Monday, February 27, 2012

Civil rights leaders should open new front in affirmative action fight

By DeWayne Wickham

My first reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear a challenge to the University of Texas’ admissions policy was to mount a fierce defense of the school’s effort to bandage the gaping wounds in our education system.

In Texas, 90% of all slots in the freshman class are reserved for residents who graduate from high schools in the Lone Star State. The vast majority of these positions (88% in 2008) go to students who finish in the top 10% of their high school class. The rest of the positions reserved for Texas high school graduates go to students who qualify on the basis of a second-tier criteria that permits race to be considered among many other factors.

The case the justices will consider in the fall was brought by Abigail Fisher, a Texas resident whose high school class ranking was too low to get her into the University of Texas through the Top Ten Percent Plan, and her SAT score was too low to position her to be a competitive applicant in the second tier, according to the university.

Nonetheless, the conservative-dominated high court has agreed to hear Fisher’s claim that she was denied admission into the university because of her race — a brash assertion of white privilege that may give the court’s right-wingers the opening they need to strike a death blow to affirmative action in higher education.

It makes sense for civil rights groups to counter this attack with legal briefs and arguments. But it is foolhardy for them to stake a lot on the outcome of this case. Instead, they should treat it like a holding action in a wider war, while preparing for a bigger, more winnable fight. That campaign should be waged over getting rid of all standardized tests as a requirement for college admission. It should seek to replace them with recruitment strategies that aggressively favor creation of a more diverse student body and reflect this nation’s changing demographics.

The standardized tests measure what applicants learned in high school, more than their potential for success in college. They stack the deck against blacks and Hispanics, who disproportionately attend underperforming public schools and favor white students who are more likely to attend better schools and to get coaching for the tests.

A state’s failure to fix the problems of underperforming public schools shouldn’t be allowed to keep deserving minority students from getting a college education. That’s the argument civil rights activists should be making to higher education institutions that continue to use standardized test scores as an entrance requirement.

Bates College long ago made SAT scores an optional requirement for admission. In 2005, it issued a study of the students who attended the Lewiston, Maine, school over a 20-year period and concluded there was virtually no difference in academic achievement between students who submitted SAT scores and those who didn’t. Other schools like Wake Forest and Sarah Lawrence College also have made the SAT an optional part of their admissions process. That’s a good step in the right direction.

But you can expect the fight over access to higher education to heat up as the Supreme Court moves closer to deciding Fisher’s case. It’s time now for civil rights activists to open another front in this battle, one that seeks to redefine the rules for access to higher education, which is one of the most important gateways to opportunity in this society.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Whitney Houston has finally exhaled

By DeWayne Wickham

Whitney Houston finally got to exhale. After a 27-year non-stop, roller-coaster ride to steep heights of fame and the deep canyons of heartbreak, she took one last breath — and then let go of life.

Officially, it will be said death came to the pop music icon at 3:55 p.m. on Saturday in a Beverly Hills hotel room. That's the moment of her medical demise. But Houston's life started slipping away long before then. In the coming days, much will be said about the troubles that warped her time on earth.

Accounts of Houston's musical genius will be laced with talk of the time she spent on life's dark side. You'll hear about Houston's recurring bouts with drugs, her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown and her ill-advised stint on his tragically real, reality show.

But I want to remember the Houston who brought joy into the lives of millions of people worldwide, not the one whose troubled life too often kept her from experiencing the bliss she so unselfishly gave others. I want to remember the Houston whose music I loved, the actress who drew me into a Washington, D.C., theater in 1995 to see the film Waiting to Exhale, which I feared was a black-male bashing movie.

