Bill Campbell feels strongly about affirmative action. To the mind of Atlanta's second-term mayor, it is as important an issue to black Americans today "as our right to vote was back in the 1960s."
Furthermore, said Campbell, in remarks published in a recent issue of Time magazine, "African-Americans have to be as resolute on this issue as the Jewish community is about aid to Israel."
But the mayor didn't leave it at that. He went on to say that any "handkerchief-head Negro" who has the temerity to disagree with him on this issue ought to be shunned by the black community.
Although he didn't mention her by name, Campbell appeared to be alluding to Cynthia Tucker, the editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with whom he has had a running battle for the past six years.
Tucker, one of the nation's better and brighter journalists, and hardly a right-wing Republican, supports the goals of affirmative action. But she is a realist.
Given that strict race-based affirmative action programs have been struck down by courts throughout the land, she thinks it logical that cities like Atlanta adopt new approaches to achieve the same affirmative action goals.
Indeed, as this is written, Atlanta finds its minority set-aside program which requires the city's prime contractors to create joint ventures with minority-or female-owned businesses facing a federal court challenge.
The wager here is that Atlanta's program will be found discriminatory, much as similar minority set-aside programs in San Diego, Detroit and other cities have been declared as such.
So how might Atlanta and other cities promote the affirmative action goal of sharing the wealth, in the form of local government contracts, with minority-owned businesses, without discriminating against majority-owned businesses, without running afoul of the courts?
Tucker holds out Detroit as an example. Back in 1994, that city faced a legal challenge to its race-and gender-based set-aside program. But rather than wage an ultimately futile legal battle to preserve the program much as Atlanta Mayor Campbell vows to defend his city's program by "any means necessary" Detroit devised an alternative program.
It gives preference to locally based companies. And, as Tucker has noted in her writings, over the past six years minority-and female-headed companies have been awarded roughly $600 million in contracts with the city, about the same as under the old, illegal, race-and gender-based set-aside program.
And much as Detroit has come up with a racially neutral contracting system that nonetheless supports minority contractors, states are starting to replaced their race-based college admissions programs with programs that accomplish the same goal of campus diversity, but without resorting to illegal, divisive quotas.
The model is Texas, where the top 10 percent of each high school's graduating class is eligible for admission at any of the state's public colleges and universities.
Under this racially neutral system, blacks make up 4.1 percent of students enrolled this year at the University of Texas at Austin, the state's premier campus. That's the same percentage as in 1996, when the state still had its race-based affirmative action system in place.
Following Texas' lead, California has adopted an admissions policy whereby the top 4 percent of each high school graduating class throughout the state is eligible to enroll in the top-tier University of California system.
And in Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush has gone so far as to propose that the top 20 percent of graduates from each of that state's high schools receive automatic admission to the state college or university of their choice.
One wonders what Atlanta's mayor would have to say if Georgia moved to a college admissions system similar to that in Texas or California, or the one being proposed in Florida. Perhaps he would find it as offensive to his racial sensibility as the challenge to his city's minority set-aside program.
But affirmative action programs based strictly on race and gender are a thing of the past, whether the mayor of Atlanta and fellow black leaders like it or not.
That's why it is absurd for Campbell to disparage an editorialist for endorsing alternative programs that can accomplish the same affirmative action, while also passing legal muster. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.)