Years ago, when Jack Greenberg left the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to become a professor at Columbia University, he announced that he was going to make it a point to hire a black secretary at Columbia.
This would, of course, make whomever he hired be seen as a token black rather than as someone selected on the basis of competence.
This reminded me of the first time I went to Milton Friedman's office when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago back in 1960, and I noticed that he had a black secretary. This was four years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and there was no such thing as affirmative action.
It so happened that Friedman had another black secretary decades later, at the Hoover Institution and she was respected as one of the best secretaries around.
When I mentioned to someone at the Hoover Institution that I was having a hard time finding a secretary who could handle a tough job in my absence, I was told that I needed someone like Friedman's secretary and that there were not many like her.
At no time in all these years did I hear Friedman say, either publicly or privately, that he had a black secretary.
William F. Buckley's wife once mentioned in passing, at dinner in her home, that she had been involved for years in working with a school in Harlem. But I never heard her or Buckley ever say that publicly.
Nor do conservatives who were in the civil rights marches in the South, back when that was dangerous, make that a big deal.
For people on the left, however, blacks are trophies or mascots and must therefore be put on display. Nowhere is that more true than in politics.
The problem with being a mascot is that you are a symbol of someone else's significance or virtue. The actual well-being of a mascot is not the point.
Liberals all across the country have not hesitated to destroy black neighborhoods in the name of "urban renewal," often replacing working-class neighborhoods with upscale homes and pricey businesses neither of which the former residents can afford.
In academia, lower admissions standards for black students is about having them as a visible presence, even if mismatching them with the particular college or university produces high dropout rates.
The black students who don't make it are replaced by others, and when many of them don't make it, there are still more others.
The point is to have black faces on campus, as mascots symbolizing what great people there are running the college or university.
Many, if not most, of the black students who do not make it at big-name, high-pressure institutions are perfectly qualified to succeed at the normal range of colleges and universities.
Most white students would also punch out if admitted to schools for which they don't have the same qualifications as the other students. But nobody needs white mascots.
Various empirical studies have indicated that blacks succeed best at institutions where there is little or no difference between their qualifications and the qualifications of the other students around them.
This is not rocket science, but it is amazing how much effort and cleverness have gone into denying the obvious.
A study by professor Richard Sander of the law school at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that there may be fewer black lawyers as a result of affirmative-action admissions to law schools that are a mismatch for the individuals admitted.
Leaping to the defense of black criminals is another common practice among liberals who need black mascots. Most of the crimes committed by black criminals are committed against other blacks. But, again, the actual well-being of mascots is not the point.
Politicians who use blacks as mascots do not hesitate to throw blacks to the wolves for the benefit of the teachers' unions, the green zealots whose restrictions make housing unaffordable, or people who keep low-price stores like Wal-Mart out of their cities.Using human beings as mascots is not idealism. It is self-aggrandizement that is ugly in both its concept and its consequences.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.