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Creating a Hostile Environment: A Lesson in Presidential Civility

Civil Rights Practice Group Newsletter - Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 1998

President Clinton began his "national conversation on race" on the evening of December 2, 1997, in Akron, Ohio at a nationally televised town hall meeting. He first called for such a conversation in his June 14, 1996 commencement address at the University of California, San Diego:

"We must build one American community based on respect for one another and our shared values. We must begin with a candid conversation on the state of race relations today .... We must be honest talking with each other. We have talked at each other and about each other for a long time. It's high time we began talking with each other."

However, the President's treatment at the Akron town hall meeting of Abigail Thernstrom, a critic of race-based preferential treatment, exhibited none of the virtues the President called for in June.

President Clinton walked across the stage and stood close to Professor Thernstrom, hovering over her like a detective about to grill a murder suspect. He then aggressively lit into her: "Abigail, do you favor the United States Army abolishing the affirmative action program that produced Colin Powell? Yes or no!? Yes or no!?" Aside from the rudeness of addressing a distinguished professor by her first name (after all, he would expect us to call him, "Mr. President"), his question was designed to do one thing: publicly embarrass a well known critic of racial preferences. Think about it. If she answers "yes," she apparently contradicts an American legend, Colin Powell. That would be politically damaging to her viewpoint. If she answers "no," she then appears to be implicitly denying her own position. That would be politically advantageous for the President's political viewpoint.

The purpose of the question, therefore, was not to initiate a candid conversation and advance civility, it was to avoid candor and seize political ground.

Despite the President's tactic, Professor Thernstrom replied: "I do not think it is racial preferences that made Colin Powell. Let us have real equality of education. These preferences disguise the problem. The real problem is the racial skills gap."

Not a bad reply. However, because of the vast number of programs that come under the umbrella of "affirmative action," there is no way Professor Thernstrom could have answered the President's question with a simple "yes" or "no." After all, the Army does not engage in the sort of racial preferences most Americans, including Professor Thernstrom, oppose. It tries to cast a wider net as well as root out those who engage in discriminatory practices. This is a form of affirmative action, but it is uncontroversial, because it does not replace merit with preferences. Consequently, to suggest as the President did, that Powell's success is the result of government preferences, rather than character, family upbringing, military excellence, and good decision-making, is simply inaccurate - not to mention insulting to Powell.

In addition, the President's argument was logically flawed. First, the fact that something good, such as Powell's success, may result when a policy is in force does not mean that the policy is the cause of the result. Nor does it necessarily follow that the policy is good. For example, the President himself grew up during the days in

which the policy of racial segregation was in force. The fact of his success does not mean racial segregation was good. After all, his life may have still been a success even if there was no segregation.

Conversely, as social scientist Frederick Lynch has pointed out (in his book, Invisible Victims), affirmative action policies sometime result in white males being harmed for reasons having exclusively to do with their race and gender, rather than their merit. Would Mr. Clinton say that preferences are now not good because of this bad result?

Second, the President committed the fallacy of the loaded question, which occurs when one assumes as true something controversial in the asking of a question. For example, I would be committing such a fallacy if I were to ask someone: "Have you stopped beating your wife? Yes or No!?" If the respondent has never been a wife beater, neither "yes" nor "no" can be the answer.

Since the President did not clearly define "affirmative action" and it is reasonable to believe that Powell would have succeeded without racial preferences, the President's question was unfairly loaded.

If in Akron the President was trying to nurture civility he would have done well to follow the advice he gave those college graduates in San Diego: "We have talked at each other and about each other for a long time. It's high time we began talking with each other."

Francis J. Beckwith is an associate professor of philosophy, culture and law, and W. Howard Hoffman Scholar, Trinity Graduate School and Trinity Law School, Trinity International University (Deerfield, Illinois), California campus. His most recent book is Affirmative Action: Social Justice or Reverse Discrimination? (Prometheus, 1997). Dr. Beckwith is a member of the Civil Rights Practice Group.