The anti-affirmative action campaign goes national.

Ward Connerly says race- and gender-based programs cannot long endure.

Published January 16, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Ward Connerly chose the 68th anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- yesterday -- to formally launch his nationwide campaign to repeal affirmative action. Connerly's move did not go down well with civil rights leaders -- King's son, Martin Luther King III called Connerly a "demagogue" -- but then, the Sacramento, Calif., businessman and University of California regent has been a controversial figure since he led Proposition 209, California's so-called "Civil Rights Initiative," to victory in November. The initiative, which is currently tied up in federal court, would end all state-sponsored affirmative action programs.

Recently Salon spoke with Connerly about his opposition to race and gender-based affirmative action programs and his plans to take his campaign to a national level.

You have said that your true aim is to replace race and gender-based preferences with programs that would help the "truly disadvantaged." How do you define that?

On the basis of income, and mainly at the educational level. I surely don't support giving assistance to anyone seeking a job on the basis of their class or income or whatever; if you're unemployed, you're unemployed. But I think the one place where we can justify giving some special consideration to those who need help is at the educational level. Education is the key to success in life, so let's give those who are disadvantaged some break in the educational arena -- assuming they are generally qualified. Instead of saying that people are privileged or disadvantaged according to the color of their skin, we're saying people are disadvantaged largely because of income. That is the affliction which costs us in our lives. Levelling the playing field should take place at the educational level. After that, they graduate and are presumed capable of competing against anybody else.

Your opponents are fighting Prop. 209 on constitutional grounds. Do you see any room for compromise on the issue?

I frankly don't see any room for compromise. There is a moral principle involved here. John F. Kennedy addressed the nation on television on June 11th, 1963 and said, "The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened." Then he went on to say that race has no place in American life or law. But since then the nation has been following [Harvard professor] Cornel West's notion that "race matters." Those are two diametrically opposed outlooks on America. I believe that race, and checking all these silly little boxes, is something that we need to rid ourselves of. I don't see how you compromise on that.

But isn't affirmative action supposed to make up for past discrimination?

History has its place, and I think that one should recognize the history of black Americans and black people in America and the oppression that we endured. My own son and daughter have been exposed to that history. But you can't go on using that. In our society you do not carry the sins of your ancestors, and you should not carry the benefits of them. When we give preferences to "women and minorities," what we are really doing is giving preference to the son or daughter of a wealthy Mexican-American over a Vietnamese-American because of something that a white student's great-grandfather did to a black student's great-grandfather. You cannot make policy on the basis of history; you have to make it on the basis of the present and the future.

Is it true that you have received death threats?

There have been threats. The security people urge me not to belabor that because it results in copy-cat stuff. It has been a tumultuous period.

What has led you personally to become so passionate about this issue?

I think it's an accumulation of things. I grew up in the '60s believing that the nation's goal was to become a society that did not treat people differently because of their skin color or their gender. My whole family is a mixture of races; I have some French, some Chocktaw Indian, Irish, some black. When I was appointed to the Board of Regents, and I saw that we were applying obviously different standards to students on the basis of their ethnic background or their race, to me that suggested discrimination.

What specifically was wrong with the affirmative action program at the University of California?

At UC-San Diego, we automatically give all "underrepresented" races 300 bonus points when they apply. At Berkeley we have 25,000 students applying for 3,500 places. Of those, 9,000 have a 4.0 grade point average or higher. Now if you have seen the matrix for Berkeley's admissions, I don't know how anyone can look at it and say this is not discrimination. If we have a higher standard for a black or Latino we call it "diversity." But if there is a higher standard for a white or a Vietnamese, we call it "discrimination." It bespeaks the intellectual dishonesty of our era that words don't have any meaning anymore.

When I discovered that we were doing this at the University of California -- I was the Chair of the Committee on Finance -- I felt that I could not, in all honesty, pretend that I accepted that. So the only question was, do I do anything about it? From that point it came down to a question of courage or cowardice. I chose the former. Once the Board of Regents voted against continuing the affirmative action program, it became clear to me that if we did not get something like that passed at the state level there would be constant pressure from the special interest groups to rescind the vote.

Will Prop. 209 survive in court?

I predict that a lower federal court will say it is unconstitutional. We will prevail on appeal, and then it will go to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court will hand down a decision that basically says that the people of California were acting within their constitutional rights in adopting such an initiative.

Now you're going national and have support from conservatives in other states. Bob Dole sponsored legislation in Congress, and Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., says he will reintroduce the measure this year. Aren't you going to further alienate women and minorities -- constituencies that are moving away from the Republicans and conservatives as it is?

This is not a conservative movement. Those who say this is being pushed by the right aregrossly misreading the situation. We got 54 percent of the vote in November in California. In any political language, 54 percent is mainstream, not conservative, not Right. I also think the nation has become more conservative, but people just don't want to admit it. This issue transcends party.

Attempts to repeal affirmative action in other states have so far been unsuccessful. What makes you think you'll have any more success now?

You asked me about history. Flash ahead to the year 2015 and look at California. A majority of its population is predicted to be Latino. Now look at the policies currently on the books that define who the minorities are. Then look at the mayor of San Francisco, who is black; the Speaker of the California Assembly, who is Latino; and the two U.S. Senators, who are women. It doesn't take rocket science to figure out that these definitions and policies cannot long endure.

Quote of the day

The End

There will come a time, safely off the scale for workaday concern, when not only the Sun will die, but the lights of all stars will also vanish. Left in the enveloping twilight will be stillborn stars like brown dwarfs, stellar ghosts like white dwarfs and neutron stars and those powerful gravitational sinks known as black holes.

In time even these will decay and disappear. All that will remain in this bleak, darkened future will be an increasingly diffuse sea of electrons, positrons, neutrinos and radiation.

--New York Times science writer John Noble Wilford reporting on predictions by two astrophysicists that the universe will end 10,000 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years from now. (From "At Other End of the 'Big Bang,' a Possible Big Whimper," in Thursday's New York Times)

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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