Pro-Affirmative Action forces plan to converge on Tallahassee March 7
Although the turn-out at the rally held by F.R.E.E--Floridians Representing Equity and Equality--on December 15th, 1999 was somewhat denigrated by the Gainesville Sun editor Ron Cunningham, in actuality the coalition of support represented there, with youth, women, labor, elected representatives, African American, gay and lesbian, Jewish and community people was very positive. That the downtown plaza wasn't overflowing (about 100 attended) is more a commentary on the issue itself. It seems unreal that this one man, a conservative Republican African-American businessman from California, Ward Connerly, could come here to our state, here in the South with its legacy of civil rights and human rights struggles, and try to overturn the one major remedy which has provided some success in opposing the deeply rooted bias against people of color and women; affirmative action. It seems even more unbelievable that Governor Jeb Bush could claim to "save" affirmative action from this threat by killing it with his "One Florida" initiative. Speakers denounced both Connerly's and Bush's initiatives.
Congresswoman Corinne Brown called on everyone who cares about equality to march in Tallahassee on the opening day of the Florida legislature, March 7, to send a bold message that we will not be pushed back like this.
Simply put by the Chair of FREE and State NAACP president Leon Russell, "Affirmative Action is a set of principles, practices and policies which are put in place to correct the current effects of past discrimination. We're not talking about what happened a hundred years ago. We're talking about what's happened recently. What's impacting us today?
"What's going on today that we need to deal with? The question is, are women in non-traditional jobs in proper representation that they should be? The answer to that question is obviously no. The question is, are minorities; blacks, Hispanics, Asians represented in numbers relative to their qualifications and experience... The answer is no. What does affirmative action do? It sets up a system that identifies barriers that have kept people out of positions, and it develops a means, a mechanism: for taking those barriers apart and ensuring that qualified women, qualified minorities, qualified blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others, have an opportunity to compete on a level playing field with anyone else; for a job, for a contract, for a seat in public education. That's what affirmative action is all about."
Russell said that the talk of preferences and quotas is off base, that there's not a program or policy in which critics can site a quota or preference statute. Yet quota is the buzzword that's used to criticize affirmative action.
"We believe that we have not achieved full justice in the State of Florida. We believe that we have not received full equity in the State of Florida, and we--FREE--have vowed to fight on until we achieve that as a policy in the State of Florida. One of the things that we believe we have to do is to create in this state public policy that says this state will support and enforce equal opportunity. That it will provide equal access for all of its citizens. That it will respect the diversity of the population of the State of Florida, and in case you hadn't looked around, Florida is fast becoming the most diverse state in the union, with the most diverse population in the union. We need to be able to value the diversity that is the State of Florida."
Referring to the Ward Connerly petition drive, Russell says it is aimed at shutting down much of the progress that's been made over the past 30 years in terms of employment, public contracting and public education. This "grudgingly made" progress was quantified by him this way: "In terms of contracting: 5.6% of the contracts that are let by the State of Florida go to minority and female vendors. $12.6 billion a year are spent; out of that last year minority and female vendors only received contracts valued at $110 million. That's 5.6% of the total.
"Now we have Ward Connerly with the support of Associated General Contractors and the Florida General Contractors; the people who build our roads, the people who build our state buildings, they're telling him 5.6% is too much. It's too much. Even though we get 95% of what's happening here, 5.6% is too much. We have to eliminate that. And that's what this fight is really about when we get to the nitty gritty. It's about greed. It's about one group of people's attempt to preserve for themselves, to create for themselves, a preference for 100% of the value that is created by public payments in the State of Florida."
Russell went on to talk about the current court review of Connerly's petition drive; and how the lack of a single subject and its ambiguity may lead to it being struck down by the courts. But rather than waiting on that, FREE is pushing ahead in a couple of directions, its own petition drive for a counter ballot initiative, and legislation which would put equal opportunity and affirmative action into the laws of the State of Florida. They are also working to have Attorney General Janet Reno look at how ramifications of Connerly's efforts might put Florida out of compliance with federal civil rights law. Russell's call for citizen involvement was repeated all day: that Connerly's campaign is a serious, well funded effort to roll back the gains of the last decades, and as former Gainesville mayor Rodney Long put it-"It's not enough to be invited to the table, you must be able to participate."
Long also questioned, as do many, how a person like Ward Connerly, who directly benefited from the policies of affirmative action, could now be the promoter and poster child for getting rid of it.
High school student and Martin Luther King Jr. award winner Alexis Amaye-Obu gave good background on Ward Connerly; how after his success in California; he went to Washington State, and did the same thing there. Then he went to Texas, and tried to do the same thing there, but the people of Texas rose up and resisted his efforts. She went on, "He's now in Florida, trying to get rid of Affirmative Action, from us, from me, and we have to take a stand and say no you can't take it from us. That is our job as citizens of Florida. As citizens of a country which does not love everyone, even though it says it does."
Sherman Henry underscored this need to organize, to fight the Connerly initiatives. "When you speak of affirmative action; the fallacy is that affirmative action gives you something. Affirmative Action doesn't give you anything. Affirmative action allows you the opportunity to enter the door to a level playing field. You have to have the qualifications just like anyone else. And once you are hired you have to produce in that job and if you don't then you'll be fired just like anyone else. Affirmative action is an emotional issue but let's set the emotions aside for a moment and look at the strategic aspect of this initiative. First of all, all eyes are on Florida, believe me this is done for a purpose. Right now Florida is the fourth largest state in the United States, so what happens here in Florida is a signal as to what can happen across the United States." Henry said, "We must stand together, not only as citizens of Florida, not only of Gainesville, but the United States and we should let those who want to promote hate, promote ignorance, that want to promote divisiveness; let them know that we will unite and fight, and we get [FREEs Affirmative Action] initiative passed."
City Commissioner Pegeen Hanrahan spoke about her first hand experience with the very visible white power structure. "One of the advantages of being elected to public office is that you get access to places that you've never had access before and will not have access again after you leave office, I am sure; I am sure all those nice invitations will stop showing up at my door. I've been in rooms of four to five hundred people where I was the most ethnic person there-I kid you not [Pegeen is Irish; fair skinned, red haired] I have been in many rooms where I was one of only a few women..."
We need to work hard, she said, because the time to end affirmative action is not here, not for five years or ten years from now. She also called for support in getting the equal opportunity office a charter office in the city of Gainesville; a call also shared by Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, who cited the lack of action on the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon panel which was empowered to look into the need and desire for equal opportunity to be a firm part of the way Gainesville does its work.
Perhaps it's denial, perhaps its lack of informative stories in the press, but its true; as Gainesville continues to try and move forward, the Ward Connerly-inspired efforts, and vast funding, also move forward. This election cycle-we need to wake up and get out the vote-here and statewide.
The Gainesville Chapter of F.R.E.E., Floridians Representing Equity and Equality, meets at the Wilhelmina Johnson Center, 321 NW 10th St., every other Thursday, with February 17 and March 2 the next two meetings. F.R.E.E. is also involved in planning what should be a massive demonstration in Tallahassee on March 7 for the opening day of the Florida legislature. To get involved locally, call 375-7366.
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