Sec. Paige and the Inescapable Strength of Race Talk

By Greg Moses

In the Spring of 2003, two months before the

Supreme Court announced its Grutter decision, US Secretary of Education Rod Paige was in Florida,

denouncing affirmative action in college admissions as “un-American.”

And only a week

after the Texas A&M University Regents announced their decision to bypass affirmative action in college

admissions, Secretary Paige was in Texas, not far from College Station, urging his audiences to stay

the course in educational reform. In a series of speeches delivered in Florida, Texas, and in front

of national conferences in Washington, DC, Secretary Paige has enunciated a hard-charging vision of

educational reform that adheres to so-called race-neutral strategies deployed under Governors Jeb and

George Bush. But he also employs images of racialized experience when he seeks to communicate the

persistence of racism and the strengths that have won great achievements in the face of racist

assaults.

“And I’ll just tell you that President Bush and I are of one mind on this,”

said the Secretary in Florida, shortly after he was introduced to a “Race Neutral Conference” by

Governor Jeb Bush, on April 28,

2003.

http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2003/04/04282003.html

“I have known

President Bush a long time and I can tell you that this is a man who believes that education is a civil

right, just like the right to vote or to be treated equally. He believes it’s the duty of our nation

to educate every child well, not just some of them.”

With fierce persistence, Secretary

Paige steers his remarks toward the President and his leadership, often repeating the proud claim that

within days of taking office, the President got started on the educational reform known as, “No Child

Left Behind.”

“Both he and I are committed to greater diversity and greater

opportunity for all Americans from all backgrounds and all walks of life,” said Paige at the Florida

conference. ”But we believe that we can–and we must–achieve these goals without resorting to methods

that divide, that perpetuate stereotypes, and that pit one group of Americans against another.”

Affirmative action in college admissions, argued the Secretary, is a cause of such

divisiveness.

“Think about it,” argued the Secretary. “If our goal is harmony and

diversity, then why would we use methods that are divisive, unfair and impossible to square with our

Constitution? The Michigan system unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on

their race.”

In his references to “the Michigan system,” the Secretary makes no

distinction between the two cases being deliberated by the Supreme Court. Indeed, the Michigan

undergraduate point system was ruled unconstitutional. But in the case of Grutter and the Michigan Law

School, the Supreme Court’s majority decision, authored by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, ruled that it

was indeed possible to square the Constitution with affirmative action in college

admissions.

“This [affirmative action in college admissions] is not only wrong; it’s

un-American,” declared the Secretary prior to the Supreme Court’s findings. “It is not right to fight

discrimination with discrimination. And that is what the Michigan system promotes.”

The

context of the Secretary’s accusations, his pre-emptive declarations, and the way he compares Texas and

Florida, help us to formulate possible reasons why, politically, the George Bush campus in Texas was so

quick to run around the Grutter ruling, back into the framework of “right” and “American” race-neutral

college admissions.

I call the Texas A&M University campus at College Station the George

Bush campus, because that is where the presidential library for the first President Bush is located,

and that is where the Dean of the George Bush School, a former assistant to President Bush and former

director of the CIA, was promoted to University President.

“If we are truly committed

to greater opportunity and diversity on our nation’s campuses, then we have the responsibility and the

obligation to be proactive,” said the Secretary last Spring. “And in this effort, we have a great ally

in President Bush.”

As it turns out, President Bush had pushed from very early in his

administration to get the Department of Education onto the race-neutral track of civil rights. Says

the Secretary of the President:

“At his insistence, the Department of Education took a

hard look at the potential for race-neutral admissions approaches to increase the number of minorities

on America’s college campuses….But the upshot is this: colleges don’t have to fall back on admissions

quotas and double standards to achieve racial diversity. Promising alternatives not only exist, they

are working.”

Secretary Paige argued that “percentage plans” in Texas, Florida, and

California, “are proving that you can achieve broad racial and economic diversity through such race-

neutral means as: guaranteeing admissions to top students from all high schools–wealthy and poor; and

considering a broad range of factors in admissions, including a student’s potential, life experiences

and economic obstacles.”

“The early data is heartening,” continued the Secretary. “It

suggests that many university doors have now opened to rural and low-income students who never before

had a prayer of attending those schools. Where once students from a small number of high schools held

the monopoly on elite colleges, students from low-income and low-performing schools are now winning

admission.”

