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An interview with René Redwood
Affirmative Action and the Civil Rights Movement

The positive impact of affirmative action
is a fact in our daily lives

Washington, D.C.

René RedwoodRené Redwood (at the time of this interview was) executive director of Americans for a Fair Chance, a nonpartisan consortium of six of the nation's most prominent civil rights legal groups. Prior to holding this position, she was Special Assistant to the Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich. Also, she was executive director of the Glass Ceiling Commission. The interview was conducted (by phone from San Diego) for In Motion Magazine by Nic Paget-Clarke, January 9, 1999. For more information see: The History of Affirmative Action Policies.

In Houston, they minimized that confusion

In Motion Magazine:  Drawing on your experience with the Houston 1997 election, was that vote to keep affirmative action a significant election -- and if so what was the significance?

René Redwood: The importance of the Houston election in dealing with the issue of affirmative action was that it showed clearly that when people are given an opportunity to choose between having affirmative action programs of inclusion or their elimination, they choose to support affirmative action. I think what was critical was the ballot language.

Unlike in California or in Washington state, where the titles of the initiative were misleading -- the "California Civil Rights Initiative", the "Washington Civil Rights Initiative "-- in Houston, people were given the chance to choose: "Do you want to end the affirmative action programs in city employment and contracting now and in the future?". People said "no" they wanted to keep those affirmative action programs. They were given a chance to clearly vote on affirmative action, the actual words of the initiative said affirmative action, as a consequence Houstonians were able to assess what that meant to them. In Houston, they minimized that confusion by choosing the term "affirmative action". In Washington state and also in California, individuals were asked in very vague terms "Do you want to end discrimination,( which we all do), "by eliminating preferences?"  "Preferences" is very vague, it's not defined. Given that vagueness, given the title of the initiative, the confusion factor had a dramatic impact.

I think that it is critical how the American people understand the issue of affirmative action. Overall, surveys show two thirds of the people consistently support "affirmative action" when asked about it using the phrase "affirmative action." We also know that when people are asked about "preferences" they say no; they don't support "preferences."

In Motion Magazine:   From a national perspective, how do you analyze the Washington state vote. Do these local battles have national importance or do they just get forgotten as people move on to a different state?

René Redwood: I think we've got to place this whole discourse in context. When we see these anti-affirmative action initiatives we need to recognize that in the fifty states only two state initiatives have taken place. The third initiative was in a municipality - Houston - where we saw votes for affirmative action.

So it's two out of fifty states. That places it in perspective. It was predicted after the passage of 209 in California that these anti-affirmative action initiatives would sweep across the nation, that hasn't happened at all. I think that's part of the national perspective.

We also need to look at who is driving these initiatives. Why haven't the initiatives caught fire in any other states? Or even jurisdictions? Also, you don't see the Coretta Scott Kings supporting these so-called "civil rights" initiatives. You don't see the governors supporting them - with the exception of Pete Wilson (and his anti-affirmative action role was linked to his presidential aspirations).  You don't see an uprising of the people who are saying they want to eliminate programs of inclusion. It's not until the issue (controversy) is manufactured in these deceptively constructed ballots that we see large-scale discussion/debate taking place in local communities.

Also, where have these initiatives been taking place? One was in California where there's a tremendous amount of demographic change. A second initiative was in Washington state, a state targeted primarily because it has very few people of color, less than 15% of the population.  Ninety percent of the voting population in Washington state is white.  Those who were opposing inclusion and opportunity, who were against affirmative action, were casting this issue as a race issue, which is a very divisive way of dealing with the changes taking place in our society.

I think the election in Washington state was a very malicious attempt to move a political agenda forward by a very few. The same individuals who originally bank-rolled and conceived  the idea in California exported their agenda to Washington state. I think what's important about Washington state is that even on the day of the election , one poll showed that people did not want to end affirmative action. They thought they were voting to reform it, or to mend it. Again I am talking about the deceptive and misleading tactics and language that put people in the position of voting for things that they were not clear about. In California, 27% of the population surveyed who voted for prop 209 thought they voted to strengthen affirmative action. 

But, the states are significant and that's where most of the action is taking place.

Federal laws and national consequences

On the national level efforts to eliminate affirmative action since '95 have not succeeded. They have not been able to pass any federal laws, and federal laws are the law of the land.

In California, now that the anti-affirmative action initiative has been in place for almost two years, we're seeing efforts to correct the interpretation of  Prop 209.  We're seeing that while the original initiative passed, it's now coming under attack as people see what the consequences are of the initiative. In California, a judge recently ruled against Mr. Pete Wilson's -- the former governor -- effort to implement fully his notion of what Prop 209 means; which in his interpretation, included elimination of outreach and recruitment in employment.  The judge said, "no"  because of continuing discrimination, and "we need to have some form of remedy".  That ruling becomes an important lesson for the rest of America.

