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Indecent Proposals

So sparse have our victories been of late that we walk a bit taller in the wake of the Supreme Court’s surprising decision last week on affirmative action. There was, in truth, no reason to suppose that the court would rule as it did, nor that its ruling would be cast as generously as it was.

For the time being, though, the battle over affirmative action is over. The right, in its outraged resentment, may seek to make opposition to affirmative action a “litmus test” for future Supreme Court nominees, but such an effort is not likely to take serious root. So let us be grateful that diversity has won the judicial day, and that this one issue is off the table for a time.

That said, diversity in higher education is these days in far greater jeopardy than it has been for some time. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor quite properly noted the importance of our most distinguished schools — law schools especially — in preparing the nation’s elite. But the harsh facts of the matter are that the overwhelming majority of African-American students do not attend the handful of top law schools; they attend community two- and four-year colleges and state schools — and just now, virtually all those schools are in trouble.

The worst case, but hardly the only case, may be that of California, where the trustees of the state university system are considering a 30% tuition increase. It is altogether too easy for those of us whose family budgets are marked by substantial elasticity to understand what even a $400 or $800 increase in college costs can mean to those who must scrape together their tuition payments. A 30% increase, if it comes to pass, will be devastating to the hopes and dreams of tens of thousands of able young people. In all too many cases, even a 10% increase will be literally unbearable. The consequent waste will count as a national disgrace.

Nor, for that matter, ought our continuing conversation about diversity, so honored in speech, so inadequately realized in life, be limited to higher education. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued eloquently in her dissent in the University of Michigan undergraduate case — the one that ruled that the affirmative action program of the university’s college, as distinguished from its law school, amounted to an impermissible quota system — African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans “historically have been relegated to inferior status by law and social practice,” and the members of those groups “continue to experience class-based discrimination to this day.”

Indeed, she argued, “the stain of generations of racial oppression is still visible in our society, and the determination to remove it remains vital.” Alone among the justices who wrote opinions, Ginsburg did not hide behind the mantra of diversity. She wrote, instead, of the legacy of racism that is the heart, the dark heart, of the matter.

Not so many years ago, much of white America would have shouted “Brava!” to Ginsburg’s opinion. These days, the national mood has changed. There is a new stinginess in the air, a widespread feeling that we have been at this racial stuff too long, that it is time to move on.

But try telling that to the millions of African-American children who still attend radically inferior public schools, whose access to healthcare is choked, whose parents’ unemployment rates are substantially higher than those that prevail for white Americans. In any of our big cities, do we not know about “those neighborhoods,” the ones we avoid, the ones we choose not to think about, the ones we have, in so many ways, abandoned?

Yet the lonely voices that call us back to the struggle go largely unheeded, and the politicians know that outside of perhaps 10% of our congressional districts, there is no profit in arguing the case for decency. I say “decency” rather than equality because that is what is at stake here: The denial of adequate healthcare, by virtue not of active malevolence but by virtue of tax policies that have brought us to the edge of ruin, is not in the first instance a problem in inequity — it is a problem in indecency.

The edge of ruin? What can that mean? What manner of hysteria begets so alarmist a suggestion?

Try this: The word in Washington this week is that a new round of tax cuts is in the offing. The growing private riches and the growing public squalor will thereby be accelerated. Our colleges, long a critical ingredient in the splendid saga of mobility in America, will unwillingly become bastions of privilege. Our talk of the wonders of diversity will be revealed as sham.

We cannot regard the calamitous deficits that have suddenly returned as merely inconvenient, nor are they simply temporary aberrations that will vanish if and as the economy perks up. So long as the tax cuts remain in place, the deficits are here to stay. It merely adds profound insult to the substantial injury that the beneficiaries of the cuts are those who need them least. The root problem is far less the distribution of benefits than the crippling weight of the deficits.

Alas, we may rest assured that our feckless Congress, when it finally comes to grips with those deficits, will respond not by repealing the tax cuts but by defunding the social programs on which so many American depend, finally hacking away even at long-established entitlement programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and, before too long, Social Security.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, the battle over affirmative action as law is, indeed, over for a time. But the battle for America as beacon is only now, and so far all too sluggishly, joined.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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