THE STATE : CIVIL RIGHTS : Don’t Count on the Chief Beneficiaries of Affirmative Action to Rescue It

<i> Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV</i>

Whether the political tide against affirmative action can be reversed depends on the motivation--and the existence--of the Angry White Woman. So, say some strategists, does the fate of Democratic candidates in the ’96 elections. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown recently sounded this theme.

“Republicans are pushing a black face (on the proposed California civil rights initiative (CCRI)),” he said. “When the dust clears over the debate on affirmative action, (it will become clear) that white women are 80% to 90% the beneficiaries” and support for the initiative will erode once white women mobilize against it.

And if these women--including some moderate Republicans and independents--can be motivated to vote against the anti-affirmation action proposition, they just might stick around to vote for Democrats in 1996.


A variation of that strategy worked in 1992. But it is unlikely that political history will repeat itself next year.

This is the era of “us vs. them” politics, not the “Year of the Woman.” Sisterhood is not as powerful as it was in 1992.

Back then, women felt threatened by Republicans’ anti-abortion rights stance. They were angered by the insensitivity of male incumbents to the issues of sexual harassment raised in the Anita F. Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. And they marched to the polls--according to the California Opinion Index, women accounted for 53% of California voters in the 1992 election, up 2% from 1988--and voted for Democrats.

Affirmative action just does not have the gender-specific resonance that abortion-rights issues have for women. It is, said one Democratic woman activist, “more complicated. Affirmative action,” she contended, “is not as clear as ‘choice,’ which is very visceral.”

Nor does the repeal of job preferences galvanize women the way sexual harassment did. A recent Field poll showed 66% of white women supporting CCRI, while only 34% of non-white women said they would vote “yes.”

Felicia Bragg, an African American political consultant, says: “White people think they are where they are because they’re supposed to be. I don’t think the white women . . . equate themselves with special preference.”


Still, a recent Gallup poll indicated that “affirmative action, whether for women or racial minorities, receives somewhat more support from women than men.” Another report, issued by the Glass Ceiling Commission, a federal panel established four years ago to monitor the progress of women and minorities in business and industry, adds punch to the contention that white women have been the principal beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs.

White women now account for 40% of the nation’s work force (as compared with 30% some 30 years ago) and hold almost 40% of middle-management jobs. African American women and men are still greatly underrepresented in these positions. But men, who constitute 43% of the nation’s work force, hold about 95% of senior-management positions (vice president and above), a statistic marking the “glass ceiling.”

Among Democratic activists, there is some skepticism that the glass ceiling can be legislated away. That echoes results of an Opinion Research Corp. survey of executives and managers. Only 4% indicated that “laws and regulations” could break the ceiling, but nearly 23% said “a breakdown in tradition” would be necessary to accomplish it.

For many women, the glass ceiling and CCRI are alien and abstract symbols. “A lot of women have forgotten that they would not have gotten (where they are) without affirmative action,” mused a GOP activist who saw little in the issue that would galvanize moderate Republican women. And consultant Bragg sees little to motivate minority women voters. “Helping to overturn CCRI is not going to make their schools better, change their lives . . . “

To some extent, this ambivalence toward affirmative action reflects personal and professional goals. Not all women want to become chief executive officer of a large corporation.

Other signs of dissension among women regarding affirmative action are tied to generational, education and class differences. A Los Angeles Times poll of California voters noted that respondents aged 45 to 64 showed the highest support for dismantling affirmative action (72%), while those 18 to 29 years old registered the greatest opposition (33%). Among respondents to the Gallup poll who have a college education, 68% of white women supported affirmative action for women, compared with 70% of white males who opposed it. But among respondents with a high-school education or less, white women supported affirmative action for women by only 50%, compared to a similar level (51%) among men.


Gallup showed no such dramatic divisions of opinion among both white men and white women on affirmative action for minorities, with “strong majorities of each sex opposed” to it.

Yet, the fate of affirmative action may depend more on “the politics of anecdotes” than on poll data. Conversations with white, moderate women--Republican and Democratic--reveal stories of anger over sons denied entrance to college while similarly qualified minorities were admitted; of worries that husbands would be denied jobs, raises or promotions because of affirmative-action mandates, and of personal anxiety over “reverse discrimination.”

“Take the vision test,” one minority woman urged. “There’s no darkening of the corridors of commerce. Universities are not black-brown . . . (but) this anecdotal stuff is just so much more potent for people.” If the battle over affirmative action comes downs to anecdotes, she worries, “racism could overwhelm women’s perception that affirmative action has helped them.” That would undermine any Democratic strategy based on white women voters.

Is racism more powerful than sisterhood? That is an uncomfortable question, but one which women will likely be forced to confront in the run-up to the 1996 elections. How each woman answers may not only help decide the immediate fate of candidates and issues on the ballot. It could also influence the direction of politics, policy and culture in California.*