A "poison" divides us

The man who has made it a personal mission to destroy affirmative action one state at a time explains why the policy is so damaging.

Published March 27, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Depending on who you talk to, University of California Regent Ward Connerly is either a crusader for a color-blind society, or an Uncle Tom serving as a front man for racist whites. He authored California's Proposition 209, which did away with affirmative action programs in government and higher education, and repeated this triumph two years later in Washington state.

With the rallying cry "two down and 48 to go," Connerly has moved on to Florida. In the Sunshine State, Connerly's mission has proved to be problematic for Republicans, particularly Gov. Jeb Bush. Like his "compassionate conservative" brother George W., Jeb once enjoyed as friendly a relationship with the minority community in his state as any Republican governor could hope for. But that good feeling is now being undermined by Connerly's campaign.

Connerly, however, believes that affirmative action is the real poison ruining relationships between blacks and whites. So he is trying to undo it one state at a time. In an interview with Salon, he defends his initiative, and his new book, "Creating Equal."

What led you to write this book?

I started [it] five years ago just as an act of frustration when I was bringing this issue up as a regent. One of my colleagues attributed my beliefs to some sort of political ambition, you know, that I was preparing to run for office in California. That certainly was not the case.

I've found that it is very difficult for black people to let go of what I believe is a crutch. No matter how much you can demonstrate that affirmative action is touching a very few people, there are those who believe that their lives will be over without it, and that all that they've accomplished is a result of their being "affirmative action babies."

So I wanted to show that I, for example, who grew up with modest means, am rather typical of a lot of black people, many of whom in prior generations had nine, 10, 11, 12, 13 kids in the family. The husband dies or leaves the house, the wife still raises the children and they end up leading productive lives because of very strong families. Yet there's this myth that we're all dysfunctional.

[I also wanted] to get the nation to start confronting the broader issues of race: interracial marriages, what does it mean to be called a minority, and affirmative action as opposed to preferences, and the issue of profiling. I wanted to reveal my own experiences in the context of all those issues, and to suggest to the nation that we need to start rethinking this concept of race, and to get beyond it.

What is the difference between affirmative action and preferences?

In my view, using the powers of government to make sure that people are not discriminated against, I think that was the original intent of affirmative action. I think that is legitimate. Making sure that people know about job opportunities by advertising in different newspapers, even going to a Cinco de Mayo fair and letting people know that jobs are available or that public works contracts are being let. Using affirmative action to -- as we're doing at the University of California -- in a non race-based way to provide outreach to under-performing schools. Those things are affirmative action.

But when it gets to the point where you are making a selection for someone to be admitted to the university or someone to be hired for a job, and to have one standard for someone who is black and another standard for someone who is white ... I think that's a preference. And I think that those things are wrong, and those things are being applied in many government arenas for the purpose or rationale of trying to level the playing field, trying to achieve diversity. [B]ut I think that when you apply different standards to people, that's discriminatory, no matter what you want to call it.

If, as you say, affirmative action touches a very few people's lives, why do you feel it's so important to roll it back?

I think it's poisonous. I think it poisons the relationships between people based on their groups and based on the perception that some are being left behind because of it. I can't tell you the number of people who are white and male who say that "I would've been here except for affirmative action." There's no evidence of that, but there's that perception in their minds.

And perception becomes reality. It poisons relationships and builds resentment, often needlessly. It also marginalizes people, if you are female or you are black or you are Latino. Asians somehow largely escape this stigmatization possibly because of the stereotype that Asians are better performers academically.

But those of us who are in that group called "minority and women," if we are performing in any role that is not seen as being a traditional role, the impression is that we did not get that by reason of our own accomplishment. We got that because of somebody giving it to us, because of affirmative action.

The same kind of talk you describe from white men comes from some in the black community who say "I could've gotten that job if it weren't for 'the man.'" How would these perceptions go away just by eliminating affirmative action?

I think that both groups are blaming something else. There is discrimination, but I think a lot of black people invoke racism in a chicken-little sort of fashion. They overstate it. On the other hand, a lot of whites blame affirmative action for something that had nothing to with it. They lost a job because somebody better got it.

But as long as you have this paradigm where people seem to be using race and gender as a means of making hiring decisions, as long as they keep uttering this mindless blather about "we've got to achieve diversity," it kind of taints the whole process. And the decisions that they're making would be no different, in my view, if they just discarded the whole system.

If you argue that eliminating affirmative action helps create a true meritocracy, what about cases like George W. Bush who got into Harvard and Yale with a C average?

If it's in the private sector, I don't necessarily like it, but I don't care what happens [there]. But when it comes to government, one's connections should not play a role. That's precisely why I offered a resolution successfully [at the University of California] to eliminate these "legacy admits," the preferences that we were giving to the sons and daughters of U.C. alums, as well as what I call the fat-cat preferences, in which a certain number of seats were assigned to the chancellor that he or she could fill solely on the basis of who picked up the phone and called the chancellor.

At Berkeley, we gave one to the son of a king. The argument was, well, this will really help diversity. Baloney. It wouldn't help diversity. It probably rewarded the U.S. senator who called and asked for that favor.

It's the public sector I've been addressing. I haven't been directing attention to the private sector. I'm talking about government, and how government treats its citizens.

In your book, you say that encounters with helpful whites helped shape your opinions about racial preferences. Do you see how a black person with different types of experiences might reach another conclusion about affirmative action?

