Age of Affirmative Action Enters the Era of Overhaul

Article excerpt

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. …

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