Foes Use Distortions In Effort To Disaffirm Affirmative Action

Posted: November 12, 1998

The surprising strength of the Democrats in last Tuesday's elections, and the unexpected resignation of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, pushed a major civil-rights story out of the headlines:

Initiative 200, Washington state's bid to end affirmative action in employment, education and contracting, passed with 58 percent of the vote. It was a stunning victory, because anti-affirmative- action forces were outspent 3 to 1 by the pro-affirmative-action camp, including heavy corporate hitters such as Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, Eddie Bauer and the Seattle Times, which devoted free ad space to fighting the ballot measure.

The win gives new momentum to Ward Connerly, the sad little black businessman who was the poster boy for the anti-affirmative-action drives in both Washington and California. He's now scouting fresh targets such as Michigan, Florida and Nebraska.

It's troubling that Connerly has prevailed in two moderate states - California and Washington - because polls show that 68 percent of Americans support affirmative action. But the "anti" forces are winning for a couple of reasons.

First, they've distorted the issue with biased language and logic, which the news media have helped to disseminate.

A recent study by Fair Chance, a coalition of six civil-rights legal-defense organizations, found that substituting "preferences" for "affirmative action" in ads and on ballots redefines the remedy as the problem. But affirmative-action programs are not designed to "prefer" minorities and women at the expense of others, but to rectify past or present discrimination that puts them at a disadvantage in seeking work and education. Because it ignores the complexity of the policies, which include outreach, training and recruitment, equating "affirmative action" with "preferences" is just plain wrong.

In Houston, where pro-affirmative-action forces got the word "preferences" removed from the ballot, a challenge to affirmative action failed. But a pending court decision may overturn the vote, allowing Connerly to try again with the loaded wording that wins elections.

Another distortion identified in the study is the tendency to downplay the impact of affirmative action on women, the major beneficiaries of the policy. Just 2 percent of news articles reviewed made affirmative action's meaning for women a major focus, while only 19 percent addressed any aspect of the policy's impact on women.

Most stories left women out and focused exclusively on race.

For every white person in America with a story about somebody who didn't get a job or a promotion or admitted to Harvard because a black guy did, the racial appeal works.

The other reason affirmative-action foes are winning support is the perception that discrimination is a thing of the past. But a report from the Employment Discrimination Project at Rutgers University found that one in four private employers surveyed in Washington state discriminate against women in hiring, promotion, wages or other terms and conditions of employment. Yet by passing Initiative 200, Washington voters stripped themselves of a weapon to fight discrimination that persists.

Dismantling affirmative action policy devalues diversity and turns the egalitarian ideal of a level playing field on its head: Instead of giving a hand up to those historically and currently excluded from equal opportunity, Proposition 200 denies that discrimination exists - or if it does, that it can or should be remedied.

It is a destructive step backwards that undercuts steady progress made on civil rights, as America looks ahead to multicultural and multiracial future.

Linda Wright Moore is a member of the Daily News editorial board. Her column appears here every Thursday. Send e-mail to moorel@phillynews.com

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