Affirmative Action Onslaught Persists

Defeat of Higher Education Act amendment not expected to thwart attacks

Republicans on Capitol Hill have developed a more subtle attack strategy since their colleague, Rep. Charles Canady (R-Florida), failed in his repeated attempts to eliminate federal affirmative action in one broad sweeping motion. Now they’re attempting to chip away affirmative action provisions by attaching an endless stream of amendments to reauthorization bills.

First, affirmative action had to defend provisions in the Department of Transportation bill that provides contracting opportunities for disadvantaged business enterprises. A bill introduced by Rep. Marge Roukema (R-New Jersey) sought to prohibit “discrimination and preferential treatment” when awarding federal transportation projects. That measure was defeated 225 to 194.

Then, Rep. Frank Riggs (R-California) introduced “Title XI — Discrimination and Preferential Treatment,” an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965. The Riggs amendment would have eliminated affirmative action at colleges and universities receiving federal funding. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) says the amendment did nothing but “attack opportunities for minorities by trying to expand the experience in California and Texas across the country.” Even the lone black Republican, Rep. J.C. Watts (Oklahoma), felt compelled to issue an alert urging lawmakers to reject the amendment. Fortunately, enough legislators agreed, as the measure was defeated 294 to 171.

Modeled after California’s Proposition 209, the Riggs amendment would have prohibited schools from using affirmative action to increase diversity on campus or as a legal remedy in cases of documented discrimination. Initially, it went one step further, attempting to prohibit affirmative action at both public and private institutions. As with the Canady bill, there wasn’t enough support for the bill to stand on its own, so Riggs attempted to attach the amendment to the Higher Education Act.

Since California adopted Proposition 209, and the Hopwood vs. Texas decision ended consideration of race in admissions and Scholarship decisions at Texas colleges and universities, both states have seen a precipitous drop in the number of black and Hispanic students accepted for admission. There has also been an alarming drop in the number of minority applicants. In 1997, U.C. Berkeley’s school of law made 75 offers to blacks and 78 to Hispanics. Since Prop 209, however, the school made only 14 and 39 offers, respectively. The numbers in Texas are no better. Last fall, only five African Americans and 18 Hispanics were admitted, in contrast to the 65 African Americans and 70 Mexican Americans admitted in the previous year.

“The vote on Riggs was really a triumph of moderation over extremism,” says Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. But will moderation prevail?

The federal government has 160 affirmative action programs, and while many have withstood assault thus far, there’s no question in lawmakers’ minds there will be future attacks. “The Republicans are attacking affirmative action because they believe there’s an attitude in America that minorities have been given too much,” says Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (DTexas). “It puts us on a constant vigil and alert, because time and time again, these amendments are going to be raised on the floor of the House.”

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