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Friday, July 9, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Civil-Rights Leaders Say New Pitch Needed -- Educating Whites And Energizing Minorities Is Their Goal For Selling The Policy At The Polls

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

The lessons learned here and in California over the past three years are forcing the nation's civil-rights establishment to examine its strategy on affirmative action.

After the success of ballot measures rolling back race- and gender-based policies in the two West Coast states, backers of those policies recognize that what once was a matter for Congress and the courts is fast moving to American voters.

The fight, they acknowledge, has become political.

The trick, they say, is to get the right message across to voters early and often.

And the goal, they believe, is to educate white voters, while energizing minority voters to turn out at the polls.

Julian Bond, board chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Washington, D.C., said defenders of affirmative action must use new terms to sell the policy and police the program for abuse.

"I think `affirmative action' has become loaded language. The defenders of affirmative action, like me, we lost control of the language," Bond said.

"So I think in conversation you've got to talk about fairness and justice and equality, because, at least so far, most people are for that."

But new language is not enough, he said.

No racial-spoils system

"People who want to support it want to be reassured that it isn't a racial spoils system for minorities," he said. "Where there is some egregious example of abuse, you must say, `This is wrong. This won't be tolerated.' Abuses hurt the defense of affirmative action."

In the past three popular votes on scaling back affirmative action - California in 1996, Houston in 1997 and Washington state in 1998 - minorities have overwhelmingly voted against the ballot measures, while whites have largely voted for them.

"The subtext of these votes is that it is hard to overcome the initiatives' appeal to white-male voters," said Bill Spriggs, director of research and public policy for the National Urban League.

That same dynamic could be at play in Florida, Michigan and other states targeted by Ward Connerly, the Californian orchestrating a state-by-state series of public votes on affirmative action. Whites are a strong majority of the voters in each of those states.

Given that, civil-rights leaders recognize they need to turn their attention to creating a broader appeal.

"There is the possibility of educating white voters," Spriggs said. "Some will respond with fairness, some will be confused and some will respond to the `guy-level' things that Ward Connerly knows that he can push."

Acknowledging it is an uphill battle, Spriggs said, "I think it's possible to get the white vote close enough so that it would make it a very close fight."

Poll finds deep divisions

Whites are deeply divided on affirmative action, the level of routine race and sex discrimination and the role of the government in addressing it, according to a Seattle Times national poll published yesterday.

The poll indicated that 51 percent of whites - and 72 percent of minorities - still believe in the ideals of affirmative action. But both whites and minorities want the way it actually works reformed.

The Times poll suggested many whites want to do away with goals and timetables for hiring and promotion as well as set-asides of public contracts for minority and women's firms.

One popular reform, the poll indicated, would be to change affirmative action so that it is based on economic disadvantage rather than race and gender.

But most civil-rights leaders reject that approach, feeling affirmative action should remain in force until its foes offer a better alternative.

Bond said the policy as written does not need to be changed.

"I think it is eminently sound," he said.

Instead, the focus should be on ending abuses and bad management of the policies, he said.

"When we read about some scandal in defense spending, we don't say, `Hey, let's cut out defense.' Instead we say, `Send these people to jail.'

"With social programs generally, and civil-rights programs particularly, we say, `Hey, abandon the program.' "

Besides, the mixed results of the poll suggest that Connerly cannot claim he has won over a majority of the whites, said Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific Legal Consortium.

"What I draw from the poll is that at least a significant number of whites see their interest in broader terms and believe it is in their interest to address discrimination," Narasaki said.

In her view, the poll suggests her side needs to do a better job of getting its message to voters, particularly whites, instead of revising policies.

Denial still exists

Some activists are ready to create new programs.

James Kelley, who soon will become president of the Seattle Urban League, is ready to start discussing reforms. But he places a condition on the offer.

"For us to sit down and discuss the next phase of equal opportunity, everyone at the table must realize we still do not have a level playing field," he said. "There is still denial that discrimination exists."

Others believe that they must simply offer an alternative ballot measure to counter Connerly's initiatives. That possibility was discussed, but rejected, by the affirmative-action supporters in California and Washington state.

In Florida, Connerly's proposal would ban government from "treating people differently" by race.

An alternative measure is the best way to win, said Leon Russell, chairman of the coalition defending affirmative action in Florida.

"You have to give people something to vote for," Russell said.

The alternatives drafted in California and Washington simply restated existing law and did not substantially change existing programs. The language of a Florida alternative is being debated.

Whatever the strategy, the Times' poll indicates the affirmative-action battle is far from over, said Eddie Williams, director of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that tracks racial issues.

"Even after we've been having this national debate for two years or longer, people are still really struggling with this issue of what do we do about discrimination. And a significant number of whites want to do something about it," he said.

"Support for affirmative action is strong - not as strong as it was back in the 1960s, but it is still there."

Phrases called `loaded terms'

Connerly faulted the poll for using the words "affirmative action" instead of "racial and gender preferences," calling both phrases "loaded terms."

He also warned that the results of this poll, and others, could be skewed by people wanting to give "politically correct" responses. Often they tell pollsters one thing about race, he said, then vote the opposite way.

Meanwhile, Connerly seized on the poll's suggestion that most whites believe affirmative action leads to unqualified minorities being pushed ahead of better-qualified whites in hiring, promotion and college admissions.

He said that has grave implications for the notion that affirmative action is responsible for the expansion of the black middle class, because it suggests whites think they are not qualified for their jobs.

Williams acknowledged that it is important to make sure minorities are competitive so that their qualifications are not assailed by the people courted by Connerly.

"If you don't have the training and education, you won't get the job," he said. "Every turn-down ain't necessarily discrimination."

Tom Brune's phone-message number is 206-464-2997. His e-mail address is: tbrune@seattletimes.com

Lynne K. Varner's phone-message number is 206-464-3217. Her e-mail address is: lvarner@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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