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America's war against racism

By Yu Bin

With the US Supreme Court ruling on the University of Michigan's admissions policies this week, race relations in the United States are undergoing a quiet "paradigm shift" away from the Cold War consensus in correcting America's racial injustice as a result of hundreds of years of slavery and racial segregation.

The twin decisions announced on Monday concerned the admissions procedures of the baccalaureate and law-school programs at the University of Michigan, one of the country's most prestigious public universities. In the first case, Gratz vs Bollinger, the court ruled 6-3 that the university's policy, which automatically allocated 20 points to every minority applicant out of a possible 150 points required to guarantee admission, violated the "equal protection" clause of the US constitution. But in the second case, Grutter vs Bollinger, five of the court's justices ruled that the law school was justified in ensuring that a "critical mass" of minority students was admitted to the school, even if that meant qualified white students with higher scores or grades were excluded.

The split decision of the court - in effect that minority applicants may be given an edge when applying for admissions to universities, but which limited how much race can be a factor in the selection of students - highlights some of the long-standing dilemmas in America's racial relations: between majority interests and minority rights; between the dream of racial harmony and the reality of persistent uninstitutionalized racial disparity; between the US-pronounced principle of human dignity and its down-to-earth pragmatism; and between being morally correct and legally sound.

The shift may never completely negate the legacies of the civil-rights movement, president Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and even president Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal. With President George W Bush in power, however, neo-con intellectuals and practitioners seem determined to knock off the delicate racial balance based on affirmative action.

There is no question that US minorities have made obvious, and sometimes tremendous, progress in almost every area and at every level of America's socio-political life. There is apparently more "color" in the Bush national-security team than in any previous administration.

Nonetheless, there has also been a resilient, persistent, and even growing counter-trend in the past decade or so toward racial insensitivity and intolerance. A rough list for the past decade or so includes the police beating of black motorist Rodney King, rioting in Los Angeles and Cincinnati, black-church burning, continuous racial profiling, rolling back affirmative action, Wen Ho Lee, efforts to turn away minority voters in Florida in 2000, border tightening, Immigration and Naturalization Service detentions, the initial reluctance of the media and Democrats to pick up the case of Senator Trent Lott's "spontaneous" and "light-hearted" racial remarks late last year, not to mention the recent riots in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Indeed, Lott's reminiscence of the "good old days"of racial segregation - which rocked the Republican Party and gripped the media - receded fast into the nation's collective amnesia, thanks to the Iraq war and a worsening economy.

The complex racial relations these days - progress amid retrogression - contrast sharply with the Cold War decades (1947-91) when the United States was awash in the tide of a growing civil-rights movement toward Dr Martin Luther King's dream. Such a tide of history was not only driven by the US domestic chemistry, but also by the Cold War, when the US locked itself in a fierce competition with the former Soviet Union. While the arms race was the most obvious area of rivalry, racial segregation in the US, too, became an issue of contest with the Russians. Both presidents Dwight D Eisenhower and John F Kennedy realized that racial segregation in the US undermined the country's foreign policy. The unspoken consensus was that unless this country did something about its prevailing racial discrimination against a large number of its own people only because of the color of their skins, the United States would not be able to persuade and command the rest of the world to follow the US model.

For these reasons, Eisenhower sent troops to force schools to become integrated. His public projects, too, included not only interstate highways but also the polio vaccine campaign and generous federal money for local education. A foreign policy Machiavellianist, president Richard Nixon would be judged today as an isolated leftist for his domestic politics such as enforcing, though reluctantly, school busing, enacting racial-quota hiring and "guaranteed annual income" plans, as well as establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1970 alone, Nixon "accomplished more ... to desegregate Southern school systems than had been done in the 16 previous years", wrote Tom Wicker, a former columnist for the New York Times. Even president Ronald Reagan took final steps to apologize to and compensate Japanese-Americans for their post-Pearl Harbor ordeal, and signed, though grudgingly, legislation that made Martin Luther King Jr's birthday a national holiday.

The more tolerant and liberal policies of the US presidents during the Cold War, Republican or Democrat, the dedication and sacrifice of Dr King and others, plus the final wake-up of "the good people" from their "appalling silence" finally turned the country away from the hated "good old days" of racial segregation and toward a more humane alternative.

Without all this, Bush's National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice might still remain in her segregated neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama, and Secretary of State Colin Powell perhaps would never have joined the Joint Chiefs. Indeed, the United States won the Cold War not just because it outspent the Russians in arms but, more important, because its democracy was able to elevate itself from those selfish, basic human instincts, and was able to offer dignity, fairness, and justice to all of its citizens, at least in principle.

Now the Cold War is over. The Russians are down and the Japanese stagnant. When the US is on the top, there seems no need or pressure to compete and to excel in ethical and moral areas. Following in the footsteps of the neo-conservatives of the 1980s, the 1990s was time not only for the joyride of the dot-com wizards, greedy chief executives, dishonest politicians, and politicized intelligence, but also a time of growing sense of affirmative action's "fatigue" and multiculturalist "overdose". Senator Lott's "poor choice of words" last year, therefore, is not entirely inappropriate at all these days, when mainstream society becomes less patient and less generous toward the poor and weak.

Over the horizon and into the future, the mighty US military is unlikely to face another serious arms race with any power. The race problem, however, has never gone away in real life in the United States. Despite the tremendous progress minorities have made in many areas, the racial deficit of the centuries cannot be quickly or easily fixed in a matter of a few decades or by a few programs. Nor can it be removed from the sight of the Americans by more prisons and more SWAT (special weapons and tactics police) teams. A hands-off, or social Darwinist, approach is an alternative. But that may lead to more racial tension and violence like those in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Benton Harbor.

In the age of preemption and US military supremacy, the United States will never be able to win the hearts and minds of the rest of the world without keeping itself on a high moral ground, if not moral supremacy. Legality cannot, and should not, substitute for ethically sound practice. What is needed is not a rolling back of the significant achievements in US civil liberty - which is admired even by those who disagree with, or hate, US foreign policy - but a race within US society among political parties, politicians and social groups for deeper mutual understanding, meaningful dialogues, genuine tolerance and pragmatic programs for Americans and their children. Such a race with and among Americans perhaps will never take the United States to a perfect society. The process of continuously overcoming and transcending America's own "basic instincts", however, will surely elevate the country to a much higher moral plateau.

Yu Bin, PhD, is associate professor of political science at Wittenberg University, senior research associate of Shanghai Institute of American Studies, and faculty associate of the Mershon Center of Ohio State University. He contributes regularly to
Comparative Connections of the Pacific Forum in Hawaii. His most recent books include Power of the Moment: America and the World After 9-11 and Mao's Generals Remember Korea. This article contains additional reporting from Inter Press Service.

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