The Silver Lining in Houston

by Patrick J. Buchanan – November 6, 1997

Backers of racial preferences are taking heart from a 54 percent-46 percent ballot victory in Houston that upholds a policy which sets aside 20 percent of the city’s business exclusively for minorities and women.

“Houston’s Support of Affirmative Action May Slow Opposition Efforts Elsewhere” headlined a Wall Street Journal story, suggesting the drive to replicate California’s Proposition 209, which outlawed racial and gender preferences, is out of gas. “The momentum to end affirmative action appears to have ended at the California border,” exults Wayne Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Perhaps, but closer inspection of that Houston vote suggests that those who believe in a colorblind America ought not lose heart.

Consider: Houston’s set-aside policy mean that Poles, Irish and Jews may not bid on one-fifth of the city’s business, unless they happen to be female. Surely, this absurdity will not pass muster with a Supreme Court that, on Monday, refused to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of Prop. 209.

Also, Tuesday’s turnout in Houston’s minority community was extraordinarily high. A black candidate for mayor was on the ballot, and the black vote was 95 percent opposed to ending racial preferences. As blacks, Hispanics and women now make up 70 percent of Houston’s population, a 54 percent-46 percent vote for set-asides is scarcely a blowout.

Most critical, Mayor Bob Lanier virtually fixed the election by not allowing the new law to be put on the ballot as written. Actual language on the petitions signed by 20,000 Houstonians was: “The city of Houston shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment and public contracting.” This was the language California approved in a landslide. It is language a liberal U.S. appellate court endorsed by saying: “There is … no doubt that Proposition 209 is constitutional. … After all, the goal of the 14th Amendment … is a political system in which race no longer matters.”

Lanier replaced that language with this: “Shall the charter of the City of Houston be amended to end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities in the operation of the City of Houston employment and contracting, including ending the current program and any similar programs in the future?”

Lanier thus distorted the initiative to make it appear anti-minority and anti-women, rather than anti-discrimination. And while he is being hailed by liberals for cleverness, what Lanier’s subterfuge tells us is this: Supporters of race and gender quotas must obfuscate, or lose, even in a city 40 percent black and Hispanic.

Then, there were two other reasons the Houston Civil Rights Initiative fell short. Big business backed Lanier, with Shell, Enron, Browning Ferris Industries and Arthur Anderson pumping in dough, and the Texas GOP went into the tank. As backers of the initiative note: “President Clinton made a trip to Houston to give a speech against the initiative, as did Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters, Martin Luther King III and Louis Farrakhan. Not one statewide elected Republican (governor or member of Congress) would publicly endorse or privately help the effort to rid Houston of racial preferences. … ”

Abandoned by the Texas GOP, embittered backers declared: “You can be sure that we will not let the press or public forget the lack of principle we witnessed from Gov. Bush and every single congressional representative in the Texas delegation.”

Why do Republicans so often exhibit less courage in defending equal justice under law than liberals do in supporting preferences? Because to stand up against quotas, contract set-asides or racial preferences is to invite the epithet “racist bigot,” and no one wants to walk around Houston Country Club carrying that moniker.

When it comes to issues of race, one ought to never underestimate the cowardice of the establishment. After years of pushing it around and shaking it down, militants of the left have sniffed out the hollowness and fear at its heart. The message from Houston: Only populists unafraid of taunts, derision and media abuse, and willing to put principle before popularity, are going to win these battles.

At its national level, however, the Republican Party will be put to the test in 1998. Legislation to end racial and gender preferences in federal hiring and contracting is to be brought up and voted on. Let’s hope congressional Republicans will show more heart, kidney and spleen than the timid Texas Republicans showed in Houston.