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A Challenge to the Democratic Party:
Zealously Support Affirmative Action,
or Can the Rhetoric on Social Justice

Jose J. Soto, JD
Lincoln, Nebraska

A "no-holds-barred" attack on affirmative action programs has been launched. This calculated and well-orchestrated assault has increased considerably over the past three to four years and represents only the "tip of the iceberg." Further, the attack is destined to gain additional support and meet little resistance unless the Democratic Party's commitment to affirmative action is reaffirmed and vigorously promoted as part of its professed commitment to social justice.

It seems as if overnight, what was once considered an appropriate remedy for the historic exclusion of and discrimination against minorities and women, has become the topic of spirited social conversation, measured civic discourse and dissembled political debate. The more "conservative," regardless of race and gender, have been quick and eager to condemn affirmative action and support initiatives to end it. Many on the more "liberal" end of the spectrum, with the exception of those who are people of color, have been, much to my disillusionment, all too shy and slow in coming to its defense, and actually seem ready to capitulate.

Judicial, legislative and executive branch scrutiny of affirmative action programs has increased significantly at all levels of government. Our national judiciary has made pronouncements limiting affirmative action as an appropriate remedy for discrimination. And while these pronouncements only limit affirmative action, too many "supporters" have reacted as if these decisions and initiatives have tolled the death of affirmative action.

These court decisions and legislative initiatives, in addition to negative coverage in the popular media, have created confusion and wavering support for affirmative action. They have also served to sway the lukewarm and fair-weather supporters of affirmative action toward a less aggressive and less controversial posture of mere verbal "support." This has resulted in a willingness to talk of support for affirmative action in principle, and, too often, an unwillingness to take any meaningful action in response to the attack on affirmative action. This is especially true if the response in support means expending any political, personal or professional capital.

The reality is that aggressive and targeted outreach and recruitment efforts by employers, higher education institutions and government entities are probably not subject to the strict scrutiny standards and limitations announced in court cases. Further, the defeat of most anti-affirmative action legislation strongly suggests that the public and their elected representatives are not ready to eliminate affirmative action.

A bottom line is that we can do as much, or as little, to promote, support and implement affirmative action as our individual and collective conscience dictates. Certainly, the law allows for more to be done than what most entities are doing in the name of affirmative action. Good conscience and social justice demand that the Democratic Party do more than offer token support for affirmative action.

If advancement and protection of civil rights continues to be an important part of the party's mission, the Democratic leadership and party membership must be vocal and unwavering in their commitment to promoting and supporting affirmative action. If the Democratic Party's political philosophy to redress social injustices is still deemed worthy of protection and advancement, something more than a perfunctory "fight" in defense of affirmative action must be mounted, lest these much needed programs fade in to history.

The choice seems simple: either zealously support affirmative action, or can the Party's rhetoric on social justice as a core principle of its philosophy.

About the author: Jose J. Soto, JD is Vice President for Affirmative Action/Equity/Diversity, Southeast Community College, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Published in In Motion Magazine January 18, 1999.

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