Should Jews vote to dismantle affirmative action Give minorities a chance

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The issue of affirmative action in California has become a highly politicized controversy. The Orwellian-titled "California Civil Rights Initiative" (CCRI), an initiative to amend the state constitution, will be on the November ballot. CCRI would prohibit all "preferential treatment" based on race, gender or ethnicity by state or local government in the operation of employment, contracting and education. In addition, it would amend the constitution to permit sex discrimination in these areas as long as it is deemed "reasonably necessary."

Proponents of the CCRI are hoping that the Jewish community will be divided on their measure. To date, they have been disappointed. No major Jewish group has endorsed the initiative. While some groups have waited to see if the measure made the ballot, the Northern Pacific region of the American Jewish Congress has voted to oppose it, as has the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Community Relations Councils of the East Bay and San Francisco.

Jewish support for affirmative action should not be surprising. We have long taken a position of leadership among whites in the struggle for civil rights. But divisions do exist between the Jewish community and the African American community, and those of all races who stand opposed to civil rights seek to exploit and exacerbate these differences.

It is critical that we understand what CCRI does as we articulate a Jewish position on the initiative. Proponents of CCRI argue that its major impact will be on quotas. In fact, it will have no impact at all on quotas. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it crystal clear that racial quotas may only be used by the government after a lawsuit has been filed and a court has determined that quotas are the only meaningful remedy available. On the very rare occasions that this happens, CCRI explicitly permits these court-ordered quotas to be left undisturbed.

What CCRI will do is affect a broad range of affirmative action programs. The California Legislative Analyst has concluded that CCRI "would eliminate a variety of public school and community college programs such as counseling, tutoring, student financial aid, and financial aid to selected school districts, where these programs are targeted based on race, sex, ethnicity, or national origin."

It would also "eliminate a variety of programs such as outreach, counseling, tutoring, and financial aid used by the University of California and the California State University to admit and assist students from under-represented groups."

State and local governments will not be permitted to give any preference to women and/or minority-owned businesses. (They can now do so only when there is strong evidence of discrimination.) It will probably ban even those programs designed to assist women and minorities in bidding on government contracts, or in applying for government jobs or promotions.

Why should we, as a people, take a leading role in opposing the dismantling of affirmative action? There are two critical reasons. Both are the result of our own historical experience with slavery, oppression and discrimination.

First, we understand the reality of privilege in a way that most white Americans do not. Whites in this society are given innumerable racial privileges. We, as Jews, understand what it means to be ill-treated because of our ethnic identity. We know what it means to be scapegoated by negative stereotypes that turn a society against us.

Second, we are the only white Americans who share with black Americans the cultural heritage of slavery. We thus understand, in a way that few other whites can, how profound a heritage this is. For example, white gentiles complain that blacks who reflect on their ancestors' slavery are stuck in the past, and should ignore what happened 130 years ago and look to the future. Yet for us, it is at the very core of our identity that our ancestors, and hence we, were slaves some 3,200 years ago. When other whites complain that legal segregation ended 30 years ago (as if to ask, "So what's the problem?"), we know that it took us 40 years, and a full generation, to move from oppression to freedom. And when we needed help, we got a lot more than merely a law banning discrimination.

God didn't just free us from slavery and leave us on our own. God gave us Moses, and kept him alive till we arrived in the Promised Land.

God gave us manna. God gave us the law, and gave it to us again when we failed to appreciate it the first time. And for these things that helped lead us to freedom, we are still giving our thanks more than 3,000 years later.

What will happen in our community if CCRI passes? Consider the effect on women-owned businesses in San Francisco. In 1988, fewer than 3 percent of all city contracts were awarded to businesses owned by women or racial-ethnic minority group members. That year the city conducted an investigation, held hearings and concluded that the city's contracting procedures discriminated against women and minority-owned businesses. An affirmative action plan was developed, and has been approved by the federal courts. As a result, 14 percent of the city's contracts today go to women and minority-owned businesses. If CCRI passes, the San Francisco program will be outlawed.

A recent economic prognosis estimated that if CCRI were to pass, unemployment among African Americans would rise a full percentage point, and large numbers of minority-owned and women-owned businesses would close their doors. We can safely predict that economic conditions will grow considerably worse for women and minority group members. Racial and ethnic polarization in California will certainly grow worse.

The needs of our community, as well as the lessons of our history, teach us that there is a Jewish position on affirmative action — and there has been one for thousands of years. It is the Jewish position to always stand up and speak out against oppression and discrimination. When we reclined at the Pesach table this year and read that we are not free until all people are free, we were not mouthing empty words; we were re-committing ourselves to fight for freedom. And the fight for freedom today in California is the fight to save affirmative action. As good Jews, we can do nothing less.