Affirmative Action Is Messy but Effective Remedy for Injustice

Article excerpt

What next out of California? The birthplace of the anti-tax movement in the '70s, the anti-smoking movement in the '80s and the anti-immigrant movement in the '90s, California may be well on its way to bringing us an anti-affirmative action movement.

Since white males, the group whose supremacy affirmative action is designed to counterbalance, were the most significant "swing" voters in November's conservative sweep, the time may be ripe for affirmative action, which always is under attack, to come under increased fire.

As an African-American male who supports affirmative action goals, although not hard quotas, I welcome the debate. Affirmative action was never intended to be permanent. A policy striking at the nation's oldest pain, the problems of race and sex, cries out desperately for periodic review.

Thirty years have passed since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the first affirmative action executive order. That's a generation and a half. We have learned a lot since then, but unfortunately not enough to say that affirmative action is no longer needed.

A couple of observations consistently come through. One is that affirmative action is a messy system of rough justice. However, no one has come up with a better way to remedy the injustices of the past or to ensure enforcement of civil rights laws in the future.

The other is that to equate affirmative action with "reverse discrimination" is to rewrite history.

As Johnson said three decades ago, the long history of oppression and humiliation leaves some groups of people significantly less able to compete. To simply say, "OK, from now on you're equal" would simply freeze inequities in place. "You don't starve somebody for a month, break both legs, put him at the starting line and say, `May the best man win,"' he said.

The proposed "California Civil Rights Initiative" would bar the state or any state agencies or contractors from using race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin "as a criterion for discrimination against or preferential treatment" for public employment, education or contracts.

Nice and neat as that sounds, it begs the issue's most nagging questions. Even so, the proposal's backers favor continued use of racial and gender statistics to "keep track" of hiring and contracting, says Glenn Custred, a California State University anthropology professor and co-author of the initiative. …