Commentary Magazine


Republicans for Quotas

On election day this past November, California voters rejected Bob Dole’s presidential candidacy by a margin of 51 to 38 percent. On that same day, by 54 to 46 percent, they approved Proposition 209 on the state ballot: the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) proscribing the use of racial, ethnic, or gender preferences in the activities of state government. Neither Dole nor the leadership of the Republican party in California had made any effort to campaign for the initiative until the last few days before the election—by which time, thanks to an elaborate and thoroughly mendacious left-wing media blitz, the public’s support for CCRI had declined by fifteen percentage points from its previous overwhelming majority. Having run away from the issue for months, Dole turned to it again only as part of a desperate grab for California’s 54 electoral votes at a moment when all other avenues to the White House appeared blocked.

A year and a half earlier, things had looked very different. In the wake of the Republican revolution of 1994, it seemed to many that our nationwide system of racial and ethnic preferences, which goes under the name of affirmative action, was finally about to be swept away. As Senate majority leader, Dole himself appeared to want to help wield the broom. In February 1995, he announced on Meet the Press that he had instructed the Congressional Research Service to compile a list of all federal programs containing racial preferences, and was considering how to abolish them. The following month, he promised to introduce legislation ending special treatment of “favored” groups. “After nearly 30 years of government sanctions, quotas, timetables, set-asides, and other racial preferences,” Dole declared, “the American people sense all too clearly that the race-counting game has gone too far.”

Dole was as good as his word. Along with Representative Charles T. Canady of Florida, he introduced the Equal Opportunity. Act of 1995, prohibiting the federal government from granting any preference on the basis of race, color, sex, or national origin in connection with any federal contract, job, or promotion. By early 1996, as the Republican primary season advanced, Dole traveled to California where he let it be known that the issue would be a central element of his political strategy there. “I can support the CCRI,” Dole proclaimed; President Clinton, he added, could not.

But almost as soon as the Republican presidential nomination was in his grasp, the tenor of Dole’s remarks changed, and statements emanating from his campaign organization began to suggest that the frontal attack on preferences had been put on hold. Days after his resignation from the Senate in July, the Equal Opportunity Act was unceremoniously withdrawn by the Republican leadership. Soon, Dole was paying court to a potential vice-presidential nominee, retired General Colin Powell, who had made a point of publicly expressing his opposition to CCRI.

By the time of the Republican convention in San Diego in August, Dole and his strategists had said nothing about the issue for months; supporters of CCRI were rebuffed in their attempt to secure a place on the roster of convention speakers for Ward Connerly, the black California entrepreneur who was heading the drive for Proposition 209. Only in the final countdown to November 5 did Dole again speak out, and then his motives were utterly undisguised: in informal remarks to reporters after delivering a short speech attacking racial quotas, all he had to say was “wedge issues, wedge issues, we’re talking wedge issues here.”

We will never know whether Dole’s cynical deathbed conversion pulled him up in California or pulled Proposition 209 down. What is plain, however, is that his performance was but another chapter in a history of Republican confusion, cowardice, and retreat with respect to racial preferences that dates back almost three decades.

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Although affirmative action has its roots in the Johnson years, it was the Nixon administration which, starting in the late 1960′s, unleashed the civil-rights bureaucracy to pursue race-conscious policies and programs in a large-scale way. The requirement that employers establish written affirmative-action plans is one of Nixon’s legacies, as is the ubiquitous use of “goals and timetables”—a bureaucratic euphemism for quotas—to measure progress against such plans. Nixon also was responsible for the “Philadelphia Plan,” the first open racial quota system for selecting federal contractors.

Why Nixon moved so vigorously in this direction is, like much else about the man, something of an enigma. Perhaps his bad-guy image and his preoccupation with foreign policy made him eager to seek ways to immunize himself against criticism from the Left. If affirmative-action programs had the additional political benefit of splitting Democratic-party ranks—pitting white trade unionists against black civil-rights activists—that was a supplementary dividend. Nor can it be forgotten that Nixon, essentially a political moderate, genuinely sought to find ways to ease the passage of poor blacks into the American middle class, and may have fastened on the expedient of “goals and timetables” out of well-intentioned if fatally misguided motives.

Ronald Reagan, the next Republican to occupy the White House, was a completely different case. Reagan had campaigned on principle against racial quotas, which by the time he took office in 1981 had become deeply entrenched in a broad range of federal programs. Early in his first term, it seemed that he might act to abolish many of these programs with the stroke of a pen, by means of an executive order. But, although a review of civil-rights policies was indeed initiated, Reagan’s first Attorney General, William French Smith, had other priorities; the idea of an executive order was permitted to languish.

