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Civil Rights' New Era

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California's Proposition 209 took effect last week to loud protests from one group of civil rights advocates and the cheers of others who also claim the banner of civil rights. The measure, which rolls back racial and gender preferences in hiring and admissions at public institutions in the nation's largest state, is a bellwether of change in policies affecting race throughout the country.

Even before its formal enactment, the new law, approved by the state's voters last year, had a sharp impact on the University of California. Its law school will have only one black student enrolled this fall, down from 20 a year ago. More than that had been accepted for admission to prestigious Boalt Hall, but they opted for other law schools, often citing the new, unfriendly atmosphere at UC.

The University of Texas Law School has experienced a similarly precipitous decline in black and Hispanic admissions this year following a court-ordered reversal of its longtime policy of racial preference.

Do these cases represent merely an interim adjustment before qualified minority students resume choosing these schools despite admissions policies that are barred from taking race into account as a selection criterion? Or do they indicate that important doors to opportunity are slamming shut for minorities, as critics of the new policies aver?

Graduate schools - gateways to the highest echelons of the US economy - have posed these questions most dramatically. But they're being raised at all levels of society. This fall the US Supreme Court will deliberate a case from Piscataway, N.J., concerning the layoff of a white teacher and retention of a black teacher - both equally qualified and of equal tenure. But the school board's decision was made on the basis of race, keeping the black instructor to increase faculty diversity. Can that criterion be defended before a high bench that has shown itself increasingly leery of race-based official actions that fail to cite evidence of past discrimination? The Clinton administration has decided not, having shifted its legal stance to opposing the board's action while arguing that racial considerations should be allowed when a practical need is demonstrated - as in the case of black prison-guard officers in a program where most inmates are black.

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