Originally created 11/18/96

Success of anti-affirmative action forces in California has Georgia opponents hopeful



ATLANTA - The passage of an anti-affirmative action referendum in California this month is spurring quota critics to line up for a shot at similar programs in Georgia and elsewhere.

The Georgia Department of Transportation board recently decided to suspend the state's "disadvantaged business" contracting goals. And Atlanta attorney A. Lee Parks is poised to sue the university system Board of Regents to desegregate black colleges and end race-based policies.

Civil-rights activists in the Legislature expect an all-out assault on state affirmative action programs when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

"I'd say I've got a 65/35 chance this time," said House Minority Whip Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, who has sponsored anti-affirmative action bills for three years. "With California, I've got the momentum."

State Sen. Tyrone Brooks agrees.

"That's going to give all the opponents of affirmative action much more energy and much more of a platform to push their case nationally," said Mr. Brooks, D-Atlanta, president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials.

California voters on Nov. 5 approved a referendum ballot question banning the use of race and gender preferences. Almost immediately, University of California Provost C. Judson King issued a letter to school chancellors telling them race, sex, color, ethnicity and national origin could no longer be factors in undergraduate admissions decisions.

University of California-Los Angeles and the University of California-Berkeley released reports recently predicting elimination of race and gender preferences in admissions would cut the number of black and Hispanic students by 50-70 percent.

University System of Georgia Chancellor Stephen Portch expressed similar concerns last spring when Attorney General Michael Bowers recommended state schools drop any preference policies.

The attorney general's opinion came after a federal appeals court ruled that the University of Texas law school's affirmative action admissions plan unconstitutionally discriminated against nonminority applicants. The U.S. Supreme Court later let that ruling stand.

"We're in a global, multicultural world and our students have to compete in that. By the end of this century, 30 percent of our citizens will be minority," Dr. Portch said. "If they don't have full participation in post-secondary education, this state is going to be missing a great opportunity."

About 21 percent of the 206,000 Georgia college and university students are black, and about 27 percent are classified minority.

Dr. Portch directed the presidents of Georgia's 34 colleges and universities not to change admissions policies for this fall. But the system faces a legal challenge from Mr. Parks, the same attorney who successfully sued the state to get rid of race-based, black-majority political districts.

Mr. Parks, in a letter to Gov. Zell Miller and Dr. Portch, attacked the use of race and gender in admissions policies and the state's commitment to support three historically black schools - Savannah State, Albany State and Fort Valley State.

CURRENT POLICIES of the university system work to keep segregation alive, not to eradicate it, Mr. Parks argued.

He said the historically black public colleges receive a disproportionate amount of state funds and have little to show for it in academic achievement, with high dropout and low graduation rates.

"What they essentially are doing is warehousing these students," he said.

Mr. Parks wants to integrate the schools, in part by having the system institute a uniform admissions policy. That would require schools such as the University of Georgia, which has a relatively small black student count, to lower admissions requirements.

"What they're saying is black people can come to the University of Georgia if they can meet our standards and pay our tuition. That is segregation by choice rather than law," Mr. Parks said.

Mr. Parks said he plans to file suit against the state this month.

"We've reached a total impasse with Portch," he said. "He is not willing to do anything realistic in my opinion."

Arlethia Perry-Johnson, spokeswoman for the chancellor, said system officials haven't discussed the issue with Mr. Parks for months.

MR. PARKS ALSO EXPECTS, among other demands, that the state upgrade its historically black colleges. Then, incentives such as free tuition could be offered to white students to help integrate those schools.

"That is the collegiate equivalent of busing," he said.

"What about giving free tuition to black students?" Mr. Brooks responded. Nonetheless, he agreed with Mr. Parks that historically black colleges should be improved.

"What we need to do is talk about giving these majority black colleges more resources. If predominantly black historic colleges can be given the same resources and the same incentives, that's one way to approach it," he added.

Education isn't the only battleground for race-based preferences.

THE TRANSPORTATION BOARD voted in August to suspend the state's portion of the "disadvantaged business enterprise" program after Mr. Bowers raised questions about minority participation goals.

State Rep. Billy McKinney, D-Atlanta, who has regularly criticized the low percentage of state contracts going to black businesses, called it another example of the "Chinese water torture" approach to ending affirmative action.

"A little bit at a time. One drop does not hurt, but over a period of time, the victim goes crazy," Mr. McKinney said. "The Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts have all but been declared invalid by the Clarence Thomas supreme court.

"The question is, where do we go from here?"

If Mr. Ehrhart gets his way, the answer is back to war.

Democrats have been able to outmaneuver Republicans to keep his bills ending affirmative action programs from passing, but the votes have been close. This session Mr. Ehrhart will have a slightly larger Republican minority on his side.

GOP lawmakers may provide a publicity springboard for Mr. Bowers, a vocal critic of government quotas who is considered a leading Republican candidate for governor in 1998.

"State government is rife with quotas and set-asides," Mr. Ehrhart said. "It's discrimination on its face, it's morally reprehensible and that's what affirmative action is."