Discrimination fight goes on

Poll: A recent national survey finds that most Americans believe the need for affirmative action programs still exists.

August 01, 1999|By Lynne K. Varner and Tom Brune

CYNTHIA Hamilton, an African-American automotive-factory worker in Toledo, Ohio, agrees with many whites that a colorblind America would be wonderful.

But that's an impossible dream, Hamilton says. And, she adds, "because there are so many prejudices against us because of the color of our skin, there has to be something there to make up for that."

That "something," in her view: affirmative action.

A recent Seattle Times national poll explored Americans' feelings about discrimination, opportunity and affirmative action. While whites are sharply divided in their opinions about affirmative action, people of color overwhelmingly support it.

While only about half the whites polled say affirmative action is needed three decades after its inception, 75 percent of minority respondents say it is.

Most whites and minorities are united in wanting to mend, not end, affirmative action. But they differ on how to do this.

Many whites want to make it a program for the poor of all races, while minorities insist the focus should remain on racial discrimination.

Roy Paige, a black social worker for a private agency near Flint, Mich., agrees with Hamilton that race remains the bottom line.

"There are social programs to help the poor get welfare, food stamps and the like," he says, "but affirmative action is to remedy discrimination, nothing else."

Wakenda McKinney, a black Southern California college student, says, "Racism still takes place, plain and simple."

But she, like many people of color, appreciates and understands the fairness issue raised by many whites.

In one of the most surprising aspects of the Times poll, most minority respondents -- 54 percent -- agree that, in some cases, unqualified minorities are hired over more-qualified whites.

That troubles McKinney, who says she believes that affirmative action has led to negative stereotyping of minorities.

"You know how a lot of white people are saying that it helps people get jobs they're not qualified for? Well, I feel that you should be qualified to get the job or the school admission or whatever," she says.

Erika Williams, a Colorado Springs, Colo., psychiatric case manager, says she has benefited, perhaps unfairly, from affirmative action.

More than once, she says, she has walked into a job interview with resume in hand and a litany of the educational and professional skills she possesses, and emerged with the job.

But she says she feels her good fortune has come not as a result of her credentials, but largely because she is an African-American woman in a field dominated by white males.

Williams says without hesitation that her gender and skin color have propelled her into jobs -- and she doesn't like it one bit.

"I was happy I was being hired, in a way I even felt lucky, but I also felt that this really isn't right," says Williams, 29. "It shouldn't matter that I'm black and a woman; it should matter that I have the education and background."

Nonwhites are not a monolith, and the Times poll found some differences among the various groups.

The feelings in support of affirmative action are strongest among African-Americans. That perhaps stems from a sense of ownership: Blacks pushed the policies into existence in the 1960s, advocating their use as a way to remedy the systemic discrimination that shut minorities out of jobs, neighborhoods and higher education.

At that time, race relations in the United States were largely a matter of black and white.

Today, by a wide margin, African-Americans are the most vocal supporters of the government's push for equal rights for all citizens. Eighty percent of blacks say the push has not gone too far, compared with 56 percent of other minorities.

And while most African-Americans say unqualified minorities are rarely, if ever, hired, promoted or admitted to college over qualified whites, most Asian Americans, Latinos and Native Americans in the poll say they feel otherwise.

Overall, though, the poll found minorities more in agreement with one another than with whites.

But there also is much agreement between whites and minorities.

They share an optimism about opportunity in America. Both groups agree that if people do not succeed in this country, it is for personal reasons and not because of a lack of opportunity.

Both groups are concerned that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing wider. They are in strong agreement that government has a responsibility to enforce anti-discrimination laws. And they express the same ambivalence about whether equality can be enforced.

Sixty-two percent of the minority respondents agree that America should be colorblind. Among whites, that number is 70 percent.

Williams says her experience is enough to make her wish for a colorblind society, but she says she worries that would make her invisible, not equal.

"I don't want race to matter, but it does," she says. "What I do is get the job and start doing what [whites] think I can't do, and I end up proving myself to them."

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