Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

With bald assertions of innocence and dubious claims of victimhood, white, male baby boomers lead anti-preference campaigns

May 21, 1995 


Newhouse News Service 

They are the first generation of white men who can barely remember America before affirmative action; the first to experience Jim Crow as history; the first to come of age in an era when, by dint of public policy, their being white and male might actually hurt their chances of getting into medical school or becoming a firefighter.

“Ever since we got out of high school, we’ve had to deal with it,” said Michael Marselle, a 38-year-old computer technician from Wilsonville, Ore.

Now, in what might be called the revenge of the anti-affirmative action baby boomers, Marselle is one of a cadre of white men of remarkably similar age, impulse and attitude. They are leading, almost entirely unaware of each other, efforts in one state after another to do away with racial and gender preferences in public employment, education and contracting.

Since the first of the year, nascent anti-preference movements have sprouted, spontaneously and independently, in at least 14 states in addition to a well-known effort in California.

In all 15 states, the prime movers are white men. In 11 of those states, they are white men between the ages of 29 and 40, proclaiming, in almost identical prose, their generational innocence in America’s long and sordid history of racism, their freedom from the burden of guilt that three decades ago led America to embark on affirmative action as an act of national penance, repair and redemption.

“I don’t like to be considered an angry white male at all. I’m just of a generation that is not culpable, not responsible, and refuses to be immolated on the sins of our fathers,” said Earl Ehrhart, 35, the Republican whip of the Georgia House of Representatives and leader of the effort to end affirmative action there. “I am not willing to pay reparations for something I didn’t do, or see my children pay, which really gets me.”

Ehrhart may have grown up in Smyrna, Ga., during the height of the civil rights struggle, but, he said, “I was playing with my little red wagon. I wasn’t discriminating against anyone.”

At 29, William Kelly’s alibi is even more airtight. Born in 1966, Kelly, who lost a race for Congress to former Black Panther Bobby Rush last fall, says the historic references to Alabama Gov. George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door are lost on his peers. “We’re the first generation who doesn’t even remember who Gov. Wallace was,” Kelly said.

Like Ehrhart and Kelly, most of those leading the charge against the continuing practice of affirmative action in all but its most muted forms, are Republican office-holders or office-seekers. They are enthralled by an issue that perfectly strokes, and stokes, the current national Zeitgeist, with its restless mix of anti-government anger, economic angst and moral nostalgia for a world of clean lines and classic values.

In a couple of cases, the fledgling efforts have stalled for now. But in most, they are pacing themselves to bring the issue to the fore in time for the 1996 national elections, their gleeful assumption being that, even as untested as it is, the issue just can’t miss if it comes before the voters.

Clint Bolick, a leading architect of efforts to shut down the federal affirmative action machinery in Washington, D.C., agrees it is an issue perfectly crafted to bring Reagan Democrats into the Republican fold. “The more ballots this is on in ’96, the better it will be for the Republicans,” Bolick said.

The national effort, in Washington and in many states, has been spurred and inspired by the example of Glynn Custred and Tom Wood, a pair of somewhat older academics whose California Civil Rights Initiative serves as the model for the multiplying efforts to end the use of racial and gender preferences.

The national interest and debate provoked by the California campaign, seen in the bright new context created by the Republican landslide in November, has in a few short months transformed the opposition to affirmative action from the scattered sullen grumbling of some wary white men to a national crusade that claims the moral high ground – “merit” not “preference,” “color-blindness” not “color-consciousness” – even as it basks in the happy valley of broad public approval.

In some cases, those leading the charge against preferences enrich their arguments with the vivid anecdote of their own personal encounters with reverse discrimination, encounters that sometimes, on closer inspection, are unprovable, improbable or incomplete.

Most notably, Tom Wood has stopped telling the story about how he lost an unspecified teaching job to a minority woman after being told over cappuccino by a member of the search committee that “you’d probably just waltz into this job if you were the right race or the right sex.” The anecdote found its way to the top of a number of stories about Wood before he told USA Today that “he did not actually apply for the job, and what he was told about qualifications may not have been accurate.”

He has since said he does not want his personal story to be the focus of debate, and he did not answer repeated requests for an interview for this story.

Some stories are more verifiable.

Larry Mackin’s case was quite clear. Mackin, 37, ended up a toll taker instead of a firefighter in Boston because the city was under a consent decree to hire one minority for every white person to make up for a long history of discrimination. Mackin was one of 34 white men with perfect scores on the civil service exam who weren’t hired and sued Boston for reverse discrimination. They lost.

But, across the continent, in the state of Washington, Republican state Rep. Scott Smith’s story of how affirmative action foiled his ambition to be a King County police officer is murkier.

Smith’s killer anecdote was about how in 1991 he and his wife took the police exam and that while he scored 81 and she scored 73, she was offered a job and he wasn’t.

