Why a Man Who Knows Racism Fights Affirmative Action
AS a young child in Louisiana, Ward Connerly, who is black, says he had to wait in a car while an aunt who could pass for white bought food for the family at restaurants.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In college, he saw blacks and foreign students with dark skin excluded from the main residential neighborhood across from his university campus.
Now the Sacramento businessman says he is driven by his roots to try to end discrimination - by rolling back 30 years of affirmative-action laws.
To his critics - including many friends - Mr. Connerly is a hypocrite who has turned his back on his race, while supporters hail him as a visionary fighting against unfairness at great personal risk.
Whatever the interpretation, he has emerged as one of the nation's most visible foes of the complex laws that give minorities and women preference in hiring and promotion.
The University of California regent made national headlines last summer for spearheading moves to jettison gender and racial set-asides for university admissions. Now he is leading the drive to pass a ballot initiative in California that would end all state programs granting preferences to women and minorities - perhaps the nation's most visible and controversial attempt to reverse affirmative action.
Thus this pinstriped money manager has come to embody many of the conflicts and complexities that surround the growing debate over how best to deal with racial equality in a modern society.
''The purpose of affirmative action has been noble, perhaps even necessary until now,'' says Connerly. ''But the happy face we have put on these practices to achieve diversity has become to me morally indefensible.''
Because Connerly is an articulate minority who advocates the California Civil Rights Initiative, much of the political spotlight has shifted away from the ballot proposal and to the man.
''Unknown a year ago, he is getting praise and criticism from every corner of the political spectrum,'' says Tom Lowe, a Sacramento-based political analyst. He says Connerly's new-found notoriety has even earned him mention as a prime candidate for a White House Cabinet position.
Surprised by the questions he has received since he first formally called for an end to affirmative action in January 1995, Connerly has taken the offensive to debunk what he calls simplistic understanding of the issue and his motives.
''People say, 'He's a minority and affirmative action benefits minorities, why isn't he for it?' '' Connerly says. ''If any group in our society has had first-hand experience with discrimination and should be sensitive to it, it ought to be black Americans. We should not - having endured more discrimination over the past 50 years than probably any other group in our society - be so cavalier as to turn our backs on others who are experiencing the same thing.''
In search of justice
Connerly says he is motivated by a basic sense of fairness. ''I don't define people by skin color,'' he says emphatically, noting his grandparents were Choctaw Indian, black, Anglo, and French. ''Who are my people? My story is not unlike thousands of Americans who are not thoroughbreds in the way some people use that term.''
Because his father left before he turned 2 and his mother died when he was 4, Connerly was raised by his strict disciplinarian grandmother who taught him to get a good education and be fair to people. Those lessons endure for Connerly to this day.
''Even the most redneck person who hates blacks has a fundamental notion of fairness,'' he says. ''We don't like people cutting us off in traffic, we don't like a bad umpire - and we agreed that Rosa Parks should not have had to sit at the back of the bus.''
What government and university employers across the US have done to develop a culture of diversity has effectively discriminated against those groups who are not considered underrepresented, he says. The nine-campus UC system, for instance, gives an automatic 300-point advantage in their 8,000-point admission system to blacks, American Indians, and Mexican-Americans.