The Magazine

William Jefferson Faubus

The Clintons start a new conversation about race.

Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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In the 1990 Senate campaign in North Carolina, there was one ad and one moment that emerged as iconic. Run by Republican Jesse Helms against Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat, it showed a pair of white hands crumpling a piece of paper. "You needed that job," said the voice-over ominously, "but they had to give it to a minority."

Those white hands now belong to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and their complaint is remarkably similar to that of the man in the ad. The Helms ad was a cri de coeur against affirmative action, or at least that form of it that gave preference in hiring--or presumably college admissions--to nonwhite applicants on the grounds (a) that this made up for generations of prejudice and curtailed opportunities, and (b) that diversity for its own sake was a good in itself.

For decades, people who were so crass as to protest such quotas and take their complaint to court--from Allan Bakke at the University of California-Davis medical school in 1974 to Jennifer Gratz at the University of Michigan in 1995--were reviled by the left and by Democrats, portrayed as the second coming of Simon Legree and instructed to suffer in silence for the greater good of humanity.

Now Bill and Hillary Clinton are finding themselves in those same shoes: She has applied for a job with experience and credentials that she thinks are weightier, and yet many voters seem determined to "give it to a minority" who has not paid his dues. According to the unwritten rules of themselves and their party, the Clintons ought to have shouldered their cross in the name of diversity. Instead, they are playing the race card with a vigor beyond Helms's most extravagant dreams. In their hands and those of their surrogates (including the once well-regarded Bob Kerrey), a gracious and eloquent member of the upper house of the Congress running to be president of all of the people has become a cokehead, a dealer, a Muslim (with possible terrorist leanings), an ally of slumlords, and this year's token black candidate. From the onetime president of black America, the defender-in-chief of quotas and set-asides, this is all unexpected, but then Bill and Hillary Clinton never expected that a walking example of all they professed to admire would come between them and something they thought they deserved.

Diversity based upon merit has much to commend it. But in the suicide phase of their recent history (1968-95), Democrats specialized in thinking up programs that increased the number of nonwhites and women in some occupations and classrooms, but violated ideals of color-blindness and meritocracy, and caused a large number of innocent people a great deal of undeserved pain. One was forced busing, in which children were obliged to travel long distances to bad schools in grim neighborhoods in pursuit of a numerical racial balance. Another was a system of quotas and set-asides that created a favored set of students who were admitted to elite schools with lower grades than those of other applicants who were rejected, of workers who were given promotions over more qualified colleagues, and of businesses which were awarded government contracts despite bids that were higher than those rejected rivals turned in.

It was this last class of programs that were promoted by liberal interest groups and thus by the Clintons, who bought the idea that disappointment or pain for individual people was a small price to pay for the goal of diversity. In 1995, under pressure from an assertive Republican Congress, Clinton vowed of affirmative action to "mend it, not end it," but in fact did neither. "The long-awaited pronouncement on affirmative action was correctly viewed as being more a defense than a critique of the status quo," writes the Politico's John Harris in his book, The Survivor. "As a practical matter, the administration made little effort, except as required by legal challenges, to either mend existing programs or end those that had outlived their usefulness."

In 1997, in search of a legacy, Clinton proposed a national "conversation on race" to last for a year and to showcase his sensitivity and establish his role as a healer. The initiative collapsed in less than a year under the weight of its platitudes (such as seminars on the evil of "unconscious bias") and the announcement by Clinton's chairman, John Hope Franklin, that conversations would be limited to backers of preferences, which rather defeated the point of it all. But before it was over, Clinton embarassed himself at a contentious town meeting in Akron, Ohio, when he suddenly rounded on conservative scholar Abigail Thernstrom and demanded angrily, "Do you favor the United States Army abolishing the affirmative action program that produced Colin Powell? Yes or no?"