Fate of Affirmative Action Takes Center Stage in High Level Debate

by Beth Corbin

In a series of high-profile, high-level actions, women's and civil rights leaders are uniting to fend off divide-and- conquer strategies on affirmative action. Our efforts are succeeding in shifting the debate from one where affirmative action was being defined -- and demonized -- as a racial issue, to one that shows how it levels the playing field for women as well as people of color.

NOW leaders have met with President Clinton and senior White House officials on the issue several times. The most visible meeting followed a news conference and march to the White House by more than a dozen leaders of women's rights groups.

"Powerful politician are using affirmative action to reinforce rather than challenge their constituents' worst impulses of racism and sexism," NOW President Patricia Ireland said at the news conference. "We should look at Congress, which is still 90 percent white and 90 percent male, as a place where affirmative action should be enforced, rather than a place where it should be reviewed."

"Much has been said about the 'angry white male' who fled from the Democratic party in the last election," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "But if President Clinton and the Congress want to see anger, just threaten the paycheck of every working woman in this country."

As Republican leader's called for a repeal of all federal affirmative action programs, Clinton sought to defuse the political time-bomb by saying he thought affirmative action should be based on need rather than race or gender. His suggestion came, he was quoted as saying, because of public opinion polls showing more people favored that approach. The flaw in this approach is that affirmative action would be effectively prohibited in jobs beyond "entry level" salaries, because the applicants for higher paid positions would, by definition, not be in economic need. Thus, affirmative action could not be used to break the "glass ceiling" of the executive suite.

Clinton's comments inspired a NOW zap action at the White House, with the Rainbow Coalition and other groups. "Politicians should lift their eyes from the polling data, look around their own workplace, and understand that the need for affirmative action is not obsolete," said Ireland.

NOW also organized women's rights advocates to participate in an earlier press briefing sponsored by the Rainbow Coalition, which marked the first time in the current debate that women's and civil rights leaders have spoken out jointly on the issue. "Working women know from day-to-day experience that there is still a lot of active, if not conscious, discrimination that goes on to preserve the privileges of being white and male," said NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy. "Women have been climbing the corporate ladder for 30 years now. We're well-groomed for the executive suites, but too often we find we're all dressed up with no place to go."

In fact, in a report released in mid-March the Glass Ceiling Commission found that 97 percent of senior managers at the Fortune 1000 corporations are white males. Two-thirds of the overall population and 57 percent of the nation's work force are women, people of color, or both.

The bipartisan commission, backed by the Bush administration and initially chaired by then Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole, said in its report that women and people of color face "artificial barriers" to advancement that keep them out of the top offices of this country's largest corporations.

Is Silence Golden?
Speaking volumes by its silence, the U.S. Supreme Court in April let stand two lower court victories by white men claiming to be victims of reverse discrimination. The Court turned down, without comment, requests for review of an appeals court decision in Arrington v. Wilks and Martin v. Wilks, ending a long-running battle over the integration of the Birmingham, Ala., Fire Department.

The Birmingham case began with a 1981 consent decree designed to redress longstanding discrimination against Black firefighters. The agreement was that white and black firefighters would be promoted to the rank of lieutenant on a 1-to-1 basis until the number of black lieutenants reached 28 percent -- the percentage of the surrounding county's work force that was black. Challenging the ruling, white firefighters lost in Federal District Court in Birmingham, but won an appeal last year before the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, which denounced the promotional plan as "outright racial balancing."

The Birmingham Fire Department case began in 1974, when the city had only a handful of black firefighters and none in supervisory positions. The department ended its affirmative action program in 1989 when the goal of 28 percent representation by blacks in the lieutenant ranks was reached.

Proud Beneficiary Speaks Out
California NOW has been working hard on the affirmative action issue since late 1994, when a ballot initiative was introduced there to repeal many such programs. California NOW State Coordinator Elizabeth Toledo said at NOW's April 9 rally, "I stand here as a proud beneficiary of affirmative action. I know that the doors I walked through were pried open by feminist activists who came before me, many of whom are here today, and I thank them.

"What legacy are we going to leave as the feminist movement?" she asked. "When two-thirds of the poor workers in this country are women and 97 percent of the executives of Fortune 500 companies are white men, will we say that we are through [with the fight]?"

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