Why Americans Get Riled about Racial Hiring Series: AFFIRMATIVE ACTION ON THE ANVIL

By Marshall Ingwerson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Why Americans Get Riled about Racial Hiring Series: AFFIRMATIVE ACTION ON THE ANVIL

Marshall Ingwerson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor

TOM WOOD may have been the most-qualified candidate for a philosophy teacher's job he once applied for, but -- a friend on the search committee told him -- the post was reserved for a woman.

Randy Pech believes he lost a contract to build guardrails along a Colorado highway, even though he was the lowest bidder, because Washington paid a $10,000 bonus to the contractor to choose a Hispanic-owned firm.

These two white males are at the forefront of a new set of challenges to affirmative action -- the unpopular racial and gender preferences that are pervasive in university admissions, corporate hiring, and government contracting decisions.

Mr. Wood, the northern California academic, helped draft and organize an already-popular ballot initiative to ban all affirmative action in California.

Even its opponents expect it to succeed easily next year, and its supporters -- who include Republican Gov. Pete Wilson -- are already looking to take their fight to the 22 other states that allow lawmaking by referendum.

Mr. Pech's lawsuit, recently heard by the United States Supreme Court, offers the justices an opportunity to dramatically curtail the federal system of racial preferences that has driven affirmative action for 30 years.

Several other important legal challenges are moving through the federal courts.

An appeals court has stopped the Federal Communications Commission from auctioning broadcast licenses for mobile-phone service until a suit is resolved challenging racial and gender restrictions for licensees.

A New Jersey case is testing whether a school district can lay off a white teacher instead of a black, where blacks are already well-represented, solely because it wants more black teachers.

President Clinton, a longtime supporter of affirmative action, ordered an "intense, urgent review" of federal affirmative action programs last month. Leading Democrats such as Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman are calling some affirmative action programs "patently unfair."

Bob Dole, Senate majority leader and the leading GOP presidential prospect, recently denounced President Richard Nixon's executive order that still stands as the basis for many racial preferences in federal contracting.

Although Democrats grin slyly over the abortion-rights issue and its potential to pin the GOP with an unpopular position, the Democratic Party has a political parallel of its own in affirmative action. It is passionately unpopular with most Americans but strongly supported by party activists.

The political atmosphere is uncomfortable to those who try to draw fine lines.

John Bunzel, a scholar at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, has been an outspoken opponent of racial quotas and outright preferences. But he opposes the California initiative because it is too sweeping and broad to allow different institutions to work out their own uses for diversity and how to get it.

"I find myself arguing against a tidal wave," he says.

The American public has grown steadily in its support for civil rights and anti-discrimination laws in hiring and housing, says Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. But using racial and gender preferences to make up for past discrimination was opposed by three quarters of Americans polled last week by The Washington Post.

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