Stateline Story

States Under New Affirmative Action Attack

Hopes, and fears, that anti-affirmative action laws passed in California and Washington State would trigger a national tidal wave haven't materialized.  

However, ripples of discontent flowing out of Florida indicate that it could be next.

California's Proposition 209, passed in 1996, forbids gender or race as a consideration in state contracting, employment and higher education. Washington voters approved a similarly worded Initiative 200 in November. In the meantime, affirmative action foes are working hard to bring other states into the fold.

Ward Connerly, a black University of California regent who played a key role in killing affirmative action in his home state and in Washington, is taking his campaign back on the road. Texas and Florida were recent destinations for Connerly, who tried to persuade officials in those states to abolish affirmative action.

Florida may prove fertile ground. Last week, a poll conducted by the Orlando Sentinel indicated that 45 percent of Floridians want to end state-sponsored affirmative action.

Connerly supporters could wind up spending as much as $2 million to get an anti-affirmative action initiative on the 2000 ballot, according to the Sentinel. The timing of the push has mortified Sunshine State Republicans, who fear Democrats will have a field day at the GOP's expense.

Connerly also says that Michigan, where he supported unsuccessful anti-affirmative action legislation last year, is on the hit list.

While Connerly is gunning for specific states, The Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO) wants all 50. The organization is contacting attorneys general in each state, arguing that affirmative action is illegal in light of a string of hostile federal court rulings stretching back to 1989.

"Some states have not responded at all, despite our efforts," CEO general counsel Roger Clegg says. "Other states have given very positive responses. We're not writing anybody off.

"Americans do not like the idea of the government classifying people based on skin color and where there ancestors came from," Clegg adds.

States where the CEO has gotten a sympathetic audience include Alabama, South Carolina, Colorado and Virginia, according to Clegg. Nine states -- Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Hawaii, Delaware, Arkansas and Tennessee, didn't respond at all.

One attorney general, Dan Morales of Texas, has made his opinion of affirmative action abundantly clear. "Racial quotas, set asides and preferences do not, in my judgment, represent the values and principles which Texas should embrace," Morales said when asked to restore affirmative action to the University of Texas. "I strongly believe that decisions based upon individual merit and qualifications are far preferable to decisions based upon race or ethnicity."

Morales was rebuked by a federal judge for airing his personal perspective on the policy.

A 1996 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that also affected Louisiana and Mississippi, ended the use of affirmative action at the University of Texas.

Ironically, affirmative action proponents had one of their biggest recent victories in Texas, when Houston voters defeated a 1997 proposition that would have ended affirmative action in city employment and contracting.

While Morales and others tend to cast affirmative action in racial terms, people of color aren't necessarily the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action. The Washington State Department of Personnel indicates that 59.6 percent of participants were white women and 18.7 percent were Vietnam-era veterans who were white males. Of the 21.7 percent classified as people of color, less than 7 percent was African-American.

"We know that affirmative action continues to be a necessary tool for enabling qualified individuals to have equal access and equal opportunity to compete, based on their ability and their merit," says Rene Redwood of Americans For A Fair Chance.

The coalition of civil rights and legal defense organizations keeps track of anti-affirmative action movements largely by monitoring Ward Connerly's visits to states, Redwood says.

Among recent developments associated with affirmative action:

  • Next month, the U.S. District Court in Detroit is to hear a class action suit alleging that minorities received preferential admissions at the University of Michigan's undergraduate and law schools.
  • Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a program setting aside a share of state business for minority owned businesses is constitutional. The decision came after a federal judge had already ruled that the Minority Business Enterprise Program was unconstitutional. The case is pending before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • In March, about 30 protestors traded accusations of racism with Republican Michigan Sen. David Jaye, who co-sponsored a bill prohibiting the state and state colleges from considering race when awarding grants or tax breaks.
  • In February, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst announced that race will no longer play a major role vis--vis admissions and financial aid decisions.