Opinion on Affirmative Action Shows Thomas Denies Roots, Critic Says

June 25, 1995|By ROBERT DOUGLAS

West Palm Beach, Fla. -- Gerald Williams and Clarence Thomas are both descendants of slaves.

But Mr. Williams nurtures his roots, while he accuses Justice Thomas of denying his.

Mr. Williams is an attorney who chairs the Minority Business Development Center. It's a federally funded agency that helps minority entrepreneurs in Palm Beach County, Fla., set up shop and win contracts.

Justice Thomas is an attorney who sits on the United States Supreme Court. It's the influential body that recently poured fuel smoldering resentment among angry white males over everything that Mr. Williams' agency stands for.

At issue is affirmative action, the commitment to helping overcome entrenched inequities based on race by giving qualified minorities preference and help in hiring and contracting. By law, minorities cannot be actively excluded from the American mainstream. And as Mr. Williams sees it, affirmative action is an appropriate means to actively promote their participation. But Justice Thomas has joined a Supreme Court ++ majority in upholding a different view in the case of a white Colorado contractor who had challenged a Department of Transportation program that gave preference to minorities whose bids were higher than his.

In siding with the contractor, the court questioned the constitutionality of any program that gives preference to minorities in awarding federal contracts. And in a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas wrote: "Government-sponsored racial discrimination based on benign prejudice is just as noxious as discrimination inspired by malicious prejudice."

This point may be well taken in the narrow confines of constitutional law.

But as a black man whose forbears were only counted as three-fifths of a person by framers of the Constitution, Justice Thomas is dishonest in making it, says Mr. Williams. He's referring to the Founding Fathers' decision to count only three-fifths of all slaves in the original census used to apportion legislative representation on the basis of population.

Justice Thomas is "an intellectual Stepin Fetchit," says Mr. Williams, referring to the subservient black film character of the 1930s. And by lending the court the credibility of his heritage, he undermines the progress that affirmative action has engendered progress with benefits that accrue not only to minorities but to the entire society.

Justice Thomas argues that affirmative action programs "stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority and may cause them to develop dependencies or to adopt an attitude that they are 'entitled' to preferences."

But Mr. Williams counters that such programs have given minorities with equal or superior abilities a chance to participate in America's mainstream that has been denied them in the past.

You can't view the case the court ruled on in isolation, he says. You must see it in the broader context of a society whose cultural diversity is not fairly reflected in its economic activity.

America doesn't have to pretend it's colorblind. White people don't have to pretend they like black people when they don't, Mr. Williams says. But in today's global economy, it's in everyone's interest to continue promoting inclusion to overcome the tradition of exclusion that dates back to the days of slavery. And notwithstanding any abuses in current affirmative action programs that should be fixed, there's no reason to abandon the concept. It has worked and there's evidence its job isn't done.

Blacks comprise 12.1 percent of the population, according to the 1990 Census. Minority contractors, with the help of affirmative action, get 8.3 percent of federal procurement dollars, according to the Wall Street Journal. That's up from 3.6 percent a decade ago. And it's more than three-fifths of a slave's representative share. But it's short of a fair share in a nation that affirms all men are created equal.

Robert Douglas writes a column as business editor for the PalBeach Post in West Palm Beach, Fla.

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