Elevate the Dialogue

THE combined furor over the congressional job-discrimination bill and the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court has, more than ever before, spotlighted affirmative action as a major issue for our times.For three decades starting in the 1940s, the struggle for social justice for blacks and other minorities in the US focused on civil rights, those fundamental attributes of citizenship: the rights to vote, to hold office and serve on juries, to enjoy free access to public amenities, to be treated equally in education, employment, housing, and the courts. Legally, that struggle has been won. During those intense years, rights leaders and their white allies seemed to act from the premise that once legal discrimination ended, once minorities were accorded all the privileges of citizenship, government's special obligation to minorities would be discharged. Many whites implicitly based their acquiescence in the civil rights movement - with its stirring appeals to simple fairness - on that premise. To a degree, however, blatant discrimination masked deeper and subtler problems afflicting minority communities, problems that are the legacy of generations of discrimination and, for blacks, slavery. It is increasingly clear that those problems weren't buried with Jim Crow. The United States is growing in the recognition that it has not fulfilled all its responsibilities to the victims of historical discrimination (and, yes, blacks today are - in ways that need to be precisely delineated - victims of slavery as much as their great-grandparents were). Yet these further responsibilities entail policies and remedies that contradict the notions of colorblind justice held by many Americans. Moreover, preferential policies sometimes require sacrifices by whites who don't regard themselves as the perpetrators of past wrongs. These are hard issues, and it's not surprising that the national debate is often angry. To get beyond anger, we must conscientiously elevate the dialogue. Let's start by eschewing labels designed more to score political points than accurately to identify positions. For example, it's obscurantist for the Bush administration simply to denounce the job-bias legislation as a "quotas bill"; or for opponents of Judge Thomas simply to denigrate him as an "enemy" of affirmative action, when in fact his views reflect the many ambiguities in affirmative action that have to be thoughtfully discussed. Let's talk about affirmative action, not yell about it.

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