A Jeffersonian take on affirmative action

In his "Notes on the State of Virginia," Thomas Jefferson warned of a catastrophic calamity as America's potential fate:

"Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained ... will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."

Jefferson reserved his idealistic visions for the project of the new nation. But on issues of race, he was a fatalist.

It seems especially appropriate now, with the Supreme Court set to hear arguments Tuesday on the University of Michigan's affirmative-action cases, to return to his words and his tragic vision. And as the nation once again examines the question of race and public policy, the University of Virginia wrestles with its own issues of race. Here, at the university Jefferson founded, a series of racially charged events over the past year - from members of a white fraternity wearing "blackface" to an alleged physical and verbal assault on a minority candidate for student council president - have placed race at the top of the university's agenda.

Despite his critical flaws and serious shortcomings, Jefferson nevertheless clearly delineated the difficulties of dealing with the question of race.

To some, even the mention of the word race is a politically divisive act. Never mind the startling fact that the American experiment with democracy remains intensely divided along lines of race.

A new report from Harvard University's Civil Rights Project indicates that the nation's schools are resegregating at an alarming rate. A recent Zogby poll indicated that African-American support for the war against Iraq ran 19 percent in favor and 75 percent opposed. In contrast, white American support for the war stands at 62 percent with 35 percent opposed.

Two separate worlds. Two opposing world views. One nation. And there lies the rub.

Though we all sit in the long shadow of Jefferson, we have failed to heed his warning.

Jefferson recognized the intransigence of race. To go beyond race was not an option, due to the "deep-rooted prejudices entertained by whites." Jefferson saw that such a simple leap was all but impossible because of the "ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained."

The plain fact of the matter - in Jefferson's day and ours - is that race is deeply entrenched in the American fabric. No single university committee or series of student protests at the University of Virginia, or any college, will solve the problem. And whatever the outcome of the University of Michigan cases, the question of race will not be resolved. Race will continue to be with us.

But it is here that I depart from Jefferson's fatalist vision. Instead of gloom and doom, I see an opportunity for Mr. Jefferson's University and the nation.

If Americans can just recognize that in the two centuries since Jefferson first wrote these words the "prejudices entertained by whites" have grown deeper and the "ten thousand recollections by the blacks" have multiplied exponentially, we will take a first and crucial step in confronting the issue of race.

Such an initial step is vitally important. It will force us all to realize that when we attempt to address issues of race, we aren't dealing with an isolated incident or idea, but a long and pervasive history and memory that critically inform who weare, and structure the world in which we live.

Thus, Americans must commit to a lifetime of work on matters of race, not in hopes of seeing the fruits of our labor, but with the understanding that we are working to improve the position of future generations as we wrestle with the issue of race. The resolution of an incident at Mr. Jefferson's University or a Supreme Court decision will not do the work for us.

In many ways, race stands as the continuing test of the nation. If we are to avoid Jefferson's fatalist vision, we must not let the false starts and unfulfilled dreams stop us from believing that one day a future generation might live out the full meaning of Jefferson's ideal: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal."

Corey D.B. Walker teaches African-American studies at the University of Virginia.

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