Oakland, Calif. -- RIGHT AFTER the November election, a reporter for The Sun asked Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., outgoing chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, to comment on the electorate's loudly heralded swerve to the ideological right.
"Every poll I see seems to indicate that the group who voted in largest numbers were angry white men who feel their place is being threatened by expanding opportunity for other people," Mr. Mfume told the reporter.
The congressman thus chose to interpret the election results, not as a failure of Democrats to keep faith with the hard-working people of all hues and origins who elected them, but as a referendum on affirmative action.
Meanwhile, in California, Gov. Pete Wilson got himself re-elected by focusing the angst of white wage-earners on Mexicans supposedly sneaking across the border to steal jobs.
Two Bay Area academics are now promoting the "California Civil Rights Initiative," a proposed amendment to the state constitution. It would ban many forms of affirmative action.
Thomas Wood, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California-Berkeley and heads the California Association of Scholars, and Glynn Custred, who teaches anthropology at California State University in Hayward, make a valid point. Racial quotas, preferences and set-asides have no place in a multiethnic society that promises all of its citizens a fair (if not precisely equal) shot at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Affirmative action has no doubt accelerated the upward mobility of some whose race or ethnicity might otherwise have held them back. But it also has antagonized the white majority whose voices must be joined with those of the minority if the demand for a more equitable distribution of this nation's wealth is ever to be heard -- and heeded.
Thomas Wood and Glynn Custred may have good intentions, but this is not the time for white men to be challenging affirmative action.
Minority workers have been the biggest losers thus far in the exchange of jobs for profits transpiring between First World and Third World countries under the rubric of "free trade." To raise the issue now would only divide along racial lines people whose common interests far outweigh their differences.
Nor does it behoove minority leaders to be disparaging the white majority of ordinary working people, whom Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently characterized as "the anxious class."
Their real wages have been declining for a decade. Their jobs are increasingly being shipped overseas. Their families are crumbling under the pressures of a shrinking economy. And their children make up the fastest-growing segment of America's impoverished underclass.
To begin debate over affirmative action now would be to indulge -- wittingly or otherwise -- in the divisive politics of race, and that would benefit no one but the racists among us.
Ira Eisenberg wrote this for the San Francisco Examiner.