LOS ANGELES — 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.
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.
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.''
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.''