Barry Shapiro is hopping mad. "Are these, people fools, thugs, charlatans? he sputters. "These people" are the advocates of the California Civil Rights Initiative, the historic ballot proposition that would eliminate state- sponsored race and gender preferences in California, and they are threatening his job. Shapiro is a professional "diversity trainer," and he has made a very good career out of affirmative action. "Teaching people about discrimination turns out to be surprisingly lucrative," he admits.

Shapiro is not just complaining about the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), however, he is fighting back. And he is joined in his efforts by a massive mobilization of the cultural elite, which has fanned out across the state in a vicious campaign to preserve California's race and gender spoils system. The stakes are enormous. Not only do thousands of sinecures like Shapiro's depend on affirmative action, but the elite's very self-definition does as well. Race and gender preferences serve as daily proof of the moral inferiority of ordinary Americans, who allegedly need such correctives to counteract their indelible prejudices. But should CCRI pass, it will ignite a chain reaction that could bring down the entire national edifice of quotas and set-asides.

And so all the usual suspects have turned out to defeat CCRI -- professional advocacy groups, university professors and bureaucrats, reporters and editorial writers, and the Hollywood glitterati. They are accompanied this time by some leviathans of the California economy -- big corporations, law firms, and above all, the affirmative action industry: people like Shapiro who explain, police, and promote quotas. Like a tracer dye, the fight over CCRI has revealed the ties between all of these entities, united by a common commitment to group rights.

The command center of the "No on CCRI" campaign is the civil rights network. Groups such as the NAACP, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the National Organization for Women, and the Feminist Majority are blanketing the state with speakers and tens of thousands of videos and leaflets denouncing the initiative. But the propaganda efforts of these groups depend enormously on their connections to the establishment. The NAACP, for example, held an anti-CCRI symposium for select lawyers, businessmen, and Hollywood moguls at the prestigious Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; when a lawyer from the opposing camp showed up, he was told to leave. Business executives who serve on the board of the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under the Law, a left-wing advocacy group, provide the committee's president with entree to their CEOs. MALDEF's affirmative action coordinator is denouncing CCRI in Los Angeles classrooms, invited in by sympathetic administrators and social studies teachers. Greasing the entire effort are millions of dollars from such national foundations as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie; businesses are contributing as well.

The lovefest between the advocates and the corporate establishment depends partly on corporate self-interest. Businesses pay off the anti-discrimination machine in the hope of inoculating themselves against litigation. But the relationship has another basis as well: There exists inside corporations a parallel network of activists who share the same goals as, and maintain close contact with, the civil rights groups. This is the internal affirmative action apparatus, a fearsome bureaucracy that just grows and grows. Pacific Bell, for example, employs diversity managers, equal employment opportunity investigators, and affirmative action officers. Their functions sound more appropriate for Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood than for a business enterprise: The diversity manager "does training on who we are -- fat, skinny, etc." explains Rita Reining, a manager of affirmative action compliance.

Given this internal cheering squad for affirmative action, it is little wonder that Pacific Bell is "educating" its employees about CCRI. A lobby display called "Affirmative Action: Do You Know the Facts?" greets visitors to the company's offices. "We want to make sure that our employees understand the implications of their vote," explains Anna Wong, head of equal employment opportunity. "Our position is: 'Please understand that [CCRI's] proponents purport to ensure no discrimination, but the issue goes deeper than that.'" So deep that the company has also distributed brochures on affirmative action to its employees, televised a forum on CCRI to all its offices, and organized diversity brown-bag lunches. In addition, employee groups organized by racial and sexual identity are registering voters who share their opposition to the initiative.

Southern California Edison, the second largest electric utility in the country, is also pelting its employees with pro-affirmative action videos and pamphlets. The CEOs of Chevron and Atlantic Richfield, at the urging of their equal opportunity and government affairs divisions, announced their support for affirmative action this spring and followed up with informational brochures.

These efforts are the more remarkable in light of the fact that CCRI would ban race and gender preferences only in public employment, education, and contracting. But diversity-mongers in the private sector know that a CCRI victory would undermine the fragile legitimacy of all preferential treatment.

