Race quotas become `hot-button' issue

February 17, 1995

An attempt to ban the use of race or sex as a criterion for preferential treatment in California signals further the rightward political shift in the United States.

Two unknown academics, both white men, are proposing to put an amendment to the California constitution on the 1996 state ballot that outlaws the positive discrimination in favour of blacks, Hispanics and women operating at universities for 20 years.

The move has attracted nationwide attention because California is seen as a bellwether for America, and because everyone knows affirmative action or "reverse discrimination", as the Republicans call it, is a "hot-button" issue. In other words, a vote loser.

White men are considered to have swept the Republicans to power last autumn, and no party wants to mess with them.

Democrats are very nervous about the initiative because they remember the tremendous support for Proposition 187, which was intended to deny social services to illegal immigrants and is now bogged down in the courts.

"This could become Armageddon," said the state Democratic chairman Bill Press. "It's potentially worse than Proposition 187, much more divisive, really. It will turn neighbour against neighbour and brother against brother."

In addition to this challenge in the West, federal courts have struck down a University of Maryland scholarship programme reserved for blacks. In California fuel has been provided by a white San Diego couple who took affirmative action when their son was turned down for admission to the University of California medical school at San Diego.

Jerry and Ellen Cook, whose son was later accepted at the University of California medical school at Davis, pried figures out of a reluctant University of California system that show that the university is going well beyond the limits set in the Bakke case.

In the Bakke case 17 years ago, the Supreme Court struck down a quota system at the University of California medical school at Davis where 16 per cent of the incoming freshman class was reserved for ethnic minorities. The court said that race could be taken into account in admission, but only as one factor among others.

The Cooks have found that Americans of Mexican origin have been offered admission to Davis at five times the rate of whites, for example.

Senate majority leader Bob Dole has asked the Congressional Research Service to compile a list of all bills that involve preference.

"The people in America now are paying a price for things that were done before they were born," said Mr Dole, referring to the legacy of slavery.

"We did discriminate. We did suppress people. It was wrong. Slavery was wrong. But should future generations have to pay for that?".

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