Color, Values, America

To unite us in pursuing the ambitious agenda demanded by the times, the next president must ground bold initiatives in a compelling vision of community, from neighborhood to globe. If successful, that vision will not resemble some blueprint for policy-plumbing. It will be a tapestry of values and aspirations that evokes and summons the best of what we can be.

We have two central propositions. The first concerns vision and values, the second concerns vision and color.

It is no accident that the opening verses of our secular torah, the Constitution, proclaim the equality of, well, "men," followed immediately by the revolutionary proposition that we have "inalienable rights." The most dramatic chapters in our domestic national history have been about correcting, contesting, and completing these proclamations. If the chapter that opens on Election Day 2008 is to be as dramatic and American as we hope, then both the discourse and policies surrounding a boldly enriched set of rights and liberties must be far more than embroidery to the vision. They should be one of the design elements. As we confront terrorism and inequality, exploding diversity and dizzying globalization, nothing less will do.

Our second proposition is that color often gets in the way of achieving moral and political consensus. Race and ethnicity are frequently subtexts and sometimes explicit factors in battles about public education, income security, health-care access, and even about how aggressively to respond to genocide. Progressives conventionally subordinate or ignore the challenge of color lines by arguing, if they bother, that just about anything would be a better basis for policy -- class, gender, generation, or geography.

However color-free a policy may be on its face -- think Social Security or immigration or universal preschool -- it is naive to think that analysis of the merits of a question, both substantively and politically, can be free of the baggage we all carry around regarding racial and ethnic differences. Without strategies to map, declaim, and bridge our color lines, we won't find consensus on fundamental propositions. This is true regarding individual responsibility, intergenerational mobility, shared economic fates, international peacekeeping or humanitarian relief, and so much more.

In short, the next president should recognize that leading the nation on issues of race and rights is not only the way to reach hearts and civic souls but is also a necessary strategy to bridge the differences that could produce consensus on bold progress. The campaign apparatchiks and their cousins in the punditry are wrong. This is not the third rail. This is the way forward.


Many can come up with the inevitable laundry list of tasks for a new administration. The harder and more important job is deciding on the much smaller set of ideas -- value propositions -- that will be truly presidential, serving to frame and motivate the myriad details.

Theme 1: Bull Connor is dead, but our capacity to misunderstand, mistrust, and even hate based on racial and ethnic differences did not die with him. America's racial-justice exhaustion came too soon, before the stain of Jim Crow was fully washed away.

Whether out of deeply held ideological beliefs or political expediency, Republican presidents and Congress have engaged in a steady assault on anti-discrimination law and civil-rights enforcement. Therefore, three decades of steady erosion in anti-discrimination law and enforcement must be confronted and repaired by the next president and Congress.

Democratic participation is undermined by ineffective enforcement of minority rights, and by conspiracies to deceive minority voters about polling times, places, and procedures. School districts and local governments allocate resources and services in discriminatory ways. Environmental burdens and hazards disproportionately affect poor and minority communities that lack the political or economic power to protect themselves. Prison conditions stretch the Eighth Amendment beyond breaking. And research shows surprisingly high continuing levels of garden variety discrimination in entry-level jobs, retail sales, and housing.

Retail federal enforcement by itself will never do the job. A substantial increase in state enforcement efforts, however, should be possible with federal encouragement and matching funds. Stronger provisions for awarding attorneys' fees to both private and public plaintiffs who prevail can augment the enforcement effort. A president first needs to lead public opinion to accept that this effort redeems America, not just for minorities but for us all. Lyndon B. Johnson was the last president to speak such language.

As in other realms, civil-rights litigation and enforcement have a deterrent effect, but the educative effect is undoubtedly the more powerful benefit. Millions of people changed their behavior over the years not because they were sued but because they were persuaded to participate in a different and better kind of community.

