Minority quotas face axe

November 8, 1996

If the polls are correct, California voters will this week approve a measure to ban all "affirmative action" programmes for minority students and staff in the biggest public university system in the United States.

By a solid margin of 54 to 31 per cent, the Los Angeles Times reported that Californians back Proposition 209, also known as the California Civil Rights Initiative. It was one of a list of local propositions on the ballot for presidential election day on Tuesday.

Proposition 209 would force the nine-campus University of California system, the flagship of state education, to bring forward by a year its pledge to phase out programmes to boost the enrolment of minority students.

According to its backers, it will also put an end to statutes encouraging the state's 100-plus community colleges to build up a workforce that mirrors the ethnic composition of California.

Republican Bob Dole pushed the measure in the closing days of the election race. Quotas, set-asides, and other preferences "serve only to pit one American against another American, or group against group," he said.

But President Bill Clinton opposes 209, saying minorities still need an extra chance to "prove their competence".

Proposition 209 would also affect a percentage of state government contracts for businesses owned by minorities, women, and the disabled.

Public debate has focused on California colleges. Students have been arrested at anti-209 protests, including a demonstration when former Klansman David Duke spoke in favour. Supporters of 209 claim the UC system, with 160,000 students, has run a two-tier admissions scheme, where students with second-rate grades from certain ethnic and racial minorities are admitted.

While programmes have the public support of many faculty members and associations such as the American Council on Education, they are popular political targets, particularly for conservatives.

Opinion polls show that while the US public favours opening education and workplace opportunities to women and minorities, they bridle at "quotas".

The California Republican party had to withdraw a television commercial with clips of civil rights leader Martin Luther King arguing that affirmative action programmes have prolonged racial divisions, after the King family objected.

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