But we should not ignore Secretary Paige’s careful use of the words “early

data.” The conclusion of the report, prepared by the Office for Civil Rights says plainly that, “No

single race-neutral program is a panacea. What is needed now is more research and discussion about the

varieties of race-neutral programs that might be employed in different settings.” When compared with

the widely-tested methods of affirmative action, the race-neutral movement has not yet produced a

convincing case for a wholesale policy

shift.

http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/edlite-

raceneutralreport.html#_Toc32306620

Last December, with Texas A&M’s rejection of

affirmative action still fresh in the news, Secretary Paige was back in Texas, talking up the coming

revolution in education.

Speaking at Sam Houston State University, not very far down the

road from College Station, Texas, Secretary Paige delivered a fine “seize the moment” speech, fitting

for a winter commencement. He talked about dreamers who acted without hesitation. He talked about Sam

Houston and Mother Theresa, back to

back.

http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2003/12/12132003.html

Two days

later, the Secretary was speaking before the Greater Houston Partnership, an organization widely

credited with the city’s educational reforms. The Houston Independent School District had led the

nation for fourth-grade test scores among African American children. And Secretary Page told his

audience that it was the example of Houston that the President had in mind when he set out to build a

national policy for education.

In the words of Secretary Paige, the President’s reforms

in education are very much bound up with a concept of civil rights. He bluntly told his Texas audience

that educational challenges today are signs of persisting racism.

“I know, as someone

who grew up in rural Mississippi, that this situation is unjust and a latent vestige of racism. I know

that 50 years after Brown v Board of Education, we still have battles to fight before an equal

education is availab
le to all,” the Secretary told his Houston

audience.

http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2003/12/12152003.h
tml

“And I

know this is a battle that we must win. No Child Left Behind is the logical next step in fostering

racial equality and equal opportunity. As Thurgood Marshall said in his oral argument before the

Supreme Court in the Brown case, ‘There is no way you can repay lost school years.’ I agree…no way!!!

There isn’t a form of compensation that makes up for lost time and for lost opportunities.”

The Secretary gave quite a pep talk to the Houston audience. He encouraged them to

continue the reforms they had started, “in the 1970s,” and he told them not to be deterred by the fact

that Houston education had become the target of a politically-charged debate.

Secretary

Paige makes a good point when he argues that political agendas often drive the analysis and

interpretation of facts. In the case of the President’s educational strategy, an agenda of race-

neutral civil rights is hard at work.

But here is the puzzle to consider. Why is the

Secretary himself so ambivalent about the value of race-neutral language? For example, when he is

speaking before the National Council of Negro Women (on the same day that the Texas A&M Regents

announced their race-neutral policy), Secretary Paige uses race-laden language with

exhuberance:

“There is a long, proud tradition of education in the African American

community. We have produced some of the greatest educators in history. Frederick Douglass and his

Sabbath Schools. W.E.B. DuBois and the “talented tenth.” Benjamin Elijah Mays opening his office door

to young Martin Luther King, Jr. Maya Angelou sharing thoughts about Langston Hughes. Wynton Marseilles

conducting master classes, and endlessly talking about John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong.”

http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2003/12/12052003.html

Or speaking more

personally to the audience of black women, Secretary Paige recounted the example of his mother: “My

mother, who was a teacher, used to sternly tell me that there was no more powerful force on earth than

black women. She said that if you wanted to see physics in action, just turn African American women

lose on a problem. And then don’t get in the way!!! If they want change, it will happen!!!

“I noticed she always said that with my father in the room,” remarked the Secretary.

“And he nodded wisely…what else could he do?…she was right!!!”

In this speech, the

use of racialized language points to strength, power, and greatness.

In a January speech

to the American Enterprise Institute, however, Secretary Paige makes reference to a William Raspberry

column. For Raspberry, when black college students declare their support for affirmative action for

the rest of their lives or longer, they are declaring themselves inferior: “The implication is, that we

are permanently damaged goods, and in permanent need of special concessions.”

http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2004/01/01072004.html

To be sure, Paige

and Raspberry point to one of the conundrums of civil rights enforcement. In a land where well-

documented racism persists, there is a danger that common-sense references to race are also laden with

popular conceptions of inferiority. But a college student’s support of affirmative action need not be

based on presumptions of self-inferiority. Just as Paige celebrates the strength of black women, when

he is speaking to black women, affirmative action may be seen as a way of insisting that such strength

be brought to the table.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s