Affirmative action: another call to mend it, not end it

November 03, 1998|By Clarence Page

ORLANDO, Florida -- "How can you have any objection to this statement?" Ward Connerly, famous affirmative action foe, asked me this in a recent debate.

Then he read to me the language of the anti-affirmative action proposition known as Initiative 200 that Washington state voters will decide today.

It says essentially that the state "shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin," in education, employment or contracting.

Ah, there he goes again with that "preferential treatment" trap.

What's wrong with it? Oh, outside of its being deceptive, disingenuous and a bit of a disaster for society as a whole, not much.

As a moral goal, there's nothing wrong with I-200. It is a lovely statement. But, as a matter of law in light of history and the progress that Americans have made in racial and gender equality, it works against the egalitarian dream it purports to support.

In the name of "color-blindness" and "gender blindness" it puts handcuffs on the state's ability to take color or gender into account in creating relief and remedies for the damage that color and gender have done.

It also unravels the most effective tool to diversify colleges and the workplace over the past 30 years, a tool that has helped desegregate our society and help to grow the new black middle class. It also has helped shrink the black poverty rate in just three decades from about two-thirds to less than one-third of America's black population.

It is the same language that was used in California's Proposition 209 that abolished most of that state's affirmative-action programs two years ago. Mr. Connerly, a black businessman and University of California regent, was the main organizer of that effort.

War of words

Affirmative-action foes failed to get the same language on the ballot in Houston last year. When Houston's City Council changed the ballot language to state more directly what the anti-affirmative action measure was trying to do, it failed.

So, now that I think about it, I might well respond to Mr. Connerly's question with another question: What's wrong with the language Houston voters faced when they voted to continue affirmative action?

The Houston measure asked if the city should "end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities" in employment and contracting.

Voters said "no" and the measure's sponsor, Ed Blum, went ballistic. He wanted his original language restored. A subsequent court ruling agreed with him. Now Mr. Connerly promises to have the original wording on the ballot in Houston next year.

But what was wrong with the wording voters already voted on? Was it misleading or was its message more straightforward than affirmative-action foes wanted the voters to see?

Level playing field

Could it be that most Americans, outside the yahoo corners of the political right, still see a need not for racial preferences but to "take race into account," as a Supreme Court justice once put it, if only to level the playing field that has been tilted for centuries against women and minorities by discrimination?

Unfortunately, legislating by proposition is like removing tonsils with a meat cleaver. You lose a lot of good along with the not-so-good. Washington's I-200 will not end "racial preferences," as Mr. Connerly insists. Preferences for whites and males, for example, will continue as subtly and effectively as ever. Worse, the measure bars the state from practicing even the most benign forms of outreach to the ghettoes or barrios of underprivileged ethnic groups.

Which is too bad, since American society still has a long way to go in relieving racial prejudices, tensions, isolation, resentments and suspicions on all sides. Ironically, 30 years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, the campus and the workplace are the most desegregated sectors of our society. Affirmative action is not responsible for all of that pleasant change, but it helps.

In Orlando, Mr. Connerly and I debated before an audience of mostly white male contractors and black and female subcontractor partners. I was interested in helping affirmative action to work better for both sides. Mr. Connerly wanted to get government out of the mix, which presumes that the market is fair now, sufficiently purged of its prejudices to give everyone an even shake, if they simply work hard enough.

Unfortunately, we're not quite there yet. Women and minorities too often find that hard work does not bring just reward to them. Besides, even the nicest people need a nudge sometimes to reach out and deal fairly and confidently with unfamiliar people and communities. Affirmative action has given people that nudge.

Racial and gender outreach does have its problems, but they can be fixed without dismantling the vast amount of good that such outreach permits. We can mend it, as President Clinton suggests, without ending it. It's worth the effort.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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