Florida Senator Rick Scott got a bit of attention — what elected official doesn’t love that? — lately when he suggested that “all federal legislation sunsets in five years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”

Sunset was a tiny point in his “Rescue America” plan. But it got lots of notice. Sunset laws automatically expire after a set time. In the case of, say, Social Security, that could mean your investment in the system could be taken away when the law authorizing it expires.

While Scott’s sunset idea won’t go anywhere, it raises an interesting point. Every so often, you run across an article about silly laws. For example, a law requiring that horses be tethered to hitching posts with straps of leather, not rope. Truth to tell, lots of laws needn’t be on the books. They were stupid in the first place, or they favored a special interest, such as the makers of leather straps, or their usefulness expired decades ago. But not all laws. We lack an orderly way to eliminate useless laws, so useful laws face the same opposition as the useless.

Comes now the Supreme Court of the United States perhaps to do what Scott would want in the area known as “affirmative action.” The term has been around since 1961, when President Kennedy ordered government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated [fairly] during their employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.”

Affirmative action has since been enshrined in hundreds of ways in hundreds of laws, dealing with hiring and promotion, college admissions, spending on college programs, etc.

The court has heard arguments by an anti-affirmative-action activist — say that three times fast — named Edward Blum, using a front organization called “Students for Fair Admissions.” Blum argues that Harvard and other institutions that consider race as part of the admissions process are discriminating, interestingly enough, against students of Asian parentage.


The colleges argue that the value to all students of having a diverse student body is part of the educational environment they need to build for their students. They want their student bodies to look more like the America their grads will see after school.

When affirmative action began to spread, it held the potential to reverse centuries of bias and action against Americans based on the condition of their birth, whether Black or Filipino or female or gay or Asian. And it has worked that way in lots of cases. For example, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was admitted to the law school at Yale University under an early form of affirmative action that Yale called “open admissions.”

Yet, I expect Thomas to support Blum’s argument vigorously. Thomas reportedly switched from fierce advocacy of civil rights to fierce opposition because (white) colleagues so often assumed his achievements were the result of affirmative action, not of talent and hard work.

Was there a different path to redressing the legitimate grievances of so many Americans? Yes, but, as so often in our history, it wasn’t the easy way. As my late wife used to say, our family policy was, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing the hard way.”

Had we taken the hard way 60 years ago, Rick Scott and Clarence Thomas might not be in a position to torpedo decades of progress for all minorities.

My modest suggestion for doing it the hard way is that when we pass laws to require something so sweeping as affirmative action, we also pass laws that make such actions unnecessary at some point in the future. In other words, that we provide a long-term solution to a long-term problem.


In the case of affirmative action, we could have also made it possible for school results in economically poor areas to equal or surpass results at schools in advantaged areas. If schools in Oxford County were so strong as schools in Falmouth, kids coming out of, say, Buckfield High could be on a footing for admission to, say, Bates College equal to kids from Falmouth.

Radical? Yeah, maybe, but we have ways to get at it. Money, of course, is part of it. But not all. Education is a field not celebrated for innovation. But really creative thinkers ought to be able to come up with ways to equalize the quality of schooling our kids receive.

Here are a couple. To put all schools on equal footing, we would need a core of teachers devoted to boot-strapping kids likely to have a tough time of it in school. Maine could offer, say, college scholarships for future teachers who agree to teach in low-performing schools.

Similarly, the state could pick up all teachers’ salaries as part of the school-funding formula. This, of course, should be adjusted for cost of living, so teachers in Brunswick would receive more raw dollars than those in Turner because they need more dollars to pay their rent.

If enough bright minds went to work on it, with little or no bureaucratic overhead, we should be able to find many paths to equalizing educational opportunity, which would go a long way toward ending the need for mandated affirmative action. And if the state were picking up more school financing, maybe, just maybe, property taxes could be reduced.

Having been born a white male has benefited Bob Neal a great deal. Still, in the affirmative-action age, he’s pretty sure he has lost gigs (teaching, writing) for being an “old, white man.”

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