What's an issue you can canvas in 30 seconds that will arouse passions and fears and not much thought? US Republican President George Bush and his advisers, with an eye on the 1992 presidential race, have found their cause: Democrat legislation they say contains quotas for women and minorities in hiring policy.
Republicans charge that legislation designed to improve opportunities for suing employers for damages in discrimination cases — the Civil Rights Act of 1991 — will cause companies to set quotas in order to safeguard themselves from litigation.
Bush's commercials are directed at white, working-class men. Advertisements showing, for example, black hands reaching out to grab tools from white male hands are clearly designed to play on racism, sexism and job insecurity in the face of economic recession.
Bush has hung on to the quota bogy despite a range of concessions made by the Democrats, including their decision to write in a clause specifically allowing someone who was denied the job because of a quota to sue for damages.
The New York Times summarised the spirit of the legislation like this: "Barring quotas does not mean that numbers will be meaningless in assessing job discrimination. When a challenged employer asserts that there are no qualified blacks or Hispanics in the available labor pool, the work force has to be measured and compared with the employer's performance."
In fact, points out the NYT, there is nothing new about the legislation; it simply gets civil rights laws back to where they were before "a series of recent Supreme Court misinterpretations". The newspaper points out that "two decades of experience under the old legal rules produced no pattern of quotas".
Nor, it might be pointed out, has there been a significant overall change in the hiring and firing policies of US employers, although there have been some important individual damages cases on grounds of discrimination. Women, for example, still earn about 60 cents for every male dollar.
Are quotas an effective tool in the struggle to overturn centuries of systematic oppression and discrimination? Or would they create such a backlash from white male workers that a unified and widely understood approach to the question by the labor movement would become impossible?
The answer to both these questions is yes.
Affirmative action — some forms of reverse discrimination — policies are an essential component in a strategy to overcome structural discrimination.
Any disproportionate hiring of one race or sex over another implies a level of discrimination: either indirect, such as a lack of opportunity to become qualified, or direct, such as in cases where applicants are considered "unsuitable" because of race or sex. lled "unfair" if those who have jobs now are there only because of discrimination that has gone their way in the past.
On the other hand, the decision to incorporate quotas into affirmative action measures cannot be advocated automatically in every case.
Without a high level of discussion and debate within the labour movement, the sudden legal imposition of quotas could cause more harm than good, putting offside many of those who in other circumstances might have been supportive. A staged approach, in which identified companies and institutions lead the way, might work best in some circumstances.
Unfortunately, in an issue like this, a 30-second grab can't be answered by another 30-second grab. That's what Bush is counting on.
By Tracy Sorensen