POLITICIANS left a lot of room for argument in the 1991 civil
Although President Bush signed it into law Nov. 21, much of the
battle over how it will change the rules of hiring and job
promotions still lies ahead.
The range of possible readings of the new bill appears to be
wide - from requiring a virtually colorblind workplace, without
racial preferences or minority set-asides, to stiffening the
demands on business to justify any racial or gender disparities.
In economic terms alone, the stakes are billions of dollars
high. If the bill were used to dismantle all minority set-aside
programs for federal contracts, as White House counsel C. Boyden
Gray has proposed, the effect on minority businesses nationally
would be "devastating," says John Winston, associate director of
the Minority Business Development Agency in the United States
Department of Commerce.
The Department of Defense alone dispensed $4.1 billion to
minority contractors in fiscal 1990.
To lose such opportunities, says Mr. Winston, would be
comparable among minority entrepreneurs to the 1929 stock collapse
or the present savings-and-loan crisis.
The hiring and promotion practices of the federal government
itself have signal impact in the black community. About half a
million blacks are directly employed by the US government, where
they are nearly twice as well represented as in the private sector.
On the other hand, a conservative reading of the new law would
confront businesses with less liability for discrimination lawsuits
and the costs they bring.
The next step is now under way at the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where lawyers are figuring out how
the new law affects the federal guidelines for affirmative action
in both private and public enterprises across the US.
What the EEOC determines, probably in the next month or so, will
be an important guide to the federal court rulings that will
eventually define the law.
"If the agency has adopted an interpretation that is not crazy,
that is not unreasonable - then the courts will abide by it," says
Alfred Blumrosen, a law professor at Rutgers University who has
served as an official in and consultant to the EEOC. How much
maneuvering room is left in the law was illustrated by the distance
between the original draft of the President Bush's signing
statement for the bill Nov. 21 and the bill's reading by most of
The original draft, written by Mr. Gray, called for termination
of the federal government's affirmative action, racial preference,
and minority set-aside programs. …