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CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : Affirmative Action Has Not Outlived Need : The proposed 'civil rights initiative' is purely political. The state's economy could use more race, gender equality.

February 27, 1995|CLIFFORD M. TONG | Clifford M. Tong is CEO of the Small Business Connection, a Lafayette, Calif ., management and technical consulting firm.

The winds of political change are shifting and the smell is distinctly malodorous. "Political correctness" itself is now politically incorrect.

Take affirmative action as a prime example. Gov. Pete Wilson and the new state Legislature seem intent on wiping out affirmative action, minority and women business enterprise programs and any other programs that they deem to be examples of "reverse discrimination." Unbelievably, they are calling it the "California civil rights initiative," giving the impression that this will put an end to race and gender discrimination in public employment, education and contracting. This initiative has about as much chance of ending world hunger as it does of ending discrimination--which is to say, none.

In a perfect world, we wouldn't be judged by our gender or the color of our skin but on our capabilities and qualifications to perform a job, pay back a loan or pay the rent. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 recognized these inequities and made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race; later, gender gained the same protection. Affirmative-action programs were born out of a need to remedy situations in which historical evidence of discrimination exists.

It is now politically advantageous to dismiss affirmative action and minority and women enterprise programs as ideas that have served their intended purpose and no longer seem necessary. The so-called civil rights initiative will garner much voter support because it sounds good in theory and continues to look for convenient scapegoats to blame for the bad economy. But the statistics don't lie: 30 years after the Civil Rights Act, women are still paid substantially less than men to perform the same job, minorities are grossly underrepresented in the upper levels of management, African Americans are far more likely to be denied a mortgage loan and minority-owned businesses have a far smaller share of the public contracting procurement dollar then their availability indicates.

We need to come to grips with why these programs are still necessary. Public opinion would suggest that affirmative action is about hiring an underqualified person who meets the desired gender or minority requirements in place of a more qualified person who doesn't. I don't doubt that this does happen. But the fact that women and minorities have not achieved parity after 30 years indicates that discrimination in the work force has not substantially changed.

We need to ask ourselves a question: Do we believe that women and minorities are as equally qualified to perform the same jobs as the rest of society? If the answer is no , then we subscribe to the premise that our society is inherently discriminatory. If the answer is yes, then the statistics would indicate that we are underutilizing the skills and talents of a large part of our labor force.

The economic impact of this situation is significant. It means that we as consumers end up paying more for goods and services, our work force is less competitive and we are more likely to lose jobs to overseas firms. It means that unemployment rates are higher, which increases crime rates and the number of welfare recipients, which results in increased taxes. It means that millions of Americans are not earning and contributing all that they could to the economy and therefore not spending as much as they might on new homes, automobiles, computers and other goods in industries that generate jobs, income, tax revenues and consumer spending.

Contrary to popular belief, affirmative action and minority business enterprise programs increase competition. By ensuring that groups that have historically not had an equal opportunity to compete now can, we encourage and stimulate new ideas and creativity while increasing productivity and lowering costs. It's time that we begin to see the benefits of having all Americans live up to their potential; our economy needs it.

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