Efforts to Dismantle Affirmative Action Will Roll On, Slowly

Houston's vote to keep racial preferences shows nation's ambivalence on sensitive topic.

The nationwide movement to roll back affirmative-action laws is likely to proceed in fits and starts, with no clear mandate. Its probable mixed future reflects the feelings of a US public that is still deeply ambivalent over the sensitive issue of race.

This week's defeat of an initiative in Houston that would have abolished the use of racial preferences in city contracting represents an important symbolic and practical victory for those who want to keep affirmative-action laws in place. The Houston vote, 54 percent to 46 percent, was the first test of voter sentiment on the issue since passage of California's Proposition 209 - which the initiative here was modeled after - in 1996.

Meanwhile, those who wish to abolish affirmative-action laws have a big win of their own to point to: Monday's Supreme Court action that removed the last legal hurdle to Proposition 209's implementation.

Twenty-six other states have affirmative-action bans similar to Prop. 209 on the drawing board or in the works.

"This whole movement is going to go on for awhile," says Fred Lynch, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and author of "The Diversity Machine: The Drive to Change the White Male Workplace".

"It's going to be a state-by-state, grass-roots kind of thing." says Lynch.

Analysts says there are a number of reasons Houston defeated an initiative that passed in California.

One was the attitude of political leaders. California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) was a big Prop. 209 backer, while Houston's popular outgoing mayor, Bob Lanier, campaigned against the city's anti-affirmative-action initiative, Proposition A.

Another reason was wording. Prop. 209 refers to banning of "preferential treatment." But Mayor Lanier and others persuaded the Houston City Council to reject that language in Proposition A and substitute a simple question: whether city-sponsored affirmative action should be banned.

Polls show voters reacted very differently to the two versions.

Finally, Houston is simply different than California. Race relations have been relatively harmonious there, and the economy is in a vigorous rebound from the oil bust of the 1980s.

Thus California now becomes an important legal laboratory. The Supreme Court simply let stand a lower court ruling that held Prop. 209 constitutional. It did not answer a host of questions, such as how to reshape dozens of state laws to take its mandate into account.

"We are left with [this] gaping question: What does 209 really mean?" says American Civil Liberties Union staff counsel Ed Chen.

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