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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Have We Solved the American Dilemma? The Conservative Case Against Affirmative Action BY MARK STERN AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE: One Nation, Indivisible. By Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom. Simon & Schuster. 704 pages. $32.50. ncreasingly, conservative leaders and their think-tank allies are defining the public “civil rights” agenda, especially the affirmative action political agenda. By con trast, liberal policy leaders and their allied intellectuals have been disengaging from public decisionmaking forums and even public debate. The latest examples of liberal disengagement bode poorly for the future of affirmative action. Recently a coalition of civil rights groups, under the aegis of the Black Leadership Forum, devised a strategy simply to pay the plaintiff in order to settle a major affirmative-action-based employment layoff case \(Piscataway, New Jersey Board of Edthus removing it from the docket of the U. S. Supreme Court. Hugh B. Price, President of the National Urban League and a Forum member, argued: “The general discussion was that this was one of the worst cases one could imagine bringing to the Court and it would allow it to make a sweeping ruling on affirmative action” \(a ruling most observers believed Patrick, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and a strong civil rights advocate, was , a major supporter of the original strategy to bring this case before the Court, with the United States government as a school board ally. /n another context, the president’s National Advisory Council on Race, appointed to lead a “national conversation on race,” saw no reason to bring into this conversation individuals opposed to affirmative action. Asked why a major supporter of California’s anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 was excluded from the Council’s discussion, the chair, distinguished historian John Hope Franklin, responded, “I’m not certain what … Mr. [Ward] Connerly would contribute.” On December 3, Bill Clinton used his presidential bully-pulpit in Akron, Ohio, as the forum in which to lead the nation in a discussion of race relations. Clinton apparently wanted to transform a conservative-dominated framework, and place the discussion within the context of a national need for diversity and a national need to overcome the still-present effects of a history of racial discrimination. The discussion was calm, polite, and stultifying, as the audience remained timid and vaguely in favor of good race relations. In an apparent effort to have the Akron conversation become more pointed, the President turned to Abigail Thernstrom, a well-known critic of affirmative action \(and co-author of Amerand asked: “Abigail, do you favor the United States Army abolishing the affirmative action program that produced Colin Powell? Yes or no. Yes or no.” This was the flashpoint of the Akron encounter. Ms. Thernstrom attempted to answer the question, but the exchange became one of presidential cajoling and interruption. The ensuing front page of The New York Times showed a finger-wagging president and the bully pulpit was publicly transformed into a bully’s pulpit. The President’s attempt to seize the civil rights initiative and to transform the public debate on affirmative action had backfired. The President’s attack on Thernstrom reinforced the perception that a public debate with civil rights conservatives was not acceptable to the liberal leadership. On December 19, in an attempt to counteract this image, nine leading opponents of pro-active civil rights and affirmative action measures met with the president in the White House. This encounter had a very different outcome. Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom engaged in this presidential discussion, as did Ward Connerly. Stephan Thernstrom questioned “the need for diversity defined narrowly in terms of skin color.” Abigail Thernstrom pointed out, “There isn’t anybody in this room who would deny that we’ve got a long ways to go down the road to racial equality … and there’s a lot of racism still in this society.” However, she argued, the “trend lines” of improvement for minorities “[look] very good.” The “racial gap” still exists, but from Themstrom’ s perspective, “the solution to that isn’t preferences.” Although the President and the conservatives differed on many points, Ward Connerly conveyed the sense of this discussion as “warm and fuzzy,” but added, “[Clinton] understands race like no other president, living or dead” \(Times, DeFor the moment, the civil rights debate had been framed within the President’s powers of persuasion. But the conservative opposition to affirmative action remains intact, and its intellectual leadership is adroitly articulating its positions. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, through their own research and their work with conservative foundations, have been in the thick of the affirmative action debate. Abigail, in particular, through her association with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York think-tank, has been a prominent public opponent of affirmative action. America in Black and White provides an extended historical and statistical argument for the Thernstroms’ opposition to affirmative action. The book opens and closes by citing JANUARY 16, 1998 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER