For most of his term as president, John F. Kennedy was necessarily preoccupied with international events, despite the fact that the people were at war with themselves over the contentious issue of race.
However, by midterm, events involving race had become so tumultuous that Kennedy could no longer escape his obligation to lead the American people in seeking a solution to the issue of civil rights.
Finding himself at a similar juncture, President Bush last week showed the same leadership Kennedy did then.
Shortly before his assassination in 1963, Kennedy used his enormous persuasive ability to address the nation about the issue of race and the moral imperative to grant equal rights to Americans who are black. In that address, he said, “Race has no place in American life or law.” That statement represented an ideal and a vision to guide the nation as it wrestled with how best to end segregation and the Jim Crow laws that sustained it. Forty years later, the issue is still with us.
The terrorists’ attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, established the agenda that will most assuredly be the centerpiece of the Bush presidency. In responding to those attacks and other threats to our national security, Bush has been presented with an unparalleled challenge.
But the American people remain at war with themselves about race.
No matter how much Bush, like Kennedy, might wish to avoid the issue of race, wishing doesn’t make it so. Speaking from the White House on Jan. 15 -- the birthday of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. -- Bush announced that his administration would file a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the admissions policies of the University of Michigan, which award extra “points” for members of certain minority groups, are unconstitutional. In addition, Bush underscored his support for racial and ethnic diversity as a government objective but noted that there are “race-neutral” means to accomplish that objective.
Such a complex, nuanced and equivocal position was certain to please few and anger many. That is the nature of race and the insistence all of us seem to have on our all-or-nothing ideological positions about race. I am unalterably opposed to any use of government to influence the outcome of competitions for jobs, contracts or college admissions on the basis of race, ethnic background or national ancestry.
Such efforts inevitably result in the deprivation of equal treatment under the law to those who are not favored by the government. They violate the constitutional and statutory right that each of us has to be treated as an equal by our government.
Diversity should never be an excuse to discriminate on the basis of race or ancestry.
Having said that, I hasten to add that I am a devout supporter of the goal of making our nation a fair and inclusive society, in which each of us has an equal opportunity to compete and to participate. This is where our president finds himself: trying to balance these competing objectives and to forge a new consensus about race and the constitutionally and politically legitimate role of government with respect to race.
By advising the court that differential treatment of citizens on the basis of their race or ethnic background violates our Constitution, Bush returned our nation to the path laid out by Kennedy when he summoned us to purge race from American life, and by the Congress when it reaffirmed the principle of equal treatment under the law “without regard to race, color and creed.”
Bush also reminded the nation that we should not abandon the dream and the obligation to extend access to every American who seeks entry to our colleges and universities. His embrace of the amorphous concept of diversity, no matter how much it displeases a significant share of my conservative allies, is recognition of the essential role that government must play in making ours a nation where “race has no place in American life or law.”
Kennedy and Bush merit the respect of the nation for confronting issues that they would have preferred to ignore. The fact that few of us are totally happy about what has been proposed may speak volumes about the wisdom of what we are being asked to accept.
Ward Connerly is a regent of the University of California.