IT USED to be said down South that the only way to get a mule's attention was to hit it over the head with a two-by-four. If anyone doubted that "quotas" and the Democrats' alleged partiality to them will be a Republican theme in 1992, Jesse Helms got out his lumber the other day and gave them a good lick.
Helms, the well-known "Senator No" from North Carolina, is not a man to let the voters wonder where he stands. In 1989, when some optimists doubted he would run again, he --ed their hopes by taking up arms against the Mapplethorpe show -- as good as an announcement of his candidacy.
In 1990, it appeared for a time that Senator No might be beaten by a strong black candidate, Harvey Gantt. Close students of the senator's brand of politics never accepted this shining vision; sure enough, he turned the tide with a TV spot depicting a white man losing a job due to "quotas" for blacks.
Now Helms has introduced an amendment to civil rights legislation that would bar employers from granting any kind of preferential treatment whatever, in hiring, compensation or promotion, if based on race, color, religion, national origin or sex.
This, after centuries of the most blatant preferences in every aspect of American economic life -- preferences for whites, males, usually for those of Western European stock, almost always for English-speakers, all too often for Protestants. What blatant hypocrisy it would be for the Senate to say, after such a record, that preferences were no longer permissible.
Now, of course, some preferences are called quotas, whether they are or not, and are extended to blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women. Admittedly, they might once in a while inconvenience or disadvantage a white, Protestant male. But in the face of a history of discrimination, is rigid evenhandedness to be the test of a candidate's or party's devotion to American values?
If so, it's as distorted a view of history and reality as the argument that any deviation from the idea of a "colorblind" America must be denounced. Since when was America colorblind? When is it ever likely to be? Colorblindness is an ideal, not a fair standard of current action or employment rules.
The Helms amendment is less a serious proposal than a typically shifty Helms device to insure that those who are to vote against it can be pilloried next year for "favoring quotas." Even before its introduction, President Bush had branded the civil rights bill a "quota bill." He has stuck to this indictment against all arguments -- not just by Democrats and black leaders but also the pleas of Republicans like Sen. John Danforth of Missouri, who tried hard to get Bush to accept a compromise and now describes the adamant White House position as fostering job discrimination.
Bush is regarded as sure to veto the legislation as a "quota bill." With the aid of the Helms amendment, he can seek to establish himself and his party in 1992 as defenders, against quota-wielding Democrats, of an evenhanded, colorblind, non-preferential American working life. In such an America, the actuality soon would be pervasive preference for white males, as it always was in the past.
Besides, as Rep. Howard Wolpe of Michigan recently said in a notable speech: "The real enemy of beleaguered workers today is not affirmative-action programs designed to overcome a legacy of race prejudice and discrimination, but an economy that does not provide secure employment for all Americans. The solution is not to fight over who gets the limited number of jobs available, but to create more jobs and to train people to fill them."
lTC Education, unfortunately, could be another testing ground for the quota theme. Lamar Alexander, the secretary of education, told a House subcommittee the other day that he feared cultural-diversity policies and multicultural curriculums in higher education might lead "to race-based hiring quotas at educational institutions receiving federal funds."
That might happen in some cases. But even if it did, those cases could be dealt with individually; the possibility is insufficient reason to ban or even to discourage cultural diversity in higher education. That would be like taking up a two-by-four to get a mule's attention -- or escalating the quota theme into a national crisis in order to win an election.