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Obama’s NAACP Talk vs. the Department of Education’s Walk

The president denounces racial “excuses” while his DOE makes excuses for a new racial quota.

by
Greg Forster

Bio

July 27, 2009 - 12:53 am

Barack Obama won a lot of praise for telling the NAACP on July 16 that black students should quit using social disadvantages as an excuse for slacking off in school. But at almost the same time, his administration was busy using social disadvantages to manufacture an excuse for a new racial quota in high schools nationwide. And nothing promotes slacking off in school like educational quotas — “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” as another president once called it.

Give Obama credit; he says a lot of the right things. He always has. During the campaign last year he not only endorsed charter schools but explicitly endorsed “competition” in education, and he was booed at the convention of the National Education Association for endorsing merit pay.

It makes an important difference that Obama says these things. Competition and merit pay in education used to be untouchable concepts in the Democratic Party, and now they’re mainstream — thanks in large part to Obama.

The NAACP speech continued Obama’s longstanding practice of saying a lot of the right things:

We’ve got to say to our children, yes, if you’re African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that’s not a reason to get bad grades. [Applause] That’s not a reason to cut class. [Applause] That’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. [Applause.]

And he didn’t just leave it at that — he drew the fundamental moral:

No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands. You cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. [Applause.] No excuses.

“No excuses!” That’s strong stuff. It makes a big difference that a black president of the United States went to the NAACP — ground zero for the culture of racial excuses! — and said these things. And was repeatedly interrupted by applause!

Of course we know the NAACP’s applause for this sort of thing isn’t sincere. Oh, perhaps they felt at the time that they really approved of the message. But come the next morning they were right back at their desks, hard at work promoting racial excuses. That kind of applause is the sincerity of the insincere — they’re honest with everyone except themselves.

Nevertheless, the fact that they feel the need to applaud is a good sign. Hypocrisy really is the tribute that vice pays to virtue — and when do nations make payments of tribute? When they’ve lost a power struggle with a stronger neighbor. The all-excuses culture of the NAACP pays tribute to the “no excuses!” culture of Barack Obama because it knows it has lost the fight for public opinion.

If only the Obama administration lived up to the “no excuses!” culture promoted by its president.

At almost the same time Obama was giving that speech to the NAACP, Russlynn Ali, the new head of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education, gave an interview with Education Daily (subscription only, but you can see coverage here) in which she implicitly signaled that school districts had better make sure they have enough minority students in advanced courses, such as AP courses: “If students of color are prohibited from accessing those high standards and rigorous courses, there very well could be a Title VI violation, so we would have some investigating to do.”

Ali did not explicitly call for quotas. But when you’re wielding the kind of overwhelming and unaccountable power possessed by the federal civil rights bureaucracy, you don’t have to be explicit. When Vito Corleone summons the undertaker to the morgue to ask if he’s ready to do him a favor, he doesn’t have to explicitly say what will happen if he’s not.

There are, indeed, proportionately fewer black and Hispanic students in AP and other advanced courses than white students. That’s what fifty years of a unionized government education monopoly that rapturously embraces the NAACP all-excuses culture will do to a nation.

If we start interpreting the mere disparity in numbers as evidence of racial discrimination in admissions to AP courses, rather than as evidence of fifty years of ruinous educational failure facilitated by racial excusemaking, what will be the effect?

Whatever her intentions, Ali’s remarks cannot have any outcome but the widespread — and no doubt unacknowledged — adoption of de facto racial quotas for AP courses and other advanced courses in high schools across the country. What’s the first thing people do when a gunman starts shooting indiscriminately into a crowd? They run for cover.

Suppose you’re a principal or the superintendent of a school district. You wake up one morning and see that the head of the Office of Civil Rights is concerned about the racial disparity among students in AP courses and casually raises the prospect of Title VI lawsuits wherever her office concludes “students of color are prohibited from accessing” such courses.

The first thought in your head would be: What percentage of our AP students are minorities? And if that number were even one point below the percentage of minority students in your overall student population, the second thought in your head would be: How can I possibly protect myself from being obliterated by the federal civil rights juggernaut, should I be unfortunate enough to catch its eye?

Under those circumstances there are only two things that could possibly prevent you from quietly adopting a racial quota for admission to AP courses. One would be a firmly held opposition to quotas on principle. The other would be a level of reckless and irresponsible disregard for your own safety such as one normally finds only in asylums. Martyrs and madmen will resist quotas; the rest will run for cover.

In other words, once you’ve issued the threat, there’s no need to impose a quota. The threat is the quota.

For the record, I’m all in favor of having and enforcing real civil rights protections — by which I mean equal and individual civil rights protections — in the school system. In any case where it can be shown with actual evidence, not mere numerical disparities, that anyone anywhere has prevented even one deserving student from accessing AP courses on account of his race, by all means punish that person with all appropriate severity.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here. The practical impact of Ali’s comments will be precisely to deny thousands of deserving students from accessing AP courses on account of their race. In other words, I’m not criticizing Ali’s comments because I’m against civil rights enforcement; I’m criticizing Ali’s comments because I’m in favor of civil rights enforcement. If I didn’t care about civil rights I wouldn’t be writing this column.

And I’m also writing it because I care about education. Few things have done more to destroy the education of minority students than racial quotas, and more broadly the all-excuses culture that both generates quotas and is generated by them.

The “no excuses!” culture has made a lot of progress against the all-excuses culture in the education world over the past decade. That’s why the NAACP applauded Obama. That’s why Congress was persuaded to pass No Child Left Behind. That’s why school vouchers have become so successful.

And that’s why I hope the administration starts listening to its president.

Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice.
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