WHAT is affirmative action, anyway? As the nation debates this
highly charged issue, many terms and phrases are bandied about with
a lack of precision: Quotas. Set-asides. Racial and gender
preferences. Reverse discrimination.
Depending on the wording of questions, opinion polls either show
strong support for affirmative action or call for its abolition.
To advocates, affirmative action means ensuring equal
opportunity for all in education and employment. To critics, it can
mean reverse discrimination, and for some beneficiaries, a feeling
of stigma over being categorized as "disadvantaged" (read:
Further supercharging the debate is California's landmark
decision last week to drop race- and gender-based admissions
programs in the state university system and replace them with an
admissions plan based on socio-economic factors. That may
jeopardize $2.5 billion in federal aid to the university system. At
the same time, some California officials are convinced that
diversity can still be maintained, given that many blacks and
Latinos come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
IN Washington, the battle lines were drawn by President
Clinton's ringing endorsement of affirmative action last week.
Senate majority leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole (R) of
Kansas will introduce legislation this week to bar programs using
quotas, set-asides, and other "preferences."
But what do these terms really mean?
A footnote in the 100-page presidential report on affirmative
action, issued last week, sums up the problem: "'Affirmative
action' enjoys no clear and widely shared definition."
An affirmative-action lexicon follows:
Quota. The report to the president doesn't define it, but
according to Leroy Clark, a law professor at Catholic University in
Washington, "a quota is a rigid numerical requirement, which is
totally unresponsive to supply or merit." Critics of affirmative
action say that some government programs, though not called quotas,
are in effect quotas. "Bids for federal contracts are accepted only
if 10 percent of the work is given to 'minority business
enterprises.' This is a quota!" said Jorge Amselle, a policy
analyst at the Center for Equal Opportunity.
Goals and timetables. This is how the federal government labels
programs that aim for a specific participation by minorities and
women. A contractor's failure to reach the "numerical benchmark"
does not mean a failure to fulfill the executive order governing
federal contractors. …