Similarly, in Washington state,  how do you define a preference? What does that mean? Does it mean that programs like breast cancer prevention and education programs that target women have to be eliminated?  According to the language of the initiative, you can not consider race or gender when using state dollars. Well, if they are using state money to print pamphlets on breast cancer is that considered preference?  It targets women. Does that mean they can no longer use tax monies to support gender-specific programs like this? There are unforeseen consequences when ballot initiatives are vaguely worded. We have to look at what happens in the states.

We do have to look very closely at the lessons being learned in other communities where these anti-affirmative action initiatives have been successful. So far, they're showing us that we are not at a point in our nation where we can remove programs like affirmative action. Discrimination continues to exist. Affirmative action has worked and is fair.

Presidential Campaigns

When you ask do you see affirmative action playing a role in the upcoming presidential campaign or is it strictly a state and local issue - it's played a role in past elections. We need to redefine affirmative action clearly for the American people to understand it is a tool to give qualified individuals equal access and equal opportunities to compete. All Americans have benefited from affirmative action. It's not just a race issue. But those who have used it in the past presidential campaigns tended to use it in a divisive way. They play racial politics to divide the country. We saw Pete Wilson use it in his presidential bid, but he didn't succeed in even getting the nomination.

We saw this use of racial politics in an early exploratory the presidential effort in Washington state by Steve Forbes who provided support for the divisive Initiative 200. He's already using that to put forward his posture on the issue of race.

Part of the role of media, as well as advocates for opportunity, is to make sure that the American people understand not only what is being said -- the true language of the discourse -- but also the divisive tactics that are being used. I think that when we see anti-affirmative action issues brought up in presidential campaigns -- which hence makes it a national issue and not strictly a local or state issue -- we need to recognize and look at it for what it is.  It is being used as a tactic to divide the American people. It is a part of the bag of tricks that are used for personal and political gain by a few. We need to be able to call them on that.

A divisive tool

In Georgia, there was an attempt this past November (the 1998 November elections) to use affirmative action again as a tool to racially divide Georgians. That effort had a very partisan tinge. But the local Republican party reacted and said that wasn't the way to go in the state of Georgia. It was too divisive. Candidates were advised to look at what they are doing. Those who were using that tactic were causing 25% of the population to vote against them.

Partisan and bipartisan

In Motion Magazine: Has partisan become a code word?

René Redwood: I think the word partisan recognizes political demarcations, and affirmative action has always enjoyed bipartisan support, i.e. support from both Democrats and Republicans. It's had a history of bipartisan support. I think what we see happening now however is that the party that's been associated with anti-affirmative action activity, hence divisive activity, is the state-level Republican party. For example, in California, the state Republican Party backed Proposition 209; and, the Republican party was the launching board for Initiative 200 in Washington state.

However, the Republican former governor of the state of Washington very vehemently opposed the initiative. The current secretary of state in Washington state, again a Republican, opposed the initiative and talked about its divisive nature. He said this was not the time in Washington state to end these programs that are so necessary for developing all the talent in their state.

I don't think it's a code word because there's not a divide strictly along party lines. This issue of affirmative action has been a very moderate measure, even a conservative response to the persistence of discrimination. Abhorring discrimination is not something that's confined to one party, and that's why the term partisan is not necessarily a code word. There is very strong Republican support for affirmative action.

In Motion Magazine:   Have Democrats consistently supported affirmative action?

René Redwood:  For the most part, yes.  However, there are some Democrats too who have not been very good on the issue. Again, part of that is because of a lack of understanding. For example, some say affirmative action is purely an issue of race. It's not just about race, it's about all America. It's about women. It's about girls having access to mentoring programs on Saturday. It's about job training of displaced homemakers, and women who want to go back into the work force. Women are critical to this issue -- they are significant beneficiaries.

Women come in every color and ethnicity. Not everyone knows a minority, but everyone knows a woman. That means every household in America has benefited as a result of affirmative action.

The positive impact of affirmative action is a fact in our daily lives

In Motion Magazine:   What are some significant battles coming up around affirmative action?

René Redwood: Again, I think a significant battle is the language of the debate on affirmative action. We need to properly define it. We need to be able to frame it and talk about it in a way that people understand it in their daily lives.

People recognize that we have healthcare where we have not had healthcare before because we've got clinics in communities traditionally under-served. We've got women in the healthcare profession, in science, medical technology, as a consequence, we pay attention to issues like breast cancer and have made tremendous progress as a result of including women in research and health professions.  Those are only some of the consequences of affirmative action.  Additionally, as long as the language is so directed towards the issue of race, that is another major challenge for affirmative action.

I think among the other concrete challenges that we face are some of the legal challenges to affirmative action. There are several law suits that challenge affirmative action programs in higher education. The University of Michigan, the Jennifer Gratz  lawsuit, for example and the University of Washington State lawsuit filed by Katuria Smith.

