BY MAURICE WILLIAMS
The Clinton administration released a report July 18 that proposed only minor changes to federal affirmative action programs. White House officials said they were concerned that pushing too far in the government's probes against affirmative action carried political risks they were reluctant to take, given widespread support for such programs.
In a speech the following day, President Bill Clinton summarized his stance toward affirmative action with the slogan, "Mend it but don't end it."
The White House report concluded that "the evidence shows that, on the whole, the Federal programs are fair and do not unduly burden non-beneficiaries." Instead, it proposed cracking down on alleged "fraud" in such programs.
Officials reiterated Clinton's opposition to the use of quotas to enforce affirmative action. They said the president would issue a directive requiring all federal agencies to eliminate or reform any program that "creates a quota, creates a preference for unqualified individuals, creates reverse discrimination or continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved."
Major Republican politicians have also backpedaled in their probes to attack afirmative action. Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives, persuaded Senate Republican leader Bob to put off for now a bill that would bar federal contracts that include "preferences" for women, Blacks, Latinos, and other oppressed groups. Gingrich argued that the Republicans must first "put together a package designed to help blacks and other minorities without the use of any preferences," the New York Times reported.
Other big-business politicians favor more aggressive moves, however. U.S. Rep. Gary Franks, one of two Black Republicans in the House, plans to attach amendments to spending bills that would prohibit federal agencies from setting aside a portion of their contracts for oppressed nationalities and women.
"It will represent the first salvo against affirmative action as we know it today," declared Franks. "I've been opposed to racial and gender-based set-asides and preferential treatment throughout my career."
The debate over this issue has been especially intense in California. Gov. Pete Wilson has played a prominent role in calling for restrictions on affirmative action programs. Faced with a recent Supreme Court decision allowing curbs on affirmative action, and a proposed statewide ballot initiative that would eliminate many such programs, a wide array of political forces in California are beginning to organize to defend these social gains.
A pro-affirmative action coalition of more than fifteen organizations has come together in California. It includes the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, National Organization for Women, League of United Latin American Citizens, Urban League, International Association of Machinists (IAM), United Electrical workers, United Auto Workers, and religious, community, and student groups. It is organizing out of the IAM offices in Long Beach.
The group is campaigning against the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), a proposed 1996 state referendum attacking affirmative action programs. A statement by the coalition says: "The CCRI campaign is calculated to distract us from the reality of the larger economic and political problems causing depression of wages and job loss. It exploits our fears and insecurities-by scapegoating and pitting one group against another."
The coalition says in one of it's leaflets: "We see this need [to organize] in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decisions against affirmative action and school desegregation and the bi-partisan campaign against these hard won gains of women and minorities that redress years of racial and sexual discrimination and help to unify working people."
Loren Pommells, a young member of the IAM who is involved in the coalition, said, "Many people fought for women and minorities to get equal rights. One victory was affirmative action and now they want to take it away. Affirmative action gives everyone an equal opportunity for jobs and education. It doesn't discriminate against anyone. If affirmative action is abolished, it will be a setback in our goal of equality."
The Los Angeles Times ran a sampling of interviews from California students on the issue. Ken Adams, 24, said: "We still need affirmative action. I'm worried about my own admission possibilities, but also about the general picture of affirmative action....I need it because it makes me feel safe that nobody will say no to me because I'm African American." Sylvia Casasola, 38, put it this way: "Affirmative action doesn't mean you get everything for free. That's the way [Gov. Wilson] is putting it, that every Latino is taking advantage of all the benefits."
Some demonstrations in support of affirmative action have been taking place on California campuses, and teach-ins, voter education and registration, media campaigns and other activities are being planned. A widespread debate has broken out on Wilson's proposal to end affirmative action in hiring, contracting and admissions in the University of California system. The university regents were scheduled to vote on the proposal July 20.
One Wilson ally on the Board of Regents is Ward Connerly, a wealthy Sacramento housing developer who is Black. He says affirmative action has outlived its usefulness and is proposing that the university scrap its affirmative action policies. "Today we're not in an institutionally racist society as we were in 1965," he asserted.
Despite this claim, average real income for Black families is no higher than in 1969, while for whites it rose 9 percent. Some 12 percent of whites live below the official poverty line, but 33 percent of Blacks and 31 percent of Latinos live in poverty. Women earn no more than 71 percent of mens' average wages, and Black women even less.
The affirmative action debate has become of feature of the emerging presidential campaign. Wilson, a Republican presidential hopeful, announced he will exercise his right for the first time to preside over the regents meeting. Democrat Jesse Jackson, another possible presidential candidate, declared he would speak at the protest rally planned for July 19 and at the July 20 board of regents meeting.
Mark Friedman, a member of the IAM in Los Angeles, contributed to this article.
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