Equal opportunity remains a goal, not a reality

Saturday, April 19, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:10 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I’m a longtime supporter of affirmative action. I should be. After all, people who look like me are the beneficiaries of the oldest and most successful affirmative action program in history. For centuries we white males have ruled the world, aided not only by our native cunning and brute force but by the laws and customs that, until the past few years, have protected us from serious competition by women and other races.

There’s not a lot of evidence that we’re inclined to yield our position of power and privilege of our own volition. Who would?

Still, the forces of demographics and simple justice are changing both law and custom. The speed of that change seems painfully slow to lifelong underdogs and frighteningly fast to a good many of us overdogs. In recent decades, affirmative action has come to mean the mix of laws, regulations and social pressures that seek to make up for centuries of discrimination.

The term itself has become loaded with the hopes of the seekers and the fears of those holding on to status earned, seized or stolen. The backlash has arrived in Missouri, in the form of a misleadingly named proposed constitutional amendment, the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative.

The language of the amendment seems unobjectionable. It says the state may not “discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to” anyone on the basis of race or gender. However, the effect would be to end any and all programs aimed at helping women and minorities catch up from all those generations of denied opportunity. Clearly, that’s the goal of the initiative’s backers.

UM System President Gary Forsee gets it. Forsee, a member of my privileged minority, made a speech a couple of weeks ago that didn’t get the attention it deserved. He was speaking at MU’s Hispanic celebration, Cambio de Colores. The speech was a strong endorsement of the value of diversity, delivered with the credibility of a guy who has walked the walk.

When he was CEO of Sprint-Nextel, he said “inclusion and diversity were core values.” He noted that Sprint-Nextel was named one of the top 50 companies for diversity. At MU, he said, “It is this diversity in the classroom that enhances and enriches the student learning experience and ensures that the highest level of education is attained.”

He endorsed a carefully worded statement from the Council on Public Higher Education that opposed the anti-affirmative action amendment. Then he departed from his written speech for one of those ad-libs that tells you something important about a speaker. His interjection was this: “I strongly support this opposition, and the university strongly supports this COPHE statement.”

What’s important about that statement, I think, is that Forsee knows that there are curators and legislators who disagree. He said it anyway. That’s what a leader does.

There was a small demonstration at MU last week against the amendment. Most of the participants were black. As I listened from the edge of the group, I wished more white males had been there, following Forsee’s lead.

Equal opportunity remains more the goal than the reality.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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