Cathy Wattendorf is a white 20-year-old student taking a "really cool" engineering course and training to be a U.S. Air Force officer in the southwest Virginia college town of Blacksburg. Robert Clay, 49, is a black construction contractor who has been getting "much more business" in recent years in the reviving Maryland city of Baltimore. The Blacksburg student and the Baltimore builder have one thing in common: both owe their progress in part to U.S. affirmative action incentives and regulations that require federally funded educators and employers to give women and racial minorities a fair chance at career success. But a long-simmering white male backlash and alleged abuses of such programs are now generating an explosive political debate with racial overtones. Republican legislators are leading a charge to undo or amend 30 years of law that helped millions of Wattendorfs and Clays to breach America Inc.'s virtual closed shop for white men, but left millions of others seething.
Against the benefits bestowed by affirmative action is a rising clamor of arguments - and lawsuits - that indict the program for producing reverse discrimination and costs to the economy. Critics decry the wide reach of what the Congressional Research Service describes as "a host of federal programs to increase minority and female participation as contractors or subcontractors on federally funded projects." Last week, the Senate took up a case against tax breaks on the sale of broadcasting companies to minority investors, a law that the House of Representatives earlier voted overwhelmingly to repeal. Attacks on what President Bill Clinton calls "a leg up" for women, blacks, Hispanics and native Americans all but eclipsed even the Republican push to slash social welfare as part of its austere Contract with America in last November's congressional elections. And despite a plea by Clinton to insulate the issue from party politics, conservative Washington Times columnist Richard Grenier was one of many analysts to conclude that "preferential treatment looms large over the 1996 presidential election."
Indeed, the leaders in the early running for the Republican presidential nomination - Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas, Texas Senator Phil Gramm and former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander - all stand for an end to race-based law. Only days after the Republican contenders declared their positions during early campaigning in New Hampshire last month, Democrat Clinton joined in the debate over affirmative action. "We shouldn't be defending things that we can't defend," he said at a Feb. 24 news conference during the presidential visit to Ottawa. "So it's time to review it, discuss it and be straightforward about it."
The next day, California Gov. Pete Wilson was certainly straightforward, declaring: "Let us begin to undo the corrosive unfairness of reverse discrimination." Wilson, himself a possible presidential candidate, endorsed petitioning for a 1996 referendum to repeal the state's affirmative action laws. Other such California initiatives - notably the Proposition 13 tax rebellion in 1978 and the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 last fall - exerted powerful echo effects in national politics. In California, whose 32 million residents include more than nine million Hispanics, almost four million from the Asia-Pacific region and 2.5 million blacks, Wilson said that "we will not confer false group preferences. We will not lower standards."
And in Texas last week, Republican State Senator David Sibley introduced a similar measure. He argued that white Texans are "innocent third parties who have not discriminated against anybody" but are denied opportunities because of their color. In contrast, Maryland's Democrat Gov. Parris Glendening proposes to increase the share of state contracts awarded to minorities and women.
In Washington, it was Dole who took the lead towards what he maintains will be "a color-blind society" when free of race-based policies. Three days before Christmas, 13 days before he became Senate leader, Dole asked congressional researchers for a list of every federal statute and rule "that grants a preference to individuals on the basis of race, sex, national origin or ethnic background." Two months later, he got a list of 159 main laws. They flow from three civil rights acts of the 1960s outlawing racial discrimination in accommodations, voting and employment, and from the women's equal rights movement in the 1970s. That body of law's purpose: to redress centuries of wrongs by not only ceasing to discriminate against the wronged, but according them positive opportunities.
Even before the report was in his hands, Dole began to make clear his purpose - and political motives. In a national TV interview on Feb. 5, he raised a question and answered it: "Why did 62 per cent of white males vote Republican in 1994? It's because of things like this, where sometimes the best-qualified person does not get the job because he or she may be one color." At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference five days later, he made himself perfectly clear. "The government too often says that the most important thing about you is the color of your skin or the country of your forefathers," he said. "That's wrong, and we should fix it."
Dole, 71, first elected to the Senate in 1968, the year of the civil rights bill prohibiting racial discrimination in housing sales and rentals, thus carved himself a leading role on a matter unmentioned in the Contract with America. More moderate on many goals espoused by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Dole's initiative inspired a willing House to interrupt its work on Contract bills and tackle affirmative action. He also set a campaign agenda for his presidential rivals, including Clinton.
Pitching that issue into the political arena excited Republican guru William Kristol. In a memo to the party, he scolded that the new Congress had done nothing to change people's lives - until affirmative action burst onto the scene. Then, he crowed, "The sudden willingness, even courage, of American politicians to challenge what was until recently unchallengeable - racial preferences - is a clear sign of how completely November's Congressional election has altered our national landscape."
For its initial assault, Congress picked an easy target. A rule deferring capital gains tax on the sale of broadcast companies to racial minorities promised big rewards to the principal players in media giant Viacom Inc.'s current plan to sell a cable-TV property to a company led by a black investor. The House voted 381-to-44 - including most Democrats - to repeal that rule.
Dismantling other features of the program may be harder. An ugly example of emotions infesting the debate occurred last month on the University of California campus at Berkeley. In the midst of a petition drive for a repeal referendum, flyers delivered to 15 black students at Berkeley's law school advised: "Rejoice you crybaby niggers - it's affirmative action month. When I see you in class it bugs the hell out of me because you're taking the seat of someone qualified." That sparked a vocal campus protest rally against the racist slur.
To Cathy Wattendorf, born after the civil rights crusades of the 1960s and a child during the women's equality campaign, there may be little remarkable in her campus life among other women and other races. But she is well aware that Blacksburg's 123-year-old Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University once enrolled no women, and that the air force officer training corps that provided her scholarship grew from all male in 1968 to 20 per cent female now. The national corps commandant visited Virginia Tech and "that was really neat," said Wattendorf, because the top officer is Brig. Gen. Susan Parmeleau. "It's equal," she said, "at least in the air force."
But for Baltimore builder Robert Clay, the political drive to roll back affirmative action for racial minorities is a betrayal. Even now, he says, minorities do not receive a fair share of economic opportunities. He says the majority attitude seems to be "we did it, we did enough, we can do away with it, and we can have a color-blind society." Without affirming it by law, there will be no fairness as long as there is racism, says Clay, and "Let me tell you, racism is alive and well in America."
Maclean's March 20, 1995