This weekend, the Los Angeles Times had two articles about basketball that are instructive on how we should think about race and affirmative action on this Martin Luther King Day.
The first story was about Friday's game between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers. The game pitted the great center Shaquille O'Neal against the 7'5" rookie Yao Ming. Yao is a 22-year old Chinese national from the People's Republic who, although outplayed by the shorter O'Neal, showed he deserves to be in the NBA. There had been some controversy before the game as O'Neal had been accused of mocking the Chinese language. Although the game took center stage, the post game comments here are useful.
The Times reported Yao saying through an interpreter, "One of the positive things about America is that everybody can fight for equality. But, on the court, sometimes there's inequality." Yao appears to have learned the essence of the principle of equality that many on the American left or right seem to forget: we have equality of opportunity, but there is no equality of result.
The other story in the Times was a feature about Chris Swan, a senior basketball player at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, a suburb of L.A. Chris is black and is being raised by his grandfather in the inner city. He and his brother have not seen their mother or father for years, both parents having succumbed to drug abuse. Chris takes the metrorail to school every day, an hour long commute, so that he might have a chance at a better life. His grandparents make sacrifices to pay the tuition. Chris has a good GPA, and good SAT scores, and besides being a fine basketball player, he is, more importantly, an excellent person. The Times reports he is being scouted by the U.S. Naval Academy.
How should the Naval Academy or any other colleges look at Chris Swan for admission? Over the weekend Condoleezza Rice said that race could be a factor in college admissions in the interest of promoting diversity. Comparing this to other comments she has made, it is not clear what she means. As the National Security Advisor, of course, her contribution to the administration is not making the Cabinet more diverse. President Bush values her counsel because she has a fine mind and keen judgment in foreign affairs.
Similarly, any college would be lucky to have Chris Swan, not because he is black but because he is a bright, talented young man. He is the kind of individual who is willing to make sacrifices, to work hard, to overcome obstacles. His contributions to the Naval Academy, or any college, would be these qualities—not his skin color. The world of quotas and preferences, however, looks at Chris Swan as one member of the black race, who will compete with other "underrepresented" applicants for admission. This misses the point of all that he has accomplished. Chris Swan deserves to be treated as an individual. That would honor the memory of Dr. King.