Gitlin: Texaco's Document Shredders and California's Affirmative Action Detractors

Color blindness would be America's favorite disability these days, if professing made it so. In a TV commercial during the campaign, advocates of California's Proposition 209 had the gall to claim Martin Luther King for their disingenuous cause, when King himself was an advocate of affirmative action down to the time of his murder in 1968.While Californians in their unwisdom voted to dismantle all forms of affirmative action on election day, a highly-placed bunch of Texaco executives have reminded the nation that the intonation of "color-blind" is the first recourse of the racially deaf. Thanks to the tape recording made by former official Richard A. Lundwall, Texaco's oily document-shredders performed a public service in reminding Americans what flat-out racism sounds like. The fact that they sneered not only at Kwanzaa but Hanukkah reveals the men of Mighty White Plains to be equal opportunity offenders. Texaco's damage controllers have their work cut out for them, scrambling to persuade boycotters that by ponying up $140 million to settle the lawsuit brought by African American employees in record time, and another $35 to set up new affirmative action programs, they have leaped onto the side of the diversity angels.But a preliminary analysis of the California vote on Proposition 209, the mistitled "California Civil Rights Initiative," suggests that the Texaco tapes will not by themselves save affirmative action. Unsurprisingly, white men voted roughly 2 to 1 for Proposition 209, which coyly opposed discrimination and never mentioned the double-A words. The proverbially angry white guys haven't gone away. Two-thirds of them are not Klannish racists, but still this herd of rugged individualists chose short-sighted resentment over far-sighted universalism.Now here's the shocker: Almost 6 in 10 white women also voted yes. Among whites, at least, the gender gap shriveled. A strong majority of white women were not persuaded that their own relative disadvantages in the world of work warranted keeping, or mending, affirmative action, from which in many fields they have benefited more than racial and ethnic minorities.A no vote of 70 percent from Hispanics, 73 percent from African Americans, 55 percent from Asian Americans and 53 percent from Jews couldn't compensate for the white vote. Turmoil in the no-on-209 campaign didn't help. Advertising was inept and late (Colin Powell's support for affirmative action didn't get mentioned). According to a Los Angeles Times poll two weeks before the election, 52 percent of Californians said they supported affirmative action, but 38 percent of them--one-fifth of the entire sample--said they planned to vote for 209 nevertheless. Ignorance, low turnout, and perhaps a certain ambivalence or perversity took their toll: The final tally on 209 was 54 percent yes, 46 percent no.Whether 209 will ever become law remains an open question. The city of Pasadena has gone to court to avert enforcement. But whatever the outcome, the tragedy is that Californians were not given the chance to remedy overall economic inequality. E. J. Dionne, Jr. puts it characteristically well in the fall issue of CommonQuest, a new magazine on black-Jewish relations. "If the United States were less burdened by other forms of inequality--notably of wealth and income--the existing strategies for racial equality might be both more popular and more effective."The old metaphor for affirmative action was the hundred-yard dash. One runner is shackled, the other not. "Logic and justice demanded that the race be stopped and that the shackled runner not only be freed, but also moved up the 40 yards so the race could be run fairly. The problem with the analogy is that the race involves not just two runners, one black and one white, but many runners, including low income whites running under unfair, if less severe, burdens. To extend the analogy, they might find themselves 10 or 20 yards behind at the moment the race was stopped. They came to ask why they, too, should not be moved up. Much of the controversy over affirmative action can thus be seen as growing from the understandable resentments of those we might call the 'partially burdened runners.'"California governor Pete Wilson exults. No doubt he waits in the wings for another run at the yawningly vacant space at the top of the next Republican ticket. Hispanics turned out in unprecedented numbers and helped vote the Democrats back into power in the state legislature. Militant blacks and Hispanics are understandably enraged, some going so far as to dump copies of the pro-209 Daily Californian, the Berkeley campus paper, over a balcony on Nov. 7, the day after Mario Savio, the great, painfully modest leader of Berkeley's 1964 Free Speech Movement, died of a heart attack.The best practical thing to hope for now is that a new generation of minority politicians will emerge from the political rubble with new ways to win. To denounce racist majorities is righteous, but if the denunciation does not deliver results--and it hasn't, to date--wise heads have to go back to the drawing boards. One way forward is suggested by black incumbent Congressional Democrats who appealed to white majorities and won. Grim black nationalist predictions that more than a quarter of African-American members of Congress would go down to defeat proved wildly mistaken. (The net loss was a mere one.)Here's another nice sign: Thrillingly, in Orange County, California, one of the most Republican sections of the country, the apparent winner (pending the counting of some absentee ballots, incomplete at deadline) over blustering Bob Dornan is Loretta Sanchez, a 36-year-old financial planner with an MBA who has never held political office. (She ran eighth among 16 in a race for Anaheim's two city council seats in 1994.) Ms. Sanchez is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, her father then a machinist, her mother a secretary and sometime union activist. Ms. Sanchez' knee does not twitch at the liberal liturgy. According to the Los Angeles Times, she became a Democrat only in 1992, and refuses to say who was her presidential choice that year. She says she is not opposed to declaring English our official language, but she sensibly also thinks that ballots in multiple languages, and other such aids to shared citizenship, are a reasonable recourse for a polyglot society.The anti-affirmative-actionists will discover soon enough that their own victory is largely Pyrrhic. Many of them are bound for downsizing. There will still not be slots, or fellowships, for their qualified children at Berkeley and UCLA. Few will be closer to living wages or affordable health care. The mission of the Loretta Sanchezes--not to mention the Bill Clintons--is to find something for the white (and nonwhite) women (and men) to put them in a more generous mood to build and hold together just majorities.As for the right, they may gloat about the California vote, but is it because America has been struck color-blind? One awaits that vivid moment when George Will, having proclaimed affirmative action to be a "racial spoils system," will bestir himself to declare the Texaco executives un-American, and to clamor for beefed-up enforcement of laws against racial discrimination in employment, housing, and lending. The question for them is: If "the era of big government is over," who will be the enforcers?


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