Prop. 209 subverts civil rights gains

Voters in California last week passed a controversial initiative prohibiting race or gender consideration in college admissions, government hiring and business contracting. The success of the measure, officially known as Proposition 209, is likely to spur similar action in other states. Public hostility toward programs that grant special consideration to women and minorities is increasingly prevalent throughout the nation. However, popular contentions that equal opportunities already exist rest on shaky grounds.
College admission and graduation rates for minority populations fall far short of those of their white counterparts. Whites still occupy 75 percent of the executive positions in the workplace even though they make up just 60 percent of the work force. Women in government and corporate jobs still earn 15-30 percent less than men in comparable positions. That no fair-minded and dispassionate observer could conclude in 1996 that discrimination against women or minorities has ceased in education, the job market and other aspects of American life is testimony to the continuing need for race- and gender-based programs.
The California debate about fairness and opportunity apparently isn’t over. A coalition of civil rights organizations filed a lawsuit the day after the elections requesting an immediate order to block the implementation of Proposition 209. The suit contends that the initiative is pre-empted by federal law because it prohibits programs designed to ensure compliance with civil rights regulations. Many government officials agree and have announced their intentions to continue to comply with existing programs until courts rule on the law’s constitutionality.
Even though we are reluctant to challenge a law born out of democratic procedures, the measure demonstrates how popular government can go wrong when the preferences of an influential voting population are allowed to trample on the economic and social interests of less powerful interests in society. In fact, the implementation of Proposition 209 would order the undoing of decades of civil rights efforts to correct historical, documented and, in many cases, legislated patterns of discrimination. If implemented, the proposition would offer legal loopholes to reverse hard-won advances in everything from government employment policies to Title IX women’s athletics, from math and science programs to government assistance for minority- and women-owned businesses.
Despite the legal challenge to the initiative, the passage of Proposition 209 was a clear boost for nationwide efforts to end affirmative action. How far the movement will go, however, remains uncertain. According to exit polls, even supporters of the initiative reported they didn’t mean to reject affirmative action in principle. Most said they believed the initiative was about providing equal opportunities for all citizens, including white males. But eliminating race- and gender-based programs isn’t about ensuring equal opportunities for equal abilities. Only when equality of opportunity prevails can opponents of programs that grant special consideration to women and minorities legitimately contend that decisions should be made solely on the basis of ability and that race or gender should not be a factor.