It is now crystal clear that a debate on affirmative action will be central to the 1996 presidential election campaign. Gov. Pete Wilson of California, a longtime supporter of affirmative action, signed an executive order Thursday ending affirmative action programs in most of the state government.
His action just made it official. The day before he had issued an "open letter to the people of California" saying that he was wrong to have favored affirmative action in the past. Recently he has endorsed an anti-affirmative action proposal that is expected to be on the state's 1996 ballot. And he has told voters in New Hampshire and New York that affirmative action was wrong.
In making it official, Mr. Wilson also made it unanimous. No announced Republican candidate for president is for affirmative action.
Since President Clinton is, to a degree, still for affirmative action, and since the issue generates such emotional reactions, we can't help but be apprehensive about the impact of the 1996 campaign on race relations. Both sides, it is sad to say, get carried away when this issue comes up.
For example, Governor Wilson said people who supported affirmative action did so out of "societal guilt." Maybe some did, but most did so because they thought affirmative policies were needed to achieve equality of opportunity and end unfair and costly discrimination. It doesn't advance this debate to assign such a demeaning motive as guilt to affirmative action supporters.
For another example, a California legislator said the governor was "foster[ing] hatred and division." It doesn't advance this debate to assign malevolence to foes of affirmative action. Some even argue that affirmative action is unwise because it plays into the hands of racists and haters.
The Clinton affirmative action policy is still evolving. Officials have been promising a final version for weeks. Does this make the president look indecisive, as usual? Yes. But on this issue it is important to be careful and thoughtful and ready to compromise rather than just to knee-jerk one way or the other based on narrow political considerations. Besides, the Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on minority set-asides in government contracts. That is a key component of affirmative action; it would be foolish to take a stand until you know how the court is going to go in allowing or disallowing activity of this sort.