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A Question With Many Answers

Prop. 209 poses a yes-or-no choice, but issues of discrimination and fairness have historically resisted tidy solutions. Both sides in affirmative action debate claim that equality is the goal.


The strength of democracy is also its weakness. Yes, Americans get to vote on important matters, or at least some of the important matters, and for that they stand ready to fight. But also, they find themselves asked to vote on questions that make them uncomfortable, where they must take sides against their own mixed feelings, knowing their votes will impose a consensus when none, in fact, exists. And against that, there is no way or will to fight at all.

As Oscar Wilde, ever the cynic, once put it: "Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people."

In November, Californians will choose, as it were, between fairness of opportunity and equality of opportunity in the workings of state and local government. Or is it the other way around, equality versus fairness?

This is not idle wordplay with the citizen ballot initiative Proposition 209, the latest hot spillover from the caldron of race and gender politics in California.

On Nov. 5, Proposition 209 will demand a decision on a subject where basic laws of the land are contradictory and their history veiled, where judicial direction is indecisive and policy implementation is uneven, where an entire generation has lived with something and still cannot agree what it is.

Proposition 209 is about affirmative action. It's about affirmative action preferences for blacks and Latinos, Native Americans and women, but only those working for the government--or seeking government contracts or competing for admission to public colleges. Affirmative action for that slice of the population would be outlawed by amendment to the state Constitution with passage of the initiative.

But Proposition 209 also is about the nature of a fair society, America's grand stereotype of itself and a 35-year quest to right hundreds of years of social wrongs. It's about getting a break in a society where demand exceeds supply when it comes to opportunity.

So in nine weeks, Californians will have to choose their ground. Yes or no.

Both sides in this campaign voice allegiance to the founding belief that equality is an essential aim of society.

But the definition of fairness and proper tactics for achieving it have bedeviled the country from the start, and ever more now.

Words are power. And, as French writer Antoine De Saint Exupery remarked, "Words are the source of misunderstandings."

The term affirmative action goes back to at least the 1940s in the struggle over civil rights. According to George E. Curry, editor of Emerge magazine and author of a new book, "The Affirmative Action Debate," the term first gained legal standing in 1961 in an executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy establishing the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appealed for "an understanding heart by all Americans" to right the wrongs of racial inequity.

That year, the government enacted the landmark Civil Rights Act. And Johnson set out to prepare a divided nation for "the next and more profound stage in the battle for civil rights."

"Freedom is not enough," Johnson said. "You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.

"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."

Johnson specifically referred to black Americans, whom he called "another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope."

The next year he signed Executive Order 11246, requiring federal contractors to take affirmative action to provide equal opportunities without regard to race, religion or national origin. In 1967, the category of gender was added.

In 1969, under President Richard Nixon, the law was expanded to require "goals and timetables."

For many, the objective seemed apparent. But America's affirmative action laws and regulations actually have been shrouded all along in ground fog generated in the power chambers of government.

At the very same time the nation embarked on affirmative action, Congress approved the 1964 Civil Rights Act, still the law of the land, and it specifically outlaws discrimination in employment based on "race, color, religion, sex or national origin."

Further, the late Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, a sponsor of the law, repeatedly said the critics were wrong to worry. "It is claimed that the bill would require racial quotas for all hiring, when in fact it provides that race shall not be a basis for making personnel decisions," Humphrey said.

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