Bush halts step for civil rights

Wiley Hall 3rd

October 23, 1990|By Wiley Hall 3rd

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department charged Holiday Spas with a series of discriminatory practices against its black employees and its black members and against black applicants for membership -- practices apparently designed to discourage contact between blacks and whites.

The Towson-based fitness chain reached a settlement with the government last summer.

But the reasons for Holiday's alleged discrimination are instructive.

According to depositions given by former employees, company officials justified their practices because they believed their white members felt uncomfortable sharing club facilities with blacks.

"Employees were told that whites did not want to share a swimming pool or locker facilities with blacks," said Rod Boggs, of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

"They were told whites felt blacks smelled and did not shower after a work-out. The owners also felt blacks did not pay their bills on time."

To "protect" their white clients, employees allegedly were ordered to quote only the highest possible dues and under the most unfavorable terms when blacks inquired about memberships.

They allegedly were instructed to mark black membership applications with a secret code. Employees who sold memberships to blacks allegedly were reprimanded and denied commissions from the sales.

"It was a very cynical view of human nature," said Boggs, "and, in fact, it was a viewpoint that sold their own members short."

Maybe. But it is a view of white sensibilities that President Bush apparently takes seriously.

Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990 yesterday, ostensibly on the grounds that its provisions would have encouraged hiring quotas.

But, in its place, the president has proposed legislation that might have made the claims attributed to Holiday's managers an acceptable defense against discrimination charges.

The president's proposal would allow discrimination on the grounds of "legitimate community or customer relations." In short, a company could justify not hiring or promoting blacks, Jews or women by demonstrating that its customers preferred not to deal with them.

"This proposal was totally unacceptable," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, who served on a congressional committee that tried to find a compromise with the administration. "It completely opens the door to those who would want to discriminate."

Indeed, the president's treatment of the Civil Rights Act these past few weeks has been shoddy, completely undercutting his oft-stated determination to be a "kind and gentle" president.

He has stepped backwards -- an unnecessary, unfortunate, and essentially vile step backwards -- and just when the country needed leadership.

Last fall, a national poll conducted for the Washington Post and ABC News found that one out of three of the whites polled held views defined as intolerant or bigoted towards blacks, far too high a percentage for a prudent businessman to ignore.

But the pollsters also noted that their findings reflected a substantial improvement over white attitudes of a decade ago, when half of all whites were defined as bigoted. (The researchers defined as bigoted any respondent who held five or more negative or stereotypical attitudes about blacks, such as "blacks lack motivation to pull themselves out of poverty", or "blacks have less inborn ability to learn.")

This moderation of intolerance was the direct result of the civil rights movement, particularly the court and legislative victories that tore away the legal barriers between blacks and whites.

Neither the courts nor the federal government could mandate a change in attitudes, but they could mandate behavior that eventually would make such changes inevitable.

Yesterday, for instance, whites at Holiday Spa's Rockville club said they had no problem sharing facilities with black members. And the chain's legal counsel, Earl Aquaviva, acknowledged that the terms of the company's consent agreement with the government have not hurt its business.

This has been the history: blacks and whites have been compelled by the courts and the government to live, work, and dTC play together. Afterwards, they generally have learned that it doesn't hurt.

But Bush has sided with the racists. He has sold his constituents short. He has become, in a very real sense of the word, the enemy of progress.

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