Jewish World Review Nov. 11, 2002 / 6 Kislev 5763

Thomas Sowell

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Race and Cant | Cant has become the norm in discussions of any issue involving race or ethnicity. However, a new book by JWR's Linda Chavez -- a memoir of her own remarkable life -- should make it inescapably clear what counterproductive and even vile things have been going on in the name of racial betterment. The book is titled "An Unlikely Conservative," a title based on Ms. Chavez's poverty-stricken childhood and her initial role as an activist on the political left.

The daughter of an Irish mother and a Mexican American father, Linda Chavez was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1947. A series of misfortunes caused her family to live precariously, often in cramped quarters with relatives who took them in. Linda had no ambitions for education or a career until she met and married a man who was ambitious for her as well as for himself.

In 1970 she began teaching at UCLA in a newly created Chicano Studies program -- where her education in the realities of racial policies began with ugly and brutal experiences that included death threats. Why? Because she tried to educate her students by holding them to academic standards and equipping them with the skills that they woefully lacked, rather than indulging in the radical rhetoric and rap sessions that they wanted.

The UCLA authorities were wholly uninterested in Linda Chavez's problems -- or in the future of the Chicano students they had admitted for show, and were willing to placate with special programs for the sake of campus peace. As she puts it, "the university accepted virtually every Mexican American who applied, no matter how ill-prepared."

While she characterized the college administrators who made such decisions as "well-meaning but hopelessly naive," a less charitable description of them might include self-indulgent, arrogant and even cynical. All these qualities are likewise apparent when academic administrators admit black students who have little chance of graduating.

When Linda Chavez's odyssey took her to Washington, there were more lessons to learn -- the hard way -- about double dealing and double crossing. This book should be especially eye-opening for young people who are constantly being told how wonderful "public service" is.

"The federal government was not at all what I expected," Ms. Chavez said. "Nothing -- and almost no one -- worked."

Things got better when she found a job as editor of a magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers. As her education about political realities expanded, Linda Chavez's own political position began to shift. "On Election Day 1980, I did something I had never imagined I could do. I voted for a Republican for president."
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She was on her way to becoming what the title of the book says, "An Unlikely Conservative." Eventually Ms. Chavez became a member of the White House staff for the man she had voted for in 1980 -- Ronald Reagan.

Although this was in some ways a very fulfilling job, and enhanced her regard for President Reagan, it also showed her another example of the Washington mentality.

"Much of my time -- and nearly all of my energy -- was absorbed by petty bureaucratic infighting," she said. "The fiercest battles in the White House were not over policy but over whether you got invited to the right meetings. Your worth wasn't measured by whether you contributed anything substantive but by which car you traveled in on the presidential motorcade."

Linda Chavez's career in Washington seemed to reach its apex when she was nominated to be Secretary of Labor after the 2000 elections. But it turned out to be another lesson in betrayal and character assassination, when an innocent episode in her past was twisted and hyped into a media scandal that made it necessary for her to withdraw from consideration.

Fortunately Ms. Chavez continues to use her considerable talents to advance public understanding of political issues through organizations she heads. This book should be required reading for those who want to understand racial issues or how government really works -- both from the perspective of someone who has been there and has seen through the cant.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late.


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