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Sacrificed to Affirmative Action

By Nat Hentoff
Saturday, November 29, 1997; Page A23

opinion
Her name is not on the case, Piscataway Board of Education v. Taxman, but she is the loser. Debra Williams is the black teacher who was retained when a white teacher, Sharon Taxman, was fired for budgetary reasons. The Piscataway Board of Education said that Williams -- the only black teacher in the business division -- was kept for the sake of diversity.

As the national debate over that decision intensified, Debra Williams began to feel that she was not being judged by her qualifications. Only her skin color was being seen. As Brett Pulley reported in the New York Times, Williams was told to leave, because there was no more room in the court, during oral arguments on the case in Philadelphia. Frustrated, she started yelling, "This is my case! I belong in this courtroom!"

Now she has been abandoned by the Piscataway school board and by the civil rights establishment, which raised $433,500 -- a substantial amount of it from corporations that see affirmative action as a shield against lawsuits -- to settle Taxman's case just as it was about to reach the Supreme Court. Jesse Jackson was a major player in the venture. Debra Williams wept when she heard that he and the others had succeeded.

Months before this extraordinary involvement by third parties to quash a lawsuit by paying off Sharon Taxman, Debra Williams's husband, Alvin, told the New York Times that he had said to his wife: "You and Sharon Taxman have both been judged by the color of your skin. This situation violates the principle that civil rights stand on. The board did both of you wrong. You both have been used. You should be teamed up together."

It's too late for that. But Debra Williams is only an individual, and the Black Leadership Forum -- a coalition of leading civil rights groups -- has discarded her for the greater good of its constituencies. (She had still hoped to be validated by the Supreme Court.)

Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, says that the deal to keep the Piscataway case from the Supreme Court "was in the best interest of the nation." Presumably this will give some comfort to Debra Williams.

The Black Leadership Forum's manipulation of the court system may well, however, come back to dishearten the civil rights leaders currently celebrating their triumph. What is to prevent right-wing foundations, which have an abundance of funds, from settling a school voucher case -- involving public funds for parochial schools -- just before it is likely to be defeated at the Supreme Court? The legal costs of the anti-voucher side would be taken care of by the right-wingers and certain concessions in that particular law in that jurisdiction could be arranged so that a full-scale voucher law could be fought for on another day.

Understandably the Black Leadership Forum was determined to snatch the Piscataway "diversity" case from the waiting jaws of defeat in the Supreme Court. It feared the court would significantly limit racial and gender preferences in workplaces around the country. But the buying off of the case need not have happened if key black leaders had, from the beginning, urged the Clinton Justice Department to drop its support of the Piscataway school board and Sharon Taxman. The case was a clear loser in view of past Supreme Court decisions -- particularly rulings against diversity as a reason for firing white workers.

I do not remember a single civil rights personage -- for many months -- publicly disputing Deval Patrick, then the assistant attorney general for civil rights, who turned the litigation into a relentless crusade. For a long time he was seconded by the president and the attorney general.

Recently, Patrick characterized those who do not agree with him on race-based and gender-based affirmative action as believing that "once slavery was ended, nothing more had to be done."

Also somewhat less than inspiring was Kweisi Mfume's repeated insistence during a "Nightline" discussion that the Piscataway case "was never about affirmative action." But it was indeed an advocacy of diversity as a justification for affirmative action.

Mr. Mfume believes he has now found a formula for civil rights victories. "The real fact of the matter," he said on "Nightline," "is that civil rights groups in this country have learned the tactics of the extreme right wing, have adjusted to them and have found a way to beat them at their own game. So we're not running. We're getting smarter."

I doubt that Martin Luther King Jr. would have been impressed by this absorption of the tactics of the right wing. Nor would A. Philip Randolph. But that was then. Those old-time civil rights leaders weren't smart enough to mock the Supreme Court.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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