Waiting for Justice

Two events coincided neatly this week: a make-or-break hearing at the Supreme Court for affirmative action, and the release in Texas of 38 people -- almost all African-American -- who had been wrongly arrested, charged and convicted on, essentially, the word of a single undercover police officer.

Meanwhile, in the Supreme Court, lawyers defending the multi-faceted admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School emphasized diversity. The state has a "compelling interest" in the goal of diversity, according to this argument, because of its value to educational institutions, businesses, the military and society.

The Texas release reminds us of another compelling argument for affirmative action: justice.

It took civil rights groups years to get attention focused on Tulia, a tiny Panhandle town of 5,000, midway between Lubbock and Amarillo. The African-American population there is only some 400 people, but after an 18-month undercover operation carried out by Officer Tom Coleman, more than one-tenth of that population lay behind bars.

Coleman's investigation led to the arrest of 46 people in July 1999. Thirty-nine of the arrested were African-American, charged with possessing and selling crack and powdered cocaine. Their convictions hinged on Coleman's uncorroborated testimony, no audio or video surveillance. Hearings last month revealed he often wrote notes about his alleged drug buys on his legs. Police who carried out the sweep found no drugs, weapons or large quantities of cash.

Now it turns out that Coleman, according to press accounts, was "troubled," "unorthodox," "combustible," and "apparently racist." But he wasn't the only one. Tom Coleman routinely used the so-called "n-word" and other racial slurs on the job -- even in front of his superiors in the course of his investigation. His racism wasn't so "unorthodox" after all. And while 46 innocent people, unable to hire effective counsel, suffered in jail, Coleman was named Texas Lawman of the Year. It all happened on Gov. George W. Bush's watch.

Clearly racism isn't some historic phenomenon. It is alive today, and it still shapes our institutions. The civil rights movement hit its stride in the '50s and '60s, but the country is only just emerging from centuries of state-sanctioned apartheid. As long as racial bigotry and bias persists, we'll need racial affirmative action. We'll need it, that is, for as long as achieving fairness remains a national goal. Right now nine Supreme Court Justices are deciding if the country still cherishes that goal, or if it no longer cares.

Journalist Laura Flanders is the host of Working Assets Radio

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