Absolutely. I've never discounted the experiences of somebody else. We are creatures of our own experience. We begin early in life to form attitudes about other people based on our own experiences. What I am saying is that my experience refutes the notion that you can only learn from people who look like you, and that America is not racist at its core. There are bigots; there are racists. They come in all colors, believe me. But America is not a racist society.

[But] I can't tell you the number of campuses that I've been to where I meet bright black kids who say "America is racist". How do you get to an institution like Harvard or Yale without encountering the helping hands of people who are white or Asian or Latino?

What about the attitude you encounter from the political left, the kind of patronizing racism of a liberal who assumes that race will always be this intractable problem?

The whole debate about college admissions really is more a class argument, in my view, than a race argument. Because we have the largest share of people, who are low and moderate income for the most part, supporting the higher education of a small number of people, especially at the select institutions. That's why the whole debate about who gets into Berkeley, I think, is a very misleading one.

If we really wanted to help black people -- let's just take black people for an example -- we would not be putting so much emphasis on getting them into Berkeley as we would giving them the equivalent money to go out and buy their own cabs, or get the tools to become an electrician or a plumber, or the money to take a vocational course.

Because the overwhelming majority of people, regardless of their color, are not going to go to college. But we are so preoccupied with the concept of making sure we get X number of black kids into Berkeley that we totally overlook the masses.

It costs $12,000 a year to subsidize sending a student to the University of California. It takes three taxpayers to pay that $12,000 in California. If we said we think it's important that every person get a start in life -- I'm not proposing this, but I'm saying it as a way to clear our thinking a little bit -- every person in life deserves something to jump-start them into being productive.

And if we're going to spend $48,000 to $60,000 to educate somebody at the University of California, let's say we're going to give you effectively a line of credit of $25,000 to use however you want to pursue you're dream of becoming productive. If you want to be an electrician and you need to take two years of electrical engineering at a vocational school, OK. We're going to finance that.

But we don't even look at that. If I proposed that, they'd think I was a kook, because we're so hung up on the notion that you either go to college or life's a failure. And if you don't get into Berkeley and you're black, there must be some institutional racism there.

Don't you ever feel that some of your political allies are using the anti-affirmative action initiative to mask their hostility to any forms of minority outreach?

Sure, there are those. They are very small in number, but I've seen them. There are people who I talk to who, as I listen to them, that I come away thinking, "I don't like this person's motives." I'm in the unique position of being kind of like the filling of a sandwich. I get to talk to those and interact with those who agree with me, who are fellow quote conservatives, and I also interact with those who hate my guts.

I'm kind of caught in the middle, because I don't want to end all affirmative action, and I think the record proves that with my support of the outreach programs that we're doing big time in California.

But at the same time, I think that preferences are bad and wrong and that they do exist. There are agencies that started out with the best of intentions of simply eradicating discrimination. They then did not accomplish their objective, and so they ratcheted it up a little more, and then they started imposing goals and timetables. They still don't get their objectives, and so they ratcheted it up a little more, and say, "Manager, if you don't meet your goals, you won't get your merit pay increase," making those goals the functional equivalent of quotas.

Why did you choose Florida for your next initiative?

I think Florida is a state with the same elements of diversity as California, an urban state, a Southern state with a large black presence. And I believe that this problem of race in America will only be solved when black people come to the conclusion that the time is right. Whites are largely afraid to force the issue, and black people, many of them, many of us, feel kind of caught back in the '60s. Many people don't really trust whites. In Florida, one thing that comes up is "Well, it might be a better plan than what we have now, but we shouldn't have to trust you."

So I thought of all those things plus the fact that it was going to be a hotly contested state in the presidential race. The effect of having it happen in the fourth largest state with all those other factors that I mentioned is tremendous.

What's the next state on your list?

We've been looking at Michigan, Oregon, Colorado. A lot depends on what happens with Florida's Supreme Court on our initiative.

And what's the prognosis in Florida?

It could go either way. I'm optimistic. I can't see how in the world they can say that this doesn't represent discrimination. In California, in Washington, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the language is almost identical. And if everybody else can come to that conclusion, then why wouldn't the Florida Supreme Court come to that conclusion.

But it is an activist court. It's a court that really doesn't want this on the ballot. The whole establishment there doesn't want it on the ballot. So it could go either way.

In your book, you mention some unpleasantness that transpired between you and Vice President Al Gore during a White House meeting.

The encounter was a distasteful one. Gore made the statement that "we are all prone to bigotry," and that "there is evil that lies coiled in the human soul." And I said that this is truly frightening. The premise of being a democracy, of being a free people, is that we're basically good people. And that doesn't mean that we're all good or that we're going to do good things all the time, but I think that the premise is that we are good people, and that we don't need our government to keep us from ourselves.

President Clinton, I think is genuinely a good person [who] genuinely likes people, and that seeps out of every pore of the man. But Vice President Gore, when he shook my hand, he kind of crushed it. Typically, public officials, since they shake hands so much -- and I'm now doing this a lot -- you learn not to overuse your hand. The first thing that you're told is firm, not loose wrist, but firm. But don't overdo it because you end up sending out the wrong signals, and you end up having your hand get weary. This man literally crushed my hand. And I came away from that with the impression that he is a hateful man, and nothing that has happened since then has softened that impression.

When he goes to black churches [he] talks about those who want a color-blind society having their blinders on. He went to Washington, he went to Florida and singled me out. He said, "Florida doesn't need Ward Connerly here," and he gets really personal in his attacks. And I've seen that ever since that meeting in the way he approaches this issue. It's not just that he disagrees with you, he wants to hammer you into the ground and cut you off at the knees, it seems to me. And I just have the impression that he's just a hateful man.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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