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Race Card Is the Sign of a Losing Hand

Opposition to Proposition 54 promotes a 'victim' culture.

September 18, 2003|Shelby Steele | Shelby Steele is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

The arguments against Proposition 54 -- the state initiative that would spare Californians the indignity of declaring their race on state forms and applications -- bring to mind the joke about the man driven to his roof by rising floodwaters. A rowboat comes to rescue him but he turns it down. "God will save me," he says. A helicopter and a speedboat come next but he turns them down as well. "God will save me," he keeps saying. Finally the waters overwhelm him and he drowns. When he gets to heaven, he is outraged. "God, why didn't you save me?" God glares down at him. "You fool, I sent two boats and a helicopter. What more do you want?"

In his "I Have a Dream" speech, Martin Luther King spoke of a colorblind America in which people would be judged by the "content of their character" rather than "the color of their skin." This speech remains perhaps the greatest expression of the American dream ever uttered because it takes the vision of the Declaration of Independence -- that all men are created equal -- past even the boundary of race. Yet Proposition 54, which tries to infuse the state Constitution with at least the spirit of King's dream, now faces a $6-million opposition war chest and the enmity of those groups that claim most to cherish "the dream" -- minorities and white liberals.

At a rally commemorating the 40th anniversary of King's speech, a black woman carried a poster that was for me an oxymoron: "The Dream Lives On! No on 54." I thought of the man waiting on his roof. "You fool," I can imagine King in heaven saying, "I sent Proposition 54 to help you reach the dream."

Opposition to the proposition is based on a sophistry: that we can overcome our national obsession with race only by continuing our obsession with race; that to reach a content-of-our-character society we need by-the-color-of-your-skin information. But why is racial information so important?

Here is an actual racial factoid: Though blacks now graduate from high school at about the same rate as whites, they read at only an eighth- or ninth-grade level. But if we already know that too many weak readers are graduating from high school, why is it important to know that many of them are black? The answer can only be that we suspect race itself to be a cause of the reading problem for blacks.

But this is a case of the question making its own answer. When you ask for reading skills and graduation rates to be profiled by race, you are already asserting race as the cause of any inequity. Liberals will see only racial explanations that do not "blame the victim" -- poor funding for black schools, Eurocentric curriculums, a lack of black role models. Conservatives will see "culture" as the culprit, and other explanations that point to the "victim's" responsibility. Suggested remedies will have their ideological pedigrees in the welfare state or the free market.

Whenever problems are massaged into racial disparities, they resonate so powerfully with old-fashioned racial injustice that the true cause becomes irrelevant. But suppose we have no racial information on our reading problem, and therefore no racial disparity? Suddenly we have only an academic problem, something fixable because U.S. schools have effectively taught people to read for centuries. No need for role models or Afrocentric reading material. Now phonetics and more time with the books do the job, along with the expectation that students will read no matter what.

A great problem for black Americans is that we are so often squeezed into statistical aggregates. We are inner-city crime rates or high infant mortality rates or disproportionate drug arrests, high dropout rates, the highest rates of homicides and so on. For decades now, a sociological identity made up of tragic and disgraceful statistical profiles has been all but imposed on us. We are the most statistically described group in human history. But it hasn't helped, and it never will.

It is hard to find ourselves as simple human beings amid all this sociological description, hard to see simple human solutions to problems so abstracted and politicized by race. If Proposition 54 -- which will go before California voters either Oct. 7 or in March -- ultimately became national law we would lose nothing more than a capacity to argue. But blacks and other minorities would gain a precious racial invisibility that would only make us more visible as human beings.

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