Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Colorblind Society

James Skillen


November 10, 1997

By refusing to accept for review California's Proposition 209 ban on affirmative action, the Supreme Court last week took us another step down the road away from race-based government policy. Prop 209's supporters are right: government shouldn't be in the business of treating people differently because of their skin color. But stopping government discrimination won't mean the end of racism in our society. Nor will it end government's responsibility to work vigorously for justice for all.

Public policy on racial matters is at a dangerous impasse. At the price of great turmoil and shedding of blood, Americans now agree on equal treatment for all. But we are deeply divided on what government must do about our actual legacy of unequal treatment. One side demands that government create special opportunities for groups historically suppressed. The other side claims that affirmative action, rather than leveling the playing field, forces government to discriminate against other citizens.

We should admit it: despite good intentions, affirmative action is pernicious. Requiring government to discriminate on the basis of color penalizes alike both racists and the innocent, and rewards alike both those harmed by racism and those who have flourished. Government's task of justice requires instead that it focus on actual circumstances and not racial stereotypes.

Yet doing away with government racism won't end racial injustice in America. Slavery and racism have caused great harm to black Americans merely because of their skin color. And too many citizens and institutions are not disposed to give them a fair chance even now. The law should be colorblind, to be sure. But that doesn't mean government may turn a blind eye to the plight of racism's victims.

In fact, government has a positive task to combat injustice. At a minimum it should require of itself and of society that race not be used as an excuse for treating people unfairly. And it must go beyond enforcing formal equal treatment. Government should actively work for a society in which everyone has the chance to flourish.

This is no plea for utopian social engineering. Far from it. Government's main role is structural and supportive, facilitating the healthy development of social institutions. For it is in places outside of government that we must learn to love all of our neighbors, discover our talents, enjoy and begin families, churches, and associations, and find and create opportunities to serve others and thereby ourselves. But if government's action must be supportive, it is not any less crucial.

To improve the educational advancement of black students, for instance, government shouldn't force schools to disregard their best pedagogical judgments about how to help students learn. Instead, it needs to craft an education framework that enables schools to be real learning centers, parents to exercise their responsibility to raise their kids to maturity, and teachers, parents, and students to work as a team.

That means school choice. But the point is to make education effective and to make effective education available to all, not to save money or make schools subject to market forces. All families and schools should benefit, so sufficient public funds must follow the students, and racism cannot be allowed. A new framework for schooling is needed, and that requires deliberate government action, not simple privatization.

Opponents of race-based government policy are only partly right. Ending government-required racism is just one step. The harder challenge is to eradicate racism in our hearts and heads, and to overcome its bitter legacy in the lives and culture of people who were condemned because of the color of their skin.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Fellow
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”