"It has been almost a year since you called me and asked me to meet with Jerry and Ellen Cook," University of California Regent Ward Connerly wrote to fellow Regent Clair W. Burgener in 1995. "As you know, I consented to meet with them....I must tell you that there are many moments when I regret having done so."
Jerry and Ellen Cook were two citizens on a mission. Their son James, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California at San Diego, had been accepted to Caltech's doctoral program in computer science and MIT and Harvard's combined medical school and Ph.D. program. But he had been rejected from each of the five U.C. medical schools.
Jerry, a graduate in management from MIT who has taught graduate- level statistics, and Ellen, a professor of management at the University of San Diego, told Connerly that they wondered about the chances of being accepted to Harvard and Caltech but not being accepted to a single U.C. program. Analyzing admission data gathered under public-access statutes, the couple had solved the puzzle: The U.C. medical schools were maintaining de facto quotas for minority applicants. Preferred minority students, who made up less than 10 percent of the applicant pool, were routinely awarded more than 20 percent of the admission slots.
The Cooks' mission to end race-based quotas in public higher education soon became Connerly's and thrust him into the national spotlight--first as the dismantler of racial preferences at the University of California, then as the campaign chairman of the California Civil Rights Initiative, and now as chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute and American Civil Rights Coalition, organizations he founded to export California's colorblind constitutional clause to other states.
Connerly was born in Louisiana in 1939 and, after his mother's death when he was 4 years old, was raised by his maternal grandmother in Del Paso Heights, a tough section of Sacramento. He attended a local community college before transferring to Sacramento State University, where he studied political theory and was elected student body president. After graduating in 1962, Connerly went to work for the California Department of Housing and Community Development. A few years later, at the suggestion of a young state representative named Pete Wilson, Connerly moved to the Assembly Housing Committee. From 1971 to 1973, he returned to the Department of Housing, serving as its deputy director, before starting his own consulting firm with his wife Ilene.
Identifiably black, Connerly is quick to remind reporters that he is also French, Irish, and Choctaw Indian--a diverse heritage that informs his crusade to make the United States a truly post-racial society. "I really am a product of America," he says. "I'm what came out of that melting pot."
Washington Editor Michael Lynch talked with Connerly in REASON's D.C. office last fall.
Reason: Your interest in dismantling racial preferences began with your appointment as a regent of the University of California. What drew you to the issue and what keeps you involved?
Ward Connerly: When the affirmative action
issue unfolded, it was one of those times in life when one has to
ask oneself what do you really believe in, what are your own
values, how willing are you to submit them to the test of public
opinion? I was sitting in a meeting back in 1993, almost my first
meeting as a regent, and I heard Provost Walter Massey, the
second-highest ranking person at U.C., give a presentation about
diversity. I regarded it as almost mindless blather because the
platitudes were rolling off his lips, and I asked, "Well, how do
you build this diversity? What factors do you take into account?"
a pause and it was clear that he really hadn't thought about it too much. It was clear to me that if you're going to build diversity, you have to make choices about people on the basis of those factors that you want to be diverse about.
So I began to ask for data. I began to understand what was going on and to realize that the administration was lying to [the regents]. At that point, the issue wasn't whether I agreed with preferences--which is clearly what was going on. It was a question of governance. I thought, "If I'm going to be sentenced to this Board of Regents for 12 more years, I have to be able to trust what is being told to me by the administration." I came away believing that, on this one issue at least, I could not rely on what they told me and that I would have to do my own due diligence.
I wanted a report on what our practices and our policies were. I received that report in November , and I became more convinced than ever that most of us on the board knew that what was going on was wrong. But it was a case of political correctness. So I challenged them. On July 20, 1995, the regents passed my resolution on a 14-to-10 vote to end preferences in admissions--there was one abstention. The vote was 15 to 10 on ending preferences in contracting and employment at the university.
I fully intended at that point to ride off into the sunset. I thought, I've done my duty. The campaign had been brutal, very personal, and my family had suffered a lot of abuse, as had I. My business had been harmed by my not being there.
Reason: So why didn't you ride off into the sunset?
Connerly: I had been romanced, if you will, by [the organizers of Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative that outlawed using race- or gender-based preferences in the public sector] for the better part of a year to join their effort. But I didn't want any part of it, for two reasons. One, I didn't want to continue on a statewide scale what I had gone through as a regent. As a regent, I had a legitimate reason for being involved. In a statewide campaign, the preference cartel would give me no slack. The other reason that I really dreaded getting involved is that I knew I would have to contend with the characterizations of "sellout" and "Uncle Tom" and "traitor" like no one has ever had to contend with it, except maybe for Clarence Thomas.
I had said, "No, no, no, a thousand times no." The thing that provoked me into saying yes was that the imminent doom of the California Civil Rights Initiative was reported in the papers. One of my colleagues on the Board of Regents, who voted against removing quotas from admission, Roy Brophy, wrote an op-ed piece that said, "If CCRI does not qualify for the ballot, I'm going to offer a motion to rescind [the ban on race-based preferences] because that will clearly confirm that the regents were out of step with the voters." And I thought, "The hell you say."