Thank you, Sen. Joe Lieberman, for providing us with a fresh example of liberal racism.
And just in time. My old material was getting stale.
Five years ago, while working at a newspaper in Arizona, I wrote a column criticizing a Democratic official. I got an angry e-mail from one of her supporters, a self-described liberal itching to put me in my place. He noted that I am Mexican-American and then informed me that, without affirmative action programs secured for me by the Democratic Party, I wouldn't have enjoyed any of the opportunities I had experienced up to then.
Translation: Shut up and stop biting the hand that feeds you.
I have had to put up with cracks like that for almost 20 years, ever since I graduated from high school at the top of my class and went off to the Ivy League. Funny thing. Whenever the term "affirmative action" is mentioned, it always is slung as an insult. The suggestion is that, if not for the kindness of strangers, I wouldn't be a Harvard-educated writer but rather a fruit picker in my native Central California, working alongside Mexican immigrants.
No offense taken. I have more respect for most Mexican fruit pickers than I do some Harvard graduates.
But there has been one change. It used to be that the people behind the insult were almost always conservatives who opposed affirmative action. What bothered them was their assumption that I had profited from a racial spoils system and thus had no right to my opinion. What surprised me in the Arizona exchange is that the slam came from someone who called himself a liberal and seemed to support affirmative action. What bothered him was that I dared express an opinion different from his own.
Given experience, I was less surprised when I heard Mr. Lieberman, during a recent appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, kindly inform the nation that, without affirmative action, one of President Bush's top advisers wouldn't have any of the opportunities she has now.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had appeared on the show moments before Mr. Lieberman. Asked her view of affirmative action, Dr. Rice said she thought that colleges should be able to consider race as one factor in an applicant's portfolio but that the Michigan program – which includes a point system – might have gone too far.
When he got his turn, Mr. Lieberman disagreed. He said that the Michigan program was perfectly fine and that minority applicants simply are given a hand up.
Mr. Lieberman should have stopped there. He didn't. He marched on. And that's when he stepped in it.
In fact, Mr. Lieberman insisted, "it is exactly programs like the Michigan program that helped a star like Condi Rice get to where she is today."
Stop the tape! Did Al Gore's running mate in 2000 and now the presumed front-runner for the 2004 Democratic nomination actually say that one of the highest-ranking women in the U.S. government – and a black woman at that – has gotten where she is because of affirmative action? This from the man who wants to lead the party that bills itself as enlightened and sensitive on racial matters.
Thanks for clearing that up, Joe. Given what I have read of Dr. Rice – including a recent cover story in Newsweek – I had assumed that her path from Birmingham, Ala., to the White House inner circle had been blazed by hard work, sacrifice, discipline, intellect and making the right choices in life.
After all, those are the things we are taught to assume put successful white males "where they are today." You won't hear that Ted Kennedy, John Edwards or any other white male in the Senate owes his success to a government program. This despite the fact that some of them – with their trust funds and family connections – have benefited from their own kind of affirmative action.
Besides, Mr. Lieberman picked the wrong person to hold up as an example of someone who should bow at the altar of affirmative action.
Newsweek dubbed Dr. Rice "the most powerful woman in Washington," calling her "black, brainy and [Mr.] Bush's secret weapon."
Hmm. The editors left out the phrase: affirmative action baby. Must have been an oversight.
Mr. Lieberman's remark was offensive, and African-American groups should say so loud and clear. If they hold their tongues – and do so because Mr. Lieberman is a Democrat – they lose all credibility. They also lose the right to complain the next time a Republican official says something stupid about race – which could be any moment now.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an editorial writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News.