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Don't forget poor whites

Posted By John N. Doggett On 12/04/1998 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court wisely refused to hear an appeal of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Hopwood vs. Texas. In 1992, Cheryl Hopwood’s application to attend the University of Texas (UT) Law School was rejected while black and Mexican-American applicants with lower board scores and GPA’s were admitted. Cheryl and three other white applicants sued UT claiming that UT’s program violated their constitutional right to equal protection under the law. The 5th Circuit agreed with Cheryl and ruled that UT unconstitutionally used race to decide who was admitted to its law school. The 5th Circuit went on to say, however, that UT could consider socioeconomic background, family history and other non-racial characteristics in admitting future students.

Many of us hoped that UT would get the message and get on with the business of recruiting and educating the best and brightest students in Texas, whatever their color. However, old habits don’t die easily. This fall, UT filed another appeal in the vain hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will authorize it to reinstate race-based admissions at the largest university in America. It is my hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will use UT’s newest appeal to end race-based affirmative action programs and replace them with economic status-based affirmative opportunity programs.

Race-based admissions programs are based upon two liberal pillars of belief. First, that most black and Latino students simply are not bright enough to qualify for admission to graduate school without “separate but lower” admission standards. This belief is a profound insult to the intelligence of the many black and Latino students who can gain admission to any school in this country without racial preferences. It also shows the liberal’s contempt for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of an America that will judge each of us on the “content of our character, not the color of our skin.”

The second basis for race-based admissions programs seems more legitimate on its surface, but it too cannot stand serious scrutiny. White students, like Cheryl Hopwood, have argued that race-based admissions programs are a form of reverse discrimination. They think that denying them admission to college or graduate school because of racist acts of whites in the past is wrong. They do not want to pay for the sins of someone else’s father.

Liberals argue that even if a white high school or college senior has never discriminated against a black or Latino student in his or her life, they are the beneficiaries of a racist history that helped whites at the expense of Americans of color. Liberals argue that even if the white student’s ancestors were abolitionists, Union soldiers during the Civil War, founding members of the NAACP, and lawyers who fought segregation in the South, they still must lose their chance to go to the college or graduate school of their choice because other whites discriminated against blacks and Latinos. Liberals, who are generally closet socialists, believe that skin color is all that counts and that individual history, character or actions are irrelevant.

It is true that some whites did benefit from legalized racism, but can one argue that all whites were automatically beneficiaries? The liberals say yes; I say no. It is true that some whites used every power at their command to deny life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to Americans of color. Does that mean that we should punish the white descendants of those who fought white racism for the sins that their ancestor’s enemies? Of course not, but that is just what liberals want us to accept.

I was born and raised in California. I received my J.D. from Yale and my M.B.A. from Harvard. I was shocked, when I moved to Texas in 1989, to see the crushing poverty of poor blacks, Latinos and whites. Since then, I have tried to understand the lives and history of poor whites in America. My eyes were opened wide by Wayne Flynt’s book, “Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites.” I highly recommend it to you.

In spite of the claims of liberals that “all whites” benefited from living in a “racist” America, there are more whites on the nation’s welfare roles than blacks and Latinos combined. More whites live in substandard housing, are homeless and are functionally illiterate than blacks and Latinos combined. In fact, many white families have been mired in poverty ever since their poor relatives landed on the shores of this great country centuries ago.

If you doubt my words, go to Appalachia, the Ozarks, or the deep South, and look at how poor whites live. If America rigged the game to help whites and harm her citizens of color, then how do you explain the millions of whites who live in housing projects, hovels, dumps, shacks, and trailers while some people of color are living in mansions. The answer is that as racist as America has been, all whites have not been beneficiaries of her sins.

Some may ask why I care about poor whites. After all, as the great-grandson of a slave, I know that many southern poor whites hated blacks. The answer is simple. My research shows that many poor whites realized that the race game harmed all poor Southerners. In Alabama, for example, they held black slaves in higher regard than poor Irish or French immigrants. In fact, in Alabama, they did not promulgate laws against racial intermarriage until the 1850s.

When you study the history of race in the South, you quickly realize that plantation owners quaked at the thought that poor whites and black slaves would realize that their enslavement and poverty benefited the same people. Throughout the history of the South, plantation owners and their descendants have brutally repressed efforts by poor whites and black freedmen and slaves to join for economic and individual freedom.

If we are to solve the race problem in America, we must first acknowledge that there always have been and always will be poor whites in this country. We must acknowledge that there is no way to effectively help the poor of color and ignore their white brothers and sisters. We must also acknowledge that all religions mandate that those who are better off help the poor. It logically follows that to help the down trodden and oppressed in this country, we must devise programs that help all poor people — whatever their skin color.

To understand how nonsensical race-based admissions programs can be, let’s look at the specifics of the UT School of Law Admissions system that the 5th Circuit rejected. While the program’s goal was admirable — reducing the current impact of past segregation and promoting diversity — the Texas law school created a system that was fatally flawed in three major areas.

First, two-thirds of the black students offered admission by the Texas law school in 1992 were not from Texas. I do not understand how admitting black students who grew up in New York and California redresses the impact of racial discrimination against black students raised in Texas.

Second, the Texas law school purposefully excluded Native Americans, non-Mexican American Hispanics, Asians, women and disabled applicants from its definition of diversity. I do not understand how eliminating large groups of Texans who have traditionally been under represented in the legal profession enhances diversity.

Third, the Texas law school program allowed the sons and daughters of

wealthy Mexican American and black doctors and lawyers to be admitted with lower grades and test scores than the sons and daughters of poor white or Native American dirt farmers. I do not understand how a program that favored the wealthy children of fifth-generation college graduates over the poor children of fifth-generation high school dropouts simply because of their race was anything than just plain wrong.

To be sure, those who were admitted under the rejected race-based admissions system were very good students and will make very good lawyers. Nevertheless, when some black and Mexican American students are admitted to UT under “separate but lower” admissions standards, we stigmatize all students of color, and the civil rights movement’s goal of equality of opportunity is sacrificed on the altar of expediency. One irony of the Hopwood case is that in 1996, the Daily Texan published a study showing that 70 percent of UT’s undergraduates of color would have been admitted even if UT had no race-based affirmative action program.

Racism has not gone away. It is real, it is evil and it will not disappear on its own. However, we cannot defeat racism by institutionalizing “separate but lower” admissions standards for students of color. We cannot defeat racism by treating all white students as closet members of the Ku Klux Klan. We cannot defeat racism by ignoring the plight of poor whites.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had it right. For America to work, she must
embrace all of her children. Let us not repeat the sins of the past. Let us make sure that our effort to diminish the lingering impact of legalized racism finally breaks the destructive cycle of pitting the rights and interests of poor whites and poor blacks and Latinos against each other. We are all children of God and we have been blessed to be born in America. It’s time to make this blessing real for all.


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