Alex Rodriguez renews his drive for minority rights in Bay State
Boston — Suddenly it seems as if discrimination is running rampant on the the South Shore. Weymouth has been accused of not developing a minority housing program. Duxbury is ordered to promote a woman as water department superintendent. Quincy has found itself in an uproar over an ''escort service'' designed to help minorities find housing.
Yet Alex Rodriguez, commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), says discrimination in the Boston suburbs is no more prevalent than elsewhere. We're hearing about problems in the suburbs, he says, because the MCAD is focusing on the suburbs.
''When you're talking about the suburbs, you're talking about America,'' Mr. Rodriguez says. Racism remains a serious problem throughout the country, he adds.
Rodriguez is seven months into his second term as MCAD commissioner. He held the post in the first administration of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and was reappointed when Mr. Dukakis won the governership back in 1982, after the four-year term of Gov. Edward J. King.
The commissioner speaks about equal rights with intensity. He stresses that his advocacy for civil rights is advocacy for America. His conversation is sprinkled with such words as ''law,'' ''rights,'' and references to the US Constitution.
''The biggest problem in this country,'' he says, ''is attribution'' - the tendency to attribute certain qualitites to a specific types of people.
Racism persists, he says, because society does not condemn discriminatory activity. ''One of my goals.'' he adds, ''is to get America to point the finger'' at racist practices.
We're just starting to get tough with drunk drivers, he says. In the same way , society needs to show that it does not condone racism, he says. ''Racism is wrong, and we haven't sent that message out.''
Broadcasting the message is the role of the MCAD, and Rodriguez says the commission is pursuing that with a vengeance.
The MCAD is putting pressure on communities across the state to ensure that minorities have free access to all public amenities.
Finding housing remains a major problem, he says. The MCAD has conducted studies that indicate that in three out of four cases, blacks are denied housing , or are quoted different rents than whites, to discourage them from renting, Rodriguez says.
He asks why Quincy, a city of 85,000 residents, has only 300 black residents, and fewer than a thousand minority inhabitants.
As part of an affirmative-action plan, Quincy was to have hired college students to escort minority members on housing searches in the city. The escorts were to promote a more receptive atmosphere for the applicants.
But publicity about the plan caused an uproar. Some city officials claimed it presented Quincy as a racist city.
Rodriquez says the affirmative-action plan was a good one. ''Quincy is a good town,'' he says. ''It did a good thing. Mayor (Francis X.) McCauley should get accolades.'' But people read seven lines out of 24 pages in the affirmative-action proposal, he says, ''and got caught up on an escort service.''
The city and the MCAD reached a compromise. Quincy will provide funds for a local group, the Southwest Community Action Center, to run a housing assistance program.
''It's the same outcome,'' Rodriguez says.
As in Quincy's case, the state is able to compel cities to comply with federal and state nondiscrimination laws by keeping tight reins on the purse strings. Quincy was seeking a federal grant to upgrade its water and sewer facilities.
Working in cooperation with several state agencies responsible for doling out such grants, the MCAD requires that a community comply with its affirmative-action demands before any money changes hands.
''That's our leverage,'' Rodriguez says. ''There will be no taxation without representation'' - representation for all citizens.
To get money to repair its roads or bridges, a town or city has to develop a program to ensure that minorities are guaranteed access to housing and to municipal employment. Also it is compelled to let a certain percentage of its contracts to minority businesses.
''Access,'' Rodriguez says, ''is the name of the game.''
So far, 180 towns in Massachusetts have affirmative-action programs. But, says Rodriguez, ''Some towns will never come to the table because they're rich'' and don't need federal grants.
The MCAD also intervenes in individual cases of racism. The commission hears about 2,000 cases each year, Rodriguez says, and 43 percent are resolved. That's a good record, he says.
Rodriguez says the MCAD ''slept'' for four years, during the King administration. ''But we're waking up a sleeping giant.'' He is working to set up 11 advisory groups across the state to be the ''eyes and ears'' for the commission. ''We need friends out there,'' explains Rodriguez.
Several more investigators are to be added to the staff within the next few months, he says, to allow the agency to more actively pursue its work.
''We're not picking on anybody,'' Rodriguez says. ''We're saying to people, 'Ye shall respect the law.' ''
Until discrimination is destroyed, he asserts, this country can't ''experience the American Dream,'' because the American Dream is implicitly linked to justice. ''And you can't hold a person in the ditch without being in the ditch yourself.''