Hour of Truth for Affirmative Action Cases the Supreme Court May Hear This Fall Could Alter How US Deals with Race

Article excerpt

Some of the greatest potential changes in race laws since the civil-rights era may arise this fall as efforts to eliminate affirmative action persist in states and in the nation's capital.

As early as next week, for example, critics of a landmark ballot initiative that bars affirmative-action programs in California are expected to ask the US Supreme Court to take the case - one that would hold national significance since voters in a dozen states are pushing similar measures.

Already the high court has agreed to hear one of the nation's most vexing affirmative-action cases when it convenes in October. That dispute, brought by a white teacher in Piscataway, N.J., who lost her job to an African-American, raises anew a question at the heart of the American conundrum over race: Should diversity be taken into account in hiring? "If {California's Proposition 209} is granted by the court, it will be the one of the most important cases of the year, if not the most," says Harvard University law professor Lawrence Tribe. "It will set standards on federalism, civil rights, and influence the sheer politics of race in this country. Piscataway is also huge ... whatever way it is decided." The cases come at a time of often confused soul-searching about America's old dilemma of establishing both justice and equality for all. President Clinton brought his bully pulpit to the race question in June, with a call to "mend, not end" affirmative action. Yet the White House has taken three different positions on the Piscataway case alone, most recently a brief issued last week. Liberals, urban leaders, and church groups show heightened concern about Americans' sensitivity to race issues, and warn of widening social divisions. Some conservatives argue that an emphasis on race-based remedies is itself divisive and contributes to, rather than cures, racial problems. Some changes in policy are already producing dramatic results. Statistics this spring from law schools in Texas and California showed a sudden drop-off of black applicants after the schools did away with their affirmative-action policies. The schools' new admissions rules parallel those prescribed under the California initiative, Proposition 209. Ten black law students were accepted at the University of Texas this year, down from 65 last year. The University of California, Berkeley, admitted 14 blacks, down from 75 the year before. Backlash grows Efforts to end affirmative-action programs are growing. A bill to drop nearly all federal set-asides for women and minorities, for instance, is moving forward in Congress. Sponsored by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and Rep. Charles Canady (R) of Florida, the "Civil Rights Bill of 1997" could go to the floor next month. Senator McConnell is also tying a measure that would end minority set-asides to a big highway bill moving through Congress. His effort follows a landmark 1995 Supreme Court decision that dealt with the granting of construction contracts to minority firms. The justices ruled affirmative action set-asides in such cases were to be allowed only where historic discrimination was clearly shown, not as a general rule to promote diversity. In California, Proposition 209 will go into effect when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal issues, as early as Thursday, a mandate. The law bars preferential treatment based on race or gender in public employment, education, and contracting. Many cities, such as Los Angeles, have a "population parity ordinance" that asks officials to hire employees in numbers that roughly match the city's ethnic and racial makeup. …