Backlash grows against US race quotas

Two academics have begun a campaign against affirmative action, claiming it is wrecking higher education and does more harm than good, writes Phil Reeves in Berkeley, California
For weeks Glynn Custred and Thomas Woods have spent hours working in a tiny room in Berkeley, California. Their peeling office, with its naked lightbulb and clutter of books, does not look much like the headquarters of a popular cause which is causing fear within the White House. Yet appearances can be deceptive.

Mr Custred, an anthropologist, and Mr Woods, a philosopher, are the architects of the California Civil Rights Initiative, a plan to outlaw affirmative action - the use of positive discrimination to counter centuries of denying opportunities to minorities and women. Their proposals are causing divisions and hand-wringing among Democrats and civil-rights groups everywhere.

For three years they have been trying to raise enough money to introduce a state-wide referendum on whether to ban the application of "race, sex, colour, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to" any individual or group when giving out public sector jobs, college places, or government contracts.

Twice they have failed, but this time few doubt they will succeed in putting it on the ballot next year. Nor do many dispute that it will pass. A sluggish economy, stagnant wages and cutbacks in the defence industry have taken their toll on the Golden State's white, boom-addicted middle class; growing numbers of Anglo-Americans bitterly complain that less qualified browns and blacks are usurping their opportunities and that the American principle of colour-blind fairness for all has been supplanted by group entitlements."You can see the country really being ruined by affirmative action," said Mr Custred. "All we are trying to do is reassert the principle of the 1964 Civil Rights Act - individual rights, equality of opportunity, equal protection before the law and advancement by merit."

The two academics launched their campaign principally because they believe affirmative action is destroying higher education. They point to the high drop-out rate from college (some two out of three black students do not graduate); the stigma suffered by minority students who achieve success through their own efforts; the failure to achieve anything for the poor. "It is totally subversive to the idea of university education," said Mr Custred. "It does far more harm than good."

But their support goes far beyond academe. White businessman have complained for years that contracts are being farmed out to minority firms simply to satisfy affirmative-action quotas. Several discrimination cases are heading for the Supreme Court and many states are planning to narrow down the use of preferential treatment. Affirmative action is shaping up as one of the defining issue of the next election - a "wedge issue", like the death penalty, that could split the Democratic party in two.

As the white backlash swells, so does the opposition. Mr Woods and Mr Custred claim they have considerable support from women and blacks (one supporter is Ward Connerly, a black member of the University of California Board of Regents) but there is no shortage of angry rhetoric.

Black leaders argue that America has a long way to go before it offers equitable treatment to minorities and warn that it will bring about resegregation. Why,they say, do blacks, who comprise 12 per cent of the adult US population, account for less than 5 per cent of its doctors, teachers, lawyers and architects? Jesse Jackson has described it as "yet another attempt to roll back the process of inclusion".

While the social implications are immense, so too are the possible political consequences. If the initiative goes before the electorate during the presidential election in November 1996 - as seems increasingly likely - it could wreck havoc among Democratic candidates, including the President.

Most analysts agree that if Mr Clinton is to be returned for a second term, he must win California. His dilemma is whether to support the initiative. Anything that appears to do damage to the prospects of women and minorities will alienate the Democrats' traditional liberal base.

Yet if he does not endorse it - or something close to it - he may lose the sizeable swing-vote, which has a distinctly conservative hue. This could cost him the state's 54 electoral-college votes and thus the presidency. The Democrats are still smarting from the nightmarish outcome of November's mid-term elections, when the Golden State lurched to the right because of the overwhelming popular support for Proposition 187, a Republican-backed initiative which curtailed benefits for illegal immigrants.

They fear the same could happen again. Anti-affirmative-action legislation seems tailor-made for the Republicans, who will certainly try to make mincemeat of any Democrat found dithering on the issue. California's Republican governor, Pete Wilson, has already as good as endorsed it.

Panic-stricken, the Democrats are thrashing around for a means of heading off the potential disaster. There are reports that Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff, has been sounding out friends on Capitol Hill about the consequences of outright support for the initiative, although he is publicly striking a different pose. Yesterday, speaking on CBS television, he said the Clinton administration would stand firm behind affirmative action measures, adding that it "opposed the efforts to turn the clock back on civil rights".

Others are discussing pre-empting the initiative with similar legislation of their own, perhaps one which preserves affirmative action for the poor but removing the racial and gender component. And some are hoping that the sting will be drawn by the early passage of Republican-sponsored anti- affirmative laws through the state legislature.

As Mr Woods and Mr Custred sit there, a stone's throw from the University of California at Berkeley - seeding-ground of 1960s radicalism - they seem pleased with the notion that they are at the cutting-edge of a movement that is sweeping America.

They insist they are not driven by any partisan motive - Mr Custred says he is a conservative-leaning independent, while Mr Woods is a registered Republican - but they are not losing sleep over the possible damage they could inflict on President Clinton.

"It's a wrong policy and if the Democrats are stubborn enough to maintain it, then they will be swept away," said Mr Custred. "If he doesn't come on board, it's his fault."

That's not as easy as it sounds. Wasn't it Bill Clinton who promised to make his administration "look more like America"?