Affirmative Action Setbacks
1997 News of the Nation
One of the most hotly debated topics of the year was that of affirmative action. A ballot initiative in California, Proposition 209, gave a resounding mandate to efforts to roll back the affirmative action policies put in place over the past 30 years to redress discrimination against women and minorities. The California law, approved by voters in November 1996 (54–46%) and based on policies instituted at the University of California a year before, prohibits admissions and hiring policies from using race, gender, or ethnicity as factors in choosing candidates.
Governor Pete Wilson lauded Proposition 209 as an opportunity to create the nation's first color-blind society. He'll have his work cut out for him in 1998, as the legislature will need to revise some 30 statutes to conform to the new law.
The effect of the policy was evident in the first year in which it affected admissions; at Boalt Hall Law School at Berkeley, admissions of black students dropped by 80% and Hispanic students by 50%. Civil rights groups petitioned Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who handles emergency requests from California, to block enforcement of the new law, which was to go into effect in August. Regardless of whether O'Connor chooses to act on the emergency request, the Supreme Court will hear a number of formal challenges to the law during its 1997–98 session, which begins in October.
In the wake of a 1995 Supreme Court decision restricted granting of contracts based on race and gender, Clinton vowed to "mend not end" affirmative action. In May, the Clinton Administration revealed a new policy for awarding government contracts. The policy ends racial preferences in sectors where minorities are prevalent, but maintains them in sectors where discrimination persists. Minorities and other economically disadvantaged business owners account for 6.6% of all federal contracts for goods and services. Apparently not satisfied with Clinton's proposals, House Republicans crafted a more far-reaching bill to ban preferences in all federal hiring and contracts. The bill, christened by disgruntled Democrats as the "Equal Opportunity Repeal Act of 1997," passed the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution in July.
The affirmative action debate took place as the President vowed to make improved relations between the races a top priority in his second term. He convened an advisory committee on race relations, and has promised to act on their recommendations, which are expected in mid-1998. The races are particularly divided in their opinions of the progress made in race relations. According to a June 1997 Gallup poll, 79% of whites believe that African-Americans have an equal chance of getting a job as whites, while only 46% of blacks agree. One unfortunate area of agreement also emerged from the poll: 44% of both groups believe that whites are highly prejudiced. The good news is that 62% of both groups consider themselves to hold little or no prejudices; clearly there is work to be done on this front.