Mend it, don't end it Affirmative action: Houston vote sends a message, but it may not be what you think.

November 07, 1997

THE DEFEAT of an anti-affirmative action ballot question in Houston doesn't breathe new life into such programs. Texas voters were convinced they could mend affirmative action. Their stance mirrors President Clinton's position. But no one seems to know the best way to fix it.

Cities such as Baltimore -- which, like Houston, have ordinances that set goals for minority and woman participation in city contracts -- must work more aggressively to find an alternative. Houston officials promised to make changes in the program. If that doesn't happen soon enough, the courts may step in.

That point was made clear earlier this week when the Supreme Court let stand California's Proposition 209, which prohibits race and gender preferences. It's not difficult to envision a successful court challenge to Baltimore's affirmative action program, which sets "goals" for minority and woman participation but denies contracts to companies viewed as not having done enough to meet them.

Baltimore's program has had questionable success. With a 20-percent goal, the annual total of minority prime contractors has never exceeded 6 percent. Only last year did the number of female prime contractors reach its 3 percent goal. For subcontractors, the totals have peaked at 13 percent for minority-owned firms and 4 percent for those headed by women. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke must decide if the current program is the best affirmative-action answer.

At the least, the city should expand a related program that teaches management and survival skills to small business owners. The best way to ensure that black and female-owned companies get business without quotas is to help them reach the stage where they can compete for contracts without a boost.

Pub Date: 11/07/97

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