Little white lies threaten civil rights

To John Barry, affirmative action is an abomination. It is unfair, unconstitutional, immoral. It traps African Americans in dead-end bureaucracies and aids the rich. It casts doubt on every person who benefits because people say: He's only there to fill a quota. Worst of all, it discriminates based on race -- the very behavior the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was supposed to end.;;Barry is executive director of the "Florida Civil Rights Initiative," which aims to pass a referendum ending affirmative action in state and local government. The proposal, modeled on California's Proposition 209, has just been drafted. There's still the small matter of getting more than 460,000 signatures (Barry plans to collect 700,000 to be safe) on petitions by June 1998 to qualify the issue for the November 1998 ballot. But Barry feels confident the tide of history is on his side. Proposition 209 won by a 54-46 percent vote, and, in April, a federal appeals court in California threw out an injunction that stayed enforcement of 209, paving the way for the dismantling of affirmative action in California. Barry fashioned a press release hailing the decision as "a victory for democracy" and for "the new civil rights movement." ;;It would be simple enough to note that the "new civil rights movement's" ranks include David Duke, head of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, and leave it at that. But the array of people calling for a reassessment of affirmative action ranges from California Gov. Pete Wilson and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm through President Clinton and Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter, a self-described "affirmative-action baby" beset with doubts about the program's benefits. ;;A Vietnam War veteran, Barry, 52, of Orlando, is a certified public accountant who does management consulting for airport concessionaires. He has a master's degree in business administration atop an undergraduate education in English and history. He has read Carter, along with Dinesh D'Souza and Charles Murray, and networked with the leaders of the California Civil Rights Initiative and the right-wing Alternative Enterprise Institute. ;;Raised in a political family, Barry staged a brief campaign for Orange County comptroller in 1995. He has worked on a number of local political campaigns, most recently for Winter Park mayoral hopeful Pam Peters. Yet he scoffs at suggestions he has political aspirations, insisting he will be forever stigmatized as an extremist.;;Barry is a serious man addressing a complex issue. The trouble is precisely that he is not a white-hooded moron. He's just right enough to be dangerous.;;Affirmative Action -- preferences in hiring or contracting work for disadvantaged minorities -- began in 1965 as a next step in the attempt to level the playing field for minorities. "You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him and bring him to the starting line of a race and say, ‘You are free to compete with others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair," said President Lyndon Johnson. But instead of benefiting just African Americans, the programs were extended to some new immigrants, Native Americans and women, to build a broader political coalition. ;;The outcome was predictable.;;Many leaders of these groups became dependent on set-asides. Then fraud -- by way of companies owned by white males but fronted by minorities -- began to get a significant share of the set-asides. "This has become a special interest that cloaks itself in the language of high principle," Barry says. "Many local governments like it because it allows them to favor certain groups.";;The result, Barry says, is an array of big-money organizations that favor the status quo and will fight Barry -- and others pushing similar programs in Colorado, Arizona and Oregon -- by any means necessary. Including calling them racists.;;Barry counters by citing Ward Connerly, a black University of California regent who helped end minority preferences there; Linda Chavez, who heads the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, D.C.; and Bayard Rustin, a leader of the civil-rights movement.;;But Connerly may be having a change of heart. Last month the University of California reported a tremendous drop in admissions of African-American students, including an 81 percent decrease in black admissions to the law school. Connerly indicated at a forum on affirmative action that some outreach programs focusing on minority communities might be necessary because there is a "humongous problem among blacks.";;Rustin wanted programs designed along class lines as well as race. He recognized that without a multiracial workers' alliance to back it, affirmative action -- and civil rights in general -- would whither. ;;And Rustin was right. ;;As affirmative action programs worked in real life, white men were aggrieved. In 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court decided in J.A. Croson Co. vs. Richmond, Va. that set-asides must benefit only those groups that actually have been discriminated against in a particular field. And the victims have to prove it. Municipalities defended their affirmative-action programs using statistical research. These statistical tests could reform affirmative action, keeping prosperous, white Portuguese-American contractors, for example, from sucking up work that more justly could go to blacks. But it is just this process of discovering racial disparity that infuriates Barry, and it was a Greater Orlando Aviation Authority meeting in 1993 in which such statistics were cited as proof of racism that compelled Barry to attack racial preference programs. "Some very inflammatory and hateful things were said," Barry recalls. "The racial disparity study was released and advocates for it said this was a racist place, and unless black contractors got some more contracts there might be riots like those in L.A. ... I was shocked that someone would threaten riots in front of public officials. This is not a racist country. This is not a sexist country.";;It may be hard to fix exactly when racism and sexism ended in the United States. Several members of the Association of Women in Law Enforcement who have quit or been forced out of the Orange County Sheriff's Department since claiming sexual harassment would find it difficult. It's fair to say most African Americans in this vicinity would, too. But D'Souza announced it in "The End of Racism." And Murray's "The Bell Curve" tried -- using statistical analysis and a dollop of eugenics -- to show blacks just aren't as smart as whites.;;Barry says he "follows" Murray but can't endorse his findings on that score. More important, he says, is Murray's finding that the best and brightest create complex governmental regulations that the rest of us can't follow, dragging down the whole economy, small businessman (and woman) first.;;It is here that one can see Barry's place on the continuum of race and economic thinking. ;;Although he paints his opposition as special interests, Barry's organization is itself a small thread in a powerful network of foundations -- Bradley, Scaife, Coors and Olin -- that fund the think tanks that pay the salaries of "intellectuals" like Murray and D'Souza and have for decades denigrated civil-rights laws because they interfere with corporate prerogatives. Chavez's Center for Equal Opportunity was originally an arm of the Manhattan Institute, which published "The Bell Curve.";;Enforcing the set-aside rules and auditing existing businesses would do much to make affirmative-action programs serve actually disadvantaged people. Yet Barry says that's not possible, or even desirable. Blacks, other minorities and women will be improved only by fair and open competition, he says. Anything less is a drag on the economy. "Forbes magazine did an estimate," Barry says. "They concluded that affirmative action generally costs about 4 percent of the gross domestic product. It's a huge number.";;This concern for fairness and efficiency is not absolute. The denizens of the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and Forbes magazine seldom complain about the legacy system at Ivy League universities where the sons and daughters of the rich are accepted regardless of their SAT scores or grades. Harvard's admission rate for alumni progeny averages between 35 and 40 percent. ;;Barry says racism is over because discrimination is illegal. But enforcement is lax and declining. Since 1981 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has seen its staff cut by half. Currently about 100,000 cases are backlogged at the agency.;;In Barry's view, that is all to the good. Less government, more freedom. His basic argument -- and that of his backing think tanks -- is that whatever the government attempts to do, the result is precisely opposite. Environmentalism harms the environment. Anti-discrimination programs are actually discrimination. The Orwellian brilliance of calling his effort a "civil rights initiative" situates Barry perfectly within this zeitgeist.;;His referendum in effect will ask white people, "Are you racist?" Those who believe they are not will vote to end set-asides in the name of fairness, consciences uncluttered by the fact that black families' mean net-worths are one-tenth that of whites, that black defendants on average receive longer prison sentences than whites convicted of the same crimes, that American schools are almost completely segregated. No matter: Drag them to the starting line -- those chains are just imaginary.