Minorities back on the agenda

March 17, 1995

Debate on affirmative action is hotting up in the United States. President Clinton has ordered a federal review of affirmative action programmes and Congress is planning to consider two Bills which would hit at measures designed in the 1960s to remove discrimination from American life.

These moves follow the Republican landslide in last November's mid-term elections which gave them overall control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. The political climate in Washington changed so dramatically that yesterday's consensus has became today's controversy.

The debate about affirmative action, sparked by the threat of a ballot initiative in California, could turn nasty, exploiting racial tension and becoming "the social and political equivalent of a nuclear war", as one commentator said.

Affirmative action was inten-ded to give all Americans an equal chance and came of age with the 1964 Civil Rights Act which explicitly bans preferen-ces by race, gender, ethnicity and religion.

It was seen as a temporary measure, a way to compensate for generations of past discrimination. But what conservatives now believe is that affirmatve action has beome a way to set in concrete the number of minorities recruited to university departments, that a "quota" system has arisen.

Indignation about the system has increased with the steady stream of stories in the media over the past five years about qualified white students being denied admission to college and promotions given on the basis of race alone. These stories have fuelled a white male backlash against affirmative action programmes which was translated into Republican votes in November.

Most university administrators argue that affirmative action is a legitimate - indeed, desirable -tool. They argue that it is necessary to look actively for minority candidates for jobs otherwise white men will always secure these positions.

Problems arise when race becomes the overriding criterion - rather than one of a number, including ability and economic need - for recruiting academics and students or awarding grants. This, critics argue, can result in ethnic minorities applicants with fewer qualifications getting jobs and black students with relatively affluent parents being awarded scholarships.

Clint Bolick, vice president of the conservative research group Institute for Justice, is a persistent critic of race and gender-based preference programmes. He says that these programmes are racially divisive and have led to a society that is more race conscious now than at any time since 1964.

He is drafting a Bill to abolish all federal affirmative action programmes. It would eliminate all the scholarships and fellowships that exist for minority students, as well as the special funds channelled to 26 programmes for historically black colleges or other higher education institutions containing mainly minority students.

Another conservative, Nelson Lund, a professor of law at George Mason University, is drafting a second Bill to ban organisations from using race as a criterion for recruitment.

Meanwhile, the liberal higher education establishment is rallying behind the affirmative action banner, and presidents of black colleges are anxious about the effect the first Bill could have on their institutions. Amid the special interest pleading, President Clinton has ordered his review to discover whether affirmative action programmes work, whether they are fair and if they achieve the desired results. While agreeing that the United States had not achieved "total equality", the President may well feel under pressure to make some changes.

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