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    Reverse discrimination is back as an issue

    The Supreme Court ruling on the New Haven firefighters case, plus the Sotomayor hearings, bring back an issue that once divided liberals. Oddly, the President who started affirmative action was Nixon.
    Nixon got the ball rolling on affirmative action

    Nixon got the ball rolling on affirmative action Library of Virginia

    The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court will not be stopped following the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of her earlier decision, 5-4, in the now-famous New Haven firefighters' case, in which firefighter promotions for white and Latino officers were blocked because not enough black firefighters had passed the same requisite examinations for promotion.

    Sotomayor will be asked about the matter in her confirmation hearings. But the closeness of the Supreme Court decision, and the political sensitivity of the issues in question, will inhibit her questioners. Unless new issues or embarrassments surface, she will be confirmed easily.

    Perhaps more importantly, the whole matter of affirmative action — never long below the surface — has been put back at center stage in national debate.

    It is mostly forgotten now but it was President Richard Nixon, not earlier Presidents John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson, who launched affirmative action. Prior to the Nixon administration, the whole thrust of legal and political action had been to remove legal barriers to equal opportunity rather than constructing a system setting aside actual or de facto quotas favoring one group or another. The whole thrust of the defining Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been to remove discrimination against, or for, any American on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, or religion. The accompanying Great Society, which included education, health, job training, and other programs, was intended in large part to help previous victims of discrimination to lift themselves economically and otherwise.

    During the Nixon Presidency, however, Labor Secretary George Shultz, aided by the late Art Fletcher of Spokane, undertook an initiative to break notorious discrimination in the construction industry and unions. The so-called Philadelphia Plan was established which set aside a certain percentage of jobs for African Americans in construction trades. The practice soon spread elsewhere and became called affirmative action.

    National liberals most active in leading the drive toward the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were suspicious of affirmative action. I found myself arguing at an Americans for Democratic Action national convention on behalf of affirmative action as a temporary policy to help victims of discrimination get an equal place at the starting line. Older civil rights leaders, including my old boss Hubert Humphrey, chief sponsor of the Civil Rights Act, took the other side, fearing it would result in reverse discrimination and present an easy target for reactionaries trying to turn back the civil-rights clock. They also doubted that, once adopted, it would remain temporary.

    Despite their doubts about affirmative action, many of the same liberals recognized that most national black leaders were supporting it and thus did not outrightly oppose it. Sen. George McGovern, during his 1972 Presidential campaign, proposed to advisers that he oppose a related device, compulsory school busing for purposes of desegregation, but was dissuaded because they thought black leaders who favored busing would misunderstand his motives.

    Meantime, in the background, middle-American voters were turning strongly against what they saw as favored treatment for minorities. Survey data indicated they favored equal opportunity strongly — the concept was, after all, central to the American Dream — but questioned anything that smacked of being a quota. In 1968, post-election data showed, such voters (later to be called Reagan Democrats) had voted either for Nixon or for third-party candidate George Wallace in general protest against Great Society measures they saw as too greatly benefiting minorities. The same data, post-1972, showed an even stronger swing among the same voters away from a Democratic Party they associated with such policies. It thus was ironic that Nixon would be the President who formalized them and moved beyond equal opportunity to quotas.

    The country has come far in intervening years. We have an African American President. Discrimination still exists based on race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, and sexual orientation. But no one would have predicted that, in 2008, serious Presidential candidates of both parties would include not only an African American but a Jew, a Latino, a Catholic, a Mormon, a Protestant fundamentalist, and a woman. A well known Asian-American candidate also could have credibly run. As recently as 1960, it was thought that JFK's Catholicism might block his Presidential candidacy.

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    Posted Thu, Jul 2, 7:42 a.m. Inappropriate

    Back in the seventies, I had to drop out of school to get a job in order to save enough money to re-enroll. At the time, the only work I could get was menial. At the phone company, where my uncles worked, equal opportunity employment was in place, and at the time, though I couldn't get a job there, I respected it. But the time of equal opportunity has come and gone in my opinion. Certainly, if I were a parent today with children, I wouldn't want them short-changed by discrimination, be it reverse or of any nature. May the best applicant get the appointment. However, I will add, that should the scales of opportunity and discrimination be tipped in lopsided fashion once again, then the move to reinstate equal opportunity will and should be brought to the fore.


