The quota canard

May 29, 1991|By The New York Times

DON'T BOTHER me, says President Bush, with the facts. House Democrats, alarmed at the slogan-slinging that defiles their proposed Civil Rights Act of 1991 as a "quota" bill, are revising it to forbid hiring quotas for minorities and women. The president hasn't seen the revised language yet, but hey -- he doesn't have to.

Bush may not like the proposed legislation for substantive reasons. But for him to persist so unreasonably in the quota canard invites the belief that he is driven, instead, by ugly political reasons.

In this context, quota means hiring and promoting by race, sex or other characteristics according to fixed percentages and without regard to qualification. Civil rights laws have never authorized that form of discrimination even as an antidote to centuries of bias. Yet the Bush administration contends that the bill would force employers to use quotas just to avoid getting sued.

That charge has never been fair. The bill's most hotly contested feature would require employers to justify job practices that disproportionately screen out minorities and women. That, basically, would put the law back where it was before a series of recent Supreme Court misinterpretations. Thus there's no need to speculate. Two decades of experience under the old legal rules produced no pattern of quotas.

Lack of evidence hasn't stopped the administration from sounding the quota alarm. That alarm has been effective, as when Sen. Jesse Helms raised it in his North Carolina re-election campaign last year. It stirs racial anxieties not easily answered with reason.

Barring quotas does not mean that numbers will be meaningless in assessing job discrimination. When a challenged employer asserts that there are no qualified blacks or Hispanics in the available labor pool, the work force has to be measured and compared with the employer's performance.

When Bush vetoed last year's civil rights bill, 66 senators saw through his "quota" name-calling and voted to override, falling one vote shy. This week, the president would do well to get past those "experts," read the new bill for himself, and base his opinion on facts rather than surrender to, and foment, ugly fears.

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