The corporate affirmative action lobby scored its greatest success to date at Pacific Gas & Electric, a utility based in San Francisco, closely allied with Mayor Willie Brown. PG&E's CEO, Stanley Skinner, publicly opposed CCRI in August; behind that announcement, says Claude Poncelet, a government affairs official at PG&E, lay the efforts of various ethnic employee groups that are "taking an active role" in the CCRI debate. The company timed Skinner's announcement to coincide with "Diversity Month," described by Poncelet as a "major happening" that "celebrates the diversity of PG&E employees."

A shareholder and customer backlash against PG&E and a lobbying campaign by Gov. Pete Wilson seem to have quashed, for the moment at least, what was a growing movement among other California companies to denounce CCRI publicly. But many corporations continue to work against CCRI behind the scenes. Emissaries from large northern California companies, such as Hewlett-Packard, Bank of America, and ARCO, are speaking to newspaper editorial boards and writing op-eds about the value of diversity, according to Mary Anderson, executive director of the Business Roundtable. The Roundtable itself, an influential group of 75 large California companies, issued a proclamation in support of affirmative action and diversity last August and hired a Sacramento public relations firm to poll and conduct focus groups on CCRI.

Corporate diversity officers belong to organizations such as the Northern California Diversity Roundtable, the Silicon Valley Diversity Forum, and the Aerospace Diversity Forum, and all of them are caucusing on CCRI. The West Coast division of the American Association for Affirmative Action, a national group of public and private "affirmative action professionals," met at Apple Computers this September for a "'Professionals Respond to CCRI' Training Meeting.'" The invitation made a barely concealed appeal to self-interest: " If CCRI to [sic] passes in November much of the work that we have done and that we currently do will be jeopardy [sic]" -- in other words, watch out for your jobs! Barry Shapiro, who heads the West Coast division of the "Four A's," as it is called, perfectly articulated the elitist assumption of the anti-CCRI effort. The training meeting, he said, would "allow diversity protessonals to talk back because we know more than you do." Those who attended the meeting decided to leverage their "knowledge" by hosting anti- CCRI parties, joining the speakers bureau run by the National Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights, and registering voters. The national Four A's has contributed $ 6,000 to the anti-CCRI campaign.

Another national affirmative action organization, the Industrial Liaison Group, is boycotting California. Under pressure from minority advocates, the group moved its annual conference from Los Angeles to Arizona and, in case anyone missed the move's significance, portentously renamed the meeting "From Hollywood to Phoenix." Many attendees sported "No on CCRI" buttons, provided by on-site anti-CCRI campaigners. Some particularly political conference planners regretted the move, however. "We should've kept it in California and rubbed Pete Wilson's nose in it," fumes Rita Reining of Pacific Bell. " Arizona's no great shakes either," she says, referring to its long opposition to Martin Luther King Day.

Universities are the other great branch of the affirmative action triumvirate, after government and corporations, and they are furiously networking with their business and government counterparts to fight CCRI. Stanford University's Byzantine affirmative action bureaucracy is typical. In addition to an Offce for Multicultural Development, complete with staff, a multicultural educator for student affairs, and a vice provost responsible for faculty diversity, each graduate department and school, as well as the undergraduate admissions office, boasts its own affirmative action offcers. Stanford is a perfect host, therefore, for an adult education course called " 'With Justice For All:' A Leadership Forum on Diversity." Its purpose, according to Sally Dickson, director of multicultural development, is to find "creative ways of talking about race in light of CCRI." In fact, the course, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, is a barely disguised antiCCRI organizing tool: According to the course catalogue, it will give participants the opportunity "to form a network with their peers." Corporate diversity officers constitute nearly a quarter of the lecturers, second only to Stanford staff. Lockheed-Martin, Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics, and Pacific Bell are all packing off sundry "diversity initiatives managers" and " diversity directors" to warn forum participants about the dangers of dismantling affirmative action.

