The second incident involved Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat who did not filibuster Liu but gave a speech opposing his confirmation. Webb criticized Liu at length for supporting affirmative action while allegedly ignoring poor whites who have faced “many generations of hardship and strife.” According to Webb, “We do ourselves an enormous injustice by turning a blind eye to the wide variance among white cultures as we discuss greater representation from different minority groups. For all of his emphasis on diversity programs, I do not see anywhere that Mr. Liu understands this vital point.”
But in a 2002 article on affirmative action in higher education, Liu wrote that “us[ing] racial preferences as a means of enhancing educational diversity runs the risk of stereotyping white applicants” and that this risk “raises valid constitutional concerns.” Liu illustrated the point by highlighting Jennifer Gratz and Cheryl Hopwood, two white students who challenged affirmative action policies. Gratz, he noted, “came from a working-class home where neither parent had finished college,” and Hopwood was “the mother of a severely disabled child [and] applied to law school at age twenty-eight after working all through high school and then putting herself through [college].” Liu lamented that “elite schools traditionally have not sought out applicants with the social, educational, or economic profile of Gratz’s family or Hopwood’s.”
Liu tackled this issue again in a 2004 article showing that elite colleges generally admit students from wealthy families to the detriment of poor and working-class whites. He urged top universities to make “a conscious policy choice” to admit more “highly qualified students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Webb’s depiction of Liu as an advocate for racial minorities to the exclusion of disadvantaged whites is belied by Liu’s record of concern for all disadvantaged individuals, regardless of race. Further, the idea that Liu, whose wife is from a modest Irish Catholic family in Maine, is “blind” to “the wide variance among white cultures” simply has no merit.
We deserve better from our leaders than misleading statements that have the effect of exploiting racial fears or negative stereotypes. Our nation has made great progress toward racial equality, including the milestones we celebrated last month, and continuing that progress is a hope that all of us, as Americans, earnestly share.
Paul O. Hirose is president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.