    Posted Thu, Jul 2, 9:30 a.m. Inappropriate

    Fletcher developed the Philadelphia Plan for Nixon, and it cost him his job. After its implementation, Fletcher and the unions got into a war of words in the press. Fletcher spoke openly about union racism; the unions called his comments "gutter attacks." Nixon called Art Fletcher "a good political property, but" he lamented Fletcher's public statements. Nixon said of the Philadelphia Plan to his uppper-level staffers, "[it's] right, but it hurts us.... It’s fine that we’re getting these blacks into the jobs, but boy, it’s killing us with our constituency.” Unions demanded that Nixon fire Fletcher. To appease the "hard hats," Nixon strategized with his special counsel to get Fletcher out of the job without the appearance of "canning" him. Soon Fletcher resigned, and Nixon appointed him alternate delegate to the UN. I'm Fletcher's granddaughter, but I didn't learn these details from Grandpa. . . I read most of them in a Nixon phone tape transcript. Fletcher's account of that time is a book called _The Silent Sellout: Government Betrayal of Blacks to the Craft Unions_. Long out of print, but available in some libraries. Thanks for this interesting piece, Mr. Van Dyk!


    Posted Thu, Jul 2, 10:30 a.m. Inappropriate

    Phyl: Thanks. You added things about your grandfather, Art Fletcher, and the Philadelphia Plan which I did not know.

    I could also have included in the piece the many legal cases---including the Bakke case, locally---which have been heard on these issues since the 1970s. A major unintended consequence of affirmative action has been the tensions which have arisen among various minority groups in claiming what each regards as its rightful piece of the pie in college and graduate-school admissions, public- and private-sector appointments and hirings, contract awards, government appropriations, etc. We have such tensions locally but not as sharply as felt, for instance, in California where Latino and black applicants in particular have protested the percentage of Asians admitted to the University of California campuses at Berkeley and UCLA---and vice versa. Or in big Eastern and Midwest cities where ethnic and racial polarizations are far greater than in our relatively tolerant city. President Obama, from his unique vantage point, has an opportunity to reduce these polarizations and lead a reexamination of ways and means.

    I will look for "The Silent Sellout..." Had not known of it.

    Posted Thu, Jul 2, 1:20 p.m. Inappropriate

    We either believe in a color-blind society, or we don't. Whe we engage in gimmickry on behalf of it we give the lie to our pronouncements in favor of it.

    There's a difference between working to elevate some in the society to equality versus dragging others down, which is what the New Haven firefighters contend happened to them. Enough members of SCOTUS agreed, just as they did a couple years ago in the Seattle Schools litigation.

    In Seattle schools, the whole morass of race-based politics has interferred with what schools are supposed to be about: teaching children. Ask Danny Westneat over at The Seattle Times.

    Trying to advance anyone at the expense of someone else will always act to divide - it will never accompish the goal, but it wall exacerbate whatever it was you were seeking to ameliorate in the first place.

    It's become such that "race and poverty" are used in an iron-clad way to explain away poor results. Yet when exceptions to that conventional wisdom are shown, they're dismissed as aberrations or somehow cooked. If you expect a poor showing, you will get a poor showing. If you expect excellence then commit to achieving it you can.

    If people spent more time respecting each other (and themselves) rather than resenting each other most of this would disappear.

    The Piper

    Posted Fri, Jul 3, 7:48 a.m. Inappropriate

    Great conversation. Here's a zig.

    Like the actions we take and the policies we pursue, the words we use in debates on the best way to end discrimination matter. For the same reasons that we need to end all racial discrimination, let's retire the convenient shorthand of the term "reverse discrimination" and discuss all racial discrimination as discrimination.

    Primates, including humans, form groups then generally behave more altruistically toward the members of their groups than they do towards non-members. If we want to live peacefully together as a species, our primate nature suggests that we need to create groups that include as many insiders as possible. For a country, this suggests collapsing as many people-dividing policies and categories as possible.

    Our country's current conversation about and approach to race keeps dividing Americans into competing groups. While some fervently believe that maintaining these divisions is the only way achieve equity and right historic wrongs, pardoxically, for primates, it is exactly the wrong way to create the kind of culture in which discrimination is unthinkable since there are no insiders and outsiders.

    As Justice Roberts and others have suggested, the way to stop discrimination is to stop discriminating. Race-based policies that guarantee or disadvantage opportunity need to end. Categorizing people based on race should follow as our culture allows.

    Treat others as you would wish to be treated. It's just not that tough. Kindergardeners get it. We adults - including policymakers - need to follow their lead.

    Posted Fri, Jul 10, 8:40 a.m. Inappropriate

    Discrimination and bigotry are inherent tendencies of human nature, and efforts to combat and minimize them must also be inherent in the rules of our society. Any majority in a democratic society will always have the power to put down and hold down the minority--the fair government will actively address that reality.

    Some say we should leave it to individuals to behave appropriately. Is that the same standard we apply to other laws? If we erase affirmative action from the books, we will revert to the way our society was before: putting the burden on the minorities to defend themselves.

    Bigotry is alive and well, the question is are we going to keep fighting the good fight?:

    Posted Fri, Jul 10, 8:40 a.m. Inappropriate




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