In Fairness to All, How About Some Facts? : Affirmative action gets caught up in presidential campaign

Facts--not anecdotes--must drive public policy decisions. That's why President Clinton is on the proper course in seeking to determine the facts about how well federal affirmative action programs are working. There's no question that Clinton was goaded by the Republican attempt to make affirmative action the ultimate wedge that will divide the Democratic constituencies of minorities, women and working-class whites. Political pressures notwithstanding, it's appropriate to review programs to see how they are working. It's too bad the review is occurring in the charged atmosphere of presidential politics. Even so, Clinton's idea to first get some facts on which to base key public decisions--an idea endorsed by reasonable Republicans like Sen. Bob Dole--surely makes more sense than the divisive demagoguery that passes for leadership from some quarters.

One GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, seems to be making his anti-affirmative-action stance a pillar of his campaign.

And in California, never has an initiative that has yet to be circulated for placement on the ballot been so discussed. The proposed "California civil rights initiative" would eliminate gender, race, color, ethnicity and national origin as factors that can be considered in the public employment, public education and public contracting systems. Gov. Pete Wilson, a potential candidate for the White House, already has endorsed it. Why the rush to endorse a measure that's not even yet on the ballot? Wouldn't we all benefit from a pause for reflection on the facts in the context of this nation's history?

An argument of "history" is not something that most Americans have much patience with; we are now -oriented. Many people have anecdotes about a top-scoring white student who was rejected by a college or a talented white male employee who lost out on a promotion given to a minority member or a woman perceived as less qualified. Perception is not always based on reality. Still, many ask, what do past wrongs have to do with me?

One thing is sure--the past cannot be entirely divorced from the present. Washington makes many of its foreign policy decisions--which nation to give foreign aid to, for example--based on the matter of past alliances with the United States. Many alliances date back to World War II. Most Americans now have no personal memory of that war 50 years ago, but it's widely understood, and accepted, that alliances formed then continue to have a major impact on foreign policy decisions today. History still matters abroad. It still matters at home, too. Affirmative action programs cannot be divorced from a history of exclusion.

But questions remain: Are affirmative action programs today too broadly drawn? Is the culprit affirmative action itself, which calls not for quotas but for goals in hiring, promotions and admissions--or is the problem that some programs have been ineptly or unfairly administered? How does the nation go forward without one group blaming the other when good-paying jobs and seats at highly rated universities are increasingly scarce? Why is that? What should be done about it? If affirmative action programs are purged, what's to ensure that business wouldn't revert to the "old boys' network," in which buddies and people of similar backgrounds got the automatic nod for jobs and promotions? These questions deserve answers. Not anecdotes. And certainly not demagoguery.


Making a Difference? Blacks and Latinos in the UC student body. *

1980 Blacks: 3.8% Lainos: 6% *

1994 Blacks: 4% Latinos: 12%

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