California's Latest Revolt: Affirmative Action Laws

A MALE professor at the University of California denied academic appointments because he is the wrong gender.

A Chinese American high school student denied enrollment to San Francisco's elite Lowell High School to make room for black and Hispanic students with lower grades.

If a citizens' initiative now gaining momentum makes it to the 1996 ballot in California, such cases of sexual and racial preference in the workplace and classroom could be wiped out with the pull of a voting lever.

Just as Proposition 187 spurred a nationwide debate on immigrants' rights, California is now on the cutting edge of a growing revolt against the charged issue of affirmative action.

Civil rights groups say the proposed measure threatens 30 years of progress toward racial equality, while supporters see it as a step toward developing a color-blind society.

The California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) seeks to end government programs that give minority and female preference for jobs, promotions, contracts, and college admissions.

A state constitutional amendment and four legislative bills with similar goals are being introduced as well, endorsed by Gov. Pete Wilson (R) in principle and supported by Republicans.

All will be watched closely nationwide. Already, several states, such as Florida, are looking at duplicating CCRI. Conservatives in Washington are drafting legislation that would strip racial preferences from federal law. Such preferences, too, are being challenged before the US Supreme Court. Last month, it heard arguments in a case alleging reverse discrimination against a white-owned company. A victory by the company would add impetus to the initiative here.

``We are simply trying to reaffirm the principles of individual rights, equality of opportunity, and equal protection before the law,'' says Glynn Custred, an academic who co-wrote the initiative. ``This leaves the door open for any kind of recruitment or advertising for minorities or disadvantaged.... It just removes policies that have been shown to go beyond their legal mandate.''

The new initiative would amend the state Constitution to include: ``Neither the state of California nor any of its political subdivisions shall use race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin as a criterion either for discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation of the state's system of public employment, public education, or public contracting.'' But the measure would not bar the state from granting preferential treatment to individuals on the basis of other criteria, such as socioeconomic disadvantage.

EVEN before the new CCRI initiative has gathered the needed 615,000 signatures to qualify as a statewide proposition, and over a year before possible appearance on the ballot, supporters and detractors here and in several states are facing off over values they see as underlying the founding principles of the republic. ``This is what American fairness is all about,'' says Bernie Richter, a Republican assemblyman from Chico, Calif., who has introduced the legislative versions that rule out, with exceptions, all racial and gender preferences in public employment, contracting, and college admissions.

``This is reversing all the progress we've made in civil rights over the past three decades,'' counters Kevin Baker, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

His organization is one of several already organizing to defeat the initiative. Other groups include the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, National Organization of Women (NOW), Communications Workers of America, and the California Teachers Association.

``The interest in defeating this is bigger than anything I've seen in 20 years,'' says Eva Paterson, executive director of the San Francisco affiliate of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

While initiative supporters say 30 percent of their calls and support are from out of state, Ms. Paterson says the groundswell against the measure is equally broad.

``This is a national fight right from the beginning,'' she says, suggesting that the deeper issue is a white backlash over jobs. ``People are not ready to turn the clock back and say sexism and racism are not still dynamic forces in our society.''

But several analysts and columnists say the time has come to revisit affirmative action and that if it reaches the ballot, CCRI will probably pass. Similar proposals failed to gain sufficient support a year ago. But pollsters say surveys indicate strong public opposition to preferential treatment for selected groups.

Supporters contend that the well-intentioned goal of affirmative-action laws to remedy discrimination have too often turned into cases of racial preference. Supporters emphasize that their new measures do not discriminate against blacks, women, and other minorities, but rather just remove preferences.

They cite, for instance, bills passed in the state legislature that pressure colleges and universities to graduate students in the same proportion, by ethnic group, as the groups are found in the state's high school graduating classes.

``The issue ... could become the litmus test for Republican presidential hopefuls,'' says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif.

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