Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Square Off: High Stakes Affirmative Action Issue for Higher Education Debated

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Square Off: High Stakes Affirmative Action Issue for Higher Education Debated

Article excerpt

Square Off: High Stakes Affirmative Action Issue for Higher Education. Debated

WASHINGTON -- Has affirmative action run its course? Is it no longer a viable solution for compensating past wrongs? These and other questions were debated as panelists came together during a videoconference sponsored by Black Issues in Higher Education.

The videoconference, "Affirmative Action Under Siege: What's at Stake for Our Campuses, Careers & Communities," was the first in a series of programs scheduled during the 1995-96 academic year that will address issues impacting colleges and universities.

It was a matter of minutes before the hot-button issue of the day, sent sparks flying as live national audience watched on Oct. 11. Panelists included Elaine R. Jones, director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Patricia Ireland, president, National Organization for Women; Errol Smith, vice chairman of the California Civil Rights Initiative; Stephen Balch, National Association of Scholars; Everett Winters, president, Affirmative Action Association; and Michael R. Forrest, executive director, National Association of Colleges and Employers. Black Issues' columnist Julianne Malveaux was the program's moderator.

Errol Smith touched off the fireworks when he called for an end to affirmative action. While he supports the elimination of racial and gender preferences, Smith said programs should remain in place to punish those who discriminate.

Elaine Jones and Pat Ireland, countered by questioning whether Smith had benefitted from affirmative action while obtaining his education and becoming a businessman.

Smith's reply: the benefits to him were indirect. He dismissed affirmative action as being passe and said group preferences should be addressed through the courts on an individual basis. Several viewers called and faxed in their comments to challenge his views while others wanted to know what he proposed to replace affirmative action. "Group preferences must end," Smith said. "We need a system that will allow individuals to go to the courts."

Jones asked whether he was dismissing a legacy of racism that impacted an entire racial group as well as women, a point Ireland also pursued. Ireland maintained that affirmative action has also meant gains for women that should not be lost.

Despite his views, Smith said discussions on affirmative action are critical and must continue.

"We've got to be willing to explore these issues from an objective point of view," Smith said. "If we really want to objectively discuss these matters, we must be neutral. I am awfully concerned at this point that preferential programs are already gone and we need to be thinking about the next step."

The affirmative action debate spilled over long after the program had concluded. At a reception following the show, Jones challenged Smith's position stating that because of race and gender issues, discrimination can't be addressed by individual lawsuits.

The programs that are in place and working should be allowed to continue, Jones added. She warned that the public shouldn't believe myths that say affirmative action programs no longer exist. Initiatives like the California anti-affirmative action movement, for example, are a political ploy to divide and conquer the country along racial lines, Jones said.

"It's very important that the public in California understand what's going on with what I call the `Civil Wrongs Initiative,'" said Jones. "Even the language of the legislation gives the wrong impression. They are calling it the Civil Rights Initiative, while it's really abolishing affirmative action.

"Voluntary affirmative action was not touched by the courts. …

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