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Golden State Backlash


One of the most closely watched electoral contests last week was not between partisan rivals but over the future of affirmative action programs in California. Proposition 209 on the California state ballot gave voters the opportunity to ban preferences based on race and gender in public education and in state business dealings such as hiring and business contracts. It passed by a healthy majority--54 percent of the California electorate supported it.

Proposition 209 began as the brainchild of two university professors, and in an Orwellian twist it became known as the California Civil Rights Initiative. A few weeks before Election Day, its supporters even considered running television advertisements featuring Martin Luther King Jr. in a perverse attempt to bolster public opinion in favor of it. The TV ads were scuttled when the King estate threatened legal action and the Rev. Jesse Jackson began to effectively demonstrate that King had been an early proponent of affirmative action, though the particular term was not popularized in his lifetime.

Despite the efforts of many conservative state and national politicians, however, California is the first and only state so far to have repealed its affirmative action policies. Prop. 209 is yet another example of California's strident but not ideologically inflexible conservatism. Two years ago, Californians voted the draconian and notoriously anti-immigrant Proposition 187 into law, but this year they also approved Proposition 215; this measure legalizes the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. California's governor, Pete Wilson, has a law and order reputation but also favors gay rights. However, despite some of the Golden State's seemingly permissive attitudes, California seems to be ground zero for white America's backlash. Perhaps it is not even fair to term the success of Prop. 209 a backlash since it is doubtful that a majority white elecorate would have ever supported a referendum to create affirmative action policies in the first place.

Foes of Prop. 209 such as the NAACP and the ACLU hope to defeat most if not all of its provisions in court, as opponents of Prop. 187 were able to do, but their chances of success are slim. Furthermore, Prop. 209 is carefully worded to avoid conflicting with federal affirmative action policies in order to circumvent some of the problems that have dogged Prop. 187.

The passage of this initiative may herald new, more intense and perhaps more successful efforts to rollback affirmative action nationwide. However, the recent Texaco scandal demonstrates some of the reasons why these policies were enacted and why they are still necessary. Texaco was rocked last week by the release of secretly recorded tapes of top management mocking black employees and conspiring to destroy documents that could prove that the company's promotion practices were discriminatory. One Texaco executive sneered that "all the black jellybeans seem to be glued to the bottom of the bag."

Texaco's CEO swiftly called a news conference to apologize for these statements and to declare that the corporation would work to stomp out racial discrimination. Ironically, Texaco had instituted a "diversity" program years earlier, complete with company literature featuring multi-cultural groups of smiling employees. Furthermore, Texaco's racial problems were not limited to the corporate boardroom--black employees of all ranks have spoken of harassment ranging from demeaning slurs to having their cars tires slashed.

The case of Texaco is only anomalous because the statements and actions of its racist top brass are now public knowledge. As journalist Ellis Cose proved in The Rage of a Privileged Class, black employees throughout corporate America often must struggle against subtle glass ceilings as well as outright racial hostility. The solution to this dilemma may well be more--not less--affirmative action. Without explicit and enforced preference programs, black advancement may be stifled at token levels.

David W. Brown's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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