News & Politics

Democrats Opened The Door For Bush To Dump Affirmative Action

Despite their pose as staunch defenders of affirmative action, it was the Democrats that opened the door wide for Bush and the Republicans to re-launch their assault on affirmative action.
The instant that President Bush said that he would back white students in their lawsuit to toss the University of Michigan's race-based affirmative action program, the top Democratic presidential contenders rushed to denounce him. They posed as the virtual reincarnation of Lyndon Johnson who first put the government stamp on affirmative action when he signed an executive order in 1965 mandating minority preferences in government contracting. But despite their pose as staunch defenders of affirmative action, it was the Democrats who opened the door wide for Bush and the Republicans to re-launch their assault on affirmative action.

Following conservative Republican and media-driven claims that white males were losing ground to minorities, President Clinton in 1995 promised to end the abuses in federal government affirmative action programs. Yet even as Clinton listened hard to Republican war hoops against affirmative action, there were only a handful of government minority set aside programs in procurement and contracting, and none of those programs compelled contractors to replace white workers with minorities and women. In fact, the Supreme Court's decision in the Paradise case in 1987, which did explicitly uphold quotas, applied almost exclusively to police and fire departments, and did not prevent these departments from hiring whites.

Clinton's much-touted review of affirmative action was aimed not merely at weeding out the bad seeds in a handful of government affirmative action programs, but at a total reshape of affirmative action. In words that virtually echoed Bush's salvo against affirmative action, Clinton promised to dump any program that created quotas or preferences for unqualified individuals, or promoted reverse discrimination.

Clinton justified his big swipe at affirmative action as an effort to bring the government into compliance with the Supreme Court's 1995 Adarand ruling, which held that federal affirmative action programs must meet a higher legal standard to be judged constitutional. The court said that race-based programs must serve a compelling government interest and be narrowly tailored to reach their goal.

Yet Clinton's tepid endorsement of affirmative action was too much for many Democrats, who were adamant that affirmative action programs should be totally race neutral and aimed only at helping low-income people no matter what their race. Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, then chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, flatly said that rulings such as Adarand that require preference programs to be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest, meant that the days for race-based programs were numbered. Later, in a cordial and well-publicized White House meeting with the nation's leading affirmative action foes, Clinton said that their position had "moral and intellectual legitimacy."

After much vacillation on the issue, Clinton ultimately decided that white males weren't being deep-sixed in federal programs by hordes of unqualified women and minorities, and that race for the moment should be considered in affirmative action programs. In a final report, however, Clinton still signaled that he leaned heavily toward moving away from race-based programs. He called on Vice President Al Gore to find a way to expand government set-aside programs to firms located in economically disadvantaged areas, regardless of the race or gender of their owners. In an executive order, Clinton called for eliminating programs that create quotas, allow preferences for unqualified individuals, result in reverse discrimination, or continue indefinitely. He directed government agencies to eliminate race-based programs unless they could be shown to be narrowly constructed to meet a "compelling government interest," and to come up with ways to tighten the test of who is economically disadvantaged.

Before announcing his final decision, Clinton called Jesse Jackson to brief him on the report and encouraged him to urge other civil rights leaders to praise his decision. Though Jackson and the other leaders were livid when Clinton announced that he would review government affirmative action programs, they quickly fell in line and heaped lavish praise on him.

But their applause for him was premature. In 1997, Clinton faced a practical affirmative action test. A white New Jersey high school teacher claimed that she was laid off and a black teacher was retained. The teacher's reverse discrimination suit appeared headed straight to the Supreme Court. Civil rights groups fearing an adverse decision shelled out thousands to help settle the claim. Clinton could easily have sat on the sidelines and taken no public position. He didn't. He claimed that the school district stepped over the line with its affirmative action plan and that race was improperly used to discriminate against the white teacher. Echoing Bush in the University of Michigan case, he called the board's decision "unconstitutional."

That is pretty much the same thing that Bush said in backing the white students. And while Democrats slam Bush hard for saying that, he's only saying what other Democrats have also said. If he's now a villain on affirmative action, so are they.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).
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