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Rainbow Rhetoric Does Nothing for the Forgotten Majority

September 18, 2000|FREDERICK R. LYNCH | Frederick R. Lynch is a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and the author of "The Diversity Machine: The Drive to Change the White Male Workplace" (Free Press, 1997; Transaction Paperbacks, 2000)

Demographic change and politics are a peculiar mix this year. The political future has been hailed by both Republicans and Democrats as diversity and inclusion, anticipating the Census Bureau's official declaration that California is a "majority minority" state.

Behind the rainbow rhetoric, however, campaign strategists still covet the 55% of the electorate who are middle-income, working-class whites, especially in the Midwestern battleground states. The political importance of this publicly neglected class has been emphasized anew by social scientists Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers in their provocative new book "The Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters."

Most of the forgotten majority have some college education, but they usually lack degrees; have low-level, white-collar and service-sector jobs; and have household incomes between $15,000 and $75,000. Their values celebrate individual effort, opportunity, hard work and family responsibilities, but for the past 25 years they have stagnated economically. The candidate who best articulates the disjuncture between their values and economic experience can get the bulk of their votes.

The land mine on the path to winning the forgotten majority while practicing inclusion of minority groups is affirmative action. Like most politicians and pundits who have begun to echo their thesis, Teixeira and Rogers acknowledge the issue but downplay it to plead for a cross-ethnic, working-class coalition. Yet battles over ethnic and gender preferences are intensifying; the issue won't go away. In addition to driving ballot initiatives like Proposition 209, yesteryear's much-maligned angry white males are getting charges of reverse discrimination heard, believed and vindicated in courtrooms across the land.

Most recently, a Fresno jury awarded $4 million to three white Cal State police officers who claimed they'd lost promotions or jobs because they were white males. Nor was this the first time the nation's largest state university system had been caught overdoing diversity. Last year, a San Francisco jury awarded $2.7 million to a white part-time instructor at San Francisco State University who claimed he'd been denied a full-time tenure-track slot because of his race. There are more reverse discrimination cases in the pipeline, including the University of Michigan's defense of preferential student admissions based on the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1978 Bakke case.

Reverse discrimination resentment is an obvious factor in white men's continuing overwhelming preference for Republican presidential candidates. White elites may sneer that this resentment is whining or racism. But real and rumored ethnic preferences strike at the economic and ideological ideals of forgotten Americans who live from paycheck to paycheck and whose employment test scores have been artificially lowered through banding (whereby test scores are treated equally within a broad numerical band, such as 80-100) or the officially outlawed race norming (in which an individual's raw test scores are compared only to others of the same ethnicity).

The Gore campaign seems to be attempting to divide and conquer the forgotten majority along gender lines. Al Gore has considerably boosted his support among single and married working women by honing the themes of Social Security, health care and work-family issues. Does Gore's vigorous defense of affirmative action appeal to working women? Perhaps. But working women can be tough-minded defenders of merit, and they may sympathize with reverse discrimination complaints by their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers.

The Bush campaign is vigorously articulating the forgotten Americans' ideals of individualism, moral responsibility, hard work and opportunity and a measure of born-again compassion and charity. While this may have a no-nonsense masculine appeal (as does his stand against gun registration), the Bush economic message of tax cuts is more directed toward the country-club set than those in the forgotten majority.

As for affirmative action, Bush's message is in the muddled middle. He denounces the soft racism of low expectations and judging individuals as members of groups. But Bush encouraged and signed affirmative access legislation in Texas, which guarantees the top 10% of high school students admission to state higher education systems, clearly an end run around a ban on university admissions preferences handed down by a federal appeals court.

If a questioner at the presidential debates can toss the political hot potato of affirmative action into the forum--especially if the question is framed around the pending Michigan court case--then these important face-offs may be even more decisive and interesting.

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