Toward the ideal world

Tom Wicker

December 27, 1991|By Tom Wicker

HAVE civil rights laws dealt adequately with racial problems in America? Has all that had to be done now been done? Has the burden shifted to blacks and other minorities to prove they can compete in the colorblind society that now should exist? Many Americans seem to think so.

Witness the white majority's rising opposition to "quotas" -- the national shorthand for affirmative-action programs.

"Cultural diversity" -- a catchall phrase for education policies that seem to threaten the dominance of a Western-focused curriculum -- also causes widespread anxiety among whites. Crime has converted white concern for the urban, mostly black underclass into fear and anger.

Few if any would advocate a return to state-ordered segregation, the virtual elimination of which has been the great triumph of the civil rights movement. Nor would many Americans favor a revival of voting patterns that effectively excluded blacks from political power.

But a great many Americans apparently do believe that because of these and other gains, enough has been "given" to minorities. The civil rights crisis, in this view, is over; the nation finally did what the Constitution and decency required, so every American of whatever color now plays -- or should play -- on the same level field.

If anything, these Americans assert, it's now white people who suffer discrimination -- when "quotas" cause them to lose out on jobs or educational and advancement opportunities. And this is not only unfair but unnecessary in this colorblind society, from which legal and official discrimination against minorities already has been eliminated.

This attitude overlooks continued, documented discrimination in bank and auto loans, housing availability, education, employment, economic opportunities, the most vital areas of life -- and not just in the South.

Now it's disclosed that thousands of minority businesses have gone under because of court rulings that state and local government preferences designed to benefit them are unconstitutional.

In Philadelphia, Michael deCourcy Hinds has reported in the New York Times, black businesses saw their share of the city's contracts drop from 25 percent to 3.5 percent in fiscal 1990, and decline in value from $65 million to $21.3 million.

This followed a court decision outlawing a Philadelphia law that set aside a share of its contracts for minority enterprises.

The picture is much the same elsewhere, as the result of a 1989 Supreme Court decision that invalidated a similar law in Richmond, Va. The court held the racial set-aside deprived white contractors of the equal protection of the laws.

Many minority businesses -- though some were ill-managed and most were inexperienced -- could not survive without the preferences. Did these disadvantage white competitors and violate the ideal of colorblindness? Or were they, as claimed to Hinds by Jihad Ali, a Philadelphia contractor who started his minority business with $500 in 1986, "a program to make up for 400 years of injustice"?

The answer is "yes" to both questions.

A preference is obviously disadvantageous to those who don't get it -- just as, for 400 years, the preference that went culturally and automatically, even if not legally, to white businesses was disadvantageous to black competitors.

But if the answer is "yes" only to the first question, the conclusion seems irrefutable that this is not yet a colorblind society.

How can it be "colorblind," how can the playing field be level, if would-be black entrepreneurs have been prevented from gaining the experience and resources to compete equally against whites? If a minority business was awarded contracts when that was legally required, but not after the law was voided, might not discrimination have been involved, at least partially?

If the ideal is a level, colorblind playing field, how can that be achieved without some assistance to those who need help in competing? Who better to lend that assistance than state and local governments, which most crucially affect the lives and livelihoods of Americans?

Many of these jurisdictions are preparing new and improved laws to meet court requirements and base minority preferences on proven discrimination. In a society that's still blatantly color-conscious, that's a necessary step toward the ideal.

Tom Wicker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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