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Amid the Rhetoric, Four Voters Explain Support

October 15, 1996|JOHN BALZAR

From David Duke to Pete Wilson and Newt Gingrich, professional politicians have said plenty in favor of Proposition 209, which would abolish affirmative action preferences in government. How about a few words from voters?

Such as Martha J. House, who has faced prejudice much of her life and says, "Don't call me African-American. That hyphen is the cause of more racism than anything since the 1960s."

Or Korean-born Andrew S. Cho, who says he aches for the small minority-owned businesses that will disappear if Proposition 209 passes, but believes America must put principle first.

And Shawn Steel, a white who is married to an Asian American and wants a future in which his children do not have to wonder which box to check on forms that ask ethnic grouping.

Or lawyer David West, another white, who worries about the quiet, dispiriting "taint" that affirmative action can leave on its beneficiaries without regard to merit--"that is, it's too bad that some truly talented people will suffer from generalizations about their achievements."

Over dinner recently, these four Southern Californians were invited by The Times to discuss their support for Proposition 209 on their own terms, never mind official sloganeering.

Polls suggest that six of 10 Californians lean in favor of the Nov. 5 ballot measure--the second proposition in two years to probe California's sensitive politics of ethnicity. Some supporters, it seems, are comfortable letting experts and advertising jingle writers argue the case for them. Others, however, chafe at the persistent suggestion that hostility to minorities is the only motive behind this proposed retreat from 30 years of civil rights tradition.

No scientific conclusions are implied by such a small and arbitrary gathering, but perhaps a few thoughtful supporters, talking among themselves, help illuminate the debate. You decide.

Because she is a woman and black, House's opposition to government affirmative action quickly turns heads her way at the table.

She begins by challenging the hyphenated term African-American. "I am," she explains, "an American who happens to be black."

She lives in Alhambra, serves as a trustee of the Mt. San Antonio Community College District and president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Republican Women.

About Proposition 209 and affirmative action, she says: "I don't think this is what Martin Luther King had in mind . . . and I guess I'm one of those people who all this was designed to help."

She is speaking of contract set-asides for minorities and women, special admission considerations in public education and advantages in government hiring and promotion. Those are the targets of Proposition 209, which would amend the state Constitution to forbid any affirmative action by state or local governments based on race or gender.

Like an alpine mountaineer, House seems to thrive on the steep, slippery and difficult uphills of life.

Born in Arkansas, she recalls, "I watched federal troops come in and integrate Central High School in Little Rock."

It was a racially oppressive world, which House said she fled as soon as she was out of high school.

"I was a victim of prejudice in every sense of the word. However, I'm not a professional victim. What I mean is, then was then. Now is now."

She ended up in California, where opportunity did not seem beyond hope. In 10 years of work and study, she earned two college degrees and became the controller of a small business. She went on to be corporate accounting manager of a $600-million-a-year company.

For House, California proved to be the land of opportunity.

Her philosophy: "The most popular color in this country is green. If you do a good job, you don't have to worry about color or gender. My success could have had something to do with my color, but I like to think it was my dedication and determination. . . . I think it's ironic that today the government is the leader in discrimination. Government should be protecting us from discrimination."

Korean American Cho is a Santa Monica attorney specializing in bankruptcy and credit restoration, a practice that brings him in contact with those struggling to make their way up in society. Likewise, his father was an accountant who helped small businesses.

Cho's support for Proposition 209 is idealistic, but he says he remains realistic about the state of American society.

"I agree there is a lot of racial, ethnic prejudice against minorities. But I am unwilling to think of it in terms of groups. I'm willing only to think of it in terms of individual acts of prejudice," he says.

"I think of my father and his clients. Some cannot get any business without government set-asides. So what would I say to them? I would say that the law establishing set-asides is morally wrong. It was a misguided attempt to achieve equal outcomes. . . . What we need is to strengthen the laws against discrimination."

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