New battle for racial set-asides

In capital of New South, a mayor battles to keep affirmative action for contractors.

In the tumultuous civil-rights struggle of the 1960s and '70s, Atlanta was one of the few Southern cities to remain largely above the fray - unmarred by bombs and riots.

Nicknamed the "city too busy to hate," blacks and whites were able to work out many of their differences, allowing Atlanta to continue its inexorable rise as the capital of the New South.

Now, however, in the quiescent times of the 1990s, the city is finding itself at the center of an emotional civil-rights struggle - one that will reveal the latest legal and political sentiment on affirmative action.

A conservative legal group is planning to sue the city to try to stop it from giving women and minorities preferences when issuing city contracts. A number of other cities have backed down when faced with similar lawsuits in recent years, but Bill Campbell, Atlanta's black mayor, is vowing to fight to protect the program - promising "a shootout at the O.K. Corral."

Even though the courts and public sentiment have been moving against affirmative action for more than a decade, the dispute is being closely watched across the country, in part because of Mr. Campbell's defiant, line-in-the-sand strategy.

"On one level, to fight sends a message that people aren't just going to knuckle under ... that the principle of affirmative action is a defensible principle," says William Boone, a political scientist at Clark Atlanta University. "But there's a question of whether [the city] can win in the current judicial climate."

Even among African-Americans, the mayor's crusade has met with ambivalence. The Georgia Black Chamber of Commerce endorses his effort. But some black businesspeople have joined others in charging City Hall with cronyism and patronage in awarding contracts. While 1,000 firms participate in the program, a few have been big winners.

Amid the criticism, the mayor pledges not to back down, pointing to as much as $10 billion in new contracts in the next few years.

Words are flying thick and fast, with the mayor comparing members of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, which plans to file the lawsuit next month, with the Ku Klux Klan.

The high emotions are an indication, experts say, of how deeply many Americans, particularly blacks, feel about affirmative action. Overall, Americans are split, with about 53 percent favoring affirmative action, according to an NBC News poll in June. State-level ballot initiatives banning set-asides have passed in California and Washington.

Now, as Florida becomes the next target for such initiatives, the Atlanta battle takes on symbolic importance. "Affirmative action represents a culmination of what was fought for in the South. [There's a feeling that] if you dismantle affirmative action, other gains may fall," Mr. Boone says.

But this showdown will occur in court, not at the O.K. Corral. Experts wonder how effective the city's fight will prove.

In 1997, for example, Philadelphia lost its eight-year battle to maintain a similar set-aside program, after defending it all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Indeed, since a construction firm won a lawsuit against the city of Richmond in 1989, there has been a slow but persistent dismantling of minority set-aside programs.

"Government may not discriminate," says Roger Pilon, a legal expert at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington. "That ... was what was wrong both with slavery and Jim Crow. Whether discrimination is for bad reasons or so-called good reasons, it's still discrimination."

Supporters of affirmative action say it's the best way to make reparation for past discrimination. "It is theory, and theory only, that must be prompting some misguided individuals to believe that we now live in a color-blind, religion-blind, disability-blind society," said Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, at a rally held earlier this month attended by hundreds of black Atlantans. "They would have you believe that America today, after just 30-plus years of civil rights law, is free from over 200 years of [discrimination]."

It's the city itself that says it's free, says Matt Glavin, head of the Southeastern Legal Foundation. He says that when he asked city officials if Atlanta had discriminated against minorities during the past decade or had any plans to do so in the future, the answer was no. "If it hasn't happened in a decade, you don't need the program," says Mr. Glavin, whose foundation has been responsible for the dismantling similar programs in other cities. While affirmative action was "legal ... and needed" decades ago, the nation now has antidiscrimination laws by which remaining biases can be addressed, he argues.

Atlanta's program was established in 1975 by the city's first black mayor, Maynard Jackson Jr., at a time when minority-owned businesses received about 1 percent of the money from city contracts. Today, the city, which is two-thirds black, has set a goal that 35 percent of its contracts be given to minority- or female-owned firms.

The foundation opposes racial set-asides, but says it would be in favor of a program that set aside some contracts for local businesses or broke up larger contracts so that smaller, minority-owned firms could bid on them.

Campbell does not rule out reforming the existing system, says Nick Gold, his press secretary. But the mayor has said he will go to jail before he lets the courts remove the program entirely.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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