"Repeal Affirmative Action Now!" screamed the headline of a recent article by Ward Connerly, the man primarily responsible for California's passage of the controversial Proposition 209, which ended racial preferences state-wide. Connerly argues that now is the perfect time for opponents of racial preferences to make their move -- and, indeed, it is. Ever since President Clinton's speech calling for support of racial preferences, the country has been awash in editorials decrying the practice, and polls have come out showing widespread disapproval. To quote Connerly, "If the President's opponents are unable to capitalize on this opportunity, there are only two words to describe them: politically inept." Unfortunately, however, there are those who are still afraid to stand up against preferences, and Speaker Newt Gingrich is among them.
The Speaker's lack of leadership on this issue is shown in his handling of the Civil Rights Act of 1997, a bill by Rep. Charles Canady (R-FL) which would ban race and sex preferences at the federal level. While Speaker Gingrich currently supports the bill, his support was slow in coming, and is reticent at best. After much cajoling from Ward Connerly and others, the Speaker finally came out in favor of the Canady bill in mid-June. His support, however, has been nominal, as the Speaker has done little to push the bill's progress forward, and has refused to commit to bringing the bill to a vote on the floor of the House.
The Speaker's reticence would be acceptable if it were based on principle, but it clearly is not. Gingrich is in principle fully in favor of the idea of ending racial preferences. He remains hesitant, though, due to great political concerns. Gingrich feels that a move to end racial preferences would be inflammatory and detrimental to the Republican party's attempts to recruit minorities.
However, Gingrich has little reason to worry. Contrary to popular belief, the idea of racial preferences does not enjoy widespread support. A recent study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies shows that a startling 78.7% of the total population disagrees with the practice of preferential treatment. Within the Hispanic population, 53.8% disagree with the idea of preferences, as opposed to 41.9% who agree. And within the black population, 49.8% disagree, as opposed to 42.5% who agree.
These numbers for minorities are particularly striking. Edmund Peterson, Chairman of the Advisory Committee of Project 21, a black conservative leadership group in Washington, D.C., is one man who has seen these trends take shape first hand. He says, "There is clearly a change occurring, and I think it's been there for a long time. More and more minorities are speaking out against the injustices of preferential treatment in this country."
Clearly, people are finally realizing that preferences are simply a bad idea. "This is about fundamental American principles," says Rep. Canady, "we can't have this kind of group mentality fragmenting our country." Americans, including minorities, are starting to recognize that reverse discrimination is not the way to solve our problems.
Furthermore, people are beginning to see just how little racial preferences have actually accomplished. Today, black unemployment is twice that of whites -- almost exactly the same proportion as in 1965. In 1975, the earnings of black men were 74.3% of that of white men. Today black men earn 74% as much as white men. In 1971, median black family income was 61% that of white families. Today it is only 54% of white family income.
Racial preferences have little support among Americans, are morally backwards, and simply don't work. Yet Gingrich, who himself opposes preferences, will not take a firm stand on the issue politically. He has said, along with black Republican Rep. J.C. Watts, that he would feel more comfortable moving to end racial preferences if something were put in its place. However, even though Rep. Watts has introduced a conservative solution to improve the living standards of minorities, the Watts-Talent Community Renewal Act of 1997, neither he nor Gingrich have increased their support for Rep. Canady's bill.
Gingrich's concerns are understandable. For decades, racial preferences were an untouchable sacred cow in American politics. That time has passed. Americans have finally seen the flaws of racial preferences, and have turned against them. Yes, to some small extent, ending racial preferences may in the short term hurt minority enrollment in the Republican party, and yes, some people will be angry -- but the overwhelming majority of Americans will see it as the right thing to do. Speaker Gingrich must take the lead in the battle to rid America of the moral wrong of racial preferences.
--Ryan H. Sager is a Research Associate with the National Center for Public Policy Research, a non-profit educational foundation in Washington, D.C.
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