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.
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.
His opponents believe just as strongly that affirmative action is still an important tool to promote equal opportunity for minorities and women, as well as to reach goals such as diversity in higher education. When they explain to people that the initiatives would threaten scholarships and efforts to hire women and minority faculty, many decide not to sign the petitions, they say.
Still, once the matter is before voters in the privacy of the ballot booth, "if an overwhelmingly white electorate is given an opportunity ... to uphold white privilege, the majority are going to do it," says Donna Stern, coordinator of a Detroit-based group called BAMN: Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary.
Opponents have accused Connerly's campaigns of hiring paid signature-gathering groups that show a pattern of violating rules and misleading voters. Some opponents have videotaped petition circulators to try to prove their claims.
"Paid signature-gathering isn't inherently bad ... [but some] organizers don't feel accountable to the rules," says Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive group in Washington that helps document fraud and pushes for reforms. (Ballot initiatives are allowed in 24 states.)
Connerly and state initiative organizers deny such allegations. They fault their opponents for giving voters incorrect information – by saying, in Nebraska for instance, that the proposal would threaten breast-cancer screenings.
Despite activist "blockers," Connerly and state initiative organizers say they expect to turn in signatures in Arizona and Nebraska beyond the minimum needed to qualify. At press time, they were not ready to state how many they had gathered.
In Arizona, universities generally don't use race as a factor in admission. What's at stake are programs such as one to help Hispanic women improve their college graduation rate or another to support women studying engineering, says State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D), chair of Protect Arizona's Freedom, a coalition against the initiative. Other programs that could be affected include state and local goals for getting bids from minority and woman-owned businesses.
The policies that would be subject to change vary state by state, but higher education is where the debate over affirmative action, or preferences, has played out most strongly in recent years. In 2003, the United States Supreme Court struck down a University of Michigan undergraduate admissions policy that assigned points to race, but it upheld the law school's more narrowly tailored policy. The law school considered race as one element in efforts to promote the educational value of diversity.
In 2006, the Connerly-backed initiative passed in Michigan with 58 percent of the vote, making the law there more restrictive than what the high court allowed nationwide. The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor revamped its admissions policies to promote diversity while complying with the law, says Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs.
This year's freshman class is projected to be about 10.5 percent African-American, Hispanic, and native American, down slightly from 10.9 percent last year. In 2003, these groups made up about 13 percent of undergraduates.
Mr. Monts says he's glad the declines are not as strong as what the University of California experienced after the change there in 1996. But, he says, educators in other states are right to believe their diversity efforts are threatened by such initiatives: "We've had to increase our admissions staff [and] our financial-aid budget. Other universities may not be in a position to do those kinds of things."