In a welcome and undoubtedly difficult decision, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan spoke out Friday against the ill-named "California Civil Rights Initiative." By carefully outlining the reasonable grounds on which he opposes the November ballot measure, Riordan has helped bring clarity to a controversial and deeply misleading ballot initiative.
In a speech to a minority business group, Riordan said that he is "very dissatisfied" with many aspects of affirmative action. But he added, "I am against the CCRI. It is not the solution. . . . I oppose it because it is divisive. It takes one of our greatest assets, our diversity, and tries to turn it into a liability." The mayor also said that the measure, which on the ballot will be known as Proposition 209, "jeopardizes opportunities for people in this room--and the very existence of voluntary programs" like that of the city's Minority Business Opportunity Commission. "It could erode workplace protection for women," Riordan added.
Elected officials are expected to choose sides in important debates, and those who take the risk of choosing the correct if unpopular stance are to be commended. Riordan has done that here. The CCRI is still very popular in the polls, although its appeal is ebbing, perhaps as more people become aware that it purports to fight discrimination but actually undermines fairness. In June, 69% supported the measure, according to a Times poll; now 59% support it.
The implication of the CCRI is that California women and minorities simply are getting too much of the economic and educational pie; the facts do not bear out that notion. The evidence suggests that without affirmative action, qualified women and minorities lose.
When Gov. Pete Wilson issued an executive order directing all state agencies to immediately disband their committees that oversaw affirmative action goals (not quotas), women and minority entrepreneurs across the state said the phones stopped ringing and the faxes stopped coming. A contractor told one Southern California businesswoman that although her work was good, "it's back to the good old boys club . . . without affirmative action, we don't have to use you."
Some public or private affirmative action programs may well have been executed improperly or unfairly. Mayor Riordan acknowledged that all those who support the CCRI should not be branded as racist or sexist. But the bottom line, as the mayor pointed out, is that even those who have problems with current affirmative action programs will not find a reasonable alternative to fight discrimination in the CCRI. He's right on the issue, and he's right to have spoken out as mayor of a diverse city.