A CIVIL RIGHTS FIGHT
November 5, 1997
The nomination of Mr. Bill Lann Lee for the position of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights has kept the spotlight on Proposition 209. After a background report by Spencer Michels, Jim Lehrer and guests look at both the Senate and California perspectives on the nomination and the legislation.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
November 3, 1997:
The Supreme Court declines to hear a challenge to California's Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative which overturned affirmative action in the state.
September 30, 1997:
Presidential race advisers discuss Clinton's One America initiative.
July 4, 1997:
Online Forum The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook joins Angela Oh in responding to the first online forum on race relations.
June 16, 1997:
Experts analyze the merits of the President's weekend speech on race relations.
May 20, 1997:
Betty Ann Bowser reports on the effects of dropping affirmative action programs in Texas universities.
May 20, 1997:
The authors of All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way discuss social success in the military.
April 9, 1997:
A federal court in California upholds a state ban on affirmative action programs.
Feb. 21, 1997:
The Online NewsHour hosts a forum on the declining economic power of Hispanic Americans.
Jan. 15, 1996:
Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks to Benjamin DeMott about his book The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can't Think Straight about Race.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Race Relations.
SPENCER MICHELS: Voters in Houston yesterday decided to keep that city's affirmative action program in place. About 54 percent rejected an effort to dismantle the city's program, which asked contractors to give 20 percent of city work to minorities and women. The Houston referendum was the first since voters in California approved Proposition 209, banning affirmative action last year. In California cities like San Francisco, with affirmative action programs in place, are coping with the new Supreme Court action essentially upholding 209 after a number of legal challenges.
The measure--passed by 54 percent of voters--outlaws state and local government affirmative action programs. The Supreme Court's decision this week not consider a challenge to Prop 209 may put the future of existing programs in jeopardy, though on that there is disagreement. The Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling, in effect, making Prop 209 the law. San Francisco has made a major effort in recent years to recruit minority police officers and firemen to make up for decades when the departments were the almost exclusive domain of whites. The city also passed ordinances to promote minority and women-owned businesses, giving them an advantage when they bid on city jobs and contracts. The court decision was a blow to James Jefferson, an African-American who owns a planning firm in San Francisco, which has won numerous contracts from the city helped, he says, by affirmative action.
JAMES JEFFERSON, Businessman: What it does is that it means that a company like mine is able to go in and compete for those contracts and feel like we have a chance of winning. Without that, it means that we are basically relegated to playing by rules we can never win by.
SPENCER MICHELS: Jefferson sees the court's decision as a setback for people like him.
JAMES JEFFERSON: I think in time you'll find that more companies will be going out of business because they are not able to get the contracts.
SPENCER MICHELS: Minority companies?
JAMES JEFFERSON: Minority companies. And women-owned companies.
SPENCER MICHELS: However, city officials say that contractors who do business with the city, like those repairing earthquake-damaged city hall, operate under an affirmative action rule already approved by federal courts and, in fact, mandated by federal law. Louise Renne is San Francisco's city attorney.
LOUISE RENNE, City Attorney: The courts have upheld our ordinance on the grounds that there was discrimination shown and that the ordinance was very narrowly tailored to deal with those findings of discrimination.
SPENCER MICHELS: Renne is not completely certain of future court rulings, but she is proceeding for now as though San Francisco's programs are legal. While officials in this politically liberal city deplored the court's refusal to strike down Prop 209, even though they said it probably won't have much effect. Some citizens welcome the decision. These ironworkers say they think it will ensure fairer hiring practices.
CHARLIE MELTON, Ironworker: You should be chosen to work strictly upon your ability. It shouldn't be race or sex, gender, or anything. It should be strictly ability.
SPENCER MICHELS: Even if there has been past discrimination?
CHARLIE MELTON: That's over and done with now, though. I mean, now they're getting carried away.
WORKER: As long as you're not discriminating now and you're only hiring strictly on ability, I don't think you should have to have quotas.
SPENCER MICHELS: No one in city government admits to using quotas, but the police and the fire departments are under a court order to improve minority representation. Police Chief Fred Lau, a Chinese-American, says those programs probably won't be affected by the legislation in Proposition 209.
FRED LAU, Police Chief: I think the legislation--if I interpret it correctly--sticks to goals and set quotas. We're not that way. We're talking about entire and complete diversity with our police department as--and I don't think that flies in the face of the legislation at all.
SPENCER MICHELS: Nevertheless, California's governor, Pete Wilson, said the Supreme Court action means it is time for those who have resisted Proposition 209 to acknowledge equal rights under the law, not special preferences, is the law of the land. In Washington yesterday the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee cited affirmative action as the reason for his opposition to the nomination of Bill Lann Lee to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH, Chairman, Judiciary Committee: (yesterday) Those charged with enforcing the nation's laws must demonstrate a proper understanding of that law and a determination to uphold its letter and its spirit. Unfortunately, much of Mr. Lee's work has been devoted to preserving constitutionally suspect, race conscious public policies that ultimately sort and divide citizens by race. To this day he is an adamant defender of preferential policies that by definition favor some and disfavor others based upon race and ethnicity.
SPENCER MICHELS: Bill Lann Lee's nomination didn't seem to be in danger when he testified before Sen. Hatch's committee two weeks ago. Lee is the son of a Chinese immigrant who worked in a New York City laundry. As an attorney for the NAACP he has been a staunch defender of civil rights programs, as well as affirmative action. At the hearing Hatch asked Lee, who is a Californian, about Proposition 209.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: I come from a position here where I want to support the President and I want to support your nomination. But this is not some insignificant itty-bitty issue. This is one of the most important issues in our country.
BILL LANN LEE, Assistant Attorney General Nominee: I recognize the importance of this question. This is an issue in which people have disagreed. If I am confirmed as assistant attorney general, the Department of Justice, civil rights division, will enforce the law as the courts have decided.
SPENCER MICHELS: All eight of the Democrats on the Senate committee back Lee, but he needs an additional two votes to get a majority. President Clinton yesterday defended his nominee, saying he was superbly qualified.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: How can anybody in good conscience vote against him if they believe that our civil rights laws ought to be enforced? That is the question that we will be pressing to every Senator, without regard to party. I had thought there was a bipartisan consensus in the United States for enforcing the civil rights laws of America. I still believe there is in the country, and I think there ought to be in the Senate.
SPENCER MICHELS: Today, with Lee at her side, Attorney General Janet Reno urged the Senate to confirm the nominee.
JANET RENO, Attorney General: We need Bill Lee's leadership at the civil rights division to carry on the fight for Americans who just want an equal chance at the American dream; people with disabilities, who are looking for a job; minority families, who've been turned away by a discriminatory landlord or mortgage banker; women who are looking for a workplace free of sexual harassment. Make no mistake, this nomination matters for this nation.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the Lee nomination tomorrow.