“I wasn’t even given consideration,” said Smith, 32.

But, according to Valerie Holmes, the equal employment opportunity coordinator for the police department, her notes indicate Smith withdrew from consideration. Holmes says everyone with a score of 80 or better, as well as some minorities and women with lower scores were called back for the next step of the process.

Smith says he didn’t withdraw, but Holmes wonders why, if that is the case and they failed to contact him, he never called to inquire why.

Smith says he never called because he knew he had been passed over because he was a white man. “That’s affirmative action, there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said.

Holmes says Smith vastly exaggerated the impact of affirmative action, and cost himself a police badge in the process. “We always hire more white males than anything else,” Holmes said.

Likewise, Mike MacCallum, the longtime financial aid director at Long Beach City College in southern California, says Marselle, who is leading the anti-preference effort in Oregon, is seeing affirmative action where it didn’t exist. Marselle relates his tale of how he couldn’t get financial aid to go to school there back in the late 1970s until he changed his race on the aid form from white to American Indian.

“It doesn’t just sound unlikely, it sounds absolutely ridiculous,” MacCallum said. “I can’t assure you strongly enough, race has never been considered in awarding financial aid.”

Similarly, University of Michigan officials discount state Rep. David Jaye’s sharp recollection that on arriving as a freshman in 1976 he was shocked to learn that “tutors cost 20 bucks per half hour, but for minorities it was absolutely free.”

Dean of Students Royster Harper says that there are, and were, any number of programs that would provide free tutoring to any student, and that while there may have been programs that appeared to be serving minority students, they would not have been explicitly restricted by race.

The stories go on.

Anthony Martin, who is leading the anti-affirmative action effort in Florida, says he was denied a full-time teaching job at LaGuardia College of the City University of New York, because he was white, and he has a 1991 $25,000 out-of-court settlement to back him up.

But that settlement may also have something to do with Martin’s extraordinary history as, in the words of federal Judge Jose Cabranes, the “malign virtuoso of pro se litigation.”

Marselle’s partner in the Oregon effort, Greg Selby, 36, says that he was told by two electronics firms that they could not hire him because of his color. He declined to identify them because, he says, he may still sue them.

Sociologist Frederick Lynch, the author of Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action, says most of the blame for the gray mist surrounding affirmative action’s impact rests with its practitioners. Born of executive orders, bureaucratic regulations and judicial decrees, affirmative action, says Lynch, who teaches at California‘s Claremont McKenna College, has always been built on the assumption that the less the public really knows about how it operates, the better.

“It’s a shadow world,” said Lynch, who says his experience as a student of affirmative action has taught him that it is a world in which “lying for a ‘good cause’ is standard operating procedure.”

The result, says Joe Gelman, 34, the campaign manager for the California initiative, is that a white man never knows for sure whether he’s been done in by affirmative action. “If it didn’t happen, it could have happened, and the guy walks away not knowing otherwise because the system is rigged,” Gelman said.

But Jamin Raskin, a defender of affirmative action who teaches constitutional law at American University in Washington, D.C., says that gives white men free license to do what they have always done well, blame black people for their problems.

“I think as the personal anecdotes unravel, it’s important to focus as much attention on the deception as there was on the original story,” Raskin said.

A Harris poll conducted in April for the pro-affirmative action Feminist Majority Foundation concluded that it was baby boomer white men who most agreed that “once affirmative action programs are started, the result is bound to be reverse discrimination against white men.”

Columbia University anthropologist Katherine Newman, the author of Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream, says that affirmative action does offer a convenient, if, in her view, utterly misguided scapegoat for the real economic problems that have beset a whole generation of late baby boomers, now in their 30s, regardless of their race or gender. And they must face this chill on their life prospects, she says, without even the snug idealism the older boomers have to keep them warm.

Even some of those leading the anti-preference effort warn against crying “reverse discrimination” and trying to ride a wave of sympathy for white male victims to victory.

“You’re just not going to convince people white males have tough sledding,” said Hunter Limbaugh, 37, a Republican state representative from Florence, S.C.

Instead Limbaugh, a distant-cousin-never-met of Rush, is content to argue he is not now and never has been a victimizer.

“I don’t have that baggage,” said Limbaugh, who grew up in Florida. “I went to school with black kids all my life. I’m not a bigot. I’ve never been a bigot. I don’t feel guilty about my personal views on race relations. I don’t have anything to explain or rationalize. I’m not trying to make up for everything.”

And, in Oregon, with its small minority population, organizers Marselle and Selby say their animus is really directed at the government and the status quo.

“I don’t fault the other ethnic groups the least bit. It’s the fault of the government,” Selby said.

