Affirmative Action under Fire in California Conservative Coalition Is Trying to Ban Preferential Treatment

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CALIFORNIANS HAVE set national trends for cutting taxes, punishing illegal immigrants and imposing harsh new penalties on repeat criminals. Now they're adding affirmative action to that list.

A loose coalition of conservative scholars and Republican political leaders in California is trying to outlaw preferential treatment for minorities and women in public employment, hiring and contracting.

Their proposals are a direct assault on the diversity rules that have guided public policy in California for more than two decades, as schools, colleges, universities and public agencies struggled to better reflect the state's ethnic makeup.

The new moves, including a ballot initiative and several legislative bills, have won admiration from prominent Republicans, including Gov. Pete Wilson, who has said he is sympathetic to the initiative's "purpose and direction." Although he has a long history of supporting affirmative action programs, Wilson now says he is no longer sure they are needed.

"I don't think we should be awarding either jobs or places in a graduate school class based upon race or gender, because, if you do, essentially you're talking about a quota system, and I don't think that what we want are quotas," Wilson recently told the Sacramento Bee.

Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, affirmative action programs have spread throughout much of the public and private sector as a way of redressing past discrimination, particularly in employment. Over time, such programs have grown to encompass age, disability and marital status.

But affirmative action has become a ripe target for backlash as job markets have shrunk and Republicans bent on dismantling activist government programs have gained control of Congress and power in Sacramento.

The proposed initiative - which is being pushed for the ballot in March 1996 - is at the center of the debate. It would undo a wide array of programs aimed at helping minorities and women get educated, hired and obtain government contracts. The proposal would:

Outlaw voluntary desegregation programs in public schools.

Eliminate special tutoring and financial aid programs for minority and female college students.

Bar admissions officers at public colleges and universities from considering race or sex.

End voluntary programs directed at hiring and promoting minorities and women in state and local agencies, except those that get federal funds.

Eliminate incentives to award public contracts to minority and women-owned businesses. …