Theme 2: It's not enough, however, to push bigotry beyond the pale of our moral community; we also need a determined, fervent effort to fill that chasm of deep disparities, which, by dividing us, separates us from the America we want to be.

From dropout rates to crime rates, from the incidence of childhood asthma to the prevalence of teen pregnancies, these problems can't be blamed on the bigoted acts of identifiable individuals or institutions. Traditional civil-rights efforts are necessary but not sufficient. Part of the new remedy, as Bill Clinton finally persuaded progressives, lies in individual responsibility. But the more politically challenging part of the remedy is defining and embracing our collective duty to heal the community by tackling hope-killing disparities with fervor and boldness.

The No Child Left Behind statute provides an example. From a civil-rights perspective, this education law is perhaps the most important legislative development in the racial-justice arena in 25 years. The statute, first, makes visible the sharp disparities in achievement measures, graduation rates, and access to highly qualified teachers. The targeted disparities include race or ethnicity, poverty, English language learner status, and special education. Putting the spotlight on local performance data is, by itself, often disturbing. In many communities this disrupts the profound complacency surrounding educational failure and disadvantage.

Second, the law holds school officials accountable for failing to make adequate yearly progress in narrowing those disparities, and applies a steadily escalating series of interventions, mixing carrots with sticks, in the hope of saving kids. However, the statute has been woefully underfunded, has too-easily manipulated benchmarks, and often rewards teaching to the test rather than inspiring children to learn. The law is unlikely to be reauthorized in its present form. Yet the impetus behind NCLB was a bipartisan, collective cry from the heart that these yawning disparities must not be acceptable in America, regardless of the absence of racial animus. Only leadership from the next president can redeem that promise.

This same kind of progress should be possible in several other areas, including health-care access and quality, environmental justice, school discipline, the cascading disparities in multiple stages of the criminal justice system, the distribution of benefits from public investment in transportation services and infrastructure, access to quality post-secondary education (especially in the struggling community college systems), and more.

In short, the next president can take a page from the transformative Kennedy and Johnson years, when a series of social and economic rights was advanced and America was forever changed -- changed by the painting of a different vision of America, one reflecting a new and better understanding of our civic torah. The emergence of those rights was not the final chapter. Indeed, we went on to disability rights and gay rights. The next president can write another chapter by engaging the divisions that are most apparent in, but not limited to, matters of color. The advancement of rights protecting groups and rights furthering values are themselves the soul of what the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution must mean for tomorrow. History teaches that for a people quite capable of great followership all that's required is a president capable of great leadership.

Theme 3: Color-based fear now threatens us in ways that go to the core of America's best values. We have poisoned our politics, and hence our policy-making, by demonizing people who vaguely resemble some equally vague, ill-informed image of an "Arab." The immigration debate has taken on a virulent tenor. These battles are defined as security and prosperity versus liberty and tolerance, when the true battle is between commitment to our core beliefs and fear of those who are different.

Our Constitution makes inevitable the struggles to define our liberties in relation to the circumstances of the day. The next president can tilt those struggles in favor of smart security strategies that are faithful to our shared notions of liberty. We need to challenge the regulatory and legislative changes that were infected from conception by the fearful environment following September 11. These range from the permissive surveillance regime, to scandalous interrogation techniques, to the offense to the rule of law in the Bush administration's approach toward denying detainees' access to counsel and court. In many cases, the failures here are bipartisan, with Congress failing to exercise its clear powers under Article I of the Constitution, even as the president has claimed sweeping authority under the vague, gestural phrases of Article II. The FISA court, the secrecy-shrouded panel of federal judges that handles warrant requests for domestic intelligence-gathering activity, is more lapdog than watchdog. The next administration, together with Congress, must investigate and provide the public with convincing reassurance that the Constitution still protects the individual from state excesses.

