Quota Quandary

As Proposition 209 seeks an end to affirmative action by state institutions, minority groups are conflicted

The way the anti-Proposition 209 people tell it, minority men who support 209 really want affirmative action to continue. They just don't know it.

"People of color are strongly for affirmative action," says Pat Ewing, manager of the Campaign to Defeat 209. "Some minority men who say they support 209 may not have seen affirmative action help or hurt them, but if you say, for example, that 209 could keep their daughter from becoming a doctor, then they feel differently."

Either Ewing is pretending, or she confines her conversations with minority men to those at campaign headquarters.

In fact, plenty of minority men in California -- especially Asians and Latinos -- would take a bludgeon to affirmative action. Not because they're confused by Prop. 209's civil-rights-friendly language. Not because they don't realize that the ballot initiative would end all "preferential treatment" based on race and sex in state and local government jobs and higher education. And not because they don't understand how affirmative action programs can affect them and their families.

They just don't think affirmative action is a solution; they think it's a problem. "I resent people saying my children are going to need a helping hand just because they happen to be Puerto Rican," says Tim Sanchez, an outspoken 27-year-old stockbroker and chairman of the local chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. "For Democrats to suggest that my children need help because all of the white people are against them is just ridiculous."

Most people fighting Prop. 209 simply can't believe there are minority men out there who continue to support the measure after they understand it. When asked about the most prominent minority supporter of 209 -- initiative sponsor and University of California Regent Ward Connerly, who is black -- they dub him an anomalous character twisted up in his own serious personal issues regarding what race he is.

But 44 percent of minority men favored Prop. 209 in a Field Poll released earlier this month. An equal percentage opposed it, with 12 percent undecided. Also surprising, 31 percent of minority women expressed support, with 46 percent opposed and 23 percent undecided. (The same poll showed whites favoring the initiative 49 to 28 percent, with 23 percent undecided.)

A deep irony is at work here: The ballot initiative called "racist" by Willie Brown, and which has been endorsed by former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke, could receive perhaps half of all minority male votes. The initiative had been expected to drive a wedge between Democrats -- white, angry men on one side, minorities and women on the other. That assumed, though, that minorities would vote monolithically. In fact, if there's any wedge, it's between African-Americans, who tend to oppose 209, and other minority groups -- or within Asian and Hispanic organizations that have experienced internecine fighting over the issue.

Why does such a large segment of minority men support 209? Because nearly half of the same men whose well-being is being invoked against their will by anti-209 forces don't want to be associated with racial preferences and quotas. Although affirmative action was designed to even the social odds, some of its presumed beneficiaries say it has stigmatized them.

Sanchez, who grew up "right smack in the ghetto" of East Oakland, says affirmative action programs have worked against him. He works at Smith Barney in San Francisco, where, he says, no preferences exist. "This is Wall Street, and it comes down to how much money you make for the firm." Nonetheless, he says he's had to put up with "remarks that people make in the private sector that if you're a minority and you're college-educated, right away they assume that you got into college because of your race."

Black author Shelby Steele, a longtime opponent of affirmative action who is at the conservative Hoover Institution, puts Sanchez's experience in a broader context. "There's been difficulty in minority communities with the idea of preferential treatment for a long time," he says, adding, "There are very few spokesmen for this constituency, even though the group is growing."

Steele is wary, however, of recommendations coming from the political right to dismantle affirmative action. He has written that those who condemn affirmative action should understand what inspired racial preferences in the first place. He suggests that politicians earn the "moral authority" to condemn affirmative action by making discrimination a felony. "It would make us face the lie that a white person is good because he's for affirmative action. Affirmative action preserves a certain amount of discrimination." (Interestingly enough, Steele declines to take a public stand for or against Prop. 209.)

As for other motives among minority opponents of affirmative action, backlash against women might have been expected among some men. True, a hint of machismo was evident among several minority guys who were quick -- and proud -- to point out that they can make it on their own, thank you. But in more than 30 interviews of minority men who support 209, not one mentioned gains among women.

Phil Telesforo, a Filipino firefighter who grew up in the Richmond, is emblematic. He was hired by the San Francisco Fire Department in 1985, a couple of years before a federal court imposed an affirmative action program on the department. "My feeling is that people who want affirmative action are people looking for handouts," the 36-year-old says with a steady expression and a level tone. "I, like everyone else in my family, think that those who work for what they want, get it.

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