President George W. Bush — or his speechwriters — understands the indignity of slavery and its impact on the United States. I was at the NAACP's national convention last week when Bush said:
"For nearly 200 years, our nation failed the test of extending the blessings of liberty to African Americans. Slavery was legal for nearly a hundred years, and discrimination legal in many places for nearly a hundred years more. Taken together, the record placed a stain on America's founding, a stain that we have not yet wiped clean.
"When people talk about America's founders, they mention the likes of Washington and Jefferson and Franklin and Adams. Too often they ignore another group of founders — men and women and children who did not come to America of their free will, but in chains. These founders literally helped build our country. They chopped the wood, they built the homes, they tilled the fields and they reaped the harvest. They raised children of others, even though their own children had been ripped away and sold to strangers. These founders were denied the most basic birthright, and that's freedom.
"… They toppled Jim Crow through simple deeds: boarding a bus, walking along the road, showing up peacefully at courthouses or joining in prayer and song. Despite the sheriff's dogs, and the jailer's scorn and the hangman's noose, and the assassin's bullets, they prevailed."
Sitting there in the Washington, D.C. Convention Center, I remembered hearing Bush utter similar remarks at the National Urban League's 2003 convention in Pittsburgh.
"Recently, on my trip to Africa, I visited Goree Island in Senegal, where for centuries, men and women were delivered and sorted and branded and shipped. It's a haunting place, a reminder of mankind's capacity for cruelty and injustice," Bush said at the time. "Yet, Goree Island is also a reminder of the strength of the human spirit, and the capacity for good to overcome evil.
"The men and women who boarded slave ships on that island and wound up in America endured the separation of their families, the brutality of their oppressors and the indifference of laws that regarded them only as articles of commerce. Still, the spirit of Africans in America did not break. … The very people traded into slavery helped to set America free."
The problem with Bush is that he uses all the right words while, more often than not, doing the wrong thing. Let's take the landmark University of Michigan affirmative action cases. On Jan. 15, 2003 — Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday — Bush announced his opposition to two Michigan programs, one for undergraduates and one for the law school.
Again, there was the studied compassion: "I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education …"
Then the real George W. came out: "At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes perspective students based solely on their race."
A Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees disagreed. The court upheld the law school program while striking down a more numbers-oriented undergraduate admission program.
In announcing his opposition to the Michigan programs, Bush said: "At the undergraduate level, African American students and some Hispanic students and Native American students receive 20 points out of a maximum of 150, not because of any academic achievement or life experience, but solely because they are African American, Hispanic or Native American.
To be blunt, Bush lied about the Michigan undergraduate point system. It was not restricted to people of color. Bush neglected to note that 20 points was awarded to any disadvantaged student, regardless of his or her color. He did not mention that 20 points were automatically awarded to all scholarship athletes. He ignored the provision that allows the university's provost the discretion to give 20 points to any student.
He also was disingenuous in discussing scores on the SAT test. Yes, a perfect SAT score was worth only 12 points. And that's because the University of Michigan gave greater weight to grades than standardized tests. A straight-A student, for example, was awarded 80 points, more than seven times the weight given for a perfect SAT score. Even C-students were awarded 40 points under this system.
In discussing African Americans, Bush likes to talk about the bigotry of low expectations. I am more concerned about the bigotry of people for whom we have high expectations.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.