Spencer: The Columnist Who Cried "Racist"

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Spencer: The Columnist Who Cried "Racist"

by Ari Armstrong, July 16, 2003

Following the Jayson Blair incident at the New York Times, some critics of affirmative action pointed to that case as an example of the policy gone awry. But those critics were wrong. With his July 10 column in the Denver Post blasting Governor Bill Owens' call to end affirmative action at Colorado's tax-funded colleges, Jim Spencer proved definitively that incompetent white journalists are as likely to rise to the top at a widely circulated newspaper.

But that's the only point Spencer scored in favor of affirmative action. Spencer might have described the arguments for and against affirmative action, then made a case in favor of the policy. Instead, Spencer launched an assault on Owens' character.

According to Spencer, Owens is "standing up for white people." He assures Owens that white people are "still in control." However, Spencer adds sarcastically, "we're losing ground from the good old days" of slavery and segregation, and "[i]f we blink twice, the dark hordes just might make it to 20 percent of the college population." Spencer suggests Owens is motivated by a fear of "sharing the wealth" with minorities, and he claims Owens will "agree that white people merit much better treatment than that." According to Spencer, Owens pines for "a day when white men like you and me filled the classrooms, then the boardrooms, not to mention the halls of power. Just look how fast two more white guys - Colorado state Sens. John Andrews and Jim Dyer - hopped on your bandwagon. They're already drafting a law for the white, Republican majority of the General Assembly to pass and for you to sign."

Not content to call Owens a racist, Spencer closes his article by suggesting Owens might want to create "a master's degree in creation science for CU-Boulder" for the benefit of "conservative Caucasians." In his rush to "defend" minorities, Spencer apparently isn't bothered by his own bigoted stereotypes.

In my on-line magazine Colorado Freedom Report, I've skewered Owens dozens of times on everything from drug policy to corporate welfare to guns and taxes. But he's not a racist. Certainly opposing affirmative action does not make him a racist, and anyway Owens' motivations are not relevant to the truth of the arguments. Apparently Spencer skipped school the day they talked about ad hominem attacks.

Unfortunately for Spencer's stereotypes, Gallup conducted a poll June 12-18 and asked people, "Do you generally favor or oppose affirmative action programs for racial minorities?" 21% of blacks said they oppose affirmative action. So, according to those who pretend opponents of affirmative action are necessarily racists, one in every five black people is a sell-out or somehow not "really" black. And such an attitude is pretty damned condescending to that sub-minority.

Spencer lays out the case that blacks and Hispanics are under-represented "at Colorado's colleges and universities." The definition of "under-representation" is the percentage of a given minority at a college is less than the percentage of that minority within the community at large. Spencer further argues this is the case because of past discrimination. We all agree blacks were terribly abused for most of the United States' history and that racism persists today.

Of course, the issue of "representation" in itself has no implications for affirmative action at colleges. Is the main goal really to adjust the representation of minorities at colleges? Wouldn't it be better if minority students scored higher on standardized tests and got better grades? Asian Americans, a minority once horribly abused, tend to outscore whites, and, not coincidentally, the supporters of affirmative action rarely mention Asians. Waiting till kids are ready to attend college is a bit like pushing somebody out of the airplane before she's finished strapping on her parachute.

In reality, the same Republicans Spencer suggests are racists fought for a voucher program largely intended to help minority and poor students. It's possible to argue that vouchers are not in fact a good way to help minority students, but there's at least as good an argument in favor of vouchers as there is in favor of affirmative action.

A nuanced case can be made by well-intentioned people for affirmative action and against it. A case can also be made that government should get out of the higher-education business and let individual colleges determine admissions policies. But Spencer has eschewed reasoned arguments in favor of defamation of the governor's character.


[The following material was originally part of the article, but it was cut to create the shorter version reproduced above.]

Spencer curiously fails to remind his readers that the single black justice on the Supreme Court cast his vote against affirmative action. Ah, but there is already a clever retort to this inconvenient fact: Clarence Thomas is a sell-out, an "Uncle Tom," or whatever personal attack one might want to invoke. Nevermind the actual arguments Thomas makes against affirmative action. There's a curious logic with respect to the rhetoric against Thomas: he benefited by affirmative action, but he is a sell-out to blacks, therefore affirmative action is good. QED...

Colleges routinely use other non-academic factors for admissions. For instance, top athletes are regularly admitted who have relatively low test scores and mediocre grades. Many colleges also seek to achieve regional diversity -- students from all over the U.S. and often from all over the world.

What, then, is the advantage of "diversity?" Clearly, colleges give some students preferential treatment to help the college, not primarily to help the student or the student body. (I have yet to hear the argument that top quarterbacks are recruited so that the student body can develop a greater appreciation for quarterbacks.) The other two arguments in favor of diversity, then, are that it helps those who have been systematically discriminated against, and it helps achieve a richer, more experienced student body. The argument concerning discrimination is invoked with respect to some racial minorities and sometimes to women. The argument concerning the student body applies to a wide variety of groups.

And this creates a paradox for the opponents of affirmative action. The Fourteenth Amendment states, "No State shall... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Are top quarterbacks treated "equally" by the admissions counselors at tax-funded colleges? Hell no. Is anyone arguing this is a problem? Again, no. It's not at all obvious to me why the Fourteenth Amendment is invoked in some cases but not in others.

By the way, I support affirmative action -- at least in a limited context. My views do not easily fit within what passes today as "liberal" or "conservative" ideology -- I'm a libertarian. When people ask, "Should tax-funded colleges use race as one basis for admission?", my response is, "Why should the government fund higher education?" Obviously, if the government got out of the college business, individual colleges could set the admissions policies they thought best.

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