America Votes: Texas referendum could kill off affirmative action

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The Independent Online
Electors in Houston, Texas are voting today for a new mayor. But they also have a referendum on their ballot papers - Proposition A - that would end the city's year-old policy of giving preference to women and ethnic minority candidates for city council jobs and contracts.

In the city itself, it is the mayoral election that is at the forefront of attention. The popular liberal mayor, Bob Lanier, has served as long as current regulations permit, and a black candidate - a former Houston and New York police chief - is favourite to succeed him.

Outside Houston, however, it is the referendum that is being watched. Will the largest city in Texas follow where California led a year ago and vote to abolish affirmative action, or could it block a growing white- led backlash against positive discrimination on grounds of sex and race?

One reason for the high level of outside interest is the number of states - from Florida in the south-east and Washington in the north-west - that are facing pressure to repeal affirmative action laws. Another reason is the fact that Houston, with a 2.5 million-strong population that is 33 per cent Hispanic, 26 per cent black and 35 per cent non-Hispanic white, closely approximates to the ethnic mix that is forecast for the United States as a whole by the second half of the next century, if demographic trends continue.

The poll is expected to be much closer than in California, partly because of the city's racial composition, partly because of the popularity of the outgoing mayor who is campaigning against repeal. He is fronting adverts that say: "Let's not turn back the clock to the days when guy who looked like me got all the city's business." Some also think that with a black candidate standing for mayor, a larger than usual proportion of ethnic minority voters could turn out, which could tip the balance towards keeping affirmative action.

With the vote so close, the wording of the referendum itself became a controversy. Mayor Lanier replaced the words favoured by anti-affirmative action campaigners - which called on the city "not to discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to anyone on the basis of race, sex, colour, ethnicity or national origin" - with a question that asks whether Houston should amend its Charter "to end the use of preferential treatment (affirmative action)" in the city's employment and contracting.

This second version, which lacks the echoes of the Sixties civil rights movement, is thought to offer a better chance of retaining the status quo than the previous version. The change could also open the city to legal challenge from opponents of affirmative action, if the referendum fails. If it succeeds, that could spell the end of affirmative action across the US. If racially mixed Houston votes to end preferential treatment for minorities, the policy will be demonstrably unsustainable.