Of his personal odyssey from long-haired child of the ’60s to anti-affirmative action activist of the ’90s, Marselle, a relatively recent “refugee” to Oregon from Southern California, said, “I’ve been sitting around wondering why I feel the way I do. I think it’s been a combination of things going back to Johnson’s dirty little war in Vietnam, Watergate and dirty tricks, and the way they they treated John Lennon, following him around. I’m old enough to remember J. Edgar Hoover. It had an effect, an overall distrust of those people, of government.”

“We’re not powered by the stereotypical angry white male reverse discrimination focus,” Marselle said. “It’s more the whole concept. I think the whole civil rights movement has basically stagnated and is kind of just holding onto the status quo. They’ve become the establishment.”


Chart and map: AROUND THE NATION

There are 15 states in which there are movements to end racial and gender preferences in public employment, education and contracting. Map is shaded to show which states are seeking to end preferences / Newhouse News Service The white men leading the way

Here’s a list of states where action of some sort is aimed at repealing or limiting affirmative action, along with the names of the men leading the efforts: > California – The California Civil Rights Initiative, co-authored by Bay Area academics Glynn Custred, 56, and Tom Wood, 49, is the model for other anti-affirmative action initiatives. The measure would ban the state from using “race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group in the operation of the state’s system of public employment, education or public contracting.” The sponsors hope to gather enough signatures to place it on the November 1996 state ballot. > Colorado – Sco tt Marian, 37, a Denver mortgage banker who lost a bid as a Republican candidate for Congress last fall, has begun a drive to put an initiative modeled on California’s on the Colorado ballot in 1996. > Delaware – Republican state Rep. Wayne A. Smith, 32, has introduced a Delaware Civil Rights Initiative, patterned on California’s, that must be passed by two successive General Assemblies, which means it could not become law before 1997. The Delaware Constitution does not allow for ballot referendums. > Florida – Anthony Martin, formerly Anthony Martin-Trigona, 48, a frequent candidate for public office, advocate for myriad causes and, in the words of a federal judge with whom he has tangled, a “malign virtuoso of pro se litigation,” has filed the necessary papers to petition to put a constitutional amendment on the 1996 ballot to end affirmative action in public employment, education and contracting in the state. > Georgia – House Republican whip Earl Ehrhart, 35, whose suburban Atlanta legislative dis trict overlaps U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s, introduced an anti-affirmative action constitutional amendment last year. He plans to resubmit it next year, this time “riding a national wave,” and get it on the 1996 ballot.> Illinois – William J. Kell y, 29, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Congress in Chicago last fall, and his Committee for Middle America, have already started collecting signatures to put an Illinois Affirmative Action Initiative on the 1996 ballot. > Massachusetts – Larry M ackin, 37, who was thwarted in his ambition to become a Boston firefighter by a decree requiring minority hiring to make up for past discrimination, is launching a petition drive to put an initiative on the 1996 ballot. Mackin is president of Citizens Against Reverse Discrimination. > Michigan – Macomb County Republican David Jaye has introduced a constitutional amendment in the Michigan House to outlaw affirmative action that he hopes will be acted on in time to appear on the 1996 ballot. Two years ago , when he introduced similar legislation, it got only 10 votes. He now has more than 30 co-sponsors. > Mississippi – A California-style constitutional amendment offered by Sen. Tommy Robertson, 39, a Moss Point Republican, was approved by a Senate commit tee but defeated 29-20 on the floor and sent back to committee. > Nevada – Hal Furman, 40, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 1994, says that if the Nevada Legislature does not act to rein in affirmative-action programs before it ad journs this summer, he may lead an effort to put an initiative on the 1996 ballot. > Oregon -Michael Marselle, 38, and Greg Selby, 36, founded Oregonians for Equal Rights and have filed papers in order to petition to put an amendment on the 1996 ballot t hat would end affirmative-action quotas and set-asides. > Pennsylvania – Veteran state Rep. Ronald Gamble, 62, the only Democrat on this list, filed anti-preference legislation in January. It has not yet been acted upon. > South Carolina – State Rep. Hun ter Limbaugh, 37, has introduced a constitutional amendment similar to California’s that he hopes will be approved by both houses in time to put it on the November 1996 ballot. He thinks its chances of getting the two-thirds vote it needs are good in the House and “50-50” in the Senate. > Texas – Sen. David Sibley, 47, a Waco Republican, introduced an anti-preference constitutional amendment in March. It was condemned by minority legislators, including a black Democrat from Houston who dressed up in KKK sheets that he joked he found in Sibley’s closet. The amendment went nowhere and Sibley must wait until the next legislative session, in 1997, to try again. > Washington – State Rep. Scott Smith, 32, a Republican from Graham who blames affirmative action for costing him a chance to be a King County police officer, submitted legislation to end state and local government affirmative-action programs. It went nowhere, but he says he plans to try again next year. /


Written by jonathantilove

July 28, 2022 at 2:32 am

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