Two of the nation's most prominent African American politicians acknowledged Sunday a need to review the effectiveness of government-sponsored affirmative action programs, but they warned that the national movement to abolish all such efforts threatens civil rights gains.
Amid a groundswell here and in California to jettison hiring, education and contract preferences based on race and sex, Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) and California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) voiced support for President Clinton's decision to assess federal affirmative action programs.
"We have to find ways to adjust in our society because the society is always changing," Mfume, the past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley." He added that Clinton is taking "a more reasoned approach, saying, 'Let's look and see what's working and what's not working.' "
At the same time Brown, on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," said: "At every stage of any governmental program designed to level the playing field, it should be constantly reviewed. And where there are inequities generated by whatever the choices are, where there are any kind of flaws, you ought to correct them."
The comments of the two lawmakers appear to reflect the extent to which supporters of affirmative action have been rocked back on their heels by a politically divisive debate over whether programs intended to reverse centuries of discrimination are now themselves discriminatory. Democrats have voiced concern over the potential for this issue to split the party's multiracial coalition.
Republicans, emboldened by a shift to the right in public opinion, are aggressively pushing their assault on affirmative action programs as fundamentally unfair, particularly to white males. Three of the party's most outspoken conservatives said Sunday that it is time to do away with most, if not all, such preferences.
"If given a chance to be free, the American people will, in fact, respect each and every person for the merit of their ability, the content of their character, and not the color of their skin," House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) said on the CBS show.
The issue has proved popular with candidates for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination. Commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who is expected to announce his candidacy soon, said on "Face the Nation" that, while "we've got to remove discrimination wherever we find it," affirmative action means "we're holding back working-class whites."
Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) has already vowed that, as chief executive, he would issue an executive order ending "quotas, preferences and set-asides." Another presidential hopeful, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), has said all affirmative action programs should be reviewed.
Republican strategist Bill Kristol, who has urged the GOP to focus on affirmative action, said on the Brinkley show that many of the programs are "benefiting white middle-class women. . . . That's just ridiculous and wrong."
But he also cautioned that the issue poses a political risk for Republicans.
Mfume said that no job applicants should be given positions for which they are less qualified than their competitors, just because of the color of their skin.
"However, when there is need, when there is historical discrimination and where there is an absolute absence of the courts to protect the rights and the opportunity of people, you have to set aside (government contracts) sometimes and you have to create goals and timetables to bring people in," he added.
Brown reiterated his opposition to an initiative intended for the California ballot in 1996 that would amend the state Constitution to bar racial and sexual considerations in state and local government hiring and contracting and in college admissions.
"We ought to come to the point in our lives where not only affirmative action but all other kinds of things that we do to try to level the playing field will no longer be necessary," Brown said. But, he added, "we've not reached that."