National Catholic Register

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Affirmative Action Returns To Spotlight with Vengeance

BY Michael Barbera

Dec. 22-28, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/22/96 at 2:00 PM

 

THIS YEAR'S race for control of Congress and the White House dominated the news for months across the country. But in one state the national election had to share the spotlight with what was perhaps the most closely-watched ballot initiative in American history. When voters went to the polls and reelected Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress, Californians voted in overwhelming numbers for Proposition 209.

This ballot question, also known as the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), seeks to eliminate the use of race and sex preferences as mandated by government affirmative action programs statewide. Despite a massive spending campaign that opposed the initiative, the measure passed with more than 54 percent of the vote.

Although CCRI was embraced early in the year by Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, he did not focus on the issue until the waning days of the campaign. The issue never became a major issue in the race for the White House. (Bill Clinton, an opponent of CCRI, likewise did not spend much time talking about affirmative action.)

Even without the white heat of a presidential campaign, CCRI generated plenty of sparks. Although the effort was lead by a black businessman, Ward Connerly (a member of the State University Board of Regents), opponents seized on a public appearance by former KIansman David Duke in support of Proposition 209 to try to make the Louisiana white supremacist the face of CCRI. Abattle of the airwaves ensued, with many opponents of CCRI charging supporters with racism. Supporters, meanwhile, scrambled to defend themselves and their initiative.

Through all this bombast, the voice of the Catholic Church remained firm. Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, was a strong opponent of CCRI, and he spoke out again and again on behalf of government affirmative action policies. But he never contributed to the rancor and personalized rhetoric that characterized the CCRI debate.

“The temptation of the current debate regarding the future of affirmative action is to adopt the view of those who claim that the fight against economic, social, and racial discrimination has been fully successful and who press for the surrender of protections won after a long and bitter battle,” he said on June 8, 1993, early on in the affirmative action debate. “Successes we can claim have been real but limited, and were achieved only because of vigilance and determination. Only vigilance and determination will ensure that we do not regress.

On Sept. 3, 1996, the cardinal formally declared his opposition to Proposition 209. He urged Catholics to take a hard look at the goals of affirmative action, and to remember the common good: “Voters should demand a more intelligent level of discourse on the issues we face. In turn, we have the responsibility to search beyond the prepackaged political messages shaped by polling data and focus groups and marketed to the public as substantive information. Where political campaigns have traded substance for soundbites, we must reclaim the political process and place it within a moral context. Our challenge is to recover the moral principles which will strengthen our nation. A commitment to embodying solidarity and the common good should be at the foundation of those principles.”

The common good, in turn, will become more evident as solidarity breaks down the walls of injustice that divide us, he added. “As this occurs, the conditions will be created where the human potential of each person is given the opportunity to be realized.”

The cardinal made great efforts to educate Catholics about CCRI, and tried repeatedly to place CCRI in the context of the Church's social teachings, said one of his top aides.

“The Church cannot escape taking a strong position on an issue with such profound moral consequences,” said Father Gregory Coiro OFM Cap., director of media relations for the archdiocese. “Many Catholics are still woefully to embodying solidarity and the common good should be at the foundation of those principles.”

The common good, in turn, will become more evident as solidarity breaks down the walls of injustice that divide us, he added. “As this occurs, the conditions will be created where the human potential of each person is given the opportunity to be realized.”

The cardinal made great efforts to educate Catholics about CCRI, and tried repeatedly to place CCRI in the context of the Church's social teachings, said one of his top aides.

“The Church cannot escape taking a strong position on an issue with such profound moral consequences,” said Father Gregory Coiro OFM Cap., director of media relations for the archdiocese. “Many Catholics are still woefully unfamiliar with the Church's social teachings on issues like these. There is a tremendous need for greater education. The bishops here in California have tried for years to use their teaching position to discuss public policy issues, and certainly Cardinal Mahony fits into that tradition.”

We need a more civil and constructive discussion if we can continue to move to a colorblind society.”

“Cardinal Mahony showed that the Church can offer a different voice, one that is less political and ideological,” said John Carr, director of social development and world peace at the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC). “The Church is more focused on the dignity of the human person and the common good.” At the federal level, the USCC has been a strong supporter of “judiciously-administered” affirmative action programs.

Despite Cardinal Mahony's efforts, Californians passed CCRI. Almost immediately, however, the law was challenged in court by a variety of groups. A federal judge in San Francisco ordered that the law not be implemented until the courts can rule on opponents'claims that CCRI violates the “equal protection of the law” provisions of the 14th Amendment.

This legal action, coupled with a renewed push to sharply limit affirmative action programs in the states and a potential effort to do the same thing in Congress, could well mean that Catholics across the country will be grappling with this issue for months and even years to come. Many states are considering legislation on affirmative action this year, and some are looking at the possibility of a CCRI-style state referendum. Oh the federal level, Republicans are preparing to reintroduce legislation, sponsored last year by then-Sen. Dole, to do away with many of Washington's setaside and preference programs.

According to one prominent Catholic legislator, many Catholics learned a healthy self-reliance that leads them to oppose affirmative action. There is a hard-working, self-reliant drive among many ethnic Catholics that you have to make it on your own,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a Long Island Catholic and a product of Catholic schools as well as a leading opponent of affirmative action. “That comes from our own life experience more than it does from Church teaching. In Catholic schools, we were taught that it was up to us to succeed. No one owed us anything. If we did not have our homework, it was our own fault. If we did poorly on a test, it was our own fault. We could not blame anyone else.”

“That is the way many Catholics were raised,” he said. “We learned a kind of cultural Catholicism by growing up in a Catholic home and attending Catholic schools in a Catholic neighborhood. That kind of attitude of self-reliance stays with you all your life, and it is the reason why many Catholics are opposed to affirmative action policies that benefit one group at the expense of another.”

“I think the bishops are out of touch with ordinary Catholics on this issue,” he added. “Most Catholics are aware of Catholic teaching, and most Catholics have tremendous sympathy for those who have been discriminated against because we know the history of anti Catholic discrimination. But I do not know where in Catholic teaching it says that we need quotas, set-asides, and special preferences based on race and sex.”

“Many Catholics are conflicted about these issues,” said Father Coiro. “Most Catholics will say that they are opposed to reverse discrimination, but they have not done a thorough moral analysis of what that means. Too often, there is a knee-jerk reaction on certain issues, and people may vote their ideology even when it conflicts with the Church's teachings.”

“Of course, Catholics like all Americans are in favor of a color-blind society,” said Carr. “But we are not there yet. We need a more civil and constructive discussion [before] we can continue to move to a colorblind society.”

“For too long, this debate has been focused on individual rights versus group rights,” he added. “We need to focus more on the common good, and we need to find a way to work together to better use the talents of all our people.”

“All of us realize that many affirmative action programs need to be reformed,” said Father Coiro, “But some people believe that simply because we say that everyone is equal, then that automatically makes it so. The problem with Proposition 209 is that it disbands affirmative action but leaves nothing in its place to deal with the problems that still exist.”

Michael Barbera is based in Washington, D.C.