Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown issued a heartfelt and personal defense of affirmative action laws Tuesday, casting himself as a victim of racial mistreatment and charging that those who seek to abolish programs to promote minority hiring are engaging in racism.
Brown, one of America's most influential black politicians, compared the critics of affirmative action to cheaters at a card table who have illicitly collected a stack of chips and, upon being discovered, want to continue the game without paying back their ill-gotten gains.
Shaking a pointed finger and raising his voice, the Speaker told dozens of reporters gathered for a regularly scheduled press conference--almost all of whom were white--that "everybody in here has been the beneficiary of preferential treatment at my expense--at every level in your life, at every level in your life."
Brown said it is appropriate and necessary for government to correct historic discrimination by seeking out minority contractors and by accepting minority applicants to universities over equally qualified white students. To do so is only fair, the Speaker said, because for decades the nation has operated with an "artificial system of selection" that favors whites.
"Now that the system is being challenged to let Willie's relatives in . . . suddenly there is something wrong, or unconstitutional or unacceptable," Brown said. "I'm telling you, you've got no clue what it is like . . . every day in your life to know that this is the system you are in. . . . I'm telling you, it gnaws at you day in and day out."
Brown is one of the first Democrats to speak out forcefully against a growing movement to eliminate affirmative action programs, an idea that is expected to take shape in upcoming state legislation and a ballot initiative that could face voters next year.
The Speaker's comments underscore a growing rift within the Democratic Party as leaders struggle with their response to an issue that has been portrayed as a political freight train--one that politicians are told they must either get aboard or get hit by.
Democratic strategists fear that the issue could split their ranks as liberals rally to the defense of one of the hallmark achievements of the civil rights struggle while others conclude that public sentiment no longer favors such programs. Party leaders worry that the issue could damage their chances of reelecting President Clinton.
The proposed ballot measure, crafted by a pair of Bay Area academicians, would forbid state and local governments and state universities from giving preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity or gender in hiring, contracting or admitting students. In an interview Tuesday, one of the authors dismissed Brown's charge that the measure is racist.
"As to the claim that this is racist, I find that strange because this initiative would not overturn or reverse any existing state or federal statutes about discrimination," said Tom Wood, a co-author of the proposed ballot measure. "What he's referring to is the very controversial question of whether individuals who have not been discriminated against by an employer should be given preferential treatment because they belong to a particular group. It seems to us that is not a proper policy."
On Tuesday, Brown offered no room for compromise on the issue and no tolerance for fellow Democrats who would abandon affirmative action out of fear for their personal popularity. He also described California voters as people who are "narrow-minded in many cases, who are only interested in just their little sphere."
He dismissed the idea that Democrats could offer a compromise in response to the proposed measure.
"The attack on affirmative action is totally phony," he said. "It would be wrong, in my opinion, to be responding in anticipation of stopping what basically is a racist move. . . . Racism does not necessarily mean malice; racism can be inadvertent. And I believe that in some cases, it may very well be inadvertent. But it is setting up a straw man."
In stern language, the San Francisco Democrat issued a warning to Clinton about rumors that the President might oppose affirmative action. And he rebuked California Democratic Party Chairman Bill Press for suggesting that Democrats try to minimize the political damage the issue might cause the party.
"Bill Press has clearly shown his ability to lead Democrats successfully," Brown said facetiously, referring to last year's GOP landslide.
"Listen, I am practical enough to know how Democrats love to try to survive," Brown added. "I am also practical enough to know that you don't survive unless you show some evidence of principle."
In an interview Tuesday, Press downplayed any disagreement with Brown, saying he agrees that the movement to abolish affirmative action is "racist" and that existing laws are working and ought to be protected. He said the party's internal discussion is limited to strategy about how best to protect those laws. He insisted that he is not seeking a watered-down version of affirmative action laws to offer as a Democratic alternative.
"The question is: How do we protect it and how do we hold onto it?" he said. "If you look at (Proposition) 187, where I thought we were left defenseless was when we had nothing to offer but the status quo. And so one option that I've thrown out there--but it's just one option--is basically fighting fire with fire."
Press said he could not speak for other Democrats and why they have not spoken out in favor of affirmative action laws, other than to suggest that they might be shocked by the large support for Proposition 187 last year. He also said the issue should not be cast as one that divides Democrats.
"This is not a dagger aimed at the heart of the Democratic Party; this is a dagger aimed at the heart of California," he said. "This will divide Democrats, it will divide Republicans, it will divide employees, it will divide families, it will divide neighborhoods. I think it potentially could be very, very ugly."