Now, Affirmative Action May Help White Men

At first glance, it looks like a ringing endorsement of affirmative action. But look again. The modest reforms President Clinton unveiled in a July 19 speech mark a turning point for civil rights. For the first time since their creation in 1965, affirmative action programs may extend help to economically disadvantaged white men, as well as to women and minorities. The shift could prompt business and academia to follow suit. "We need to do more to help disadvantaged people in distressed communities, no matter what their race or gender," Clinton declared.

The President gave few specifics, but a report released by the White House details his plan. Under pressure from recent Supreme Court rulings limiting affirmative action, Clinton wants to offer whites access to an array of federal programs, ranging from university scholarships to federal contracts. "It's an opening gambit and reflects some new thinking," says Paul R. Huard, chief lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers.

A GAMBLE. Republicans see the President as too tied to existing programs and don't think he actually will alter the impact of affirmative action in the workplace. "President Clinton believes that in the eyes of their government, some Americans should be more equal than others," rails Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.).

GOP lawmakers haven't backed off their plans to kill affirmative action for good. But Clinton is gambling that his modest changes--including new preferences for whites--will sell with the public. "Mend it, but don't end it," he said.

His solution: Give breaks to small companies--even those owned by white men--who locate or offer jobs in blighted neighborhoods. And Clinton urged the Education Dept. to reexamine scholarships for minorities. The intent: Award financial aid to the first members of families who attend college, regardless of race. "That will be a major change," says William E. Kirwan, president of the University of Maryland.

Advocates for women and minorities see a disturbing shift in the move to extend preferences to whites. They think it is a betrayal of affirmative action's original intent. "The sentiment does seem to be shifting toward need rather than race," frets Reginald Wilson, racial issues expert at the American Council on Education.

Such critics worry that Clinton's moves will, in the end, simply gut affirmative action. After all, the Administration still must narrow its programs according to strict new standards laid out in a June 12 Supreme Court decision holding that the government must prove past bias before it can enact programs granting preferences. Universities are rethinking affirmative action, too. The University of California Board of Regents, for instance, is debating whether to scuttle its minority admissions policy altogether.

Companies large and small may welcome some changes. They already see gold in the Administration's "empowerment contracting" program to give breaks for federal contracts to companies operating in distressed neighborhoods. If companies "realize that they can win federal business as a result of location, they'd move tomorrow," says Jeffrey Finkle, executive director of the National Council for Urban Economic Development. Adds Patty DeDominic, CEO of Los Angeles-based PDQ Personnel Services Inc.: "It's smart business to give such incentives to companies."

Small companies also are cheering White House recommendations to whittle down the numbers of women and minorities who can benefit from federal contracting breaks. The Administration wants minority and female entrepreneurs to graduate from sheltered government programs once they become strong enough to compete on their own. "That's a step in the right direction," says Joyce Newman of Reed & Reed, a white-owned construction firm in Woolwich, Me. "Subcontractors that have to compete with [minority] firms are really hurting."

Big companies could benefit from White House plans to free them from bureaucratic red tape. If they establish good hiring and promotion records, they would get fewer reviews from the Labor Dept. "If you have an effective program, it's burdensome to go through reviews every two years," says David M. Sampson, vice-president for diversity at Marriott International Inc.

Call it the 5% solution. While 95% of Clinton's recommendations back affirmative action as it is, his modest innovations may lead to fundamental change. The debate now: Will the change be for the better?

By Catherine Yang and Susan B. Garland in Washington, Michele Galen in New York, and bureau reports

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