ONE of the most useful functions served by national holidays is the increased attention paid to our nation's great ideals. The commemoration of a Declaration of Independence, or the recognition of a national hero reminds us of what we think is important. The Fourth of July and Thanksgiving Day help define us as Americans. Perhaps the struggle over whether to have a Martin Luther King Day also defines us as Americans. The ambivalence over an MLK holiday is a metaphor for our national ambivalence over civil rights. The struggle Dr. King symbolizes, unlike the struggles symbolized by Washington and Lincoln, is far from settled business in our nation.
Blatant discrimination and subtle bias against women and racial minorities continue to breed inequality and close doors of opportunity. And the racially charged rhetoric of ``quotas'' and ``reverse discrimination'' used by our leaders is destroying the national will to open those doors.
In 1968, during the crest of a wave of race riots in our major cities, a presidential commission headed by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, called for a ``massive and sustained'' national commitment to defuse the ``explosive mixture'' of poverty, discrimination, and resentment in the black community. Begun by President Johnson and expanded by President Nixon, part of that national commitment was called affirmative action. It included a variety of incentives to hire, promote, and educate racial minorities and women, and made it easier for them to battle discrimination.
And it worked. According to the National Research Council, the number of minorities and women in better paying jobs increased, the number of minorities and women in higher institutions of learning increased. This progress, caused in large measure by affirmative action, has been hampered now by a deteriorating economy and the deterioration of the family. The legitimate concern and national unease over both of these problems has been used to stain affirmative action.
Irresponsible politicians have ducked the hard questions about contradictory social and economic policies, and, instead, have lambasted ``welfare mothers.''
Even though, according to a recent UCLA study, white males hold 95 percent of the positions of power in the US, the tarring of affirmative action as reverse discrimination has struck a responsive chord.
A decade after Dr. King's death, a decade after America summoned the will to ``address the major unfinished business of this nation'' called for by the Kerner Commission, Ronald Reagan was finding an audience nostalgic for the good old days. Reagan's morning in America began a long dark night for affirmative action.
George Bush followed Reagan's lead by making Willie Horton a national figure. But, in what has become characteristic of President Bush, minorities have received mixed signals from the White House.
Mr. Bush said the right things at the right dinners. Respected blacks such as Arthur Fletcher, Louis Sullivan, and Colin Powell were appointed. He invited Jesse Jackson to the White House.
But Bush also vetoed the 1990 Civil Rights Act. The bill was designed to clarify congressional intent to shift the burden of proof in discrimination suits to employers, and it's principal advance over the 1964 Civil Rights Act was to expand protections for women. But in a cynical partisan display, Bush labeled it ``a quota bill,'' even though the bill expressly stated it was could not be used to justify quotas.
One can hardly blame Michael L. Williams, another black appointee, for trying to please his boss with the pronouncement against ``race-exclusive'' scholarships. Sending mixed signals again, our ``education president'' stated that he has ``long been committed to affirmative action,'' and called for a four-year ``transition period.''
In 1964, a year after Dr. King shared his ``dream,'' he explained the reasoning behind affirmative action in ``Why We Can't Wait'':
``It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years. How then can he be absorbed into the mainstream of American life if we do not do something special for him now?
``The struggle for rights is, at bottom, a struggle for opportunities. In asking for something special, the Negro is not seeking charity.''
The same forces which pleaded ``go slow'' 30 years ago, counsel patience and compromise today. The same forces which supported the fiction of ``separate but equal'' 30 years ago, today promote the fiction of a colorblind society and rail against legislation designed to defeat discrimination. The same forces which were wrong 30 years ago are wrong today.
Affirmative action is necessary if women and racial minorities are to achieve equality in our nation. Affirmative action works. The problem is not with affirmative action, but with our national leadership.
Perhaps, in remembering King, we will remember his dream, and how we once made a commitment to see it come true.