FEDERAL affirmative action - a complex machine of laws and
regulations constructed over 30 years - is fast entering an era of
overhaul and perhaps inevitable contraction.
Washington's race- and gender-based preference programs had
operated relatively quietly, with occasional flashes of opposition,
since their beginnings in the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.
That's all changed in today's era of resurgent Republicanism.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have put Washington on notice
that some preference programs may not pass legal muster. Now
President Clinton is set to announce the results of his own review
of federal affirmative action, against a background of attacks on
preference policies by GOP presidential hopefuls.
When the Clinton administration began its affirmative-action
study five months ago, many thought it might serve as a cover for a
wholesale retreat from such programs. That no longer appears to be
the case. In a scheduled July 19 speech, Clinton is expected to
announce changes in some controversial set-aside efforts, while
defending affirmative action's basic principles.
"To some degree, what Clinton is setting out to do is to
preserve affirmative action as a program," says David Bositis, a
senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic
Studies, which studies race issues.
Clinton fully supports affirmative action and undoubtedly wishes
it won't become a more visible national political issue than it
already is, judges Mr. Bositis. While public opinion is
overwhelmingly anti-affirmative action. "If it becomes an active
issue, it's dead," says Bositis, who counts himself an
affirmative-action supporter. "In order to preserve it, things are
going to have to be changed." Why is affirmative action facing a
new era? That's not a question that presents easy answers. To some,
politicians such as Gov. Pete Wilson (R) of California and Sen. Bob
Dole (R) of Kansas are manipulating the issue to attract right-wing
votes and boost their own presidential prospects. To others, it's
the result of long-suppressed and legitimate complaints from white
males too long subject to reverse discrimination.
"Affirmative action has evolved into a kind of proportional
representation," says Frederick Lynch, a Claremont McKenna College
government professor who has written a book on white males and
affirmative action. "What we are getting is a kind of
retribalization of society."
Those who oppose affirmative action say that among other things
the rise of talk radio has given them a loud voice, after years of
being ignored by the mainstream media. The 1994 elections also
demonstrated their power at the ballot box, they say. …