The Florida Supreme Court shined the bright light of clarity last week on the intentionally misleading language of proposed anti-affirmative action ballot measures here and gave a major win to women and minority men.
The court’s unanimous ruling also handed a well-deserved setback to Ward Connerly, the conservative activist who gained national attention with his successful and similarly slickly phrased proposals in California.
“The ballot titles and summaries hide the ball as to the amendments’ true effect,” Justice Leander J. Shaw Jr. wrote, “giving voters no clue of the impact the amendments actually would have on government programs promoting social harmony and combating discrimination. Each voter is entitled to cast a ballot based on the full truth.”
The truth is that affirmative action programs have opened up opportunities for women and minorities in education and jobs all across America. Affirmative action does not take jobs or business away from white men. It levels the playing field so that qualified people of all races and both sexes may compete fairly.
And, as a matter of fact, more than 80 percent of all Floridians–men included–support affirmative action, according to two independent surveys, one conducted by Florida State University last year, the other commissioned by the AFL-CIO in January. Educational institutions and companies have discovered the importance of diversity to the learning process and to the bottom line.
However, the Florida decision does not mark the end of the affirmative action fight across the country. Still, it ought to be instructive in new states where Connerly and others are certain to try to sell voters a similar bill of goods just as they recently did in California and Washington.
Nor does the decision put an end to the issue in Florida. Last year, Gov. Jeb Bush offered what he represented as an alternative to the now-discredited ballot initiatives, using an executive order to end affirmative action programs where he had the authority. So far, Bush’s anti-affirmative action mandate for state colleges and universities has withstood court challenges.
It remains to be seen how high a price the governor will pay for what he calls the “One Florida Plan.”
Galvanized by Bush, state Sen. Kendrick Meek, state Rep. Tony Hill and National Organization for Women activist Barbara Devane-Gilberg have launched “Arrive With Five,” touring the state to mobilize a massive voter turnout among all women and minority men for the November 7 election, exactly what Jeb Bush didn’t want.
Meanwhile, a 13-member advisory panel has been established to review the progress of One Florida.
The review is important. We know that opportunities for women declined after affirmative action programs were cut back in California, Washington and Texas. Under California’s Proposition 209, for example, contracts to women-owned businesses in San Francisco dropped from 5 percent to under 2 percent. Women contractors are no longer notified about upcoming jobs. California is no longer keeping records by gender and race.
And what is not measurable is what business leaders would call the lost opportunity cost. All that talent and energy not recruited, not groomed for success.
Look what happened because NASA pioneered an affirmative action program. At first an all-male enterprise, its commitment led to an astronaut force that is now 25 percent female and to Col. Eileen Collins’ historic space flight command just last summer.
Despite these triumphs, the playing field remains uneven.
Florida provides just one example. Working women there earn only three-fourths of what men earn. African American and Hispanic women earn even less. Women are nearly half of the work force, but they earn less than men in all sorts of jobs and all levels. Even in state government women in senior positions on average earn $10,000 less annually than men.
Women on college faculties earn less than men and only 13 percent of Florida’s tenured full professors are women. The Board of Regents, the official body responsible for carrying out the higher education provisions of the One Florida Plan, is still 79 percent male.
Opportunities are not equal for women and minority-owned businesses. Thirty-five percent of all businesses in Florida are owned by women, but their share of the $12.6 billion awarded in state contracts remains less than 2 percent. A special state program earmarks just 5 percent of state contract dollars for competition by businesses owned by women and minorities.
Affirmative action works. It’s been good for working women and their families and it’s still needed. And that’s the truth from Florida to Texas to California to Maine.
Martha Burk, Ph.D., is a member of Women’s Enews advisory board and chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations: http://www.womensorganizations.org
Toni Van Pelt is president of the Florida National Organization for Women Inc.