Bono's view of affirmative action

January 19, 1998|By William Wong

OAKLAND, Calif. -- In his obituary, Sonny Bono, the entertainer and congressman, was quoted as having questioned the need for qualifications for jobs he had held.

"What is 'qualified'?" he was quoted as having said. "What have I been 'qualified' for in my life? I haven't been 'qualified' to be mayor (of Palm Springs). I'm not 'qualified' to be a songwriter. I'm not 'qualified' to be a TV producer. I'm not 'qualified' to be a successful businessman. And so I don't know what 'qualified' means."

Senate candidate

Bono said those things around the time he was running for the Republican nomination for U.S. senator from California in 1992.

He had been mayor of Palm Springs since 1988, a job he decided to pursue when, as a restaurateur, he experienced frustrations with local government.

Was Bono mocking our society's obsession with qualifications?

He didn't win the GOP Senate nomination, but he became the Palm Springs area's U.S. representative as part of the conservative Republican wave in 1994.

Was Bono being his dry, humorous self? Was he mocking our society's obsession with qualifications?

Was he thumbing his nose at those in power who had said "no" to him?

Who knows?

But his qualifications remarks have relevancy in the continuing debates over affirmative action.

An underlying assumption of critics of affirmative-action programs is that unqualified people are given breaks.

This idea is evident in fire and police department hirings and university (and even some high school) admissions.

The debate takes on a special edge because the supposedly unqualified candidates include a large number of racial and ethnic minorities and women.

Critics of affirmative action attacked racial "preferences" in mantra-like cadences when they successfully dismantled University of California affirmative-action policies in 1995.

The argument turned in part on the assumption that highly qualified applicants for admission were losing their coveted places at the University of California campuses to black and Hispanic students who had lower test scores and grade-point averages. The latter students were considered either unqualified or at best less qualified.

In San Francisco, some Chinese-American parents are chagrined their children have had to score higher in tests than children of other ethnic backgrounds to qualify for admissions to prestigious Lowell High School.

A fundamental belief of critics of affirmative action, like California Gov. Pete Wilson and University of California Regent Ward Connerly, is that merit reigns supreme in education, employment and business relationships.

Merit is another word for qualifications, educational degrees, high test scores, excellent grades and successful job experiences.

In a perfect world, who wouldn't want education slots, jobs and business contracts to go to the most meritorious, or most qualified? But we do not live in a perfect world.

We live in a world where connections still count for a lot and where subtle racial and gender discrimination still takes place. JTC Only the naive believe that what one knows is more important than whom one knows.

Had good luck

Bono was the son of immigrants. He struggled early in life, then hit it big in show business. His celebrity, hard work and moxie propelled him into a successful business and political career.

He also had good luck: His political values merged with the conservative trend in Congress.

Americans are full of contradictions. We demand qualifications, yet some of us embrace a man who openly admitted he wasn't "qualified" for anything he ever did. Why is that?

William Wong is a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.

Pub Date: 1/19/98

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