Also, there's always a potential for state legislation using misleading language, such as "ending discrimination by eliminating 'preferences,' " which is the opponents of opportunity's code word. In New Jersey for instance, in the House as well as in the Senate, the opposition introduced bad language.

We've got both kinds of legislative battles facing us in some of the states. But again, placing this in perspective, there have been legislative battles in over twenty states last year and the year before and there's been no successful passage of anti-affirmative action laws. While there are challenges and skirmishes, I think there also is a reality that the American people do understand that we need to make sure that we provide opportunities --  training, education, and employment opportunities for all qualified individuals regardless of their gender, their race, ethnicity or color.

In education and in the work place

In Motion Magazine:  Is there a difference between affirmative action struggles in education and affirmative action struggles in the workplace.

René Redwood: It comes down to the same thing - it's about access, equal access, and equal opportunities for qualified individuals.

One of the challenges we see is a discourse on education, broader than just higher education. It's about access to quality public education. It's about all students having access to college preparatory class. It's about having enough slots. One of the issues is you've got 10,000 students applying for 1,000 slots. We need to look at why there's so few slots available when so many want to go on and pursue careers through higher education. We talk about life-long learning yet then we don't provide the ability to do that.

We also have to look at how to define merit. Merit is not confined to numbers. Part of the irony is that those who oppose affirmative action in universities talk about not wanting to deal with numbers because numbers are quotas. But then the only thing they want to impose on anybody is SAT and GPA numbers.

In the workplace the biggest challenge is the ongoing discrimination. Just recently, the Department of Labor, the office of Federal Compliance Programs announced a conciliation agreement with Texaco arising from the persistence of what they call "unintentional systemic discrimination" in the workplace.  Women were being paid less, period. This was happening in an array of establishments throughout Texaco. It wasn't that people knew about it originally, it was that when they started to look, there was a distinct pattern of gender discrimination.

In business, discrimination is not always as overt. Yes, there continues to be hiring through the old boys' network and things like that. But also there continues to be the channeling and tracking of women and minorities into jobs that don't reach the top. The issue in the workplace is the persistence of discrimination and how it manifests itself in often subtle ways. It is the Glass Ceiling issue.

Affirmative Action and the Civil Rights Movement

In Motion Magazine:   What is the relationship of the affirmative action struggle to the Civil Rights Movement in the '90s?

René Redwood: Affirmative action has become the battering ram of  the Civil Rights Movement, but affirmative action isn't the only focus.

It's an issue about full inclusion for our nation, for all individuals. It's an issue about power. It's an issue about those trying to protect and maintain the status quo. I think that the relationship to Civil Rights has to be defined for the millennium.

Part of civil rights is the issue of economic justice and economic rights. Unfortunately, while we've made progress we still have a long way to go. We need to talk about it in new ways that people can better understand. We need to talk about civil rights and affirmative action in terms of not just that it's the good thing to do  - but how it's good for the bottom line for businesses. How it's a pocket-book issue for working women and their families. These struggles are all one in the same, and it goes back to the issue of inclusion, equal opportunity, equal access, issues of fairness. There is a direct relationship between affirmative action and civil rights, but also, for example, there's a relationship to bilingual education.

I spoke at a Montgomery County (Maryland) leadership program and the woman presenting before my debate, was speaking to everyone in the audience in Cyrillic. She's a bilingual counselor at the Montgomery county school system. We sat there looking at and listening to this woman speak to us in Cyrillic. You couldn't participate. We didn't know what she was saying. Using that situation as an example, then how do you expect a child to learn when they are being told "you can't speak your language" in the classroom. "You've just got to sit there and learn it (English)." That's not immersion. That is not appropriate. You need to be able to recognize that sometimes good, fair programs are not applied or implemented well, but you don't throw them out. You have a red light and someone runs it. Do you get rid of the light? No ,you enforce the law. You get better ways to improve the use of the light. "Mend not end".

These battles are the same. It's about trying to maintain power over structures. It's about maintaining preferences for those who have always enjoyed preferences. This nation has shown a preference for majority over minority. It has shown a preference for male over female. It has shown a preference for English over bilingual, or even individuals with an accent. It's always had a preference for physically abled over physically disabled. Martin Luther King said the ultimate measure of a people is not where we stand in a moment of comfort and convenience, but where we stand in a time of challenge and controversy. The challenge for this nation is how do we embrace and include and allow individuals to live up to their full potential recognizing the brilliance of our diversity. That's what these battles and struggles are over.

Also see: The History of Affirmative Action Policies

Americans for a Fair Chance (AFC) is a nonpartisan consortium of six of the nation's most prominent civil rights legal groups. AFC was formed to educate the public about how affirmative action benefits women, minorities, and the nation as a whole. This historic and diverse coalition is comprised of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., National Women's Law Center and National Partnership for Women & Families.

Published in In Motion Magazine March 6, 1999.