Pendulum of Affirmative Action Swings Both Ways

THE scene looks familiar. But not quite.

Minority employees in a government office demand an affirmative-action plan. They want to be promoted into lofty positions and make the department's work force reflect the racial diversity of their city.

But they are opposed by another group that does not want to change the rules that now work in its favor.

Usually, this has been a case of black employees battling against entrenched whites.

Not so in Miami.

The people who do not want an affirmative-action plan in Dade County's corrections department are African-Americans. Those who are crying foul are Hispanics. Whites are watching from the sidelines.

Both sides met head-on last month when the county, eyeing the growing political muscle of Hispanics, who now make up about one-third of voters, agreed to create an affirmative-action plan to increase the number of Hispanic employees in the corrections department.

At present, blacks comprise about 60 percent of the department's 2,300 employees, even though they account for only 17 percent of the county's total labor force - compared to 51 percent for Hispanics and 30 percent for white non-Hispanics.

What helped push up the number of African-Americans in the department was an affirmative-action plan ordered by a court in 1982. Before then, the upper rungs were dominated by whites, said Sgt. Walter Clark, president of the Organization of Minority Correctional Officers. Blacks now hold a majority of the jobs, all the way to the top.

``The pendulum kept swinging all the way around,'' said Ed Nieves, vice president of the Hispanic Association of Correctional Officers. ``What was intended, at the beginning, was to have equal representation of the black community. However, things just kept snowballing and snowballing, and nobody was monitoring it.''

The affirmative-action plan that the county recently drew up would require the number of Hispanics to increase from 23 percent to 38 percent over five years, while the number of whites would go up from 30 percent to 36 percent.

BLACKS worry that to achieve those goals, their numbers will suffer. ``We have people who have been in line for promotion, and they fear they will be skipped over,'' Sergeant Clark said.

There are other departments in the county where blacks are underrepresented, and they wonder why the county is picking on the only department in which they are the majority.

In the police department, there are some 140 African-Americans out of 1,200 officers, and, in the public defenders office, there are 400 out of 3,000, Clark said. There are much fewer blacks in other departments, such as building and zoning, aviation, fire, and the county manager's office.

``This [corrections] is the only department in the county where you have a good number of black folk making good money,'' he said. Jobs in this department, Clark said, used to be low-paying and relegated to blacks because nobody wanted them.

As a result of rising crime, however, the department became one of the fastest-growing sectors in the county government. Training improved, salaries went up, and so did respect.

Several sections, such as transportation and public affairs, were added. The court-services section alone now has 200 employees. As a result, a once backwater area of this county's government has become the arena for a fight over racial entitlement.

Opposition from black workers has, for now, derailed the affirmative-action plan. Hispanics say they will go to court to get it implemented.

If Hispanics succeed, Clark said: ``We are going to challenge the county to do the same for African-Americans in all the departments in which we are underrepresented.''

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