No time for cowards — let's talk about race, America

Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action moves us closer to a merit-based society

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Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass shares his opinion on affirmative action.

When it comes to race in America, the last thing I'd want is to be considered a coward.

But then, it's so easy to be cowardly in America when it comes to race.

It's not normal for people to take positions that can leave them vulnerable and make it easy for others to brand them as racist and then shun them. Such pressure is a fact of American life. So instead of talking, they clam up.

Their lips may stop moving. But they don't stop thinking. And Attorney General Eric Holder said as much shortly after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," said Holder in 2009.

It was a shocking speech, and rather silly, given that America had just proved the opposite of cowardice by electing the first African-American president. But there is also truth in it.

Our politics are consumed by race. Our governments use race to hand out public contracts, and to pick winners and losers when it comes to political/public jobs. Our universities have de-emphasized merit in admissions policy while considering skin pigmentation.

All of that is wrong, corrosive and, at bottom, positively un-American.

So when the Supreme Court this week ruled that Michigan voters had the right to ban racial preferences in university admissions, some thoughts came to mind.

One was optimism. By allowing states to ban the use of skin color as leverage, we move toward the goal of a post-racial society. Keeping racial preferences in place guarantees we remain divided.

But remove them, allow merit to dictate success, and pressure will increase on local communities to improve public education at the elementary and high school levels.

Those young people on the South and West sides of Chicago, those children who are among the ones gunned down every day, aren't helped by the current system. They're not the elites. They're not going to the University of Michigan. Too many are not even getting out of high school alive.

The ugly secret is that racial-preference politics helps the elites most of all, by helping those who have been poised to take advantage.

And what about a white kid who didn't grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth? Is he any less human than others?

And does the daughter of a black bank vice president — or the daughter of a U.S. president — need political help over the son of a white construction worker? No. But a culture that prizes merit will force changes.

America has a long and ugly history of racial discrimination, beginning with slavery and continuing through modern times, from the unions started by white immigrants to keep blacks out of work in the North, to poll taxes in the South.

Racial preferences were instituted to address those wrongs. I understand the why of it, but here's the problem: If it's wrong to use race to deny people opportunities, it is equally wrong to use race to help some at the expense of others.

Using skin color rather than merit to pick winners and losers is a policy that fosters cynicism. Such policies only serve the politicians, who hand out the spoils, using racial preference as governmental levers as they win power and treasure for themselves.

All that has to change, and it won't change unless we divorce ourselves from the skin game.

And then I thought of Holder.

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