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Why a Man Who Knows Racism Fights Affirmative Action

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That numerical advantage often gives the sons and daughters of wealthy minorities or the offspring of noncitizens an unearned advantage, Connerly says. ''Now I don't find any moral defense for giving a higher-income Chicano a preference over a lower-income Chinese, especially if the Chinese has a higher academic performance. What we do is harmful to people who are not part of preferred groups.''

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His biggest case-in-point is the account of a white couple from San Diego whose son was not admitted to the University of California medical school. After obtaining UC records through the Freedom of Information Act, the couple took their findings to a UC regents meeting while Connerly was head of the board's finance committee.

''My mouth fell open,'' he says. ''They showed you had a better chance to win the California lottery than to be admitted as a white or Asian with a 4.0 grade average over another minority with a 3.2 average.''

Connerly says he was shocked again when university officials openly defended their policies. He quotes one official as remarking: ''We believe that the black community is underserved by the medical profession and that if we admit and graduate more blacks, they will then be able to serve their communities better.''

Connerly's reaction to that brought silence in the room. The more university officials tried to justify their policies, the more Connerly spoke out, calling them patronizing, racist, and ''dead wrong.''

'' 'Serve their communities?' I said. 'Do missionaries go out into countries to serve only their people?' I've heard of people being fired for that kind of mentality.''

Aside from being unfair, Connerly says the UC policies in the long run only hurt the minorities they are supposed to help. ''It's not healthy for blacks to be perceived as a permanent underclass. If they begin to believe they can't make it without affirmative action, they can learn to get by without working as hard as their talents allow.''

Connerly says that ever since that episode in July, he has been drawn into the lead role against UC policies. He was later asked to head the state initiative that will go before California voters in November.

''I was once a private person, now I'm a piece of paper caught in a windstorm.'' Of the thousands of letters he receives, 85 percent are positive, thanking him for taking the heat for the right thing. ''They are not letters from angry white males, but rather people who have thought this issue through and fear for the country,'' he says.

Critics cry foul

But Connerly has his share of critics. He has been taken to task by civil rights and women's groups and accused of embracing his views for his own political gain. He also has been called a hypocrite for benefiting from affirmative-action policies himself - a charge he denies.

''Ward Connerly's involvement in this campaign is one of the best indications that his is a strategy intended to further an individual politician's ambitions rather than the state,'' says Elizabeth Toledo, spokeswoman for San Francisco's chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Others hold that Connerly's reservations could be genuine, but by speaking out publicly as a black man, his words take on a disproportionate weight. ''His presence makes it easier for those who might otherwise want to probe their conscience on the matter to sit back instead,'' says Eva Paterson, executive director of the San Francisco affiliate of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. ''They can say, 'Hey if a black man is for this, it must be OK.' I find that distressing and vexing.''

Connerly shrugs off critics by citing statistics that measure black progress: They hold 11 percent of upper-management jobs in California, but represent only 7 percent of the population. The mayor of San Francisco is black. Women or minorities head the state tax-franchise board, consumer agency, and health and welfare agency. ''If anyone fears that we are going to regress to the days of the '60s ... it's not going to happen; the culture has changed.''