THE LONG-AWAITED White House review of affirmative action policy seems to be more political posturing than policy audit. This became clear when a White House staffer reportedly said that angry black politicians made the White House look good in the eyes of the "angry white men" who have motivated the review of civil rights and affirmative action programs. But can the White House handle angry black businessmen, too?
The Supreme Court has already lightened the president's political load. The court's recent decision, Adarand vs. Pena, does allow minority set-aside programs, but requires "strict scrutiny" instead of the "intermediate scrutiny" that was previously required. This is no surprise given the current anti-affirmative-action climate; the court refused to even hear an appeal to save the University of Maryland's Banneker scholarship program for gifted black students.
Last year's controversial and woefully inaccurate book "The Bell Curve" set the tone by blaming racial economic gaps on IQ differences and arguing that affirmative action can't narrow the gap. Presidential aspirants Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kans., and Pete Wilson, California's governor, followed the lead by pandering to affirmative action critics. Since both previously supported affirmative action, their shifts seem fixed to the changing political tide.
In this hostile environment, black politicians are blistering over tepid White House support for affirmative action. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is contemplating a third party run for the presidency, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., wants protests and economic boycotts to bring home the importance of affirmative action, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., says that affirmative action could break the deal between African-Americans and the president.
The Democratic Party has often found it easy to take black support for granted. Where, they ask, will African-Americans go? But with Mr. Jackson threatening to lead a grass-roots campaign on the left, and with Republicans wooing black entrepreneurs on the right, those black entrepreneurs who still write checks to the Democratic Party may have a better chance of bending the president's ear.
Black Enterprise magazine publisher Earl Graves, Black Entertainment Television president Robert Johnson, and other entrepreneurs have formed a political action committee to lobby for the preservation of affirmative action, exhorting other black businessmen to kick in $5,000 apiece. If money talks on affirmative action, as it increasingly seems to in Washington, these entrepreneurs may have more to say than the traditional black leadership the president finds so easy to ignore.
Take former Assistant Secretary of Labor Ernest Green, one of nine who desegregated Little Rock High School in 1955. Mr. Green's Arkansas ties give him access to the president, but he is also a skilled fund-raiser. Last August, he helped coordinate a $1 million birthday celebration for the president as a benefit for the Democratic Party.
Mr. Green also knows that affirmative action works. He once owned a consulting company that competed for government and private sector contracts. He understands that race can be a barrier in a business environment that often depends on the "good old boys."
For example, after a 1989 Supreme Court decision concerning Richmond, Va., that narrowed the city's affirmative action program, the minority share of contracts dropped from 35 percent to a minuscule 2 percent. Clearly affirmative action and minority set-asides are still needed.
Yet Mr. Clinton seems to believe he has no stake in affirmative action. As we learned when Bill Clinton excoriated rap artist Sister Souljah, the president has mastered the art of using black rage to assuage white racial fears.
So black power may now be shifting from the black political class to the black entrepreneurial class. This may bode well for the outcome of affirmative action debates, but less well for the black working class.
Most black workers, professional or working class, have and still can benefit from affirmative action. Affirmative action opened as many doors for bus drivers and clerical workers as it did for minority entrepreneurs.
But if black-business-class access to the White House replaces the access the black political class once had, minimum wage and welfare reform issues that could have more value in the long run for black workers may be of less concern than the set-aside programs and a black presence on trade missions.
Julianne Malveaux is an economist and a syndicated columnist.