No Retreat on Affirmative Action

by Kyle Velte

At the National Asian Women's Health Organization conference, NOW President Patricia Ireland reaches out to organize allies for the march (from left):  Miriam Ching Louie, Asian Immigrant Women Advocates; Wenny Kusuma, La Casa de Las Madres; (in back) Mary Chung, NAWHO; and physician Helen Rodriguez-Trias.

"We will not retreat on affirmative action. We will not retreat on justice" California NOW president Elizabeth Toledo vowed to thunderous applause from a crowd of 200,000 activists at NOW's last major protest.

Toledo and other NOW activists are on the front lines of the battle to protect affirmative action programs. These programs -- aimed at guaranteeing fair opportunities for women and people of color in government contracts, the work force and education -- are under greater attack by the right than ever before.

"The good old boys who want to protect their positions of power know the truth behind the sports slogan that the best defense is a good offense," said Toledo. "Even though a bi-partisan study shows women and people of color are still locked out of leadership in Fortune 500 companies, they make the ridiculous argument that we don't need affirmative action anymore, that it's unfair."

According to Time magazine, the average CEO of a Fortune 500 company makes 185 times the average salary of the company employees.

The most visible attack, but far from the only attack, is taking place in California. The regents of the University of California are already chipping away at civil rights by abolishing all affirmative action policies in the UC system.

As this issue went to press, opponents of affirmative action in California were collecting the final signatures they needed to ensure that the issue is placed on the ballot this fall. The deceptively titled California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) would ban all of the state's affirmative action programs.

Following California's lead, at least five other states -- Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Oregon and Washington -- have anti-affirmative action measures looming.

On the federal level, presidential contender Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., are sponsoring legislation that will sweep away federal affirmative action requirements in all government programs.

The response to these attempts to roll back civil rights is powerful and determined. NOW's protests and work in coalitions underscore that affirmative action is a women's issue as well as an issue for people of color, for young and old, for students and workers.

"Instead of dividing us as the radical right had hoped, the struggle to defend affirmative action is uniting us," said Toledo.

With the first roll back of our rights occurring in the massive UC system, NOW is uniting with students in California and the rest of the country who are already mobilizing and organizing to fight these initiatives.

In February, NOW Action Vice President Rosemary Dempsey toured California, Oregon and Washington to inspire students to participate in NOW's Fight the Right March. This month NOW President Patricia Ireland is on a similar tour of California campuses.

Affirmative action began with a relatively low-profile executive order of the president some 30 years ago. Although philosophical opposition surfaced among conservatives within the past decade, debate has really heated up as political opportunists like Pete Wilson and Newt Gingrich try to use it as a wedge issue.

Become active in the struggle to save affirmative action and preserve the civil rights of all people by attending the Fight the Right March April 14 in San Francisco.

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