Shabina Khatri

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court scorned the University’s admissions procedure but upheld the concept of diversity. In a well timed maneuver, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives released, on behalf of President Bush, a position paper extolling the virtues of charitable choice, giving religious groups and other charities the right to base their hiring decisions on religious and sexual orientation.

According to the paper, such institutions have “the right to hire those individuals who are best able to further their organizations’ goals and mission.” “And if faith-based organizations are deterred from providing services, the real losers are the poor,” stated OFBCI director H. James Towey.

How the White House can fault affirmative action – ignoring Bush’s half-hearted, almost disingenuous approval of the court’s decision – and yet propose this plan is beyond my understanding. It points at the hypocrisy of this administration, and their misinterpretation of the role both charities and universities play in society.

Universities are federally subsidized, and all three branches of the federal government have proclaimed their commitment to diversity. As public institutions, one of their “missions” – in addition to providing education and fostering an intellectual society – is to promote diversity.

A faith-based or charitable organization has a mission – like a university, it has a societal purpose. Specifically, these organizations can provide job training, drug-addiction rehabilitation, counseling and shelter. The difference between universities and charitable organizations is that universities must consider race – possibly some other factors – to promote diversity, but religious organizations need not consider sexual orientation to “help the poor,” as Towey claims.

The release of this position paper should send a signal to America. It shows Americans, a sizable percentage of whom believe race should not be a factor in admission, that the idea of race still matters. In fact, in a broader perspective, Bush’s hypocrisy and even the hypocrisy of Justice Clarence Thomas in the recent affirmative action cases both point to one conclusion: Our background and our beliefs still matter.

Thomas is a tragic figure – and not in the literary, heroic sense. During his life, affirmative action continually elevated his social/economic status. And so, since his race played a role, he represents (in addition to the sanctity of law) a black man who has progressed and succeeded. He also represents, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd suggested in her Wednesday column, a black man in inner peril.

Thomas called diversity an “aesthetic” that “does nothing for those too poor or uneducated to participate in elite higher education.” In his arguments, hidden behind his insecurities on racial privilege, he argued the virtue of equal access – the access that will be denied homosexuals if Bush gets his way. But also, his inflammatory dissent in the admissions’ case is a clear indication of the emotional and institutional significance of race. Race is not a non-issue, yet.

Apparently sexual orientation matters. Some argue, rather effectively, that a gay priest knows the Bible just as well as a straight one. So why should his orientation matter? Because it is supposedly not in line with the institution’s beliefs. Why should race matter? For essentially the same reason, because it does matter to the institution – it is in line with the institution’s beliefs. We consider these factors in relation to the organization.

We’re not all the same, and we’re not all created equal. Maybe someday we will be, but for now, our background and beliefs still matter. Concepts like race and sexual orientation are fluid, and their significance shifts according to the situation. So the use of race does not beget the discriminatory use of orientation. And maybe Bush and Thomas realize this, but they should remember that these facets of our personality should not prohibit access to educational or professional opportunities.

Jean can be reached at acjean@umich.edu.

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