Question At Cato Forum: What Is Civil Rights?

Yesterday Helene and I attended a forum at the Cato Institute on Russell Nieli’s new book, Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action And Our Continuing Racial Divide, which featured presentations by Nieli and a very thoughtful comment by Walter Olson (of Overlawyered fame). I’ll have more to say about Nieli’s book in another post, and you can (and should) watch the whole thing at the Cato site linked above.

All I want to do here is call your attention to questions from two black ladies toward the very end that were articulate, revealing, and distressing. Both emphasized how brutal segregation had been (which Nieli had himself emphasized), and neither could understand why anyone would favor cutting back on the civil rights remedies that had been put in place to correct some of that injustice — one even wondering how Nieli and Olson “could sleep at night.”

In short, both of these questioners equated affirmative action with civil rights. In fact, more than equated; they literally couldn’t conceive of any distinction between prohibiting discrimination and promoting racial preference. I suppose the ubiquity of that misconception explains why even politicians who oppose racial preference flee from any evidence of that opposition on the campaign trail — one thinks of Robert Dole, who actually co-sponsored sweeping legislation in 1995 with Rep. Charles Canady (R, Fla.) that would have ended most federal preference programs but fled from that opposition during his 1996 presidential campaign — even in California, where voters that year passed Prop. 209 outlawing preferential treatment with a substantial majority.

Neither party wants to discuss racial preferences, as Olson stressed in his comments. Indeed, this issue may be unique in the annals of American politics: the Democrats are afraid to defend what the Republicans are afraid to attack.

Say What?