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One step toward 'One Florida'



Two weeks ago, Gov. Jeb Bush made a move to head off the growing support for a proposed ballot measure that would end Florida's affirmative-action policies. Abruptly stopping affirmative action would damage the Republican Party's 2000 year election efforts by energizing women and minorities to vote, so Bush attempted an end-run around the racial-preference foes and announced his "One Florida" initiative.

First, he proposed to terminate affirmative action regarding public colleges and state contracts. Then he promised to soften the blow with increased spending on education and plans for more diversity in minority contracting. In other words, he directed an end to race and gender preferences in law while promising to be a better boy in practice.

The problem is that neither side is buying it, and the firestorm, though slow to start, is heating up as both camps don their flak jackets and arm themselves with the scalding rhetoric of the last three decades.

Yet both sides are using outmoded ammo, each unsound in its own way. And Bush -- who can be faulted both for his naivete in not expecting a strong backlash from the black community and for his cynical political maneuvering -- has actually stumbled onto the truth: We need to examine an alternative approach for solving the seemingly intractable problem of race relations in America.

To believe the anti-preference foes, one would have to agree with the statement by Ward Connerly (the black businessman who spearheaded last year's drive that ended affirmative action in California, and who aims to do the same here) that mainstream America isn't racist anymore. If that were true, than why, this long after women's suffrage and the Civil Rights Act, do white men still hold 95 percent of the nation's wealth? Why in this state do blacks number only 6 percent of college students, when their population stands at 15 percent? And why did minority and women contractors earn only 1.8 percent of Florida's procurement dollars this past fiscal year? Does anyone actually believe that racism and sexism are vestiges of the past?

Conversely, one can use the same numbers to prove that the pro-affirmative-action forces have failed to show that any great gains have been made over the past 30 years, even with preferential programs in place. How long will it take to "even the playing field," and at what cost? Polls show that 80 percent of Floridians are ready to support Connerly's proposal. And if only 52 percent of blacks themselves favors affirmative action, isn't that a clear sign that the experiment is losing favor in the very community it is designed to help?

The fact is that the battle, at least on the state level, is over, notwithstanding the alternative ballot petition that Florida's Black Legislative Caucus is proposing. Cabinet approval of Bush's plan is a sure thing, and the state university's Board of Regents has already signed on. Affirmative action is going the way of forced busing as a cure for our society's racial woes, and its proponents need to figure out how to best salvage what they can. And though not perfect, and as bitter as it might be to swallow, Bush's "One Florida" is preferable to Connerly's plan.

What's in the Bush plan's favor? An underpinning of worthy goals; the remaining safety nets, including college-admissions preferences for low socioeconomic criteria and an aim of automatic acceptance for the top 20 percent of high-school graduates; and nonjurisdiction over local contracting programs (both Orlando and Orange County have promised to maintain their own versions of affirmative action). With these details, there is a chance that we will begin to focus on affirmative action's original intent: toward active recruitment and away from the set-asides that have alienated so many average Americans.

An acquaintance of mine (whose political philosophy tends to the right of Rush Limbaugh and who labels most of my ideas as "liberal bullshit") was watching a college football game recently, when I pointed out that many of the black athletes on the field might not have been there at all, if not for the interference of the government over the past decades. He countered that things would most likely have turned out the same even without government meddling. He thought it was just common sense: The more people of all races who got good educations, the better off we all would be in the long run.

How good it would be if my friend's common sense were simply more common, because we're going to have to depend more on it and less on government directive. The "tired" debate over affirmative action that Bush hoped to "transcend" may continue, but as of now, it's all sparks and heat. The light is elsewhere.

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