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.

"When I was a kid, I saw a lot of my aunts and uncles come here from the Philippines. They worked hard. They had to suffer. They worked hard for what they've got."

Not surprisingly, minority men interviewed about their support of 209 tended to be more conservative than those who oppose it. Call any Latino or Asian conservative political group, for instance, and they'll report they are at least divided -- or unified in support of the initiative. Supporters also tend to be more affluent than opponents. Forty-four percent of minority men, however, hardly constitute a rich elite.

Among the Asian community, as has been documented elsewhere, many feel that affirmative action policies in education have worked against them for some time. At schools in the University of California system, Asians have been required to score higher on entrance requirements than other minorities, because their high acceptance rates meant they were not deemed "underrepresented."

Now UC is phasing out all of its affirmative action programs (a measure pushed through by 209 sponsor Connerly), so Asians will no longer be held to a higher standard than any other applicants. But many Asian men were left soured on the whole idea of affirmative action. "If you're better qualified, you should get the position regardless of race," says Ed Jew, chairman of the California Chinese-American Republican Association.

Not all of the members of Jew's conservative Chinese political organization, however, agree with him on 209. "It's a divisive issue within our group," he admits, "so we aren't taking an official stand on it."

The official stand reported by S.F.'s black leadership is strong. Community leaders are adamant that blacks oppose 209. Period.

Black men who support 209 are "one in a thousand," says Alex Pitcher, local president of the NAACP. "We think there's something wrong with them."

"We're not supporting that crap," says James Howard, president of the Black Republican Council of San Francisco. "Everyone that I've talked to understands what's going on, that [the initiative sponsors] have no reputation or track record of fighting for fairness and justice. It's a pretty disingenuous thing."

African-Americans questioned randomly in the Western Addition said they are against 209, although a few wondered aloud whether affirmative action helps advance blacks as much as it stigmatizes them.

Indeed, according to this month's Field Poll on 209, California blacks oppose the measure 52 percent to 25 percent with 23 percent undecided. Either the poll is wrong, or none of the 25 percent of blacks who supports 209 lives in San Francisco, or none will admit they support 209 except in a confidential poll.

Errol Smith, a black vice chairman of the Yes on Proposition 209 campaign who lives in Santa Clarita in Southern California, goes with the theory that black supporters of 209 live outside S.F. Last time he came here was for the UC Regents meeting at which the university's affirmative action programs were dismantled, and he was heckled by a huge crowd that had gathered to protest. "It's pretty liberal up there," he says. "I was run out of town on a rail."

Similarly, 209's opponents have pretty much dismissed Connerly as an Uncle Tom. But the not insignificant number of other minority men who support 209 are hardly acknowledged. When pressed, anti-209 manager Ewing insists that minority men who support 209 change their minds once the prospect of losing outreach, recruitment, and mentoring programs is described to them.

If there's any truth in that, she and her colleagues had better get talking. Fast.

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