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New drive to ban race preferences

Initiatives in three states would prohibit affirmative action in public realms.

By / July 3, 2008

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., listens to an audience member's question during the National Council of La Raza annual convention in San Diego, Calif., Monday, July 14, 2008.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Tensions are running high in the latest affirmative-action battlegrounds. In Arizona, Nebraska, and Colorado, supporters of ballot initiatives that would ban "preferential treatment" are counting up petition signatures – and opponents are scrutinizing their validity – to see if there's enough support to bring the issue to voters in November.

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The American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), led by Ward Connerly, is pushing the initiatives, which would change state constitutions to prohibit preferences based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the public realms of employment, education, and contracting. Similar ballot measures have succeeded in only three states: California in 1996 and later in Washington and Michigan.

Proponents of affirmative action learned from those votes not to wait until the fall election to make their case to the public. So they've been mustering volunteers now to wage "decline to sign" campaigns.

The initiative fight is one area where race and politics intersect in this election cycle. Some backers of the initiative cite Barack Obama's victory in the Democratic primary as evidence that people of any color can succeed in today's society – though the candidate himself recently stated his opposition to such ballot initiatives. In Nebraska, a pro-initiative radio ad opens with a clip from an inflammatory speech by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, followed by a voice-over noting that "colorblind government" is a way to "reject the politics of race and hate."

The polarization sparked by these battles "makes it difficult for people to think about what's at stake in a more practical way," says Carol Swain, a law and political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. It "continues to politicize the discussion of issues that should be on the table ... given where we are demographically." Examples she'd like to see more dialogue about include immigration reform and class-based, rather than race-based, affirmative action, an idea she supports.

ACRI, a nonprofit in Sacramento, Calif., backed initiatives in five states this year. The efforts in Missouri and Oklahoma came to a halt without enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. In Colorado, the validity of signatures has been challenged in court – a scenario that appears likely in both Arizona and Nebraska after the signature deadlines, July 3 and 4 respectively.

"It's not only morally wrong, but ... often counterproductive for the question of someone's skin color or race to be a factor ... when the government interacts with an individual," says Mr. Connerly, founder and president of ACRI. A former member of the University of California Board of Regents, he championed passage of that state's 1996 ballot measure, and he also led the efforts in Washington State and Michigan.

Connerly acknowledges that there is still discrimination but says society has changed to the point that whites can no longer always be presumed to be the "oppressors." In some cities, whites feel discriminated against by majority-black governments, and in others, blacks feel shortchanged by Hispanic leaders. "Nobody has a monopoly on being able to discriminate," he says.

Connerly sees the direct appeal to voters as the best hope for changing laws.