Beyond public and judicial checks, abuses by the government can often be curbed within the executive branch by procedural safeguards -- strategies for "internal" checks and balances. The legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security, for example, includes inspector general–like functions related to privacy and civil liberties. These can be strengthened greatly, and their model extended more broadly to intelligence, security, investigative, and enforcement agencies. There is something to learn from experience with the more prosaic outrage of racial profiling of African American drivers and similar situations. Many law enforcement agencies have reported success from improved training programs to combat profiling, and similar strategies might be developed in the context of homeland security.

Color-based fear also explains why the immigration debate is rife with poll-tested IEDs -- that's Ill-informed Exploding Demagoguery. The next president must push comprehensive immigration reform and immigrant integration because these legislative measures make economic sense for businesses and consumers, they make moral sense for the children we are punishing because their parents broke the law, and they make humanitarian sense for the 12 million people already here with us, living in the shadows. All of this good sense, however, is not good enough to win the fights. The next president will have to lead with the vision and values that make us appreciate that pragmatic and humane immigration policy is the only way to weave the fabric of tomorrow's renewed America.

Here's what comprehensive immigration reform should mean. First, we need to increase border security, even while recognizing that this alone will not stop illegal entries. At the same time, we must end the humanitarian nightmare of people dying as they cross treacherous desert stretches in order to avoid enhanced border security. And this must be done without noxious profiling and inspection points, because America's here-and-now diversity means the notion of a "typical" American phenotype is more absurd than ever.

Along with effective border security, we need an even more effective workplace-enforcement scheme that starts with ensuring full labor rights for all workers, regardless of legal status. Yet, that is not enough; we need real penalties against employers who continue to hire the undocumented, now that technology and accurate databases finally permit employers to verify the work authorization of workers in a neutral, nondiscriminatory, and universal fashion.

We must also create a path to legalization, and eventually to citizenship, for people now here illegally who have stayed out of serious trouble, who pay a fine, and who go to the end of the line to get citizenship. In addition, we need a program to deal with the future flow of immigrants. That means limiting family reunification preferences to a narrower nuclear family but at the same time expanding the number of immigrants admitted annually.

A massive increase in programs to teach English to immigrants is necessary as well. Every study proves immigrants want to learn English (yes, they want good jobs at good wages), and their children and grandchildren are learning English as rapidly as earlier immigrants' descendents did. We need a new word: "Xenolinguaphobia" is the irrational fear of being near people who don't speak American. (Medication is available, to be covered by national health insurance.)

The complex politics and policy-engineering required for all of this seems virtually impossible in the atmosphere charged with fear and resentment of the "other." Immigrants have always arrived as the other. But Latino immigrants, and to a lesser extent Asian immigrants, find themselves racialized, caught up in the (now informal) hierarchy of color. Leadership on immigration entails leadership on race.


Leaders, especially of the political species, prefer talking about the things we can agree on rather than the things that divide us. Color is just about the biggest divider we have, and as far as we can tell, wherever the political operatives of today go to get their training, the curriculum teaches them to avoid race. But Justice Harry Blackmun wrote over a quarter of a century ago that to get beyond racism we must pay attention to race -- an injunction that remains true because color continues to shape our lives in powerful ways.

Of course, with America's racial-justice exhaustion, there's an argument that ignoring race and just talking about universal concerns and color-free policies is smart politics. But this strategy is morally hollow, and it is ultimately self-defeating for two reasons. First, our divisions won't disappear by ignoring them. Second, so long as the divisions go unchallenged there can be no moral consensus to deal effectively with discrimination and disparities, with fears and misunderstanding.

While deracialized universalism is a snare, it is possible that the pursuit of these higher interests and deeper moral claims is its own kind of universalism. What do the lofty aspirations in our founding words mean for this century? There is no better way to find an answer -- to make the answer -- than to take on our enduring challenge of color. Smart politics is not the same as wise leadership. Indeed, we identify the transformative political leaders in our history by their demonstrated willingness to eschew smart politics and pursue our higher interests and America's deeper morality.