Coalition defends affirmative action

March 02, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, speaking for an array of civil rights and women's groups, unleashed a counterattack yesterday against those determined to end affirmative action in the United States.

He made it clear who his target was.

"The new Republican congressional majority is using affirmative action to divide our nation for political gain," he said.

Mr. Jackson, leader of the National Rainbow Coalition and a possible presidential candidate next year, urged President Clinton to show "bold and fearless leadership" on behalf of the movement set in motion some 40 years ago by "white judges" to lift the burden of social and economic inequities from the backs of minorities, and later women.

He urged the president to convene a White House conference on jobs, economic development and racial equality. Corporate leaders, Mr. Jackson said, should be invited to testify about the economic benefits that affirmative action has produced by making the work force more diverse. At a news conference, Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat, introduced Mr. Jackson and the representatives of more than 15 groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Organization for Women, the Women's Legal Defense Fund and the National Family Farm Coalition. Mr. Mfume said figures produced by the Rainbow Coalition -- showing insignificant representation of minorities and women in the professions, building trades, crafts and university faculties -- "argue for the continued need for affirmative action."

Mr. Mfume, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus' affirmative action task force, said programs to bring more minorities and women into the work force are "not about quotas." Nor, he added, do most programs fit the descriptions of them given by "those men tripping over themselves trying to position themselves for the New Hampshire primary."

Political opposition to affirmative action has intensified since the Republican victory in the congressional elections in November. Some critics argue that it leads to reverse discrimination and promotes and elevates people who are not necessarily qualified. The two announced Republican presidential candidates for 1996, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Lamar Alexander, are both outspoken foes of affirmative action.

Mr. Jackson, who declined to say whether he was planning a run for the presidency, said the coalition brought together yesterday intends to change the debate over affirmative action, which he believes has been wrongly set as black vs. white. Beneficiaries include women plus all minorities, he said.

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