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21st Century Affirmative Action


If the House votes to end affirmative action in broadcast licensing, "Republican fingerprints [would be] on the racist card," says an accusing Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel. That kind of rhetoric is not going to make it any easier for Americans of all races and both parties to work out an affirmative action program for the 21st century.

Nor is Sen. Phil Gramm's statement to the effect that if elected president his first act will be to end every racial preference he can.

Changes in affirmative action are needed. It is not "racist" to support such changes. By 154-44, House Democrats joined Republicans to end broadcast licensing affirmative action. But it is also wrong -- dreadfully shortsighted -- to lump all affirmative action policies and programs together for the purpose of dumping them, as Senator Gramm would do.

We prefer Sen. Bob Dole's approach, and President Clinton's, and Jesse Jackson's, and, especially, Hugh Price's. The senator compiled a 32-page list of all federal preferential efforts. He said recently that he plans to "just determine which ones ought to have priority, which ones ought to be eliminated, if any, and then move from there. We're not trying to have some radical surgical process here, but I think it's time we took a look." President Clinton agreed: "It's time to review it, discuss it, and be straightforward about it." Reverend Jackson called last week for a national debate framed in non-racial terms.

Affirmative action has worked best over the past 30 years for those blacks who, as Mr. Price, president of the National Urban League, put it in an interview here recently, were prepared and determined to enter the American mainstream. It has done that by looking back at the barriers that are the legacy of slavery, segregation and white supremacy and devising ways to remove them. What needs to be done now is to look ahead and devise policies that enable blacks still left out of the mainstream to enter, in what Mr. Price rightly describes as "this ruthlessly competitive world [that] waits for no nation, no ethnic group and no individual."

A preparatory affirmative action approach is needed now in place of the remedial one. The beneficiaries won't be just blacks and other members of minority groups. Inclusion of all groups in public and private endeavors will prepare white Americans and American organizations to understand and compete in the small and "ruthless" world of the 21st century.

"Corporations," Mr. Price of the Urban League points out, "need employees well versed in various cultures to penetrate new markets here and abroad. What's more, diverse student bodies better equip white graduates to function productively and harmoniously in the multicultural economic markets and workplaces that await them."

Developing forward-looking affirmative action could be tough, and it shouldn't be made tougher by the Rangels and Gramms of the nation.

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