I waded into that theater, nearly packed with women, with three buddies for what we only half-jokingly called a reconnaissance mission. I left transformed by the story that unfolded onscreen and by these words from its title song:

Everyone falls in love sometime,
Sometimes it's wrong and sometimes it's right
For every win, someone must fail
But there comes a point when, when we exhale

For nearly a decade-and-a-half, Houston made it possible for a lot of us to exhale — to find an escape from a troubled world through her music and acting. Her voice — both the soft, raspy one she spoke with and the sultry, booming one she took to the recording studio and stage — was intoxicating. Her singing was as soulful as a mouth full of collard greens and as transcending as the rendition of TheStar-Spangled Banner she sang at Super Bowl XXV, just days after the start of the Persian Gulf War.

No doubt, some people will choose to remember Houston by the tragedy of her early death. But I'll remember her as an artist who sold more than 170 million albums, singles and videos and won enough musical awards to fill a museum.

Some people will focus on her struggles with drug abuse and a bad marriage, two tragic chapters in her life. I want to remember Houston for the comeback she was making in Sparkle, the remake of a 1976 movie she just completed with American Idol winner Jordin Sparks. I want to think of what might have been had she lived to star in the Waiting to Exhale sequel, which was in the works.

Asked during a 1986 Rolling Stone interview about the acclaim she got after the release of her breakthrough album Whitney Houston, she said confidently, "It was time, time for singing to come back again, to listen to words, to feel what somebody was saying."

From then on, Houston's life was a non-stop journey that propelled her into that Beverly Hills hotel room — where she finally got her chance to exhale.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Romney's election hopes shrink with lower unemployment rate

By DeWayne Wickham

In a turn of events that threatens to lay waste to the central theme of the GOP challenge to Barack Obama’s presidency, the nation’s economy appears to be solidly on a path to recovery.

The unemployment rate in January dropped to 8.3%, the fifth consecutive month that it has declined and the lowest it has been in three years. Last month, 243,000 jobs were created. That’s significantly more than the 155,000 new jobs economists predicted, according to the Associated Press.

In the wake of this report of an improving jobs market, Mitt Romney, the front-runner in the campaign to win the GOP’s presidential nomination, tried to put a bad face on this good picture.

“This recovery has been slower than it should have been,” he said while trolling the Silver State for votes on the eve of Nevada’s Republican caucuses last weekend. “People have been suffering for longer than they should have had to suffer. Will it get better? I think it’ll get better. But this president has not helped the process. He’s hurt it.”

After months of blaming Obama for the nation’s bad economic news, Romney now gives him no credit for the turnabout that seems to be underway. Instead, the former Massachusetts governor and one-time head of a private equity firm, argues that he — not Obama — has the business acumen to speed up the recovery from the economic recession.

This is the same Romney who in November 2008 opposed giving U.S. automakers about $85 billion of bailout money to avoid their collapse and a devastating ripple effect of other business failures. “If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday,” Romney predicted in a New York Times op-ed, “you can kiss the American automobile industry goodbye.”

He was wrong. GM is again the world’s top automaker with sales of more than 9 million cars worldwide in 2011. And Chrysler, which also is back in the black, saw its U.S. sales increase 44% in January. Ford, which overtook Toyota as the nation’s second leading seller in 2010, had earnings of $20.2 billion in 2011 — its second highest earnings year ever. Even Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, credits the bailout for the auto industry’s resurrection.

Having largely made his case for replacing Obama by claiming he’d be a better steward of the nation’s economy, Romney has, at least for now, been reduced to arguing nebulously that the improving economy would be even better if he were at the nation’s helm.

Of course, a lot can change between now and November. The decline in the jobless rate could stall. The forecasted turnaround in the housing market, which is tied to the growing economic confidence of Americans, might not materialize. Or a game-changing event, such as an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, could dramatically alter the focus of the presidential campaign from domestic to foreign affairs.

Romney wants voters to think Obama is in over his head when it comes to lifting this nation’s recovery from the deep economic hole that George W. Bush, his Republican predecessor, dug. He’s betting that despite the president’s deft handling of the war on terror, which was once a greater concern than the nation’s unemployment rate, the state of the nation’s economy will determine the outcome of the November election.

For many voters, the job market is the leading indicator of economic recovery. And as the unemployment rate shrinks, so too does Romney’s chance of defeating Obama.