thing as accepting him on the basis of his melanin content. Preferences for athletes or children of alumni — both of which are economically driven — may be a bad idea, but racial discrimination is an evil of a wholly different order. Likewise, discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity is morally, historically, constitutionally, and legally different from giving a tax break to, say, ethanol producers. We can have an economic and political debate about the wisdom of gasohol subsidies, but racial discrimination ought to be off the table. The Democratic National Convention this week poses another opportunity for the candidates to give speeches that intelligently address race. But somehow I’m not holding my breath. Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a D.C.-based think tank.

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