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Affirmative Action, Immigration: Wedge Issues That Need Not Divide

February 27, 1995|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

It's not entirely a coincidence that affirmative action and the modern era of expanded immigration both trace their roots to 1965. Each policy is infused with the optimism that defined that time. And each is now threatened by the edgy anxiety that defines our own.

In 1965, Congress reauthorized large-scale immigration (after 40 years of tight restriction) in an exuberant statement of national self-confidence. In a nation with steadily rising living standards and confidence in its leaders and institutions, it hardly seemed beyond our capacity to forge millions of new Americans from energetic and ambitious men and women around the globe.

The same expansive sentiments undergirded the 1965 presidential executive order that marked the critical step toward affirmative action. Having broken the legal structure of segregation the year before, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a celebrated speech in June of 1965, committed America to guaranteeing blacks "not just equality as a right . . . but equality as a fact." A Great Society could afford to move into the mainstream millions of African Americans who were systematically excluded for a century; indeed, it could afford no less.

To many Americans, the promises of 1965 now seem misguided, or ineffective, or unaffordable. Both affirmative action and legal immigration are coming under more fire than anyone could have predicted only a few years ago.

In 1990, Congress, with broad bipartisan support and little public notice, increased the level of legal immigration by 40%. Now, in the wake of California's thrust against illegal immigration, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas--the House Republican point man on the issue--is proposing to cut legal immigration in half. House Republicans intend to cut off all social welfare benefits to legal immigrants who are not yet citizens.

On affirmative action, the change is even more dramatic. Although Ronald Reagan and George Bush fulminated about quotas and reverse discrimination, in 12 years neither risked rescinding the executive order that requires federal contractors to establish "goals and timetables" for the hiring of women and minorities. Linda Chavez, a civil rights official under Reagan, remembers that discussion of repeal only advanced as far as a Cabinet committee--and was buried by fear of a backlash.

In the current Republican presidential campaign, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander are promising to retrench affirmative action. Republicans in both chambers are preparing legislation to strike down all federal rules (such as the Johnson executive order) that mandate racially conscious hiring or contracting.

Even such a sweeping statute would not eliminate all affirmative action--remaining court decisions would strongly encourage universities and most big companies to maintain programs. But it would mark a clear turning point.

Many distinct forces are powering these moves against legal immigration and affirmative action. But in both cases, the efforts draw strength from a persistent and pervasive anxiety about the nation's direction.

Each reflects endemic economic anxiety: the fear that opportunity is too limited to be squandered on others--either minorities benefiting from affirmative action or new immigrants competing for entry-level jobs.

To its critics, immigration also raises fears of social fragmentation: a society of different languages and incompatible cultures lacking a unifying core. Affirmative action intensifies that cultural tension because it institutionalizes difference, encouraging individuals to see themselves as parts of groups and to view their group interests as inherently in conflict.

These initiatives also are linked, of course, by political calculation. At a time when white voters are moving sharply toward the GOP, Democrats believe Republicans are pushing these issues to harden racial divides in the electorate.

In challenging affirmative action, Republicans are placing Democrats in the excruciating position of choosing between African Americans who remain committed to these policies and whites (and even many Latinos and Asians) hostile toward them. Republican strategist Bill Kristol hardly exaggerated when he wrote in a memo last week that a full-fledged debate over affirmative action could blow the Democratic coalition "completely apart."

Efforts to reduce legal immigration could also heighten those strains on Democrats. But those efforts will create enormous tensions among Republicans as well. Although proposals to reduce immigration excite the party's growing economic nationalist wing, they provoke intense resistance from conservative intellectuals such as Chavez, Kristol and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp--all of whom see entrepreneurial and family-oriented new immigrants as the party's future growth.

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