AS members of Congress debate the explosive issue of racial quotas in Washington, Louisiana lawmakers are attempting to sidestep a similar racial land mine - a bill that would effectively gut all affirmative action in the state. Proposed by State Rep. David Duke (R) of Metairie, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard who is running for governor in Louisiana, the measure calls for the prohibition of any discrimination in the implementation of governmental affirmative action programs that give special consideration to minorities.
Mr. Duke, who has also introduced a bill in this session encouraging welfare mothers to use contraceptives, won election to the Legislature in 1989 and ran a hard-fought campaign for the United States Senate in 1990, largely on racial issues.
He has repeatedly charged that by seeking to encourage minority hiring, affirmative action is actually discriminatory - against whites.
``I'm not trying to outlaw affirmative action,'' Duke said as he introduced his bill last week. ``My bill only says that in cases when you hire or promote someone, you have to do so on the basis of their ability.''
Duke added that his intention is to eliminate preferential hiring in affirmative action: ``This bill protects you if you are white or black or red or yellow,'' he said. ``We want equal rights for all people. The only affirmative action programs that would be abolished are those that discriminate against people on the basis of their race.''
But opponents of Duke's measure say such explanations are meaningless - that prohibiting the practice of using preferential hiring to achieve affirmative action would negate the concept of affirmative action.
``All Duke is doing really is pushing his old racial hatred in a new fashion,'' says Shirley Porter, head of the Louisiana chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). ``This bill is anti-affirmative action; it guts everything out of what we now know as affirmative action. And it takes away a program that has proven to be workable in the last 20 or 25 years. It's really the only thing we have that has enabled us to grow as a community.''
State labor, employment, and social services officials have testified that affirmative action in Louisiana has enabled thousands of people who are members of minorities to gain and hold jobs they once viewed as inaccessible.
But others claim that many white workers loathe affirmative action, viewing it as an unfair obstacle to employment.
Rep. John ``Juba'' Diez (D) of Gonzales, says blue-collar laborers in his district have come to oppose affirmative action because ``some of them feel they've been a victim of reverse discrimination.'' Mr. Diez says that affirmative action has hurt white laborers, many of whom have been hard-pressed for work in the aftermath of Louisiana's late 1980s oil recession.
Concern over the racially sensitive aspects of Duke's bill prompted the House of Representatives to amend the measure last week, removing all references to affirmative action in the proposal and calling instead for a prohibition of discrimination in business hiring. The Senate has yet to vote on the change.
Rep. Raymond Jetson (D) of Baton Rouge said the deletion of the words ``affirmative action'' made Duke's bill ``less onerous. If you're against discrimination, let's stop it everywhere.''
After a House committee approved the changes, Mr. Jetson added that the alteration ``shows that the overwhelming majority of the members of this House don't share Mr. Duke's philosophy.''
Duke said that even with the changes his measure is still ``what I wanted it to be, a good bill,'' predicting that it would eventually become law.
But legislative experts say the anti-affirmative action proposal has a cloudy future. ``I don't think it has as much support as he would like to think,'' said Rep. Charles Jones (D) of Monroe, who said he would ask Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer to veto the measure if it is passed by the state Senate.
``I think the majority of the legislators are not racist,'' said Mr. Jones, ``and the majority of the legislators would not want to pass legislation that polarizes this Legislature along racial lines.''
A spokesman for Mr. Roemer said that even though the governor has not made a decision on Duke's bill, he would ``not be a party to anything'' reversing the employment progress enjoyed by minorities in Louisiana since the 1970s.