In Reagan’s second term, Edwin Meese, the new Attorney General, once again attempted to abolish preferences. A new executive order covering federal contracting was duly prepared and submitted for interdepartmental review. But this led to a swift and ferocious reaction from the civil-rights establishment, and as the drum roll of criticism intensified, doubting voices were heard within the administration’s ranks. Vice President Bush, already looking ahead to his presidential prospects in 1988, was among those urging caution, as was Elizabeth Dole, Reagan’s Secretary of Transportation. In the end, Reagan decided not to proceed, and the White House announced that the new executive order would be delayed indefinitely.

Not surprisingly, George Bush said little about racial preferences and attempted to do even less over the course of his four years. One event, a 1989 Supreme Court decision, came close to forcing his hand. In Wards Cove Packing Company Inc. v. Atonio, the Court severely restricted the ability of groups claiming discrimination to invoke mere statistical underrepresentation in the workforce. A vigorous assault on the decision was duly mounted from the Left, and legislation was introduced in Congress to overturn it. Bush’s initial reaction was to oppose this legislation, which he properly denounced as a “quota bill.” But as his poll numbers faded along with the glow of Desert Storm, and as the 1992 election loomed, he began to wobble. In the end, Bush signed a compromise bill containing the very provisions he had previously attacked.

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What accounts for the fecklessness of Republican political leaders on an issue which, if polling data are to be believed, is a natural vote-getter for them? After all, the National Election Study’s biennial survey of Americans from 1986 to 1994 shows approximately 80 percent consistently opposing racial preferences.

One factor may have to do with the way in which the Republican party raises its money. Among the country-club and Range Rover Republicans who contribute to the party and its candidates, being a “fiscal conservative” but a “social moderate” is the norm. Campaign donations from these quarters are frequently accompanied by notes instructing candidates to stay “on message“: shorthand for reducing taxes and regulations while steering clear of divisive social issues.

Even more significant than the pattern of individual giving, however, is the attitude of corporate America—the source of the lion’s share of Republican party funds. As is well-known by now, and as the recent fiasco at Texaco only serves to underscore, big business has long made its peace with racial and gender preferences. Indeed, large business enterprises not only hire and promote by quota, they have invested substantially in the entire regime that surrounds them: rare is the major corporation, Texaco very much included, that is without a “diversity” program and its attendant personnel. Having made such programs part of their culture, corporations are utterly uninterested in a potentially disruptive change.

Another and more intangible factor may also be at work: residual Republican guilt. There is no denying that many Republicans were late and tentative in supporting the civil-rights movement of the 1960′s which helped bring an end to legalized segregation in the South. The stain from that tardiness seems to inhibit many of them, even today, from speaking out frankly on issues connected with race. Republicans, in fact, appear to suffer from an incapacitating disease—a rhetoric deficit—which, as David Gelernter has observed in another connection, inhibits them from addressing “moral problems in moral terms.” Why this rhetoric deficit has persisted for so long is, in the end, difficult to say, although the abandon with which the epithet “racist” is hurled at anyone who has the temerity to oppose reverse discrimination surely plays a part.

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The irony is that, for Republicans, the social chaos and racial animosity produced by preferences offer an opportunity to match principle to good politics. Opposition to racial preferences is popular. Republican politicians who needlessly assume a defensive crouch on this issue pay a price: it happened to George Bush and it happened again, even more dramatically, to Bob Dole. But opposition to racial preferences is also just. And it is the very essence of the civil-rights revolution of the 1960′s, captured in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Twice before in our history, Americans have had the chance to commit themselves to colorblindness as the cardinal rule of race relations. The first time was during Reconstruction. In framing the Fourteenth Amendment, however, the 39th Congress could not bring itself to close the door on all race-conscious policy-making by the states, and the result was Jim Crow. The second time was in the decade encompassing the Brown decision and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then, a consensus on colorblindness almost coalesced, only to be undercut in the late 1960′s by growing elite enthusiasm for goals and quotas; the result was our present racial spoils system, in which children, and adults too, are judged solely by the color of their skin.

The adoption of Proposition 209 by the state of California has given us a third chance. It is no wonder that a federal judge, a Carter-administration appointee, is trying to prevent CCRI from being implemented, or that the Clinton administration has thrown its weight behind this effort; that is no more than is to be expected. But if we end up missing or destroying this last opportunity, part of the responsibility will ineluctably lie as well with leaders of the Republican party who have weaved, dodged, and, what is worse, contrived to lend their tacit support and encouragement to the immoral and socially explosive practice of dividing our citizenry by race.

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