Seeing No Evil: In Their Anti-Affirmative Action Campaign but Plenty of It in Multiculturalism

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Seeing No Evil: In their Anti-Affirmative Action Campaign but Plenty of It in Multiculturalism

NEW ORLEANS -- Although academics who criticize multiculturalism often gripe about research or activism they contend represents nothing more than ideology masquerading as serious scholarly activity, a group of conservative scholars found several things to cheer about when the National Association of Scholars (NAS) honored the authors of California's Proposition 209 and heard Dr. Shelby Steele deliver a withering critique of affirmative action.

Known as a leading critic of multiculturalism, the NAS also provides a haven for many of academia's most ardent foes of affirmative action policies in American higher education. At the organization's annual conference in New Orleans, NAS opposition to race-conscious affirmative action remedies was on full display, although most of the conference centered on attacking multiculturalism.

Dr. Glynn Custred and Dr. Thomas E. Wood, authors of the California Civil Rights Initiative, received the Barry R. Gross Memorial Award from the NAS for their leadership in the passage of Proposition 209. Additionally, Steele, who was the conference's keynote speaker, Dr. Abigail Thernstrom, and Dr. Carl Cohen argued stridently against the use of race-conscious affirmative action policies during their presentations.

Much of the discussion on racial preferences focused on the academic performance of African Americans in relation to other racial and ethnic groups. Steele, who is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute, drew a standing ovation for his criticism of affirmative action and explanation of its roots. He contended that affirmative action has failed Black Americans because it was never intended to ensure Black uplift. Instead, he said it was directed more at helping Whites to overcome the guilt of being stigmatized for this nation's history of White racism.

The speech brought NAS audience members, who were mostly middle-aged White males, to their feet with applause in what appeared to be the most moving occasion for conference attendees during the two-and-a-half day event.

According to Dr. Bradford Wilson, executive director of the NAS, the focus on race-conscious affirmative action policies fits naturally into a discussion of multiculturalism because such policies substitute nonintellectual criteria -- race and ethnicity -- for intellectual criteria -- standardized test scores, grades, and scholarship -in the way that multiculturalism uses group identity to justify curriculum upheaval and faculty hiring decisions.

"Part of what multiculturalism is concerned about is the focus on racial and ethnic identity as the defining characteristic of an individual. Racial preferences or raceconscious affirmative action policies are rooted in the idea that a person's race or ethnicity is sufficient reason to take them seriously or not take them seriously," Wilson said.

Opposed to Multiculturalism

Founded a decade ago as an organization "dedicated to the restoration of intellectual substance, individual merit, and academic freedom in the university," the NAS held its annual conference -- with the theme, "Multiculturalism and the Future of Higher Education" -- in early December. Nearly 300 people, mostly scholars, attended the conference to network, hear participants debate multiculturalism, and honor NAS icons such as economist Dr. Thomas Sowell and classicist Dr. Mary Lefkowitz.

According to its literature, the NAS is an organization of professors, graduate students, and college administrators committed to rational discourse as the foundation of academic life in a free and democratic society. In the late eighties and early nineties, battles over multiculturalism, campus speech codes, and political correctness helped fuel a growth in membership that increased from 200 to more than 4,000, according to NAS officials. Wilson estimated Blacks represent less than 2 percent of the organization's membership. …