Forty years after the desegregation at gunpoint of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., have we done all we can do to achieve the ideal of fairness in America? Can we say honestly that this is a colorblind society, where children have the same chances at birth regardless of race, where jobs and educational opportunities are open to everyone, and where public and private accommodations such as police protection and housing are available without prejudice? Are our institutions so improved that we no longer need to make any conscious effort to integrate them?
If the answers are as obvious as they seem, then it is difficult to understand why Republican lawmakers who profess to believe in an ideal of fairness oppose the nomination of Bill Lann Lee as Assistant Attorney General-unless they cannot resist the temptation to inflame racial animosities over affirmative action. Mr. Lee is the President’s choice to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division. His inspiring personal history demonstrates the effectiveness of affirmative action in dismantling the racial and ethnic barriers to individual achievement.
He grew up in New York City, the son of a Chinese immigrant laundryman who served in the Air Force during World War II. His father refused to teach young Bill the laundry trade; he had higher expectations for his son and his adopted country. At a time when few Asian-Americans could be found in the Ivy League, Mr. Lee was accepted at Yale University and then Columbia Law School, thanks to the conscious pursuit of greater ethnic diversity at both institutions. He chose to practice civil rights law and eventually rose to head the Western regional office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a post in which he fought relentlessly for his conception of racial justice, while winning the respect of adversaries who did not see things exactly his way.
Now 48, he has done this difficult, sensitive work with distinction for many years. Whatever stigma supposedly attaches to the beneficiaries of affirmative action has not marred his reputation. His qualifications for the post to which he has been named are not in dispute.
Senate Republicans have a problem with Mr. Lee, however, because he holds the same views about affirmative action as the President who chose him. Which is to say, he believes in strong measures, including in some cases the use of race and sex preferences to eradicate discrimination. Mr. Lee’s realism is anathema to conservatives who like to pretend that American society is a “level playing field” of meritocracy.
Republican disdain for affirmative action tends to be quite selective, of course. By far the most popular figure in their party is retired general Colin Powell, whose rise was the direct result of the armed forces’ exceptional affirmative action and integration programs. And Republicans did not hesitate to employ a racial preference in elevating to the Supreme Court an undistinguished attorney named Clarence Thomas, although they hid behind the ridiculous premise that he was the most qualified person for the position regardless of his skin color. In that strange affair, they played the race card in the name of abolishing affirmative action.
Now, at the urging of conservative lobbyists, Congressional Republicans are preparing to kill the nomination of Mr. Lee because they say he favors “quotas” and other constitutionally impermissible means of achieving equality. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has butted into the confirmation process with a letter to the Senate accusing Mr. Lee of “attempting to force through racial and gender preferences” in a discrimination case against the Los Angeles Police Department by using “underhanded methods.” (“Underhanded” is a synonym for “sneaky”; remember the old stereotype of the “sneaky Oriental.” Probably just a coincidence.)
The Gingrich charges, echoed by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, were lies. Mr. Lee’s opponents in the 1996 lawsuit over the L.A.P.D.-one of the most virulently bigoted outfits in the West-were the Republican mayor and the city attorney, both of whom have endorsed his nomination. The consent decree in the case negotiated by Mr. Lee actually forbade preferences; he used no “sneaky” tactics and was praised by Mayor Richard Riordan as an exponent of “mainstream civil rights law” who “does not believe in quotas.” Robert Cramer, the assistant city attorney who litigated the matter, also wrote in support of Mr. Lee: “Although we have disagreed profoundly on many issues, I have respected Bill’s candor, his thorough preparation, his sense of ethical behavior and his ability to bring persons holding diverse views into agreement.” It is hard not to wonder how many of the Speaker’s opponents would be willing to say the same about him.
What the Los Angeles case actually shows about Mr. Lee is that he possesses the qualities most needed in the field of civil rights. He seems able to conciliate without sacrificing principle, to seek justice without provoking bitterness. At a moment of polarizing conflict over race and equity, those rare capacities ought to be prized by all people of good will. That Republicans would spread false stories about him instead, hoping to inflame race relations for political gain, says more about them than about him.