Barry Shapiro's credo -- "We know more than you do" -- could well be the official slogan of this elite mobilization. Affirmative action is too " complex" an issue to be entrusted to voters, according to CCRI opponents. " Should 23 lines [CCRI's length] be the law that addresses these issues?" asks Lloyd Loomis, a diversity officer at ARCO. The similar brevity of the 14th Amendment and the anti-discrimination clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is apparently of no import. A ballot initiative is "too simplistic," announced the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, taking its stand against CCRI. Opponents say they prefer the legislative process -- not surprising, given the California Assembly's flawless record of keeping every proposal to end affirmative action bottled up in committee.

The claim of "complexity" goes beyond the form of the initiative to its content. What was once the great ideal of the civil rights movement -- equal treatment under the law -- is now derided as foolishly "simplistic." Speaking of Ward Connerly, California regent who spearheaded the abolition of admissions quotas at the University of California, ARCO's Loomis complains: " He has a simplistic outlook: Go color-blind."

Instead of voting on affirmative action, ordinary citizens need to be " educated" about its complexities, say CCRI's opponents. "There is a vacuum of information out there," asserts Julene Perez-Gonzalez of the Carnegie Corporation. Perez-Gonzalez is right: There is a dearth of information about affirmative action, but that is solely the result of stonewalling by affirmative action proponents, who have fought tooth and nail to keep admissions data and actual hiring criteria secret.

Ironically, among the clods who are allegedly ignorant about affirmative action are minorities themselves. "In the Latino community, there are constituencies who misunderstand affirmative action," laments Rafael Gonzalez, head of MALDEF's CCRI "education" campaign. "The everyday Joe and Julie, living in the suburbs, think it involves quotas." Naturally, Gonzalez and his colleagues are working desperately to correct that misimpression.

They might not get far, given the caliber of their arguments. Forced finally to justify affirmative action to a wide public, CCRI opponents are pulling out one howler after another. Preferential university admissions policies are not quotas, maintains MALDEF's Gonzalez, because blacks and Hispanics are still in the minority in the student body. Piling nonsense onto a non sequitur, Gonzalez adds: "It's not that more qualified whites are being denied a spot in the university, they can't get in because the university is already full."

Amazingly, Gonzalez's ludicrous "It's-not-a-quota-unless-the-beneficiaries- end-up-in-the-majority" reasoning is quite popular. "Prime contractors complain that they are losing business to minorities and women," says Diane LaCome, a diversity consultant and lobbyist for minority and women contractors, "but they are still getting 90 percent of all procurement money." Diane Martinez, a state assemblywoman from Los Angeles, put the matter more succinctly. Given that the state has not met its onerous contracting goals, she snapped at a (white) legislative opponent, "That leaves you and your ilk 93 percent of the pot." Such racial essentialism would make a South African separatist proud.

Dismantling contracting set-asides will "eliminate competition" for state contracts, argues LaCome, an astounding proposition that would surprise the numerous low-bidders who have lost jobs because they did not meet the state's race and sex contracting "goals." CCRI opponents are also perpetrating outright lies: "If we are not allowed to bid, we'd be back in the 1950s," warns LaCome, as if CCRI would actually forbid minorities or women from bidding on a contract or applying for a job. The Feminist Majority and the American Civil Liberties Union have declared that CCRI will plunge women into a state of virtual peonage.

The contempt for the public behind the anti-CCRI campaign is finally so unbounded that it spills over onto the campaigners themselves. The "equity community," Barry Shapiro tells me, also suffers from prejudice. "Check the sisters out," he commands. "Are women free of prejudice just because they are victims of sexism?" Apparently not: "Women need to work real hard on their stuff," he announces. Summing up his opinion of his fellow diversity trainers, Shapiro sighs: "There but for the grace of God go I; I thank God I'm not an oaf, a thug, a fool, or a charlatan."

Shapiro is a fitting symbol of the anti-CCRI effort: He is a hypocrite as well as a snob. I ask him if he would hire a black contractor who bid $ 750 for a job on his house over a white contractor who bid $ 500. "No," he answered, but added: "Affirmative action is very complex." It is just that inscrutable complexity that, with any luck, might doom affirmative action at the polls.

Heather Mac Donald is a John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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