A battle over affirmative action will be fought in Nebraska heading into the 2008 presidential election, part of a California group’s multistate plan to bar race and gender as a factor in hiring and admissions decisions.
A proposed amendment to the Nebraska Constitution would bar “preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.”
Nebraska is one of five states being targeted by the California group Super Tuesday for Equal Rights. It is backed by Ward Connerly, who has helped squash affirmative action at public institutions, namely colleges and universities, in California, Washington and Michigan over the past decade.
A voter-approved ban in Michigan last year emboldened organizers. Now the group plans to push for voter-approved bans in Nebraska, Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and Oklahoma heading into the November 2008 election.
“After the win in Michigan, there’s a national momentum for ending our giving preferences to hiring and admitting people born with different physical characteristics,” said Doug Tietz of the Super Tuesday organization.
“The average Nebraskans is fair-minded … and every person should be treated fairly regardless of some physical characteristic they were born with,” said Tietz, a Nebraska native and executive director of the Nebraska campaign.
The wording of the proposed constitutional amendment has been filed with Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale. Final language that would appear on the ballot if enough signatures are gathered still must be approved.
Organizers say they need at least 100,000 signatures to get the initiative on the Nebraska ballot.
The choice of language in the petition in Nebraska and elsewhere “preferential treatment” is a political tactic designed to arouse opposition to affirmative action programs that might not otherwise exist, said Shirley Wilcher, executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action.
“If you ask, ‘Are you for preferential treatment?’, the answer will be no,” she said. “If you say ‘support programs that provide opportunities for disadvantaged Americans’ … you’ll get a different answer.”
Tietz said the language is similar to what is being proposed in the four other states.
A University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor filed the petition with the state on behalf of Super Tuesday after being contacted by the group. Marc Schniederjans, who teaches management in the business college, would not give specific examples of people receiving preferential treatment at the university, saying it might embarrass people.
The man supporting the Super Tuesday group, Connerly, is a former University of California regent who has worked to end affirmative action in several states since helping ground the use of race in admissions decisions at the California university system in the mid 1990s. Connerly, who is black, has said that the end of affirmative action in other states is a sign that “the end of an era” is unfolding.
It is difficult to measure how often race or gender figures into hiring and admissions decisions at public institutions in the state, including local government. But one Nebraska affirmative action official suggested it’s not as common as some might assume.
The type of affirmative action now commonly used entails reaching out to minorities so they are aware of job and education opportunities not accepting or hiring them because they are minorities, said Jose J. Soto, a board member of the American Association for Affirmative Action and vice president for affirmative action at Southeast Community College in Lincoln.
“It’s a rare occurrence in admissions, employment and contracting decisions,” Soto said.
But, he said, “to have a constitutional amendment to say you should never look at race, I think that’s offensive.
“I think there are times … when you have to do something deliberate to get a different mix, and it’s appropriate to use race as one of the things considered.”
Race, gender, and other such characteristics are not considered when making decisions on what students to admit to the University of Nebraska campuses, said Alan Cerveny, dean of admissions at Nebraska-Lincoln.
Most universities in the Midwest don’t consider race and gender, he said.
Diversity is a goal, but it is met by reaching out to minorities and other students university officials would like to have more of on campus, Cerveny said.
“It’s the same as other industries, it’s target marketing … like TV going after the 18-to-25 age group.”
Nebraska state government tries to make its work force reflect the racial, ethnic and gender makeup of the state, said an affirmative action officer with the state. But it does not hire based on those characteristics and instead uses outreach methods similar to those described by Soto and Cerveny, said Charles Roberson, affirmative action specialist for state government.
The ballot petition on affirmative action is the third petition to be filed so far.
One was filed by residents of Elkhorn, which was annexed by the city of Omaha. They want to make it illegal to annex a city or village without getting approval first from residents of the city or village.
The other initiative seeks to allow public power companies in the state to provide broadband and other communications services.
On the Net:
Super Tuesday for Equal Rights: http://www.supertuesday2008.org/
American Association for Affirmative Action: http://www.affirmativeaction.org/
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