Although Wilson talks about racial preferences, Panetta said, "he never says [that] where there is discrimination we ought to correct it. And that's a fundamental principle in this country. . . . We don't have to do quotas, we don't have to do preferences based on unqualified credentials, we don't have to do reverse discrimination. But, for goodness' sakes, let us at least use the tools we have to deal with discrimination."
Wilson brushed aside the allegation that he is merely using the issue for campaign politics, noting that it first was raised at the Board of Regents 18 months ago, "long before I was a candidate."
Affirmative action is dividing people and "tribalizing America," he added in one television interview, repeating a phrase that had drawn some of the sharpest criticism.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) accused Wilson of using "a buzzword. . . . Tribalism is associated with Africa, is associated to people of color, and to say that in that sort of tone in this debate, at least causes one to wonder whether or not he was trying to send a code word," Mfume said on "Meet the Press."
On the same program, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) said, "I don't think there's any question that [Wilson] is stirring the pot of racial turmoil by his actions."
But Wilson noted that the phrase had been used by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who served in the Kennedy Administration, in his book "Disuniting America."
In his statement, Wilson said, "We are going to demand policies and practices that are fair to deserving students of all races and ethnicities, not those that impose racial favoritism."
Ostrow reported from Washington and Nazario from Los Angeles.