Issue 203 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from the US

Sharon Smith

On 5 November, California voters passed a law ending affirmative action in that state. Affirmative action which is positive discrimination for racial minorities was one of the main victories of the 1960s civil rights movement, forcing employers to take minimal steps to rectify racist hiring practices. Losing it in California means it will now be illegal for the state government to even consider race or gender in hiring or educational policies.

The tragedy is it shouldn't have happened. In the months leading up to the vote opinion polls showed about 50 percent support for affirmative action. In California the referendum ending affirmative action caused massive confusion because the referendum's sponsors deliberately misnamed it the `California Civil Rights Initiative'. Many people therefore mistakenly thought that a vote for the referendum was a vote against discrimination. Thus, a Harris poll in June initially showed 78 percent support for the measure. But in the same poll, once it was explained that it `would outlaw all affirmative action programmes for women and minorities', support dropped to only 31 percent.

The most important reason why voters struck down affirmative action in California was that opponents of affirmative action organised a vigorous, well funded campaign that played on white voters' anxieties about losing their jobs while defenders of affirmative action did almost nothing. The Republican Party spent $3 million on stamping out affirmative action in California while the Democratic Party did not spend a single penny, even though Clinton claimed he was against the proposition. Even then, the referendum passed by a narrow 54-46 percent margin.

Nevertheless, the vote was hailed as a precedent setting victory against racial `preferences' another misnomer which stands the meaning of affirmative action on its head. The proposition's sponsor, businessman Ward Connerly who is black proclaimed, `Many people who went to the polls were voting not just to end preferences, but voting to end this obsessive concern about race. They're tired of people wearing race on their sleeve and invoking racism the moment something doesn't go right.'

But just a day before the California vote took place, a front page New York Times story about racism at Texaco the 14th largest US corporation showed why affirmative action is so desperately needed. The Times reported on a secretly recorded meeting of top executives at Texaco's corporate headquarters in 1994, at which they plotted to shred documents proving systematic racism at Texaco. The discussion was riddled with racial epithets, sometimes drowned out by uproarious laughter.

The tape was demanded as evidence in a lawsuit filed by six Texaco employees on behalf of the company's 1,500 minority workers, which contends that Texaco management systematically discriminates against minority employees and has fostered a racially hostile environment. This recording proves that the claim is true.

At one point Robert Ulrich, the company's treasurer at the time, is heard referring to black workers as `black jelly beans': `This diversity thing, you know how all the black jelly beans agree,' he complained. `That's funny,' replied Richard Lundwall, who was then senior coordinator of personnel services in Texaco's finance department. `All the black jelly beans seem to be glued to the bottom of the bag.'

Affidavits filed by black workers in the lawsuit show that they suffer vicious racism on a daily basis. Black workers reported they have been referred to as `orang-utans' and `porch monkeys' at the workplace. One employee recounted how his division manager once dressed up in black face for a department managers' costume party. He later told the same employee that if a black and a white person are in competition for a job, it is `only human nature to give it to the white person.' Another worker said, `I have had "KKK" printed on my car. I have had my tyres slashed and racial slurs written about me on bathroom walls.'

In June the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded that Texaco fails to promote black workers as readily as whites. But this finding is just the tip of the iceberg. The proportion of black workers at Texaco which has always been low has actually fallen since the 1980s, from 9.8 percent in 1984 to 8.3 percent in 1995. Furthermore, high level management jobs virtually exclude blacks. Of the 873 Texaco executives who make more than $106,000 a year, only 6 or 0.7 percent are black.

On the tape the executives refer to the existence of two sets of documents of employee records the public version and the so-called `restricted' version.

`We're gonna purge the shit out of these books,' declared Ulrich. He warned the others to cover their tracks carefully, saying, `I don't want my own Watergate here.' But like the real Watergate, their attempts at a cover up failed. Lundwall was fired by Texaco last summer. In an apparent act of revenge he turned the tape recording over to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The racism at Texaco is not an isolated case. Racism is the rule, rather than the exception, in corporate boardrooms. As columnist Bob Herbert recently noted, `The only thing unusual about the Texaco story is that it was reported.'

But Californians did not need the Texaco story splashed across the front page of the New York Times to show them why they must defend affirmative action. A year ago, the University of California Board of Regents voted to end affirmative action policies throughout the system. One result has been a 21 percent drop in medical school enrolment of blacks, Mexican-Americans and Native Americans this year. The impact of the new law will be equally dramatic.

Affirmative action is not lost, however, even in California. Hundreds of angry students organised demonstrations after the vote and two ended in occupations, at the Berkeley and Riverside campuses demanding non-compliance with the new law. Actions like those of the California students point the way forward and could represent the beginning of a new movement against racism.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page