Identity Politics

Taking a stand against racism and other types of stereotyping can come in odd packages these days. The issue is not always, well, black and white.

This week saw (1) a black, anti-racist US secretary of State decide not to attend a global conference on racism, and (2) a federal court decide that a university cannot give preference to black applicants in the name of "diversity" because there's no proof that race can ensure diversity.

Sorting out these complex decisions may take time, but they speak to the ongoing and necessary progress toward treating human beings as individuals, appreciating them for expressing unique qualities.

Despite Secretary Colin Powell's strong record against racism, he gave up the opportunity to personally influence the United Nations conference on racism, in South Africa, because of an Arab campaign to relate Zionism with racism. Whatever progress may come out of that conference, the US could not compromise its support for Israel's right to maintain a country based on religious (not racial) heritage. Every country has enough racism of its own to handle without using the racist label as a diplomatic tool for other purposes.

The federal appeals-court decision, issued Monday against the University of Georgia, may have a longer impact than the conference in Durban.

The case will likely be the first on university affirmative action to be accepted by the Supreme Court since its famous Bakke decision of 1978.

In that case, the court outlawed the use of racial quotas, while still allowing schools to use race as a "plus factor" in judging applicants. Now, the court in Atlanta ruled that a policy of "mechanically" awarding bonus points to minority applicants violates the Constitution. "A white applicant from a disadvantaged rural area in Appalachia may well have more to offer a Georgia public university - from the standpoint of diversity - than a nonwhite applicant from an affluent family and a suburban Atlanta high school," the court stated.

Such a ruling points to a need to look beyond race, gender, or other categories to bring out each person's special identity, while still uplifting those who face disadvantages.

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