The End of Affirmative Action? Who Can Stop Ward Connerly?
By Jennifer Millman
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Affirmative-action foe Ward Connerly makes an easy sell to the public by calling for "equal opportunity" and a "colorblind society," a distortion of civil-rights language that has duped the public into banning affirmative action in public education, employment and contracting in Michigan, California and Washington state. Now he's at it again.
But this time, he's run into a roadblock in Missouri, one of five states"”along with Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma"”where he's campaigning to ban affirmative action in 2008 as part of his previously announced "Super Tuesday for Equal Rights."
If these initiatives are approved by voters in these states, "equality" is unlikely to be the outcome. The anti-affirmative-action camp intentionally uses vague language to confuse voters who might be turned off by a proposed ban on affirmative action in their state. Fortunately, language for ballot measures to amend state constitutions must first be approved by the state officials, such as the attorney general and secretary of state, which led to a three-year delay in Michigan before Connerly could get the ban before voters. A similar situation is unfolding in Missouri.
Following the modus operandi of Connerly's national campaign, the so-called Missouri Civil Rights Initiative (MoCRI), proposed language that didn't once mention the term "affirmative action" in a ballot measure that would ban it from public employment, education and contracting if the public says yes. It said: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting." Read it here.
Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and Attorney General Jay Nixon say no. They changed the language to reflect the actual purpose of the ballot initiative, which is to eliminate affirmative action, and to include a second provision that would allow "race preferences" where affirmative-action programs are required to be eligible for federal funding. Read the state's version.
Connerly lambasted the state officials for allegedly trying to keep the initiative off the 2008 ballot, calling it an "abuse of constitutional office." MoCRI filed an appeal to overrule the state's ballot language.
But the American Association for Affirmative Action (AAAA), which recently launched a Task Force on Equity in the States to fight Connerly's machine, approves of Carnahan's move and wrote a letter to the editor of the Kansas City Star to that effect. The letter highlights the deceptive wording on the Missouri initiative. Carnahan wrote a letter thanking the organization for its support and commending its efforts to preserve equality.
"We think she's doing the right thing, and those who seek equity should do so with clean hands. Some of the draft initiatives in other states were simply misleading," AAAA Executive Director Shirley Wilcher told DiversityInc.
AAAA is one of many organizations committed to fighting Connerly and his crew, yet a recent Diverse Issues in Higher Education article suggests most civil-rights organizations have given up hope of defeating him, in light of two recent Supreme Court decisions on voluntary school integration that affirmative-action foes have used for momentum by manipulating public interpretation to suit their agenda. This only adds fuel to Connerly's argument that we have reached the "end of an era."
Wilcher emphatically disagrees. "It's not fair to say people have walked away from this," she says. "People are taking different approaches. I think we're far from over."
Wilcher disputes the conclusions of the Diverse Issues in Higher Education article. "They didn't go far enough to interview people who really are concerned," she says. "There are groups, I understand, at least in Missouri, who are beginning to gather to discuss their response."
The campaigns are still in the early stages, which may explain the lack of public outcry.
"People are assessing what happened in Michigan, and they're probably tailoring their efforts on the local level, depending upon where people stand on this issue," says Wilcher. "The states are different; their economic situations are different and they have to develop their strategies accordingly. I'm not [in Missouri], but I sense that there's more happening than is obvious ... I don't think there's enough evidence that people have given up just because some particularly older or younger folks just don't understand it. It's far too premature."
What Happens Next?
Twenty-three states allow voter-approved ballot initiatives to amend state constitutions. MoCRI says it needs 139,000 signatures to get the measure on the 2008 ballot, which is about 3.3 percent of the state's voting population, most of which is white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. It's no coincidence that most of Connerly's current campaigns are in states where white people are disproportionately represented compared with the nation and blacks are drastically underrepresented. (See chart below.)
The initiatives in the five states are staffed with a who's who of prominent conservative activists, including Linda Chavez, president and founder of the anti-affirmative-action Center for Equal Opportunity, who is honorary co-chair of the Colorado initiative. John Uhlmann, a wealthy Kansas City businessman who gave $190,000 to Connerly's failed efforts to pass a 2003 bill that would have prohibited state and local government from classifying people on the basis of "race, ethnicity, color or national origin" in California, is honorary chair of the MoCRI. Uhlmann co-founded a politicized media group that became known for producing and airing controversial radio ads with "reverse reparations" messages aimed at African-American communities during the 2002 election cycle.
Connerly says all five campaigns are "going extremely well," reports Cybercast News. With more than a year to go before the initiatives would appear on state ballots, civil-rights leaders and state supporters of affirmative action should use the time wisely to educate the public about the real threat posed by the initiative and how to interpret the misleading messages of the campaign, says Wilcher.
While many factors are still at play, such as "how the language is drafted, whether its challenged beforehand, the will of the people," Wilcher says "what's important is for the media to clearly help us to educate America on what affirmative action is and is not."
Affirmative action is not a "black/white" issue, for one thing, says Wilcher, who often reads these comments, primarily from white women.
"The beneficiaries are far broader," she explains, citing the people with disabilities and veterans in the Department of Labor who have also benefited from affirmative action. "The first thing we need to do is educate. Given the demographics of the future, if we don't have affirmative action, we'll have to reinvent it."