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Jewish World Review/ September 29, 1998/9 Tishrei, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez Sosa and the race card

JUST IN CASE YOU THOUGHT this year's remarkable home-run contest between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was about baseball, think again. The race was a metaphor for race -- at least, that's what no less an authority than ABC's Cokie Roberts implied on the Sunday morning news show "This Week."

"I'm for Sammy Sosa," she said, "because, as my husband pointed out to me, the most common name in baseball is Martinez, and I think that Sammy Sosa represents the future of baseball -- and the future." So, let's get this straight: Cokie wanted Sammy to hit more homers than Big Mac as some sort of portent of America's demographic future?

Nonsense. But the usually sensible Roberts isn't the only person recently to make silly pronouncements on the subject of race. Earlier this month, a presidential advisory board recommended that a permanent Presidential Council on Race be established. To do what? Why, continue our national obsession with race, of course.

So far, President Clinton hasn't adopted the idea. After all, we already have a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to study racial problems, not to mention an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to monitor employment discrimination, a Federal Office of Contract Compliance Programs to enforce affirmative action in government contracts, and an Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education and a Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department to ensure compliance with non-discrimination laws. Nonetheless, the president says he is committed to a continued national "conversation" on race.

And if talking endlessly about race doesn't improve race relations, two distinguished academics have a more concrete suggestion. In their new book, "The Shape of the River," former Princeton President William Bowen and former Harvard President Derek Bok argue that, for the foreseeable future, race should determine who gets into America's elite colleges.

Bowen and Bok maintain that unless such schools admit blacks with lower grades and test scores than their white or Asian classmates, few blacks could ever attend the nation's most competitive colleges. They justify their proposal by citing evidence that blacks who have been admitted to these schools in the past went on to earn more professional and graduate degrees and more money over their lifetimes than did blacks who attended less prestigious schools.

But, the same kind of preference programs that Bowen and Bok advocate for Ivy League colleges also determine admission to most professional and graduate schools, as well as hiring practices in most major corporations and lawfirms, which at least partially explains the higher salaries and greater number of graduate degrees earned by blacks who have attended elite universities.

Even if racial preferences confer real benefits on the recipients of those preferences, is that a good reason to perpetuate them indefinitely? Will we really be better off as a nation if we make race the deciding factor in choosing who gets into our best schools or who gets hired after graduation? And how do we determine how many admission slots or jobs to assign by race, or how much lower the qualifications we're willing to accept so long as candidates meet our racial criteria?

Then there's the Sosa factor to consider. Since Sammy's fellow Hispanics are one of the fastest growing groups in the country, we better begin reserving even more spaces for this disadvantaged group. Hispanics already receive preferences in admission to many schools and in awarding jobs and promotions, although they appear to 'need' preferential treatment less since their qualifications are, on average, higher than blacks, though lower than whites or Asians, according to available data.

But if skin color and strict proportionality are going to be our new guidelines, folks like Bowen and Bok had better decide how large a piece of the educational and economic pie they want to reserve for Latinos, too.

Of course, there is a better way -- as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have demonstrated all season. Neither man has made much of skin color during this competition, and each talks of the other as if he were a brother. What they have taught us by their example is a simple lesson: Make the best of your God-given talents by hard work and perseverance. And, most importantly, keep your eye on the ball. The rest will take care of itself.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.